The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Brain expert Laurence Steinberg: Routine and boredom are anathema to plasticity

Teenagers are now back at school: back, we might imagine, to cramming their brains full of useful learning and life skills. Job well done?

Not nearly, says Laurence Steinberg, a world-leading expert in adolescent brains. He insists there’s much more that schools – and parents – should be doing to help young people build the best possible brains.

“Adolescence is our last best chance to make a difference,” the Temple University psychology professor says in his 2014 book Age of Opportunity.

Citing neurological research that has largely emerged over the past five years, he says adolescence is a second window – after the first three years of life – during which the brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience. In other words, it is remarkably plastic.

Steinberg has spent 40 years ­studying adolescents and their brains. He has more than 350 academic articles and 17 books to his name, and was adamant when he last spoke to the Listener. “The myth we now need to stamp out,” he says, “is that the way in which the brain develops during ­adolescence is all determined by ­biology and by genes. In fact, the ­plasticity of the brain makes it possible to influence the way it develops.”

There’s little point in drilling kids in calculus and grammar. Instead, “the capacity for self-regulation is probably the single most important contributor to achievement, mental health and social success”, he says. “In study after study of adolescents, in samples of young people ranging from privileged suburban youth to destitute inner-city teenagers, those who score high on measures of self-regulation ­invariably fare best … This makes ­developing ­self-­regulation the central task of ­adolescence, and the goal that we should be pursuing …”

Families have the most powerful effect here. “Practise authoritative parenting,” Steinberg urges. “Be warm. Be firm. And be supportive.” Set rules that make sense and explain them to your child. Be physically affectionate. Be consistent and fair, and as children mature, scaffold the risks you’ll allow them to take: push a curfew out in half-hour increments, for example. (Click here for a simple quiz to identify your parenting style, and tips on authoritative parenting).

Schools, too, have an important role. Steinberg says they should incorporate daily activities that strengthen self-regulation. He is pleased to hear that mindfulness is popping up in New Zealand schools. He bemoans the fact that physical education has been all but eradicated from the US curriculum. “That’s a terrible mistake, given what we know about the impact of aerobic exercise on the brain.”

And he wishes we would give all those plastic, revving-up teen brains a bit more of a workout. After his book went to press, he came across surveys that found only 15% of US high school students felt they’d ever taken a course that was difficult or challenging. “And that’s just an atrocity. I mean ever.”

What about adult brains?

Steinberg emphasises that the brain stays plastic throughout life – hence our ability to recover from brain injury, learn new skills and adapt to new environments.

Change will be much easier, though, if you catch your brain while it’s still in that adolescent surge of malleability. ­Steinberg says that because of the increasingly early onset of puberty, and the pushing back of harbingers of adult routine, such as children, marriage and careers, this window now lasts from about 10 until the mid-twenties.

Aged 26 when she started her brain-training regime, Barbara ­Arrowsmith-Young may have just managed to push that window open again as it was closing.

“There’s no way to tell whether you’re still living in [that] period of plasticity or not,” Steinberg says. Brain-scan ­technology can’t pick it up and there’s no diagnostic test – “although I think that you probably will be able to [diagnose plasticity] some day, because there are certain brain enzymes that seem to be related to a loss of plasticity that appear in adult brains”.

His advice mirrors the approach Arrowsmith-Young took all those years ago. Routine, boredom and ­complacency are anathema to plasticity. “Try to stay involved in novel and challenging activities,” he says. “If the brain is still plastic, you can make a difference.”

This article by Catherine Woulfe was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. You can follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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Filed under: ■ Brain Matters, ■ Brain Plasticity, ■ Brain Rules

Brain Rules for Meetings

You can find out how you can apply the 12 principles in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, in the context of a meeting by reading his answers to the questions below, first published in an interview for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) magazine Convene, and later re-posted on his blog, on January 30th.

Which of the 12 Brain Rules has the most impact on meetings? 
Well, probably, the biggest one would have to be about attentional states. This rule is very simple: People don’t pay attention to boring things. So if you really want to have a lousy meeting, make sure it’s boring. If you want to have a lousy classroom, make sure it’s boring. And if you want to vaccinate against the types of things that really do bore the mind, we have some understanding of that.

So how do you design a good meeting?
Here are the top three “brain gadgets” that probably have a bearing on the question. First, the human brain processes meaning before it processes detail. Many people, when they put meetings together, actually don’t even think about the meaning of what it is they’re saying. They just go right to the detail. If you go to the detail, you’ve got yourself a bored audience. Congratulations.
Second, in terms of attentional states, we’re not sure if this is brain science or not, but certainly in the behavioral literature, you’ve got 10 minutes with an audience before you will absolutely bore them. And you’ve got 30 seconds before they start asking the question, “Am I going to pay attention to you or not?” The instant you open your mouth, you are on the verge of having your audience check out. And since most people have been in meetings – 90 percent of which have bored them silly – they already have an immune response against you, particularly if you’ve got a PowerPoint slide up there.

How do you then hold attention?
This is what you have to do in 10 minutes. You have to pulse what I just said – the meaning before detail – into it. I call it a hook. At nine minutes and 59 seconds, you’ve got to give your audience a break from what it is that you’ve been saying and pulse to them once again the meaning of what you’re saying.

What is the third “brain gadget”?
The brain cycles through six questions very, very quickly. Question No. 1 is “Will it eat me?” We pay tons of attention to threat. The second question is “Can I eat it?” I don’t know if you have ever watched a cooking show and have loved what they are cooking, but you pay tons of attention if you think there’s going to be an energy resource. Question No. 3 is highly Darwinian. The whole reason why you want to live in the first place is to project your genes to the next generation – that means sex. So Question No. 3 is “Can I mate with it?” And Question No. 4 is “Will it mate with me?”

It turns out we pay tons of attention to – it actually isn’t sex per se, it’s reproductive opportunity. [It is also] hooked up to the pleasure centers of your brain – the exact same centers you use when you laugh at something. Oddly enough, I think that’s one of the reasons why humor can work. If you can pop a joke or at least tell an interesting story, it’s actually inciting those areas of the brain that are otherwise devoted to sex. You don’t become aroused by listening to a joke. I’m saying those areas of the brain can be co-opted. You can utilize them, and a good speaker knows how to do that.

What are Questions 5 and 6?
“Have I seen it before?” and “Have I never seen it before?” We are terrific pattern matchers. There is an element of surprise that comes when patterns don’t match, but the reason why that happens is because we are trying to match patterns all the time.

Is there a Brain Rule that addresses whether you should try to control the use of laptops and phones during a meeting session?
I have this rule response, based on data, and then I have a visceral response, also based on data. In other words, I’m about ready to tell you a contradiction. Are you ready?

Yes, I am.    

Alrighty. I do believe what you can show is that there are attentional blinks. The brain actually is a beautiful multitasker, but the attentional spotlight, which you use to pay attention to things, [is not]. You can’t listen to a speaker and type what they are saying at the same time.

What you can show in the laboratory is that you get staccato-like attentional blinks. Just like you come up for air: You look at the speaker, then when you’re writing, you cannot hear what the speaker is saying. Then you come up for air and hear the speaker again. So you’re flipping back and forth between those two, and your ability to be engaged to hear what a speaker is saying is necessarily fragmented.
At the same time, if your speaker is boring, you could have checked out anyway. So you see, in many ways it depends upon the speaker.

How so?
If the speaker is really compelling and is clear and is emotion- ally competent, and has gone through those six questions, letting you come up for air every 10 minutes, I’ve actually watched audiences put their laptops away just to pay attention.

I have a style that is purposely a little speedier. And the rea- son why is that it produces a tension that says, “I need to pay attention closely to him or I’m going to lose what he’s saying.” I don’t make it so fast that it’s unintelligible – at least I hope I don’t. But I do make it fast, and occasionally I see comments that say, “Great speaker, but you know, you were too freaking fast.”

Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, ■ BM Brain Matters, ■ Brain Matters, ■ Brain Rules, ►10.IN PRINT▼, TOPICS▼

How your brain learns English (and how it doesn’t)

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Hello, there, English learning enthusiasts wherever you are!

It is my pleasure to introduce a new post by ELB guest blogger, Aaron Knight from New York. His post is an excellent resource that complements the previous article on brain matters I recently published on the ELB.  You are invited to explore more great posts by Aaron at this link. Enjoy! 

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How your brain learns English (and how it doesn’t) 

I sometimes worry that the lessons I write contain too much information.

“Information” includes anything that can be written as a “rule”: grammar rules, explanations of the difference between two words, etc.

It’s OK to learn information about English. But it’s much, much more effective to become used to English through repeated speaking and listening. Here’s why:

Your brain isn’t one big container that can be improved just by dumping more information into it.

Instead, imagine that your mind has two separate “buckets”.  One part of your mind (the Knowledge section) stores information. Another separate part of your mind (the Performance section) controls things that you’re able to do, like draw a picture, drive a car, or speak a language.

When you learn information about English, it goes into the Knowledge section of your brain. But the parts of your brain are separate. Your knowledge might grow, but that doesn’t necessarily improve your ability to use English.

Experience improves performance

You know how to gain Knowledge about English: by reading textbooks and listening to teachers. But how do you improve your Performance?

By listening, speaking, reading, and writing. You improve by doing.

As you listen to natural English, you will naturally start to copy the patterns that you hear, even if you can’t quite explain what they mean.

As you speak English, you’ll get used to speaking in a certain way. The words will come out more automatically.

Why knowledge still helps

I still write explanations for all of my lessons. Why? Because a little bit of knowledge can be helpful. When you concentrate hard on something that you’ve learned, you can temporarily improve your speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The improvement is only temporary. When you stop concentrating, you’ll go back to your old habits. But by hearing and speaking correctly, you can slowly train your Performance brain to continue the new habits.

The important point is to treat information as a tool. Learn some rules, but just a few at a time. Then be sure to practice them until they’ve become natural to you.

What do you think? Do you agree with my little theory? Are you guilty of paying too much attention to rules and information? Answer in the comments!

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Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, ■ BM Brain Matters, ■ Brain Matters, TOPICS▼

Conversation Topic: Brain Matters

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1. Think about your answers to the questions below and discuss them with your colleagues:

  • How do you relax? How do you relax while studying?
  • What makes you study faster?
  • What helps you become and stay focused?

SPEAKING PRACTICE PROMPTS

  •   I feel relaxed when …
  • If I want to feel relaxed, I …
  • I study faster if/ when …
  • I discovered that I can stay focused if/ when …

Read more about the 12 brain rules at the links below:

  1.  EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
  2.  SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
  3.  WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
  4.  ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
  5.  SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
  6.  LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
  7.  SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
  8.  STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
  9.  SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
  10.  VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
  11.  GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
  12.  EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

2. Answer your teacher’s questions (aimed at the underlined fragments) and make comments on the rules for improving brain power from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

[NOTE: All the info presented below can be found at http://brainrules.net.]

Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.

The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. From this, one might predict that the optimal environment for processing information would include motion. That is exactly what one finds. Indeed, the best business meeting would have everyone walking at about 1.8 miles per hour.

Researchers studied two elderly populations that had led different lifestyles, one sedentary and one active. Cognitive scores were profoundly influenced. Exercise positively affected executive function, spatial tasks, reaction times and quantitative skills.

So researchers asked: If the sedentary populations become active, will their cognitive scores go up? Yes, it turns out, if the exercise is aerobic. In four months, executive functions vastly improve; long and short-term memory scores improve as well.

Exercise improves cognition for two reasons:

  • Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.
  • Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.

Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.

  • The brain is a survival organ. It is designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion (to keep you alive long enough to pass your genes on). We were not the strongest on the planet but we developed the strongest brains, the key to our survival.
  • The strongest brains survive, not the strongest bodies. Our ability to solve problems, learn from mistakes, and create alliances with other people helps us survive. We took over the world by learning to cooperate and forming teams with our neighbors.
  • Our ability to understand each other is our chief survival tool. Relationships helped us survive in the jungle and are critical to surviving at work and school today.
  • If someone does not feel safe with a teacher or boss, he or she may not perform as well. If a student feels misunderstood because the teacher cannot connect with the way the student learns, the student may become isolated.
  • There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle.

Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

  • What we pay attention to is profoundly influenced by memory. Our previous experience predicts where we should pay attention. Culture matters too. Whether in school or in business, these differences can greatly affect how an audience perceives a given presentation.
  • We pay attention to things like emotions, threats and sex. Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? Have I seen it before?
  • The brain is not capable of multi-tasking. We can talk and breathe, but when it comes to higher level tasks, we just can’t do it.
  • Driving while talking on a cell phone is like driving drunk. The brain is a sequential processor and large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks. This is why cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes and get in more wrecks.
  • Workplaces and schools actually encourage this type of multi-tasking. Walk into any office and you’ll see people sending e-mail, answering their phones, Instant Messaging, and on MySpace—all at the same time. Research shows your error rate goes up 50% and it takes you twice as long to do things.
  • When you’re always online you’re always distracted. So the always online organization is the always unproductive organization.

Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.

  • When we’re asleep, the brain is not resting at all. It is almost unbelievably active! It’s possible that the reason we need to sleep is so that we can learn.
  • Sleep must be important because we spend 1/3 of our lives doing it! Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.
  • We still don’t know how much we need! It changes with age, gender, pregnancy, puberty, and so much more.
  • Napping is normal. Ever feel tired in the afternoon? That’s because your brain really wants to take a nap. There’s a battle raging in your head between two armies. Each army is made of legions of brain cells and biochemicals – one desperately trying to keep you awake, the other desperately trying to force you to sleep. Around 3 p.m., 12 hours after the midpoint of your sleep, all your brain wants to do is nap.
  • Taking a nap might make you more productive. In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent.
  • Don’t schedule important meetings at 3 p.m. It just doesn’t make sense.

Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

  • Your brain is built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds. The brain is not designed for long term stress when you feel like you have no control. The saber-toothed tiger ate you or you ran away but it was all over in less than a minute. If you have a bad boss, the saber-toothed tiger can be at your door for years, and you begin to deregulate. If you are in a bad marriage, the saber-toothed tiger can be in your bed for years, and the same thing occurs. You can actually watch the brain shrink.
  • Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.
  • The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.
  • You have one brain. The same brain you have at home is the same brain you have at work or school. The stress you are experiencing at home will affect your performance at work, and vice versa.

Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.

  • We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.
  • Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.
  • Why is vision such a big deal to us?Perhaps because it’s how we’ve always apprehended major threats, food supplies and reproductive opportunity.

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Filed under: 1►TO DO, 3►SPEAK▼, ■ BM Brain Matters, ■ Brain Matters, TOPICS▼

Big Voice / Little Voice

Recently I’ve come across an article on Toastmasters about finding your voice in situations in which you need to speak in front of an audience.

It includes some great tips that you might like to know about, so I invite you to read it below.

Once you manage to stand behind a lectern without fainting, then what? You need something to say, and you want it to be interesting to the audience. The age-old excuse people have for avoiding public speaking is, “I don’t have anything to say. My life is boring.” You don’t have to have a life-and-death experience or be an Olympic champion to have a story to share. You may not think so at the moment, but you do have a message to share. And as Toastmasters’ 2006 World Champion of Public Speaking Lance Miller shares in an article for the Toastmaster magazine, the more personal and passionate your story is, the better.

How to define yourself and your message
Look at who you are. What are your passions and interests, what do you struggle with? What challenges have you overcome? Here is a list of questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your philosophy? By what values do you live your life?
  • List the defining moments of your life. Any special lessons or experiences that profoundly affected you? For example: learning how to ride a bike, moving to a different city, taking on a new job, becoming a parent.
  • What subjects and issues are you certain about? The test of this is, How easily can you be convinced to change your mind? Have you discovered the best way to motivate a child to read? To make flowers grow? To create world peace? Then share your expertise with the world!
  • Find the extraordinary in the ordinary. You won’t inspire an audience if you live a negative life. Find the blessings in life and bring them to life for yourself and your audience!
  • What makes you laugh? Share your favorite sources of humor.
  • What makes you angry? Share how you would change the world for the better if you could.
  • What are you struggling with right now? Speak about what captures your attention at the moment. If you have “speaker’s block”, speak about your inability to come up with a speech topic. Don’t have enough time in the day for all your work? Give a speech on that topic! It will help you give a passionate speech and perhaps solve a problem.

So, what do you have to say? Challenge yourself and discover your voice!

To take it a little further, think about discovering the power of your voice, which I will call  the “Big voice,” while keeping in mind the concept of the “little voice,” the inner voice each of us hears inside, accompanying our actions or reactions. An interesting site about mastering the “little voice” belongs to Blaire Singer. Here is what he writes about it:

Everyone has a “Little Voice” that beats them up. Have you ever had a “Little Voice” in your head tell you that you aren’t:

  • Good enough
  • Smart enough
  • Successful enough

…enough of something to successfully to do whatever it is you really want to do?

You’re not alone.

This “Little Voice” has the ability to stop you dead in your tracks, preventing you from believing that you have what it takes to achieve your goals and dreams.

But, the GREAT NEWS is – You can learn to:

  • Recognize this “Little Voice”
  • Challenge it
  • And manage it out of your way

..so you can achieve goals and dreams that would otherwise seem out of reach!

You can even take a free diagnostic test of your power over your “little voice” on the same site, to find out more about your ability to handle objections, to identify emotions, and overcome “I can’t do it,” among others.

Read, learn and enjoy!

Filed under: 5►On-line Assignments, 7► DIY, ■ Brain Matters, ■ Happiness, ■ Self Development Links, ■ Site Scout, ■ Voice Matters, ►11.ON LINE▼, ►META PHORS▼

Fun Ways to Develop Your Brain Power

Do microbiology and bioengineering sound like fun?

Some of you may have studied either or both, while to others these fields may still be in the “uncharted” category.

To John Medina, affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, these fields have been a source of inciting discoveries in the field of the human brain.

Dr Medina  has studied the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders and wrote two books that soon became well-read, acclaimed bestsellers. I would like to thank Mr Steve Lever for having recommended the Brain Rules books at the recently held conference for English teachers, “Leading the Way in Digital Education.” If you want to read more about these books, visit the Brain Rules site, an excellent compendium for anyone interested in putting  brain research results to practice.

As for the fun part, watch the video below about the role of schema in learning, as an example. Feel free to add your comment if you are not in hysterics by the time you reach the end:

Ok, now as the laughing subsides, let’s invstigate some of the topics you can read about on the Brain Rules site and the related blog:

From Rule 1 to Rule 12, you will find out what can make your brain more effective.

There is no secret that exercising the brain increases its power. People can continue their professional and personal development on a regular basis, regardless of age; they may choose to start one or, why not, several degree courses online, and keep fit physically and mentally.

There is no doubt that each and every one of us would like nothing more than to figure out what they don’t know, to explore.

Dr Medina illustrates rules like “exercise” or “explore” with graphs, charts and (links to) videos or audio recordings, which make the site dedicated to the Brain Rules all the more useful and accessible to anyone.

Here is one last example to enjoy for the time being: the blog post Kids Lie Every 90 Minutes – And That’s a Good Thing. I wonder why…

Filed under: 9►EXTRA, ■ Brain Matters, ■ Brain Rules, ■ Self Development Links, ►11.ON LINE▼

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