Common ground sought for brain, classroom rules

A noted brain scientist issued calls for action to educators at a forum Wednesday.

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WALLA WALLA -- Area educators received the equivalent of a vitamin B-12 shot Wednesday morning, with Dr. John Medina supplying the injection.

Medina, author of "Brain Rules" and "Brain Rules for Baby," among other works, is a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He also directs the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

He was here as the keynote speaker for the Children's Forum, sponsored by a number of local service, government and nonprofit agencies. The forum has taken place every other year since being started in 1998 as a way to examine what local kids need and how to get those things, noted Tim Meliah, director of Walla Walla Catholic Charities, as he acted as emcee for the morning.

Each of the gatherings represents a "call to action," Meliah told his listeners.

Wednesday's audience was unlike previous forums, however. Cordiner Hall on Whitman College campus was packed to its rafters with local educators who had been allowed to skip school to hear Medina's presentation.

The day represented a first in her 25-year career in Walla Walla Public Schools, said Assistant Superintendant Linda Boggs. While a group of educators within the district has been studying Medina's ideas for a couple of years now, to get the district's 800 employees to one place to hear the same message, "was just too good not to try."

That meant cooks and bus drivers and classroom aides and substitute teachers, Boggs explained. "The whole (district) had a professional development opportunity."

Medina was invited to Walla Walla address what science can say about students' brains.

Which is a little tricky, Medina pointed out. "We don't actually know how the brain works."

Scientists are not clueless about the brain, however. For example, the organ seems to be adapted to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting while in near-constant motion. "If you want to design a setting that is the exact opposite of how the brain is designed to work, you'd design a classroom."

As the audience nodded vigorously, Medina reminded teachers he was not well versed in "classroom," but if he could design an educational program with no budgetary and few bureaucratic restraints, there would be two physical education periods a day. At least.

Why? Despite the paucity of knowledge about the brain, there are some known truths.

The research surrounding the cognitive effects of being active all day -- including executive, memory and spatial function -- cannot be disputed.

That means aerobic exercise, the scientist emphasized. Toning exercises, while important, don't do the trick, Medina said. Aerobic workouts, however, can elicit a 100-200 percent improvement in executive function over a 16-week period. Add another 32 months and memory scores improve as well.

Brain rule No. 1? Exercise boosts brain power, allowing people to "age like Mike Wallace" of "60 Minutes" fame, he said. "If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, you will age like (Rolling Stones guitarist) Keith Richards."

Studies also show five-days-a-week exercise can replace medications that treat depression, when paired with appropriate psychotherapy.

The flip side, shown by research at the University of Tokyo in schoolchildren, is that as soon as the exercise stops, all the benefits do, too, Medina said. "As soon as you stop PE, you cut the legs off their executive function. It's not an opinion, it's a fact," he added to thunderous applause.

Brain rule No. 2 is that exercise buffers the negative effects of stress, Medina told those at Cordiner Hall. "Stressed brains do not learn very well at. Not in the same way as non-stressed brains."

While not all stress is bad for learning and not all stressors are seen the same way by each brain, chronic stress can invoke a learned helplessness in people. "If you are 6 and you have to go home to a drunk dad who beats you every night, you don't want to go but there is no way out."

And stress kills brain cells, Medina said. "Stress causes brain damage, That's the reason a hyper-stressed kids don't learn very well."

Again, exercise is dressed in a Superman cape. "Exercise increases the brain's chemical defense against stress," the scientist said.

The third brain rule involves a student's family members.

It's an area traditionally off-limits to a school, he said, but to address increasing resiliency in kids, "we have to talk about how to stabilize the home."

To take a radical road, what if education districts began pairing with hospitals to start working with parents before problems begin? Data shows the birth of a baby is one of the greatest stressors in a marriage; "if you stabilize the marriage, can you change the baby's brain development? Yes."

Doing so gives a kid a fighting chance at getting decent grades, Medina said. "What if ... first grade begins a week after birth and it's for the adults? The curriculum would be how to create a stable landscape at home."

Researchers know of no communities employing the idea, he said, adding an insider's joke -- "It's never gotten outside our ivory tower."

If he could, Medina said, "I would teach adults how to behave like adults in front of their kids."

Could Walla Walla be the community to make that happen, Medina was asked from the audience.

"Well, I heard you canceled school today so you could all be here to hear me," he answered. "I can't tell you how much that means to me."

With its colleges and medical resources, this area is filled with potential, Medina assured the educators. "Walla Walla has the neuroscience and you've got a willing school district."

With nearly every employee in attendance, the Walla Walla district will have a common language to discuss Medina's presentation, Boggs said this morning.

It will take great creativity to implement some of the research, she noted. "We have had conversations about totally running around and fresh air and recess. On the flip side, we have added seven mote things to teach and the day didn't get any longer."

Nonetheless, getting such compelling information calls for action, said Boggs, adding that her voice mail and inbox are "overflowing" with messages from excited educators. "I'm very anxious to see the ideas that come out. Some things we will decide on and start working on wholeheartedly, system wide."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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