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The Brain Science Behind Teaching Non-Cognitive Skills

The Brain Science Behind Teaching Non-Cognitive Skills

The Brain Science Behind Teaching Non-Cognitive Skills

Imagine a school where we could increase the overall happiness of every student, optimize self regulation, create an incredible cycle of positivity and maximize willpower. Welcome to the new brain science behind teaching.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts (ranked as one of the top 5 universities in the world) to observe the latest in MRI brain scanning technology. I then travelled to Boston for a Brain Learning Conference. It was fascinating to listen to some of the world's most recognized scientists explain how it has been proven that we can teach non-cognitive skills such as self-regulation, willpower, resilience, happiness and grit.

'Neurons that fire together, wire together'

Brain learning has come a long way in the last 20 years due to our ability to measure and map the brain's neural activity. As the neuroscientists like to say, 'neurons that fire together, wire together', and these scientists have identified and stimulated specific pathways for learning.    

Laurence Steinburg, a PhD from Temple University, presented fascinating research which helps explain that due to a heightened brain placidity during adolescence, our experiences during this time are more memorable than at any other time in our lives. This helps explain why the memories from this time can be so vivid, even decades later. We have also learned that due to sensitivities in the brain 'good feels better' during these times, and that is why the impact of things such as memories, music, and relationships are so powerful.

Steinburg states that:

"The adolescent years should not be the root canal of parenting; when parents are expected to hold their breath and just get through it. For one thing, it lasts about 15 years and that's a long time!"

Rather, due to the significant increase in brain elasticity during this time, the adolescent years have incredible opportunities for growth and development.

Dr. Rick Hanson, from the University of California, Berkeley is a world renowned specialist in the areas of happiness and contentment , and he has concluded that over the course of evolution, and due to our evolutionary instincts to survive, the human brain has developed a considerable 'negative bias' that remembers negative memories more readily than positive ones. He feels that our brains have become:   

"Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive"

Evolutionary speaking, in order to survive in the wild, it was much more important to learn from negative experiences than positive ones. Getting burned from fire or sick from toxic berries can have life threatening consequences and as a result, our memory for negative situations is considerably more developed than our memory of positive situations. Along the same lines, there was no direct survival benefit from enjoying a sunset, smelling a flower, or laughing with a companion.

Each of us can relate to this because even though we usually receive far more compliments than criticisms, the compliments wash away readily, whereas the criticisms stick with us and linger.

Hanson writes:

"Life isn't easy, and having a brain wired to take in the bad and ignore the good makes us worried, irritated, and stressed, instead of confident, secure and happy. Each day is filled with opportunities to build inner strengths, but the brain is designed to ignore and waste them. This makes you come down harder on yourself than you do on other people, feel inadequate, and even when you get a hundred things done, and feel lonely even when support is all around you."

How can we relate this to our teachings at Aberdeen Hall?

This the exciting part.

First and foremost, we have a carefully crafted environment that fosters an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, high expectations and care. We base our programmes on empirically proven methodologies that work.

We have the ability to use the results from this research and design programmes that assist with non cognitive development. For example, there are techniques to teach our young students a method to better process their positive feelings and experiences. This processing only takes a few seconds, and can have a dramatic impact on counteracting the brain's negative bias. There are also techniques that assist the students in developing greater self control and reducing 'negative' impulsive decision making. The science of willpower is now better understood, and can be taught and strengthened like a muscle.

The faculty is discussing these subjects in detail today at our professional development workshops and are excited to update you on how we can incorporate this into our educational community.

I recommend the following 3 books that I have reviewed and cited for this newsletter:

Hardwiring Happiness - The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Willpower - Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney

Age of Opportunity - Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence

Laurence Steinbery, Ph.D

Very best regards,

Chris Grieve

Head of School

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