Improving the Functioning of the Brains in Your Classroom

As a teacher I’m always fascinated to learn anything I can about what can be done to improve the functioning of the brains in my classroom. I want ALL of those brains – those belonging to my students AND the one that I keep up in my own skull – to be in tip top shape so that we can all optimise our learning potential and experience more joy in the process of learning. I’ve recently been brushing up on some of the literature on brain functioning and I thought I’d do a quick post to summarise some key takeaway points that might be useful for other teachers (or useful for other human beings, generally). Some of what I have summarised below might be new to you, while other points may convey common knowledge that you are already familiar with. When it comes to these important topics, a reminder never hurts. Sometimes we need a reminder and prod to shift us from KNOWING to DOING!

I have arranged this summary into ten themes. Let’s jump into it!

1. Sleep

There is loads of research out there that confirms what we already know from experience about sleep and brain functioning. Neuroscientists believe that one of one of the reasons that sleep improves brain functioning is that our brains clean out neurotoxins while we sleep. While we sleep our brain gets an extra dose of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which clears away brain waste and provides the brain with nutrients.

We all know that having a good sleep rhythm will improve brain functioning, but do we actually do what we need to do to increase the likelihood of getting a good night sleep, and being on top form the next day when we are in the classroom with our students? Again we probably all know what we ought to do:

  • Consistent rhythms
  • Exercise
  • Avoid screens and devices after dark
  • Go easy on the caffeine, especially after noon
  • Avoid large meals before bedtime
  • Get the temperature of your room right (18.3 degrees Celsius)
2. Exercise

It may not come as a great shock that exercise will improve brain functioning, but you may be surprised to learn about the nature and the extent of the benefits of exercise.

There are tons of neat tricks that savvy teachers can use to capitalise on the benefits of exercise and movement. Depending on one’s particular students and circumstances, one could break up prolongued periods of focus with a quick run, push up contest or even dance (if your students are into that). Steve Jobs famously loved walking meetings. There are plenty of opportunities to do bits of teaching while walking. Walking in circles around a field/playground will do. Break big classes up into rotating groups. Tweak to suit your own particular students, aims and conditions.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

3. Diet:

Nutrition (like education) is one of those things that everyone seems to have a strong opinion on. While there are many different views regarding what constitutes a healthy, brain-boosting diet, there is general agreement on at least a few basics: Limit the sugar. Focus on whole foods. Eat your vegetables. Eat your omega 3s and 6s.

4. Air

Yup, another shocking surprise. Most breath experts seem to agree that you want to be doing most of your breathing through your nose, with a closed mouth. And of course, if your students start yawning, open those windows – unless you’re somwhere in the world where the air is freezing and/or poisonous.

5. Rhythms of Focus and Rest

In the book “The Power of Full Engagement”, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz shift the focus from TIME MANAGEMENT to ENERGY MANAGEMENT. The research that this book reports on finds that the athletes, business people, etc. who are most effective are the ones who maximise and sustain their energy by creating the right RHYTHMS (and thus the right BALANCE) of exertion and rest.

Key takeaways:

  • Our energy is maximised by finding a BALANCE between under-exertion and over-exertion. Either extreme will drain energy (and brain power). This balance is created by cycling between periods of exertion and rest.
  • Be mindful of mental energy, physical energy, emotional energy and spiritual energy.
  • Consider rhythms of exertion and rest in terms of long, medium and short time cycles. E.g. Good restful vacations during the year. Good restful breaks during the day. Good restful micro-breaks during your lessons.
  • Don’t wait until you are tired; REST BEFORE you get tired!
  • When you rest, you need to REALLY REST! You need to REALLY step away from the exertion (and probably devices) and REALLY get into a “deep chill” state that enables you to REALLY recharge.

The implication of this for us as teachers would be to…

  • …structure the rhythms of activity in your class so that the brains in your class get rested before they get exhausted.
  • …develop deep relaxation activities so that you and your students can REALLY recharge during rest periods.
  • …create an emotionally safe, happy environent.

You might want to consider experimenting with the famous pomodoro technique, which simple entails working for about 25 minutes and then resting for about 5 minutes. After about 4 rounds you take a longer break. Times can obviously be adjusted to suit your needs.

Other things to consider:
  • Mindfulness activities
  • Sipping water
  • Stimulation fasts
  • Regulating the temperature of the classroom
  • Connecting work with learners’ interests

All of these suggestions might sound very basic; but are we getting the basics right?