Enhancing learning effectiveness
Children all around the world are benefiting from the new learning skills that have emerged as a result of modern neuroscience. Here we learn about the BRIGHTER MINDS experience, which not only enhances intelligence but also intuitive and creative capacities in children and supports neuroplasticity.
“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice,” says Brian Herbert. Can we improve all three? How much of learning is predetermined and how much of it is moldable? What really goes on in the brain when we are learning something? Are there any tools and methods to continually enhance learning effectiveness and experience? We at Brighter Minds have been exploring these questions.
Recent advances in the field of neuroscience, particularly brain neuroplasticity, suggest that learning is continuously possible. The process of learning is an outcome of connections and reconnections between 80 billion brain cells or neurons that the human brain is made of, with each cell having a potential of making several thousand connections with other cells. Learning in a way is directly proportional to the number of connections possible in a child’s brain. Scientists have observed that the connections start happening soon after birth. Initially it happens at a rapid pace of 2 million connections per second, and by the age of two the brain has made over a trillion connections. Thereafter the connections start pruning, particularly those that are not used, and by the age of 12 50% of the connections are lost.
So the exposure any child has between the ages of 2 and 12 decides how much of the brain stays wired; hence, how much learning is possible. It also tells us that this is an important age group that needs attention. Recent evidence indicates that appropriate tools and training in a conducive environment can stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain during this age and beyond.
BRIGHTER MINDS PEDAGOGY AND TOOLS
Inspired by the vision of creating a brighter world for tomorrow, and taking cues from these latest advances in neuroscience, the Brighter Minds team has developed an innovative cognitive training program for children. Our mission is to inspire and equip every child with tools and methods to enhance cognitive functioning for achieving personal excellence and to instill self-confidence. The program enriches a child’s intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ), which is recognized as a vital element to effective problem solving in today’s world.
The Brighter Minds (BM) pedagogy is rooted in the neuroplasticity inherent in our brain. More specifically, it involves the four pillars of calm mind, loving environment, multi-modal cognitive training, and sensory substitution.
“Fiona, calm down and focus. Relax and concentrate on the topic. You are too restless and distracted,” said her teacher.
“How do I calm my mind, Ma’am?” asked Fiona “It seems to have a will of its own!”
How many of us have ever been given a practical technique to actually calm ourselves and influence our learning in a profound manner? Let us explore this need a bit further. A calm and relaxed mind is known to rejuvenate the sense of observation in both children and adults. Improved focus creates a heightened self-awareness and also sensitivity to our surrounding environment and empathy towards individuals around us. This also enables a better understanding in relationships and overall self-confidence. There is enough evidence to suggest a calm mind is a creative mind with high potential. People who meditate are known to have more neural connections between various areas of the brain, particularly those associated with attentive focus, self-awareness and auditory and visual processing. In our own research at BM, we have found that children attain a deeper level of relaxation and sleep while a specific frequency of soothing music1 is played in the background. After waking, they learnt new tasks efficiently and a qualitative test indicated neuroplasticity in their ability to sense their world.
In the BM program, children are guided through techniques such as the Heartfulness Relaxation and other simple and effective breathing techniques of traditional Yoga, which activate the parasympathetic system. A patented alpha-frequency music that entrains the child’s brain to the 8 to 12 Hz frequency in the EEG signal-band is also played during each session. Research findings reveal that children attain a deeper level of relaxation and sleep while music of this frequency is played in the background, and after waking up they exhibit heightened levels of learning abilities.
A stressful environment skews the emotional balance of the children towards unhealthy limits, making them reactive. Negative feedback, peer pressure, unrealistic competition and expectations, and any other stresses are known to affect the mood and overall emotional stability and balance in a child. Continuous stress is known to affect the structure of the brain, which in turn affects learning. In contrast, love, positive suggestions and confidence in the child’s ability have a transformative effect on their emotional stability and balance. Meditation and physical exercises are known to reduce stress in individuals.
Facilitators of the BM program generally meditate regularly and are patient, inwardly serene, and intuitively feel and understand the needs of children effectively. The quality of verbal communication is positive, encouraging, appreciative and devoid of any negative suggestions. Instead it focuses on building self-confidence in children. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to participate with the children during their weekly practice in order to increase social and familial bonding. A 10-minute circle time is observed at the beginning of every session, where the children and the facilitator visualize self-affirming, positivity-reinforcing suggestions with closed eyes, as well as deep selfempathy and self-acceptance. Fun and motivational videos and messages creating laughter are played during sessions, and at the end children are encouraged to express their feelings and emotions through diary writing and drawing.
Multi-Modal Cognitive Training
The third pillar of the Brighter Minds pedagogy is built on the first two, namely, a calm mind and a loving environment. A recent scientific report published in Nature journal shows clear evidence of enhanced learning through multi-modal training in the form of cognitive, physical and neuroscienc einterventions. The BM program takes into account all three interventions, that is, physical exercises in the form of dance and aerobics, brain exercises that involve complex motor skills with both hands and legs that engage both the brain hemispheres, and other cognitive challenges.
The fourth pillar of the BM transformative pedagogy is the often surprising form of neuroplasticity known as sensory substitution. Professor Paul Bach-y-Rita said, “We see with our brains, not with our eyes.” It is the brain that sees, hears and senses touch, taste and smell hence we can rewire the brain to see with the sense of touch or sound and so forth. While Bach-y-Rita reported these studies on people with sensory deprivation or handicap, BM reports sensory substitution in healthy children using simple blindfold exercises. This is observed to correlate with children’s improved creative and intuitive abilities.
After observing more than 6,500 children exhibit sensory substitution, it is proposed that the relaxing techniques have a big influence on their ability to exhibit sensory substitution or augmentation. The key observation is that the sensory substitution in children often occurs in parallel with changes in their behavior, such as improved observational capacity, empathy, creativity and intuition. Children have shown improved emotional and social maturity as a result. They are better equipped to tackle intellectual and social challenges, for example, they are able to deal with peer pressure, bullying and the ubiquitous stress of examinations more effectively.
These tools and techniques are mediated via neuroplasticity over a period of 9 weeks, and the changes are expected to last a lifetime if they are regularly practiced and inculcated into their lifestyles. This prepares the children for the often emotionally turbulent teenage years when the prefrontal cortex is still under development. Building on the BM training, the child is better prepared and equipped to dive into more advanced meditation techniques after the age of 15 years, which supports them for a lifetime.
RESEARCH AND FINDINGS
While each component of the program has been picked up after a thorough review of the scientific literature, there is a team of neuroscientists, doctors and other experts who are continuously undertaking research to understand if BM as a whole, as an integrated package of tools, is effective in producing the change expected. The initial experiments and research not only helped in designing the program, but they also showed encouraging results. Parents reported improved focus, comprehension and memory, emotional stability, self-confidence, empathy and calmness among their children who participated in the program.
One of the parents and facilitators, Upama Rajasekhar, says, “My son changed and developed so much in just two days of the program that we felt this is something all children in the world should experience. We are awed by their abilities to learn faster, and the way their memories improve. Their intuition develops and this leads to better confidence in everyday life. These children have a pleasing personality; we feel so empowered around them.”
While the results from the initial phase were positive and encouraging, they were primarily observed in children of parents who were already motivated – from tier one metro cities and from upper socioeconomic strata. In the next phase, the program was expanded to include children from economically disadvantaged and rural backgrounds. During the year 2017, the Mahabubnagar District Administration, Telangana, India, permitted training of 2,500 children across 12 residential schools in the district. External researchers were engaged to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, and a multidisciplinary team with backgrounds in public health and evaluation, psychiatry and psychology came together, developed standard and objective tools and metrics, and administered cross-sectional surveys before and after the children underwent training.
They observed that the attention ability of children improved significantly by 48% in 8 weeks, the time taken to achieve the results improved by 21%, and their observation ability improved by 43%. The children also reported deeper aspects of the test object, such as emotions and feelings, in relation to their own personal experiences. The memory tests revealed positive changes in terms of both immediate and delayed recall. In addition, the teachers reported during focus group discussions that the children were calmer, more expressive and participatory in classes; showed improved attention span and concentration and reduced distraction; were less hesitant in talking to teachers in class, reflecting improved self-confidence; and exhibited improved memory and self-discipline. The teachers also expressed that the program should start in the beginning of the academic year so that the students benefit more with their academics. As a result of the positive outcomes of this study, in the relatively short period of less than a year, close to 2,500 children were covered under the BM program through institutionalized and sustainable ways of training.
Here’s what some of the children around the world have to say:
“I am Sharad Babu, aged 13. The program has instilled confidence in me and I am no longer scared of anything; I am more courageous now. The largest benefit I found was that I was able to concentrate much better in class and finally come to an understanding of the subjects. My memory power has improved and I have been able to increase my grasping power, so I don’t need to study so hard for exams. I am calmer now and more relaxed in any situation. I have developed a good sense of observation. Wherever I go, I can read the atmosphere and act accordingly. The best thing I liked about the program is that it helped me increase my intuition and cognitive skills. I am much more positive than before and I don’t let negativity affect me.”
“My name is Meghana. I am a student of Year 7. I remember the most difficult part was to read with my foot. I would feel it letter by letter and eventually the word would just materialize in my head. Earlier I would get angry easily, but after the course I don’t. I just think how the other person would feel when I get angry at them; I put myself in their shoes. It used to be hard for me to talk to people, now I approach people the way I want to be approached. I also remember how hard I used to find the unseen comprehension passages in exams, where we had to answer questions on that passage. Now it’s just clearer in my head and within two minutes I have the answers. A year back poetry was all about getting the right rhyming words, but now I try to convey a message through those words. I can do homework faster now. I can concentrate.”
Bharat from Sydney, Australia says, “I was a little selfish, but after a while I learnt how to get along with people and how to share. Brighter Minds has made me a much nicer person, it has made me closer to my friends than I already was.”
“When I was undergoing the training, the most noticeable change was that I started trying to understand the world more. My favorite part of the course was the activities towards the end of the session, which allowed me to see how I was improving week after week,” says Mihika, also from Sydney, Australia.
Initiated in India, BM is now present in 12 countries across Asia, America, Europe and Africa. The program has successfully demonstrated results in different contexts. While high levels of acceptability and satisfaction both by parents and trainers are noteworthy, sustained changes in cognitive and emotional traits are dependent on motivation among parents and caregivers. The Mahabubnagar experience proves that these programs are scalable and replicable in large institutional settings in a fairly short span of time. Brighter Minds thus presents itself as a unique and innovative opportunity for parents and educationists to make a difference in the cognitive abilities and lives of children.
1 The mobile app is available for free download on iOS app store and Google Play Store.
Compiled from articles by N.S. NAGARAJA ,
DR R.A. RAGHAV, DR J. KRISHNAMURTHY
AND DR PRAVEEN PANKAJAKSHAN
July 01, 2018
July 01, 2018
July 01, 2018