Oakley teens study the science of learning

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OAKLEY -- With the help of modeling clay, Wiffle balls and a sheaf of introspective writings, some Freedom High School students are developing an appreciation for what happens between their ears when they learn.

Psychology instructor Rick Halberg introduced the class he calls "Brain Harmony" last fall after realizing that the key to being an effective teacher has as much to do with meeting adolescents' emotional and social needs as stuffing their brains with information.

The epiphany came when one of his students -- a boy who was doing poorly in class -- threw a rock through a window of Halberg's house.

The incident prompted him to pursue his interest in neuroscience by designing a curriculum that's not only a primer on brain anatomy and function but helps young people understand what makes them tick.

The idea is that once teens recognize their emotional needs and have the skills to meet them, they are better able to concentrate on the higher-level mental activity of acquiring academic knowledge, Halberg explains.

His method turns the traditional I'm-telling-you-what-you-should-know approach to teaching on its head. Instead, Halberg guides teens along a road of self-discovery that doesn't involve memorizing the names of chemical elements, reading chapters on B.F. Skinner's theories of human behavior or taking tests (there are none in his classes).

A key part of this course on the science of learning is understanding the connection between

the mind and heart.

Halberg had students start by whittling a long list of values to seven and prioritizing them. Topping the list was family relationships, followed by friendship, respect and the need to feel important. By contrast, education ranked second to last.

"That's not their highest priority, and if we assume that it is, we're going to resort to a top-down management style that's going to turn students off," Halberg said.

Through class discussions and private journals, teens learn ways to satisfy their most basic and compelling needs.

The class has taught 18-year-old Priscila Rodriguez to articulate her feelings without putting others on the defensive and to consider someone else's perspective, a tool she says has helped her be less judgmental when people are disagreeable.

One activity that made an impression on senior Isabella Gerundio called for students to sit in a circle and share something about themselves, then pass a ball of yarn to a classmate while holding on to a length of it.

"We're all different, but we still made this web where we're all connected," she said.

Gerundio, who has done volunteer work in the past, found the exercise made her want to be even more altruistic.

"Usually, people just connect to their own friends and don't feel the need to help other people," she said.

Young people who lack the social skills to make friends are more likely to be distracted in class by worries about what their peers think of them, Halberg explained.

Similarly, teens who don't understand that the respect they crave is something they first must give won't be focused on the lesson at hand.

"If you're feeling dissed (by a teacher), you're not going to pay attention," Halberg said.

That's also true of the teen who doesn't know how to listen well, accept others' values, or resolve conflict, all of which are basic to forming healthy relationships, he said.

"In education, our focus is on the core content, but we're leaving out some of the most important skills that students need to be successful in our society," Halberg said.

Brain Harmony's self-inventories also get students thinking about how their interests can motivate them to learn. The budding artist, for example, might discover that he takes better notes if he plays to his strength by translating facts and ideas into drawings, Halberg said.

He invites teens to shape the curriculum by proposing their own class projects; giving them that measure of control over their education prompts them to participate more in class, which in turn helps them grasp and retain the material, he said.

"Learning is an active process that starts with them," Halberg said, noting that students in his psychology course last year came up with the ideas for about 20 percent of their assignments.

"Even if I have the best teacher, I'm the one who has to make the connection between the neurons and the dendrites," he said.

And students become acquainted with those biological processes, too.

Students learn the names and functions of the parts of the brain by forming each out of modeling clay. Teens also see the physical changes that take place as a person absorbs information. There's video of a nerve cell producing the fine black tendrils -- dendrites -- that receive chemical information and pass it along. And color-coded images from brain scans reveal that different intellectual activities stimulate changes in blood flow to specific areas.

Halberg offers another illustration of how neurons communicate by having students place pipe cleaners end-to-end within an outline of the brain, arranging these symbolic neurons to show the path that their electrochemical signals travel.

The wonders of the central nervous system become a little more real when kids don latex gloves, one hand representing the receptor end of a neuron and the other, the transmitter.

Students then play catch with dozens of Wiffle balls -- the neurotransmitters -- to get a sense for all the chemicals and electrical impulses that speed through and between these specialized brain cells as they learn.

"Imagine having over a trillion neurotransmitters circulating back and forth!" Halberg said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.

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