Balboa City School

Neurobiological research on memory and where memory resides in the brain, now informs educators about best practices for excelled and life long learning. We now know more about how to create memories than ever before. One revolution in learning – behaviorism – is now being enhanced by the continued growth and knowledge of the best methods to create and enhance academic progress. This revolution has touched students, their families and schools. Balboa City School is embracing these new concepts as they evolve from research to practice. Thus, students achieve remarkable progress in an emotionally safe, stress free atmosphere, when embarking on a college preparatory course of study at Balboa City School or our other affiliated programs at Aston Education Group.

The simple precept of the neurobiology of learning is that learning and memory are based on experience and that brain function is extremely open to change through the life span. Experience is the interpretation of sensations relayed to the brain by neurons. The basic sensations as interpreted by the brain are the building blocks of memory. Learning and memory are higher order functions which allow the individual to adapt to the world efficiently and effectively via these repeated sensations. The most important sensations for learning in school are sight and hearing. Hearing, for example is critically important for reading. So important that many children with chronic ear infections during the age of 3-4 years old have a much stronger likelihood of having dyslexia in elementary school.

Our brains are capable of conscious evolution to improve our academic performance over time and with experience. For all students who engage in activities such as sports and music – we now know these activities prime the brain for more efficient learning. For over fifteen years there has been increasing evidence that the brain is much more malleable than previously imagined. That is the brain can change and adapt well into adulthood. We see this quite clearly in the brain function recovery of stroke victims who once would have been considered hopeless. Young people's brains are changing all the time. Balboa City School embraces this optimistic and modern neurobiological focus on brain plasticity. Through practice, the right teaching, the right environment all children will thrive. The brain, can ultimately be developed by the individual to a greater degree than was previously thought. Strengths can be strengthened and weaknesses, over time and through daily practice, can be eliminated. Social skills, as we all know, are a matter of practice. Math skills, as we all know, are a matter of practice, constant review and memorization of fundamentals to get to higher order skill sets.

We know that brain itself "enjoys" learning. All children in a stress free environment, coupled with structure and high expectations should enjoy school. Neurobiological research proves that pleasure circuits of the brain "light up" when people learn. That is, "learning for its own sake…" is much more than just a cliché. It is a profound truth. We seek to enhance this enjoyment with regard to academic learning. Seminar classes, multiple field trips, internships, teacher mentoring, lots of feedback, working with parents, positive reinforcement are part of what we do each day to teach students and enhance their self esteem through academic achievement.

It is via neurons that learning takes place. Neurons gather information from dendrites and they transmit information to other neurons via their axons. The "efficiency" of the gathering of information and the transmission of information is a matter of the degree of experience. The learning, that is the permanent alteration of neurons to create specific memories, is a matter of exposure. For example, the first time a child learns a definition they will probably forget it. The more distributed exposures that the child has, the more likely they will remember. Emotions, activity, episodic memories should be engaged in the consolidation of academic learning. At Balboa City School, we help children create enjoyable learning experiences in the classroom so that they more likely remember, review and practice what they have been exposed to. And activities not related to learning are important to set the brain up for the acquisition of higher order skills.

For example, after even moderate aerobic exercise ALL brains are primed for higher order learning. Hence, grades k – 7 begin the day with a moderate exercise class. Later in the day the students participate in physical education. We encourage parents and students to seek out physical activities, aerobic in nature, which are amenable to their lifestyle and aspirations.

Research also shows that distributed practice is much more effective than massed and intensive practice which then moves on to another intensive learning experience. Neuronal connections which are not actively used tend to become weaker over time. Our coursework has been specifically designed for emphasis on distributed practice. For example, our "distributed" practice for the SAT begins simply and with no pressure, in the 7th grade when we begin to teach some college vocabulary on a daily basis.

Episodic memory, mentoring, even a teacher smiling, build toward more efficient learning with regard to even the development of literacy and college level vocabulary. In our smaller classes this includes the highly efficient use of teaching time to garner as many responses from a student as possible in the class while insuring that class time has a highly positive emotional valence. Small class size, insures ALL students have a positive relationship with their teachers and peers. A smiling child at the end of the day is an eager learner the next day. Research in the area of cognitive psychology and neurobiology support this. When a teacher smiles, when other students are smiling, the student's brain produces oxytocin. And oxytocin makes people happy. This simple neurobehavioral loop is remarkably important with regard to teacher and administrator behavior.

For the sake of simplicity we are going to leave aside a major part of modern neurobiological understanding of memory – implicit memory – and briefly discuss the other more obviously relevant memory system "explict" memory. Explicit memory breaks down into two major systems – autobiographical (i.e. things we remember about ourselves, events that occurred etc.) and memory of facts. Facts are what we are calling semantic memory. Each of these memories resides in the hippocampus. And these are highly learned memories. They are memories that motivate us and have a positive or negative emotional valence. That is, a feeling associated with them. For the first time in human civilization, we can literally pinpoint (in a broad way) where memories reside. This is truly astonishing and the implications for how we teach and what activities we ask our young learners to participate in are informed by the idea that we want to create complex, creative neural pathways. Optimal stimulation of the brain should include a wide variety of activities: music, movement, lots of talking, lots of words in many different formats, engaging conversations between peers and between peers and teachers. School should sometimes, not all the time, feel like a veritable beehive of pleasant and interesting interaction. And while a beehive may seem chaotic it is anything but. All the activities of the bees eventuate in the making of honey. At Balboa City School – the honey should be the optimal educational situation for each child.