One common theme amongst school-aged children, especially in a post-pandemic world, are a lack of motivation, discipline, and resilience. However you look at it, the world has changed, leaving all kinds of industries to change with it. This includes elementary education. While GIA’s glass is half full, despite the numerous struggles we’ve been presented with, we still recognize the difficulties in the altered way of life that our scholars are growing up in, and our staff are living in. The difference is, our teachers and staff have more than likely experienced some variety of struggle over the course of their lives as adults. The recent past could well be a scholar’s first experience of “struggle” in their lives. However, this struggle will not be for nothing as the years continue, and this is strongly backed by science.
In an Edutopia article, The Neuroscience Behind Productive Struggle, it is explained that “productive struggle leads to better learning, and the reason is due to a white substance in students’ brains called myelin. ”
Learning involves three key components of the brain: neurons, synapses, and myelin. Neurons are nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that have “branches” to receive brain signals and a “wire” to send messages to other neurons. Neurons do not touch each other, and the space separating the wire of one neuron from the branches of another is called a synapse. Learning occurs when experiences connect neurons together. This learning leads to thoughts and behaviors when brain signals travel from neuron to neuron.
Myelin plays the essential role of making brain signals faster and stronger. The more the brain signal is “practiced,” the more myelin gets wrapped around the wire. A well-myelinated brain signal travels over 100 times faster than an unmyelinated brain signal.
We know, this is a lot of science. Put more simply, when the brain learns new information or is presented with something for the first time, the connections that form are at first very weak, like a dirt road instead of a paved one. If these things occurs more and more times, or of any varying frequency, the person will experience something called “desirable difficulty through productive struggle.” The challenge may have an enticing result of some kind, which would signal to the brain that the task or experience is not a negative one, but one which makes that “struggle” more productive.
Four strategies can be derived to reach a point of productive struggle, to produce more myelin in the brain. The first is retrieval. “Forgetting is surprisingly a vital part of learning—a by-product of the brain’s need to prevent overload. Frequent practice tests force the retrieval of memories, telling the brain to make those signals more permanent. [F]ill-in-the-blank or short-answer questions are better than multiple-choice questions for retrieval, since open-ended questions force students to actually recall the information, instead of simply testing their ability to recognize correct answers.”
The second strategy is interleaving. “Although mixing up practice (interleaving) may appear counterproductive, it significantly improves long-term performance. The productive struggle created from mixed practice tells the brain to construct better roads.” The third is spacing. “Distributing practice evenly over time is one of the most helpful techniques for deepening learning. Because the brain can absorb only so much information at a time, students benefit more from frequent, shorter sessions than from longer ones.” The fourth, and last, strategy is mindfulness. This is perhaps the most important. “Research shows that regular mindfulness sessions can stimulate the production of myelin, increasing connectivity within the brain. Several available apps can help you lead your students in mindfulness sessions that can be as short as a few minutes [to a full hour].”
By cultivating a space where these paved roads can form, we are allowing for more critical thinking about the issues and conflicts that arise in schools. Of course, GIA doesn’t “encourage” struggle, but we recognize the undisputed benefit in such things when it does arrive.