School and The Aha Moment: Making Way for Good Ideas

Newton Second LawThe purpose of attending school is to learn.  Learning is about skills and ideas.  Each school, according to its mission, cultivates different types of learning.  Some concentrate on college-level content, others: skills, and more recently, some are now making more room in the curriculum for creativity. Recognizing that students cannot flourish on consumption of preexisting knowledge alone, more attention is now being directed at the science of learning.

As we understand more about our complex brains, we are able to identify patterns. Our brain waves have five primary frequencies: alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma. Each frequency has different characteristics, and all are apparently essential for high level functioning.

Alpha waves signal deep relaxation, during states of daydreaming or light meditation.

Beta waves are present during normal waking consciousness and indicate a heightened state of alertness, logic and critical reasoning.

Gamma waves are the most newly discovered, are the fastest,  and relate to moments of insight

Delta waves are the slowest, present during deep sleep 

Theta waves indicate a state of light sleep or deep meditation, the realm of your unconscious mind.


The key to our highest levels of functioning depend on the balancing and interplay of these frequencies.  It is possible, according to the data, to train our brains to achieve desired results. Legendary moments of insight such as Newton’s apple, Einstein’s streetcar, and Archimedes bath,  share the common thread of ‘down time’.  Researchers now know that great moments of insight are more likely to occur when certain patterns are present.  The formula looks something like this:

intense study of a concept leading to an impasse + relaxing and clearing the mind = moment of insight

 The take away from this research for educators is simple, students must be allowed time in school to both think deeply and relax the brain.  New world skill sets hinge on mastery and creative thought.  Independent schools in particular, without the bondage of mass standardized testing and data consumption, are in a great position to foster the highest level of academic balance.  According to Tina Barseghian,  in the article, “Why Schools need to Change”, the best way to maximize the brain work accomplished in schools is in five specific areas:

  1. PROJECT BASED LEARNING. Project-based learning has shown to be a much more effective way to think about learning, “particularly when you live in a world that’s incredibly unclear on what content is going to be relevant in not just 10 or 20 years, but in three years,” she said. “Over and over business leaders say kids need to be collaborative, work across time zones and cultures because problems are so complex.”
  2. ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT. “You don’t have the opportunity to show what you know in a regular school because standardized tests that are mandated only show what some kids know, but leave out a whole bunch of kids who aren’t able to show what they know in different ways,” she said. We should have alternative criteria for gauging students’ knowledge and ability to show what they know.
  3.  SCHEDULING. Neuroscience research on sleep is becoming more compelling by the day, particularly around depression, Levine said. “We’d always thought fatigue is symptom of depression, but now it’s looking more like lack of sleep causes depression, and that’s something looked at seriously.” Kids needs nine hours of sleep, and if schools were in synch developmentally with teenagers, should would start at 10 a.m., especially when kids enter adolescence. Teachers should also coordinate their exams with each other to ensure that students are not taking multiple tests on the same day.
  4. CLIMATE OF CARE. Research shows that kids do better in classes where teachers know their names and say hello to them, and when they have their own advocates or advisers at school. “Almost every private school has advisory, a person for each kid to go to,” Levine said. “But in public schools, there are just a few counselors for a thousand kids or more. By the time you’re hitting high school, you need someone apart from parents to test ideas with, to kick around problems, a go-to person who a kid feels knows them.”
  5. PARENT EDUCATION. Well-meaning parents are confounded with how to approach managing their kids’ times. Kids needs playtime, downtime, and family time, Levine said. “We’ve robbed kids at each stage of childhood and adolescence of tasks that belong in that particular stage,” she said. “You can’t push kids outside their developmental zone and expect them to learn. You want to push them towards the edge of it, but not over.”

Accelerating the glacial pace of educational change is challenging for institutions, but it can be done.  We have the data and we have the opportunity to improve the connection between schoolwork and true brain work.  There is no better time than here and now.  Except perhaps near an apple tree somewhere….


One thought on “School and The Aha Moment: Making Way for Good Ideas

  1. Reblogged this on Carpe Diem and commented:
    New brain research shapes how we must think about education. In her latest blog, Head of School Jackie Westerfield says that this gives us the opportunity to improve the connection between schoolwork and brain work.

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