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May 4, 2018
The Learning and the Brain Conference, NYC 2018

By John McKinstry, Head of School

The week before last, I attended the Learning and the Brain conference in New York City.  There is an abundance of research on how the brain functions and how this relates to learning.  LFS has used much of this research in designing its curriculum. For example, after T. Jill and T. Deb attended a Learning and the Brain conference during the 2012-2013 school year, where they learned, among other things, about the effects of exercise on the ability of a person to focus and learn, we changed our schedule to insure more outdoor and recess time, including having the morning drop-off time outside, rather than inside, as had previously been the case.

The title of the conference I attended was “Educating Mindful Minds: Using the Science of Stress to Improve Resilience, Behavior and Achievement.” Over the course of the three days, there were lectures on resilience, social-emotional learning, mindfulness, stress and anxiety, ADHD, and technology.  Many of the talks, for example, on mindfulness stressed that mindfulness meditation practice is valuable training in attention, self-awareness, self-regulation, focus and seeing and thinking with clarity. These practices can help in reducing stress, for example. Mindfulness can be taught to those with ADHD, and through the building of cognitive skills, one’s executive functions can improve.  Like regular physical fitness, it is self-care, only this is for the mind, rather than the body. Also reiterated through the conference was the concept of neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Through practices such as mindfulness, one can help rewire one’s brain to make it function differently and better. The description of mindfulness practices mirrors the practices we have in preparing for and being in meeting for worship.   

One of the most fascinating lectures was by Richard Davison, a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds there.  He is the author of such books at Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body and The Emotional Life of Your Brain.  His talk at the conference was entitled “Resilience as a Skill: Perspectives from Affective and Contemplative Neuroscience.” As with other talks I attended, I was struck by how what he said offered a scientific basis for so much of what we do at LFS.  He described experiments which confirm that we all have innate basic goodness, that we are born with a basis altruistic side, rather than the conventional wisdom of us being aggressive. This mirrored our belief in an inner light to each person. He also spoke of four components of well-being 1) awareness, or the ability to be self-aware and direct attention, 2) connection, the ability to have successful interactions such as kindness, empathy and a positive attitude 3) insight or self-knowledge, and 4) purpose, or a clear direction in life and a sense that life has meaning.  These four components are part and parcel of the faith and practice of Quaker education.


As mentioned above, awareness is aided by contemplative practices.  Davidson urged that such practices be used every day in education. For us at LFS, we have meeting for worship, and begin our days and meals with a moment of silence.  We have always felt that this time to center the mind is helpful in our day, and this is now buttressed by research. Davidson said a sense of purpose and a life filled with meaning is a strong predictor of being able to recover from adversity.  At our school, we hope to help children lead lives with purpose, to make the world a better place, to be peacemakers, to be community builders, and to support the natural world.

I look forward to exploring these and other ideas in further depth with the faculty and others in the community.