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TRANSFORMATION | 14.09.2020

Marta Romo: “Let children get bored to encourage learning and creativity”

Marta Villalba

Marta Villalba

Numerous studies show that sustained attention can only be maintained for short periods of time. For some neuroscientists, our brain disconnects within nine minutes; however, there is no consensus. Marta Romo, an educator and expert in neuroscience applied to education and director of BeUP, extends this period to 20 minutes in the case of children (the younger they are, the fewer the minutes). From there, it starts to decrease.

“Often, the goal is for children to memorize things; however, this does not work the brain and energy is not devoted to generating a long attention span. The big challenge today is how to maintain 100 percent focus for sustained periods of time,” she says. Studies have shown that the key is first in learning to maintain attention and then memorize something and not the other way around.

On why this attention span is declining in young people, Marta Romo explains that with the excessive use of cellphones and tablets, “kids are getting a lot of immediate stimulus, which activates the brain’s reward circuit, which gives them a lot of pleasure. They get hooked on that and paying attention to anything that doesn’t generate this sense of well-being is very difficult for them.” In this context, what trends are being introduced in the educational field to promote learning?

Using movement to reset the attention span

In learning techniques, along with studying for small blocks of time, some schools are beginning to promote active breaks in which students combine movement with disconnection from work. Which is to say: taking breaks during which the children get up to do some kind of activity. During this break, students don’t need to gymnastics; simply walking around for a few minutes is enough. Therefore, in some schools, theme-based classrooms are becoming popular in which the teacher is not the one who changes rooms, rather it is the children who go to new classrooms as they change classes.

“Movement has been shown to activate the attention span. It’s like you press reset and after moving around, you can pay attention again. Imagine that your attention span is like a battery that you can recharge with motion,” says Marta Romo. She argues that the brain is interested in everything that is different, so this change of environment generates new stimuli and initiates a new attention cycle.

Group work through conversation accelerates learning

In the same line of providing the brain with greater neurofunctionality, another trend that is being implemented—also based on introducing changes—is that related generating emotions. To do this, Marta Romo is a champion of cooperative working: “It works very well because students’ brains are synchronized through mirror neurons and smell pheromones and all of this generates an emotional connection and encourages learning.” This expert clarifies that the collaborative dynamics are not about each student carrying out a part of the work separately; rather, they should all do everything by talking about it. For this reason, some centers are already opting to organize students into groups rather than by row or separately.

“Learning through conversation is another trend that is beginning to be included in many schools because it accelerates the pace of learning exponentially and respects the child’s natural learning behavior. They like this way of learning. That is why more and more work is being done in groups, class presentations and through older children acting as mentors for younger children.” Marta Romo says that by speaking to collaborate, children are linking concepts and processing information. They are therefore repeating it in their brain and, thus, memorizing it.

This varies the electrical frequency of the brain

In order to learn better and achieve what experts call high performance, it has been shown that it is very important to vary the electrical frequency of our brain, that is, to change the mental state. When children and adolescents are connected all the time and in multi-tasking mode, they generate a certain level of stress and produce beta waves. When they are relaxed and calm, alpha waves are activated, which favor creativity and learning. Science has discovered that “spending time in this mental state of doing nothing, of tranquility, several times a day causes our brain to enter what we call high performance, which produces another electrical frequency above 42 Hz and generates gamma waves. That is when, ideas emerge suddenly, when we relate concepts and when we are really talking about that high brain performance.”

Therefore, Marta Romo is in favor of parents limiting their children’s screen usage time and allowing them to experience some boredom. These moments of disconnection promote learning and creativity, “because in a situation they find unpleasant, their brains struggle to think of a different activity that will take them out of that state.” In order to induce high brain performance and take a creative leap, more and more schools are including activities that relax students, such as mindfulness sessions or breathing exercises. This is what some experts call brain breaks, and Marta Romo calls “sending your brain to the playground for a little bit.”

Rainbow agendas (with many different and varied tasks)

Because the brain needs variety both to increase attention and to generate different electrical frequencies or states of consciousness, Marta Romo recommends planning children’s time with many different tasks (the same can be done for adults who want to make their mind more flexible). She calls this a rainbow agenda, that is, with several colors. When we are always doing the same thing, the brain has difficulty moving from one thing to another and this leads to mental rigidity in the states of consciousness, says the expert.

What other habits enhance academic performance? Sleep “is very important, it has a huge impact on learning.” Marta Romo explains that if we don’t rest, we don’t reinforce what we’ve learned, so kids should get enough sleep and maintain schedules, especially during exam periods, although they often do the opposite. “We don’t give it enough importance, but sleep hygiene plays a key role in not impairing children’s learning capacity.” According to this educator, food is also neglected a lot, which is another basic element for the proper functioning of the brain, providing it with quality glucose from leafy green vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Exercise is another of the routines that have the most impact on learning. As we exercise, the whole brain is activated, we process information constantly, “apart from secreting endorphins that make us feel better, it lifts our mood, helping a great deal in changing our emotional state.” Marta Romo added that although it has only been tested with animals, it is very likely that humans also secrete a protein in the hippocampus, known as BDNF, which helps create new neural tissue. This expert gives yet another reason to exercise, specifically aerobic exercise. With this type of exercise, when the metabolism begins to burn fat, a mental state is generated in which ideas start to come to us more easily, we begin to relate concepts and produce high-performance gamma waves. That is, it not only increases our health, but it reinforces our learning capacity.

The neuroscience specialist highlights the importance of cultivating transcendence to stimulate brain activity in a part of the brain that is only activated when we do this kind of transcendental action (“where you leave yourself and connect with something or someone bigger than you or others for something in solidarity,” says Marta Romo.) These are activities related to nature, contemplation (meditation and prayer) and helping others (volunteering).