In February IICS was re-visited by Tim Burns, a well-respected educator and researcher who shared his deep knowledge of the fascinating workings of the brain with students, staff, and parents.

As Tim mentions in his introduction to his website:
We live in an exciting and challenging time in which science… — from anthropology to biology, from neuroscience to quantum physics — is redefining the world we live in, as well as what it means to be human. With more knowledge having been acquired in the last decade than in the past 150 years, recent discoveries about the brain reveal an astonishing three-pound universe of possibilities inherent in each of us. These findings include the clear-cut differences on the brain of environmental enrichment versus impoverishment, the reality of brain plasticity and neurogenesis, … and the remarkable ‘upgrades’ that take place in the teen brain. In addition, recent discoveries in the field of neurocardiology point to the human heart as not simply a pump, but as an ‘organ of vast intelligence’. 

Moreover, the body itself has what gastroenterologist and author Michael Gerson, M.D. refers to as a system of bodily intelligence. In effect, we have not one but three separate yet highly integrated brains. When it comes to learning, health, performance, creativity, and productivity, three brains are better than one!

In his time at the school Tim focused on the mechanics of learning with the younger students, connecting with the work our community has embraced on developing a growth mindset. Accepting the scientific evidence that brains change according to stimulation, behavior patterns, movement, and even will, known as  neuroplasticity, this offers much possibility but also responsibility for parents, educators, and the owners of the 600 precious student brains we nurture at IICS.

Most impactful to me as a learner, educator, and parent was Tim’s discussion of well-being and happiness. He shared alarming statistics about the dramatically increasing rates of depression among young people. The potential causes of this rise were unpacked from a scientific perspective; he describes the various brain states experienced by humans as part of their natural rhythms and the contribution that each rhythm makes to successful living and learning from sleep to high activity.

Water Brain-03

Noting the positive feelings maintained by the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, Tim observed that these chemicals can become quickly depleted if the brain is over-stimulated for extended periods of time. He highlighted the state during which these vital molecules are replenished–  a reflective, seemingly unfocused and inactive state (which is being continually removed from the schedules of our children for a wide range of reasons: eager parents, enthusiastic teachers, technology, societal pressure to name a few). The result of the removal/reduction of this replenishing state is the increase in stress, anxiety, and unhappiness experienced by children and their reduced ability to learn effectively.

Luckily some significant ‘antidotes ’ are accessible and relatively simple – a key one is movement and exercise which has an incredible impact on our brain function and sense of well being.

Tim explained the vital function of sleep in cementing learning and establishing connections

Drink water
1 glass of water per every 10kg of body weight per day


Get outside
Sunshine and being in nature lowers stress and resets the natural rhythms of the brain


Make music, draw, design, dance


Eat well
Nuts, olive oil, free range eggs, green leafy vegetables, fish, fresh food of all kinds

The research presented validates much work that has been developing at IICS over the last few years, for example: play-based learning in our Early years, having our students able to be much more physically mobile during lessons, including ‘brain breaks’ where students stretch or go outside, and of course the efforts to maintain a positive, joyful, connected community. One smile of recognition can raise serotonin levels in the recipient, directly increasing their readiness for learning.

Teachers picked up on the importance of allowing ‘down time’ both within the structure of lessons and also in the students’ daily experience, the need for more places and times for quiet reflection, and the possibilities of mindfulness-related practices to prepare students for learning more effectively.

A key concern of many parents and educators is the impact of technology on the brain – we are all worried about the effects but feel increasingly powerless to stem the tide. Tim’s view did validate this concern; he outlined the huge contrast between the rich stimulation of a child playing outside with friends and that of interacting with a screen; from a brain perspective it is the difference between a 2D and a 50D experience. He talked of the addictive nature of screen technologies and, especially for older children with more unrestricted access, the disruptive impact on sleep and therefore learning retention.

As ever, hope lays in the adaptive and changeable nature of the brain. Habits can be changed (which takes about 30 days, apparently), new healthy habits can replace ineffectual old ones, we grow new neurons and connections by the thousands, and strengthen these with repetition, revision, and practice. The brain really is a product of its daily inputs. We truly are what we eat (and drink, and do).