ATLANTA, Aug. 16--A rose is not just a rose these days. In some schools, it's also a scent that goes straight through the schnozz and keeps kids from snoozing and schmoozing. Mozart's sonatas help kids learn, too, and rap makes their neurons snap. Peppermints also stimulate young brains; so does water.
"Brain-based learning" is all the New Age rage as the 2000-01 school year gets under way. The idea: Scents, sweets, sounds, colors, lighting, water and other inputs produce various responses in young brains, and can be orchestrated to make them more receptive to learning.
The research behind the theory is not all rock-solid, and the state Department of Education doesn't take a position on it. Yet hundreds of metro teachers are convinced, and some schools and school systems offer seminars to instruct educators in the methods.
Among the stimuli being used in classrooms: peppermint candy (sugar and mint to invigorate); water bottles (to hydrate); aromatherapy (to rouse or calm, depending on the scent); dim lighting (to calm and focus); music (ditto) and walls painted in subdued colors (ditto).
Tomi Hall, a fifth-grade teacher at Decatur's Winnona Park Elementary, plugs in vanilla-scent-producing gadgets, which she says have a calming effect.
"But what I like most is classical music," she says. "It's wonderful, especially when they're doing math. It helps them relax, focus and reduces stress. It works."
Larry Bacnik, a Putnam County elementary school teacher, starts every year by making sure his walls are painted in subdued colors (he favors dusty rose for its calming influence) and that lighting is dim (he'll even hang light-filtering curtains). When school starts, he arrives early to switch on music, usually Mozart or Handel, with "tempos at the pace of a relaxed heartbeat." He avoids music with melodies and lyrics, which can be distracting.
He also hands out peppermints and makes sure lights are placed on individual desks, eschewing traditional fluorescent bulbs.
Kyunghae Shin, a third-grade teacher at Avondale Elementary in DeKalb, makes sure each child has a bottle of water. Before standardized tests, she hands out small cups filled with raisins, plus peppermints. She also uses physical exercises in class.
"I will use my hands to clap some rhythm and have them follow me," she says. "They have to listen. It stimulates their brains, keeps them alert, and it's fun, too."
Much of the enthusiasm for brain-based learning comes through word-of-mouth. But there is scientific evidence, too.
Scientists Fran Rauscher and Gordon Shaw at the University of California-Irvine found that 17 of 19 schoolkids who received music lessons for eight months increased their IQs by an average of 46 percent. A group that didn't get music lessons improved only 6 percent.
Shaw found that college students scored higher on IQ tests taken after listening to Mozart sonatas for 10 minutes.
The journal Nature reported that schooling in the arts and music leads to major improvements in reading skills and math.
University of Virginia research Paul Gold found evidence that glucose, a sugar, improves alertness and memory.
"The research is plentiful," declares Bacnik, an early convert to brain-based learning.
He points to practices outside the classroom. Fast-food joints use colors like orange and red to make people eat quickly, he says. Conversely, jewelry and department stores employ classical music, dimmer lighting and subdued colors to encourage shoppers to linger and buy.
In Europe and Japan, aromatherapy is widely accepted. Some Japanese employers, for example, scent work sites with peppermint, believing it helps reduce stress from repetitive chores.
And as governor, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) led an effort to have classical albums handed out to families of newborns. He dismisses critics who say the so-called Mozart Effect, based on Shaw's research, is unfounded. In a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year, he wrote that he didn't want "our early learning advocates to be misled or discouraged by some academics debunking other academics."
Yet many scientists are dubious.
Joan Caulfield, head of the Center for the Advancement of Reform in Education at Rockhurst University in Minnesota, says that some of the brain-based learning ideas are, well, no-brainers. But the rest...
"The brain needs water," she says. "I don't know about the other ideas. There's a lot to the power of suggestion."
Craig Kinsley, a University of Richmond neuroscientist who has studied the effects of outside influences on the brain, says some claims "border on pseudoscience." He cites soft lighting. A likely consequence of that practice, he says, will be "more kids needing glasses."
"The candies and mints," he acknowledges, "may have a better set of data supporting their effects." A ready store of glucose, he says, has been shown to make the brain work more efficiently.
Eric Jensen, a longtime teacher and author of 1998's "Teaching With the Brain in Mind" (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, $21.95), one of the bibles of brain-based learning, agrees that more study is needed, and that some teachers have seized on unfounded notions.
"Many well-meaning educators have gone way beyond the research," he says.
In addition, some teachers have made a formula of the technique, he complains. "There's not going to be one method or strategy that works for all people at all times. Good teachers have a palette of strategies."
Susan Hanson of Harmony Leland Elementary in Mableton isn't swayed by skeptics. She teaches teachers how to implement brain-based learning techniques.
Orange slices and rose petals calm pupils, she says, and peppermint given before tests helps kids concentrate. At her school, all 450 pupils are issued violins, taking lessons every week. And music is a daily presence as well.
"We use everything from jazz to popular music to country and hip-hop, which you play when you want to pump up a lot of energy."
Bobbye Jager, a teacher at Kedron Elementary in Peachtree City, is equally sold on brain-based learning. "When I taught kindergarten and a child became overexcited, I'd place the child at the listening center with a CD of Strauss waltzes with ocean sounds," she says. "Within five minutes, the child was calm, with no further discipline required.
"Does it help? Kedron has consistently high scores in math. Maybe Mozart has a part in this."