The idea of neuro-plasticity:
Spatial skills can be taught: This is a particularly provocative idea for me because I have atrocious spatial skills. I have never understood why spatial skills are almost completely ignored in formal educational settings. I was a stellar student in school precisely because I never had to engage in any kind of spatial work. Given that visual-spatial skills are the foundation of all higher-level math and science, I just don’t understand how or why they are ignored in formal educational settings. If spatial skills had been taught in school, I might have been diagnosed with a severe “spatial disability” and been given intensive remediation in this field. While it would have made school much less fun and somewhat humiliating, it might have helped me learn to drive properly, read a map, experiment more with technology, and put together IKEA furniture. I’m hopeless at all of the above. As a parent, I am determined to make sure that my kids get explicit instruction in this area.
The research all shows that the brain is a “use-it-or-lose-it” muscle. I know from my own experience that there have been times in my life when I’ve used my brain intensely and felt very intellectually alive. In graduate school, for example, I spent all my time engaged in intense intellectual activity, and I felt as though my brain was in phenomenal shape. In contrast, when I’ve felt stressed and overwhelmed by personal/emotional matters, I’ve used my brain a lot less, and in the process, have actually felt significantly less intelligent. When I lived in NYC, I was overwhelmed by my father’s illness and death, and by the chronic stress associated with working when one has a very young child at home. My son was severely asthmatic as an infant and toddler, which didn’t make things any easier. As a result, I read much less, and I found that my concentration was severely impaired, my thinking became muddled and imprecise, and I sometimes found it hard to write even a simple paragraph. The depletive and dangerous effects of stress on the brain are very real, as is the effect of less use of the brain. It makes perfect sense: you use your brain and you build it up; you stop using it and those synaptic connections begin to die.
If there’s one thing I want to do for my children and my students, it is to inspire them to love learning and to use their brains as actively and enthusiastically as possible. I want them to have rich inner-intellectual lives.