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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Neuroscience and Education

Over the last three years, I’ve read a wide range of books on neuroscience, the plasticity of the brain, and the implications of all this research for educators and parents. Written by scientists, educators, and cognitive psychologists, these books span a wide range of topics and are sometimes more technical/scientific and sometimes less so. I’ve read tons of these kinds of books; the most notable ones are listed below:

Inside the Brain: By Ronald Kotulak
Magic Trees of the Mind: By Mariam Diamond
Reading in the Brain: By Stanislas Dehaene
Number Sense: By Stanislas Dehaene
Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of Reading: By Marianne Wolf
Pink Brain, Blue Brain : By Lise Eliot
The Sexual Paradox : By Susan Pinker
The Tell-Tale Brain : By V.S. Ramachandran

I’ve also read some really interesting books by Jane Healy, an educator and psychologist, who writes about child development and the effects of the media. I found ‘Endangered Minds’ very interesting and provocative and ahead of its time (it was written in the 1990’s), and I also enjoyed ‘Your Child’s Developing Mind.’ However, I wonder about the scientific merit of these books, particularly Endangered Minds.

As a parent and an educator, I find these books absolutely fascinating, and I think that they have influenced both how I parent and how I teach significantly. Perhaps they have influenced my parenting more than my teaching, but either way, they have altered how I think about the brain and the process of learning.

So what are the big, enduring ideas that I have learnt from these books? I've listed some of the ideas I find most compelling below. The list is somewhat disjointed and far from complete, but it's a start.
The idea of neuro-plasticity:
Genes matter. Heredity matters. We do come hard-wired with our own strengths and talents. Much of the research I’ve read points to the power of genes and heredity. However, what I find fascinating is that we can literally train our brains/minds to develop and strengthen certain neural circuits by spending a lot more time on activities that engage these circuits. If you want to be a good reader, spend a lot of time reading. If you want to be a good builder, spend a lot of time building. This is a fairly intuitive idea, and on some level, we already know this. However, the science behind this idea confirms that how children spend their time will, in many ways, determine what neural circuits they eventually develop.  This is not to say that we don’t come hard-wired with our own strengths and talents. We do. Yet, we can choose to grow our talents and minimize our weaknesses by spending our time wisely. A corollary to this is that students must actively engage in an activity to really strengthen a neural circuit. Merely sitting in a classroom won’t actually help a student learn; he/she has to use his brain to get those synapses firing.
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.

There are biological differences between the ways in which female brains and male brains are hardwired, most likely a function of prenatal testosterone surges in males and differing brain sizes in males and females. However, when measured in young children, these differences are small for most cognitive areas; yet they become exacerbated by how children spend their time, and thus, by adulthood, they are very wide.  Again, the research suggests that how a boy or girl spends his time is very important. Video games (in moderation) are good for developing spatial sense. Reading is great for developing not just verbal-linguistic skills but also greater emotional intelligence (empathy, compassion). All boys and girls need exposure to a broad range of fields.

·      Aggression: The biological and hormonal basis of aggression is particularly interesting. I think that my understanding of men and boys has increased considerably as a result of this research. When I think back to the incredibly high levels of aggression that characterized my students, particularly the males, in inner-city Baltimore, I feel as though I understand where all that aggression came from. Living in a high-stress and violent environment can literally re-wire a vulnerable brain to become chronically ready to “fight – or –fly,” or in even more frightening cases, can lower levels of serotonin to the point where children lose their ability to feel any remorse or sympathy for others. This interaction between a hostile environment and a vulnerable brain can cause dangerously high or low levels of key neurotransmitters, resulting in either increased rage, which can trigger violence, or a lack of empathy, which can cause more cold-blooded killing.

·      When one begins to see human behaviors in light of neuro-development and biology, it becomes easier to be patient and compassionate. Instead of merely feeling frustrated with students who struggle, I try hard to consider how their brains are working. What are the specific ways in which this child is struggling? How can I break the task down to help him/her understand it? Similarly, with my own young children, it is much easier for me to deal with a tantrum when I consider that a three year old’s frontal lobe/pre-frontal cortex is insufficiently developed. Expecting her to be rational is somewhat unrealistic given the stage of biological development she’s in. 

·      Reading literally changes/re-wires the brain. The brains of literate individuals are significantly different from those of illiterate individuals. My favorite books were Maryanne Wolf’s “The Story and Secret of the Reading Brain” and Dehaene’s “Reading in the Brain” because they beautifully lay out the ways in which the brain learns to read despite not being hardwired to do so. Both books are a real tribute to the invention of writing and the supreme achievements of the reading brain, and as a reader and an English teacher, I found these books exhilarating and exciting. The process of reading, initially phonetic and eventually lexical, is absolutely astounding. And the power of words – how we remember them, understand them, use them, and change them is tremendous. Both books, however, made me realize just how challenging reading can be for a dyslexic student, and they helped me understand the need to revise my negative assumptions about struggling readers.

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.

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