Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

Meaningful learning -- the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future -- occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today's youngsters, at all socioeconomic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes. Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning. In a recent survey, teachers in both the United States and Europe reported overwhelmingly that today's students have shorter attention spans, are less able to reason analytically, to express ideas verbally, and to attend to complex problems. Meanwhile, school curricula modes of instruction do little to remedy the deficits by engaging either attention or curiosity. The result? A growing educational "crisis" of misfit between children and their schools.
Narrowing the gap between the school's demands and the "readiness" of the students' brains can be accomplished in two ways: changing the student and/or changing the classrooms. Both are possible. Let's start with the students.

Shaping the Malleable Mind

The brain's functioning -- and thus its "readiness" for any type of learning -- is shaped by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Genetic nature combines with prenatal nurture to endow the infant brain with a range of possibilities, but the environment after birth helps forge the neuronal connections that underlie later learning. Like a sculptor, the child's experience prunes away unneeded -- or unused -- synapses, while strengthening those patterns of connections that are repeatedly used. Thus habits of the mind may become, quite literally, structures of the brain. Although the susceptible cell groups comprise but a small proportion of total brain mass, they are critical to learning because they facilitate higher-level thinking, planning, and skills of mental organization so essential to self-directed and meaningful human learning.
While our understanding of this phenomenon of "neural plasticity," or malleability, of the growing brain is still rudimentary, several principles suggest themselves from the research. First, repeated experiences cause synaptic differences if they comprise a significant part of a child's mental life. For example, the brains of deaf children, or of those otherwise deprived of oral language experience, develop differently from those of hearing children because of differences in the dominant types of input to which they have responded. As yet no one has attempted to demonstrate less dramatic brain changes from a heavy diet of video and rushed, adult-directed activities or from immersion in thoughtful conversation and spontaneous creative play, but it is eminently possible that they exist. (Certainly, anecdotal information from teachers suggests that there has been a shift in information-processing abilities of children in recent years.)
Secondly, animal research and common sense converge on the notion that a brain which is actively involved and curious is likely to develop stronger connections than one which is merely a passive recipient of learning. Third, there appear to be critical, or at least "sensitive" periods in the course of development when certain neuron groups become particularly amenable to stimulation. If sufficient mental exercise is lacking, the related ability may be permanently degraded. This phenomenon has been demonstrated for basic aspects of human language development; very little is known, however, about its applicability to most human learning, particularly the higher-level skills (e.g., understanding of more complex syntax, abstract and analytic reasoning, self-generated attention) which may have sensitive periods well into adolescence. In today's world, these skills appear to be particularly endangered.
So, how do we change the children? First, we stop blaming them -- and their teachers. Parents, policy-makers, and the arbiters of popular culture are also part of the the problem. If we wish to retain the benefits of literate thought, we must educate parents, encourage more constructive uses of media, and set our priorities in every classroom to show children from the earliest years how to get ideas into words and to listen -- not only to peers and to adults, but also to the voice of an author. I would suggest that every home and every school institute a "curriculum" for listening and following sequential directions, as well as emphasizing the use of language to talk through problems, to plan behavior, and to reason analytically about such concepts as cause and effect. Deficits in these fundamental "habits of mind" cause not only academic but also social problems. Reading instruction should take a back seat until language foundations and skills of auditory analysis and comprehension are in place, lest reading become a meaningless exercise.
Someone must also take time to listen to the children, soften the frenetic scheduling of their lives, read to them, give them some quiet time to play, to ponder, to reflect, and to use the inner voice that mediates attention and problem-solving. Without adult models, children cannot shape their own brains around these intellectual habits which, in the long run, will be far more valuable to all concerned than a frantic march through content. The executive, or prefrontal, centers of the brain, which enable planning, follow-through, and controlled attention along with forms of abstract thought, develop throughout childhood and adolescence. We have a responsibility to children -- all children -- to demonstrate the habits of mental discipline and attention necessary to reflect on, utilize, and apply the information they learn. If the culture refuses to cooperate by providing models outside of school, we must add it to our academic curriculum -- even if it means sacrificing some of the data in the syllabus
Since each brain's developmental timetable is different, we must also disabuse ourselves of the notion that children can be made to learn on a set schedule. And, finally, we should recognize that whoever is minding the children is shaping our national intelligence -- and choose and reward these persons accordingly.

Expanding Minds for a New Century

Merely reinstating some of the mental habits of a bygone era will not suffice, however. We must also accept and capitalize on the fact that today's children come with new skills for a new century. The changes we observe in our children may, in fact, represent a cusp of change in human intelligence -- a progression into more immediate, visual, and three-dimensional forms of thought. Schools will need to accept the fact that lectures and "teacher talk," which commonly comprise approximately 90% of classroom discourse, must give way to more effective student involvement. Today's learners must become constructors of knowledge rather than passive recipients of information that even the least intelligent computer can handle more effectively. Many examples already exist in outstanding literature-based programs that turn students on to reading, writing, and oral communication, "hands-on" science and math curricula in which product takes a back seat to understanding of process; project-oriented, multidisciplinary social studies units; cooperative learning paradigms; multi-modal teaching; training of teachers in open-ended questioning.
Particularly exciting are curricular innovations in which the unlimited potential of visual thinking is used to complement language and linear analysis. Courses in critical viewing and effective use of visual media are examples; computer simulations requiring step-by-step progression to three-dimensional reasoning herald development of new skills which may eventually transcend the linear constraints of scientific method and even unite the talents of the two cerebral hemispheres in expanded modes of thought.
Traditional parameters of learning must be broadened, even redefined, not simply because of the changing priorities of future technologies, but also because of present realities. Our growing crisis in academic learning reflects societal neglect of the neural imperatives of childhood. We find an alienation of children's worlds -- and the mental habits engendered by them -- from the traditional culture of academia. Merely lamenting this fact, however, does not alter the reality or rebuild the brains. Nor does choking our young with more didacticism -- under the rubric of "competency" -- make them learn to think. In past decades we got away with insignificant subject matter and poor pedagogy because the culture dutifully sent us docile minds, well-endowed with the linguistic currency of academic learning. But our children today have been differently prepared, and, sophisticated consumers that they are, do not suffer drivel lightly -- nor should they.
Closing the gap between wayward synapses and intellectual imperatives will not be accomplished by low-level objectives, such as memorization and recapitulation of information. Human brains are not only capable of acquiring knowledge; they also hold the potential for wisdom. But wisdom has its own curriculum: conversation, thought, imagination, empathy, reflection. Youth who lack these "basics," who have forgotten how to ask the questions that may never have been asked, who cannot ponder what they have learned, are poorly equipped to become managers of our accelerating human enterprise.
The final lesson of neural plasticity is that a human brain, given good foundations, can continue to adapt and expand for a lifetime. Its vast synaptic potential at birth can bend itself around what is important of the "old" and still have room for new skills demanded by a new century. A well-nourished mind, well-grounded in the precursors of wisdom as well as of knowledge, will continue to grow, learn, develop -- as long as it responds to the prickling of curiosity. Perhaps this quality, above all, is the one we should strive to preserve in our children. With it, supported by language, thought, and imagination, minds of the future will shape themselves around new challenges -- whatever societal neglect of the neural imperatives of childhood may be. But if we continue to neglect either these foundations or the curiosity that sets them in motion, we will truly all be endangered.

About: Jane M. Healy
Dr. Jane Healy's first book, Your Child's Growing Mind, has in a few short years become a classic reference and guide for parents. Based on recent research in developmental neuropsychology, her book discusses the development of language, intelligence, and memory, along with academic skills.
It has been a major contribution in explaining the dangers of pushing academically demanding subjects down into the early years, when many children are not yet physically or psychologically able to cope with them. Her book, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It (recently revised and reissued), carries the theme even further, as she discusses other current pressures which may limit human development -- and what can be done about them.
Dr. Healy graduated from Smith College and received her master's degree from John Carroll University. She holds a doctorate in educational psychology from Case Western Reserve University, and has engaged in postdoctoral studies at Columbia Teachers' College and Boston Children's H

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