We often refer to the process of education as “shaping young minds.” When we expose kids to great literature, the power of math, and the insights of science, we build enriched minds ready to thoughtfully respond to the world. For decades, our understanding of the process of education has focused on the content – the information – we provide. And although the value of this great transfer of information continues to be important, now, as a new century unfolds in front of us, there’s an emerging dimension to the purpose of education that deserves our full attention. If being a great teacher has always meant nurturing an insightful mind, then it’s time to acknowledge that the job description includes being the architect of the physical mind as well. Indeed, these two minds are inextricably related. Actually, educators have always contributed to the development of the physical mind. It’s just that until recently, science couldn’t clearly explain how this happens. Now, however, medical technology literally allows us to watch how words and experiences spur the brain to productive action. Education’s Tidal Shift
This is not some sort of fantasy about being able to pinpoint how, for example, a specific sentence might lead to the construction of a specific bit of knowledge. In my view, that sort of reductivist thinking is a misguided attempt to simplify both neuroscience and the nature of mind. Still, we can freely imagine that recurringwaves of interaction between student and teacher do in fact have the power to build networks of capability. I like the idea of “waves” because it hints at the reality of an ever-present force shaping young minds – even when we can’t see it happening. News that should inform education’s evolution is breaking daily from research labs around the world. It’s a shame that much of this extremely valuable information does not get translated into practical strategies that can immediately and directly benefit teachers. Those who know me can attest that I’m doing my best to build this critical bridge! After all, what is the purpose of all this science if not to improve the lives of people? Of course so much new information can seem overwhelming. But as we sort out the implications of these revelations, I hope you find the excitement and sense of possibility as energizing as I do!
[If this newsletter has been forwarded to you by a colleague or friend, please consider subscribing to Family Matters atdradamcox.com]
The Proper Care and Feeding of Young Brains
The single most important scientific discovery with respect to the broad power of education is the observation that an educated brain is “wired” differently. In short, education enables a mind to physically grasp and contemplate more complex thoughts. Scientists call this process epigene tic educational enrichment. Yeah, it’s a mouthful, but essentially it means that education causes a brain to take highly adaptive action such as growing longer dendrites – the spiny extensions on neurons that transmit information among brain cells. The longer and better developed the dendrites, the better the transmission (communication). It seems that as a person’s education gets longer, so do his or her dendrites. This is just one example of how our notion of wisdom needs to evolve to include reference to a physically more mature brain. (And in case you’re wondering, longer dendrites may help stave off Alzheimer’s disease in old age.) Okay, so longer dendrites are good for people who amass years of education. (And I define education broadly to include many forms of learning.) But what about the more immediate physiological benefits of a great education? Well, we should consider the “use it or lose it” rule of grey matter development. (Quick reminder: grey matter facilitates short-range connections within the brain in the interest of building great executive skills.) It turns out we’re all born with more of these cells than we might use; the challenge being to use as many as we can before they start getting pruned in late adolescence and early adulthood. Bottom line: If we don’t exercise grey matter when kids are young, those cells will be pruned naturally as the brain ages – and they will be gone forever. Ouch! Tragically, we sometimes wait until adolescence to develop an exercise regimen for grey matter and by that time cellular connections have already started to wane, with the brain losing some of its plasticity. This is why, for example, it’s easier for young children to learn a second language. With information like this in hand, we simply can’t afford to ignore whether our teaching strategies effectively “speak” to developing minds. And I’m not only talking about classroom teachers. Everybody who work with kids – counselors, coaches, mentors, and of course parents – will benefit from understanding how their words and actions can spur the growth of healthy young minds. Hey, That Child Needs to Start Networking
Without digressing into a detailed discussion of neurobiology, let me point out that when we exercise young minds we are basically building networks of comprehension and knowledge within the brain. This means that clusters of brain cells are being interconnected, essentially becoming the repository of discrete bits of knowledge. The more we, as teachers, reinforce these networks through brain-savvy instructional strategies, the more likely it is that kids will respond affirmatively. For example, suppose we are teaching a young child to tie his shoes. As sensory information flows through his eyes and fingertips, a neural network is formed to capture the unique sequence of hand-eye coordinated actions that result in a tied shoe. Repetition and rehearsal speed the development of this network and strength the connections within this network of cells. However, without sufficient practice, the network will atrophy, and in effect, the knowledge of how to tie a shoe is never gained. Much the same thing happens as kids listen in school. Without sufficient opportunity to transfer comprehension into crystallized knowledge (repetition and rehearsal), an educational interaction suffers a loss of energy, akin to entropy, that makes that interaction an inefficient use of everybody’s time. The more quickly we can eliminate, or at least limit this type of energy loss, the more quickly we can accelerate the growth of new knowledge networks, increasing the probability of success. So what does success mean? Am I trying to encourage you to shape a generation of superkids? No, but I don’t want us stick our heads in the sand either. We don’t need kids that can think faster than computers, but we want our kids to reason and problem-solve in ways that computers cannot. Part of this ability will continue to come from traditional channels such as learning geography, reading Dickens, and building baking soda volcanoes. But in the 21st century we will desperately need process- oriented learners – people who solve problems by virtue of a well-exercised mind. This shift has already begun to happen because it is spurred by lifestyle and the irrepressible influence of technology. Today, the metacognitive preferences of the young, such as an insatiable appetite for multitasking, a preference for short, staccato bursts of attention, and a malleable perception of time are hallmarks of a generation that will increasingly make content secondary to process – and it won’t be that many years before members of these generations assume prominent roles of leadership within education. Our role is to direct these changes into positive forms, and avoid the disadvantageous features we’re all concerned about. A Small Lens for a Big Issue
Once we engage a new paradigm for understanding what it means to build a capable young mind, it’s a relatively smaller step to realize that traditional ways for measuring educational outcomes are a better fit for museums than schools! Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still vitally important – but they constitute a small lens for looking at a big issue. Unfortunately, lenses have a way of distorting reality. If we become so intent on looking myopically at a relatively few outcome variables, who knows what abilities, or lack thereof, might fly under or above our radar. Yet that’s exactly the liability of an infatuation with standardized assessments. If we can step back for a moment to consider the waves of interaction that unfold the process aspects of a child’s mind, we might also reconsider what we should be looking for as evidence of educational success.
With respect to measuring outcomes, the issue comes down to creating a more inclusive, meaningful lens through which to view achievement. The lens should be inclusive in the sense of observing cognitive abilities like focus, memory, and organization, but also inclusive in the sense of making the fulcrum of educational accomplishment relevant to a wider range of groups and cultures. As the world’s economy and natural resources continue to be globalized, so will human capability. Now is the time to think about the design we want human capability to assume. In the same way that a great work of art has universal aesthetic appeal, we can build young minds that have universally appealing and valuable capabilities. Isn’t this what we want? Don’t we have to accept the idea that this mandate is a reminder that schools themselves are a network, bound together by a collective vitality that surges through the arteries of education’s evolution?
Let’s Accept Students as Partners
Even where very young children are concerned, one of the keys to adapting to this evolution is to accept that students can, and must, be our partners in educating them. By this I certainly mean far more than being compliant with the protocols of school.
Those of you who have read No Mind Left Behind know that I am keenly interested in building the metacognitive skills of children and teens. This requires that we devise strategies that help kids look objectively at the very process of learning. What’s more, we need them to do this at the same time they are absorbing content. An effective metacognitive thinker can keep two tiers of the same mind awake and active. You bet, that’s a lot to ask, but it makes learning more efficient, more meaningful, and more interesting.
Hint: kids already know how to do what I’m writing about – they just haven’t learned to direct those skills toward academic learning. My recent work with schools has been focused on building modules of collaborative learning that build two-tier thinking skills in children. To identify just a few of these modules, I have found that the strategic incorporation of visual schematics,kinesthetic rehearsal, and child-friendly accountability systemshelp make accomplishment the responsibility of everybody in the classroom (and at home).
Remarkably, these strategies are just as useful for learningsocial skills as they are for improving study habits. Why? Because the vast majority of kids don’t want to be passive recipients of information – they want to play a part in how knowledge is being “programmed.” And when we make this information explicit (i.e., graphic collaborative instructional aids), we provide the type of scaffolded structure for learning that is the hallmark of deeply satisfying achievement.
Do you enjoy completing a task more if you’ve had some role in its design? I know I do.
My discussion here is not intended to suggest that we turn over the curricula reins to students. Professionals must make the big decisions about what is to be taught and in what sequence. Still, I hope we can appreciate that the business of learning – the actual transfer of insight and knowledge – is carried along by the ever-present waves of interaction that fill the atmosphere of a thriving classroom. These are the waves that cause dendrites to sprout, and these are the waves where the collective creativity of student and teacher give rise to our children’s most valuable resource – capability
Did We Have Unintelligent Ancestors?
About twenty-five years ago, psychologist James Flynn noticed that successive generations of kids did better on IQ tests. In fact, if IQ tests weren’t continually revised to be more difficult, children today would have assessed IQ’s that are about 30 points higher than their grandparents (scores rise about 5 points per decade). This phenomenon was subsequently dubbed the Flynn Effect. In a recent issue of Scientific American Mind, Flynn talks about his discovery and why the phenomenon exists. First, he points out that some IQ subtests show dramatic changes in performance , while others are more constant. Task that involve process thinking (problem-solving) have witnessed a meteoric rise in performance, while those that test the basic transfer of information (vocabulary, arithmetic, general knowledge) have seen little change. *Note how this discrepancy relates to evolutionary changes discussed in the article above. Second, a key reason why these skills have improved is that society has evolved to require more sophisticated use of concepts and relationships, while the need for the retention of crystallized knowledge (facts) has remained constant. (Many of us have off-loaded the burden of retaining this information to devices – can you say PDA?) Of course our kids aren’t actually more intelligent than people who lived a hundred years ago. As Flynn points out, the intelligence of our ancestors was “anchored in everyday reality.” By this, he means that their intelligence evolved according to the immediate needs of their own time. And sure enough, tests that measure more practical abilities among generations of children show almost no change in the abilities of successive generations. So our kids are no more likely to know the answer to, “What’s the best way to make a friend?” than we would have been at their age. Conversely, they are much more likely to know how a poem and a statue are alike (both are works of art), or recognize the subtle features that link abstract patterns, than their grandparents.
|Ask Dr. Cox|
Q. I heard you speak in Toronto last year and really enjoyed it. But there were so many ideas I don’t know where to start. Maybe my son should have gone to your talk. What do I do to get his attention? I miss talking to him. Cornelia I., Toronto, Canada
This approach gets everyone on the same page- and just a bit of formality can be helpful in reinforcing that those goals are important. In fact, from years of doing family therapy I’ve come to the conclusion that the “miracle” cures that occur in a few sessions really are due to what I call “the spotlight effect.” In essence, when we take the time to slow down, sit with a child, and clearly discuss goals together (shining a “spotlight” on the concerns), change happens quickly.
I know how hard it is to persevere in trying to connect with your son when he appears indifferent. The thing to remember is that most likely he does care – even if he doesn’t know how to show it. First, try building a relationship focused on common interests. Something fun or recreational works best. Once your son is in the habit of talking with you-whether it’s about fishing, setting up a website, or whatever his interest might be-you’ve established a base for further conversation. At that point, address your concerns with him in a manner-of-fact way, and see what he suggests. Good luck! Find more helpful articles and insights at:
Do you have a question for Dr. Cox? Email your query with “question for Dr. Cox” in the subject line -your question may be answered in an upcoming issue of Family Matters!