Sunday, March 6, 2011

Neuroplasticity in brains and educating our children

I love learning how our brains work.  This quote is from The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.  It is very exciting to me as a homeschooling mum to see so clearly what I need to do to help my children to develop their brains to their highest potential.

Chapter 2 Pages 41-43

The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children's brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to exact elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too rigid, boring, and "not relevant." But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the the rest of us, the disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brainpower unfamiliar to us now. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 the debaters would speak comfortably for an hour or more without notes, in extended memorized paragraphs; today many of the most learned among us, raised in our most elite schools since the 1960s, prefer the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation - the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young's work compels us to imagine how much good might be accomplished if every child had a brain-based assessment and, if problems were found, a tailor-made program created to strengthen essential areas in the early years, when neuroplasticity is greatest. It is far better to nip brain problems in the bud than to allow the child to wire into his brain the idea that he is "stupid", begin to hate school and learning, and stop work in the weakened area, losing whatever strength he may have. (My note - I think this is why I instinctively rebelled at the idea of my Aspie, who as is typical does not have great handwriting, turning instead to a typing program.) Younger children often progress more quickly through brain exercises than do adolescents, perhaps because in an immature brain the number of connections among neurons, or synapses, is 50 percent greater than in the adult brain. When we reach adolescence, a massive "pruning back" operation begins in the brain, and synaptic connections and neurons that have not been used extensively suddenly die off - a classic case of "use it or lose it." It is probably best to strengthen weakened areas while all this extra cortical real estate is available. Still, brain-based assessments can be helpful all through school and even in college and university, when many students who did well in high school fail because their weak brain functions are overloaded by the increased demand. Even apart from these crises, every adult could benefit from a brain-based cognitive assessment, a cognitive fitness test, to help them better understand their own brain.

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