Trivium Pursuit

The Brain, It’s Plain, Is Sprained If It Is Strained

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Excerpts from Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy

[Page 66] [T]he axons, or output parts of [brain] neurons, gradually develop a coating of a waxy substance called myelin, which insulates the wiring and facilitates rapid and clear transmission. At birth, only the most primitive systems, such as those needed for sucking, have been [page 67] coated with myelin . . . . The process of myelination in human brains is not completed at least until most of us are in our twenties. While animal studies have shown that total myelin may reflect levels of stimulation, scientists believe its order of development is mainly predetermined by a genetic program.

While the system, overall, is remarkably responsive to stimulation from the environment, the schedule of myelination appears to put some boundaries around “appropriate” forms of learning at any given age . . . . [W]e should stop for a moment to discuss some potential hazards in trying too hard to “make” intelligence or learning happen. Some of the skill deficits of today’s schoolchildren, in fact, may have resulted from academic demands that were wrong – either in content or in mode of presentation – for their level of development.

The same mentality that attempts to engineer stimulation for baby brains also tries to push learning into schoolchildren much like stuffing sausages. For example, some parents now wonder if their schools are any good if they don’t start formal reading instruction, complete with worksheets, in preschool . . . .

Before brain regions are myelinated, they do not operate efficiently. For this reason, trying to “make” children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may result in mixed-up patterns of learning. As we have seen, the essence of functional plasticity is that any kind of learning – reading, math, spelling, handwriting, etc. – may be accomplished by any of several [brain] systems. Naturally, we want children to plug each piece of learning into the best system for that particular job. If the right one isn’t yet available or working smoothly, however, forcing may create a functional organization in which less adaptive, “lower” systems are trained to do the work.

The Brain, It’s Plain, Is Sprained If It Is Strained

[page 68] . . . As an example, let’s take the kind of reasoning needed for understanding (not just memorizing one’s way through) higher-level math. Perhaps some readers of this book shared a common experience when they took algebra: many of us functioned adequately until we reached Chicago, where two planes insisted on passing each other every day in class. When it wasn’t planes, it was trains or people digging wells or other situations that did not seem in any way related to graphs and [page 69] equations of X, Y, and Z. Personally, I found that the more I struggled, the more confused I became, until soon I was learning more confusion than algebra. Moreover, I began to believe I was pretty dumb. Was I developing what Herman Epstein calls “negative neural networks” (resistant circuitry) toward this worthy subject?

Having fled from math courses at the first available opportunity, I have since talked to other adults who confided that, after a similar experience, they also avoided math until forced years later to take a required course in graduate school. At this point, their grownup brains discovered they actually liked this sort of reasoning . . . .

In this personal example, it is very possible that the necessary neural equipment for algebra – taught in this particular manner – may not yet have been automatically available in my early-adolescent brain. The areas to receive the last dose of myelin are the association areas responsible for manipulating highly abstract concepts – such as symbols (X, Y, Z; graphs) that stand for other symbols (numerical relationships) that stand for real things (planes, trains, wells). Such learning is highly experience-dependent, and thus there are many potential neural routes by which it can be performed. Trying to drill higher-level learning into immature brains may force them to perform with lower-level systems and thus impair the skill in question . . . .

I would contend that much of today’s school failure results from academic expectations for which students’ brains were not prepared – but which were bulldozed into them anyway . . . .

The brain grows best when it is challenged, so high standards for children’s learning are important. Nevertheless, curriculum needs to be considered in terms of brain-appropriate challenge. Reorganizing synapses is much more difficult than having the patience to help them get arranged properly the first time around!

[page 289] Abstract rule systems for grammar and usage should be taught when most students are in high school. Then, if previously prepared, they may even enjoy the challenges of this kind of abstract, logical reasoning. Only, however, if the circuits are not already too cluttered up by bungled rule-teaching.

One ninth-grade student who came to me last year for help with grammar was hopelessly confused about the simplest parts of speech. Although she was intelligent and could, at her current age, have mastered this material in a week, she had been a victim of meaningless “grammar” drills since second grade. As Michelle and I struggled on the simple difference between adjectives and adverbs, I often wished I could take a neurological vacuum cleaner and just suck out all those mixed-up synapses that kept getting in our way. It took us six months . . . But finally one day the light dawned. “This is easy!” she exclaimed. It is, when brains are primed for the learning and the student has a reason to use it with real literary models.

[page 290] Immersing children in good language from books and tapes, modeling patterns for their own speech and writing, and letting them enjoy their proficiency in using words to manipulate ideas are valid ways to embed “grammar” in growing brains . . . . No amount of worksheets or rule learning will ever make up for deficits resulting from lack of experience with the structure of real, meaningful sentences.

It is folly to ignore the importance of oral storytelling, oral history, and public speaking in a world that will communicate increasingly without the mediation of print. These skills build language competence in grammar, memory, attention, and visualization, among many other abilities.

. . . I personally believe . . . that helping students at all grade levels memorize some pieces of good writing – narrative, expository, and poetic – on a regular basis would provide good practice for language, listening, and attention. I do not mean reverting to a rote-level curriculum, but simply taking a little time each week to celebrate the sounds of literate thought . . . .

One Response to “The Brain, It’s Plain, Is Sprained If It Is Strained”

  1. Heather Says:

    Thank you, thank you for your help, wisdom, encouragement and more!