Your Brain on Childhood — An Evolutionary History

 

TimeLapseWe love Gabrielle Principe’s book, “Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan.” Not only is her storytelling engaging and creative, it is also peppered with so much research that one almost needs an organizational chart to keep track of it all.

While it is largely geared toward exploring the cognitive development of younger children, her framework for thinking about brains offers a compelling contrast to the current paradigm for understanding learning (performance on academic focused standardized tests) for all youth, and even adults.

In chapter 1, Old Brain, New World, she sets the stage for what will be an book-long theme.

When humans first appeared on the scene about two million years ago, families lived in small, nomadic bands and made their living hunting and gathering. Children spent their days roaming in packs and playing on their own in the out-of-doors. They improvised their own fun, regulated their own games, and made up their own rules. Children’s education was informal, and new skills were learned ou tin the world. such was childhood for more than 99 percent of human existence.

Today, childhood is different. Infants find themselves strapped into bouncy seats and plunked in front of television sets. Toddlers are put away in play yards to listen to Baby Mozart and use learning laptops. Preschoolers are given talking dollhouses, robotic pet dogs, and battery-powered frogs that teach them their ABCs. Older children sit in front of computer screens with earbuds connected to their iPods, texting thir friends on their touch phones to see if they can come over and play video games. They spend their weekdays inside classrooms, seated in rows of desks, reciting times tables, drilling word banks, and memorizing state capitals. Their weekends are filled with activities that are organized, supervised, and timed by adults: sports leagues, private tutors, music lessons, math camp, dance instruction, karate classes, and Cub Scouts.

She goes on to establish the similarity of the human brain with those of our most recent ancestors (such as orangutans) and our farther back ancestors (such as reptiles and fish). She explains the history of the brain through the evolutionary advances of other animals, concluding that “the human brain is merely vintage parts from brains that came before us.”

She goes on,

What does this recognition of the deep evolutionary history of our brains mean for children today? It means that their brains were not designed with modern life in mind; rather, they evolved for life in a very different world. At different times in teh brain’s evolutionary history, it developed in deep seas, freshwater streams, tropical rainforests, and the grasslands of the savannahs, not in classrooms, living rooms, manufactured playgounds, manicured ball fields, or minivans. These sorts of evolutionary novel environments have changed the way that children behave and develop, but today’s children still enter their respective worlds witha brain that never expected to find itself in any of them. It is this disconnect between childnre’s evolutionary past and their human present that makes parts of the modern world challenging and even damaging to the development of their brains, bodies, and behaviors. But the better we understand the long history of the human brain, the better able we are to raise happy, healthy, and successful children.

So what is the point here and what does it have to do with youth, students, and education? Well, everything.

While we would encourage you to read the entire book (because it is a great read all the way through), the main point is that we need to keep a perspective on the history of the brain and in what conditions it thrives best. Doing so may help us all better understand . . .

  1. Why school can be so challenging for so many students. (Most learning in human history was done “on the job” not in formal schooling, and the brain evolved as such.)
  2. What conditions may better facilitate more holistic learning.
  3. The dichotomy between the current reform effort and the cognitive needs of all students.
  4. As Gabrielle Principe  states in chapter 10, “Given that schooling is an unnatural experience, it’s best to keep in mind that education can be best achieved when we take children’s natural dispositions and abilities into consideration.”
Image: Paul Thompson, UCLA School of Medicine

The Myth of Average

Todd Rose’s brilliant talk at TEDxSonoma expands on a startlingly simple point:

When you design for the average, you design for no-one. He suggests instead we to need design for the extremes.

For anyone who has worked with students, it is an intuitive enough concept, in theory. Yet in application, it has proven challenging, especially in a climate fixated on norm reference test scores, where average is king (or queen). How do we design and deliver for the wide variability of students’ learning profiles when there is so much pressure to get all students to the same level in all subjects?  The default has become education policies that claim to race to the top, but instead stagger for the middle, effectively limiting the extremes.

As Rose so eloquently demonstrates with a story from military history, in trying to target the average, we invariably isolate everyone.

What makes him an expert in this topic? He was a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA who is now an author of “Square Peg” and a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He says,

I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system. I’ve been to the very top. I’m here to tell you that we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is, because for every single person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of a educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.

Watch his talk above for more. We guarantee you will be even more inspired to cultivate that which makes your students unique, wonderful, and valuable to the well being of our communities.

Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.

Additionally,

Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

Photo Credit: BrittneyBush via Compfight cc

On Cognition and the Bilingual Mind

In the past year there has been a flurry of articles on the cognitive advantages of the bilingual mind. Below is a selection of quotes from various pieces.

The best of the articles comes from the Dana Foundation‘s Cerebrum publication (which includes a list of accompanying research for more exploration). In their piece, Viorica Marian, PhD and Anthony Shook conclude:

The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.25,28 The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy. Despite certain linguistic limitations that have been observed in bilinguals (e.g., increased naming difficulty7), bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity.29Furthermore, beyond these cognitive and neurological advantages, there are also valuable social benefits that come from being bilingual, among them the ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talk to someone with whom you might otherwise never be able to communicate. The cognitive, neural, and social advantages observed in bilingual people highlight the need to consider how bilingualism shapes the activity and the architecture of the brain, and ultimately how language is represented in the human mind, especially since the majority of speakers in the world experience life through more than one language.

Judy Willis, the internationally recognized neuroscientist turned educator, in her post on Psychology Today writes,

Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children, including both increased attentive focus and cognition. The findings correlate with prefrontal cortex brain activity networks, which direct the highest levels of thinking and awareness.

Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated neuroimaging (fMRI scans) of these children revealed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex networks directing these and other executive functions. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).

In March, the New York Times published a piece in their Grey Matters column that included this research finding:

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.

This post in the Wall Street Journal highlights the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the WSJ, Robert Lee Hotz writes,

In the new study, Kraus and her colleagues tested the involuntary neural responses to speech sounds by comparing brain signals in 23 high school students who were fluent in English and Spanish to those of 25 teenagers who only spoke English. When it was quiet, both groups could hear the test syllable — “da” — with no trouble, but when there was background noise, the brains of the bilingual students were significantly better at detecting the fundamental frequency of speech sounds.

“We have determined that the nervous system of a bilingual person responds to sound in a way that is distinctive from a person who speaks only one language,” Kraus says.

Through this fine-tuning of the nervous system, people who can master more than one language are building a more resilient brain, one more proficient at multitasking, setting priorities, and, perhaps, better able to withstand the ravages of age, a range of recent studies suggest.

Though a little bit older, research by Gallaudet professor, Laura-Ann Petitto, was published in the Mind, Brain, and Education journal in 2009. The abstract reads,

ABSTRACT— We discuss the fruits of educational neuroscience research from our laboratory and show how the typical maturational timing milestones in bilingual language acquisition provide educators with a tool for differentiating a bilingual child experiencing language and reading delay versus deviance. Further, early schooling in two languages simultaneously affords young bilingual children a reading advantage and may also ameliorate the negative effect of low socioeconomic status on literacy. Using powerful brain imaging technology, functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy,we provide a first-time look into the developing brains of bilingual as compared to monolingual children.We show unequivocally that the age of first bilingual exposure is a vital predictor of bilingual language and reading mastery. Accounts that promote later dual language and reading instruction, or those that assert human brain development is unrelated to bilingual language mastery, are not supported by the present findings. We discuss the implications for education, teachers, and developmental brain sciences.

What are the implications for education and educators? While there is no quick and readily applicable conclusion from the emerging research, it is clear we must be very intentional about how we approach second language learning and learners. Educating with the brain in mind necessitates we seek first to understand (our students) and then to be understood (by them).

Want to know more? Keep an eye on Edutopia’s excellent Brain-Based Learning blog and sign up for the Dana Foundation Newsletter.

Teachers: What’s Your Framework?

By Craig Pohlman, Ph.D., Co-author of Schools for All Kinds of Minds and Director of MindMatters at Southeast Psych, a learning program in Charlotte, NC

In some circles, All Kinds of Minds has become equated with the neurodevelopmental framework it uses, but this framework is only one aspect of their approach to understand learning and learners.  All Kinds of Minds is really about a set of principles for education, such as leveraging strengths and affinities.  So the framework itself is not nearly as important as having a framework.

The Value of a Framework for Understanding Learning

As we note in Schools for All Kinds of Minds, gathering and then making sense of clues about learning is made easier with a framework for sorting and organizing those clues.  In the same way that artists or musicians know their influences, teachers should know what pedagogical theory guides their instruction.  Louis Pasteur once wrote, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” A framework prepares the mind for understanding learners.  A framework is a conceptual structure or mental scaffolding that can be used to organize observations from multiple sources.  It is vital equipment for an educator because it clarifies what to look for and then guides how to interpret what is found.

A framework facilitates communication.  When teachers, students, and parents use similar terms to describe learners, collaboration is made much easier.

Learning plans are more readily handed off to different teachers.  Also, using a common vocabulary helps teachers support each others’ thinking and problem solving.

Our Framework

The neurodevelopmental framework used by All Kinds of Minds is an organizing structure through which all learners can be understood.  Developed with an eye towards linkages with academic skills, such as reading and writing, it is similar to neuropsychological frameworks and draws from disciplines such as speech-language pathology.  Its structure and components are well-supported by the research literature.  Its major aspects, or constructs, are attention, higher order cognition, language, memory, neuromotor function, social cognition, spatial ordering, and temporal-sequential ordering.

Frameworks Can Be Eye-Opening

Using a framework is not confining.  Rather, it is liberating in how it opens one’s eyes to new sources of data and more sophisticated levels of understanding.  Put differently, patterns and themes emerge more easily with a framework.  Also, a conceptual framework can and should be adaptable; it’s not acceptable for one’s framework to remain ossified in the face of new thinking and research.   The All Kinds of Minds framework has certainly evolved over the years.

If you are new to the AKOM approach, take the framework out for a spin.  You’ll probably find it comprehensive, yet user-friendly.  Most importantly, it will prepare your mind.

Craig’s  previous books are Revealing Minds and How Can My Kid Succeed in School?

Note from All Kinds of Minds: Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must subscribe to our blog and share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Related Links:

>      Schools for All Kinds of MindsRead book excerpts, purchase the book, download book extras, and more!

>      All Kinds of Minds neurodevelopmental framework

How to guarantee “learning”? Understand the learner AND the content

By Mary-Dean Barringer, CEO, All Kinds of Minds

For several years, many of my colleagues have been urging me to pick a fight with Daniel Willingham, a well respected cognitive scientist: “He doesn’t believe in learning variation!” That may be, but having read his book Why Don’t Students Like School?, I find much in common with his recommendations and nine principles.

All Kinds of Minds doesn’t use a neurodevelopmental framework to assign labels or learning style terminology. Rather, a neurodevelopmental framework is most useful to organize research findings from the brain, mind and learning to contribute to helping teachers know how to best target pedagogical choices and instructional strategies to achieve learning outcomes–for all students.

Willingham’s blog this week in the Washington Post illustrates how he urges educators to engage in a little deeper analysis regarding the choices they have when teaching. There’s no “right” choice all of the time. Ensuring learning requires the ability to quickly diagnose the goodness of fit between teaching strategy, content, and desired instructional outcome.

It’s possible Willingham and I may part ways when we consider the usefulness of adding learner and learning expertise to the diagnostic “habits of minds” today’s teachers need. My own decade-plus of teaching “complex” students was successful only when I married what I knew about content with what I knew about learning and its variations to make effective instructional choices.

That’s the value of the research from the neurosciences and learning. We have more expertise available to help us understand and analyze the neurodevelopmental demands required to be successful at instructional mastery. It helps teachers make an even more specific and targeted instructional decision, increasing the likelihood for success. As Willingham points out, a PowerPoint can be the most effective choice for demonstrating quadratic equations, and I argue even more effective when modified to fit the understanding a teacher has of the attention, temporal-sequential, and memory strengths and weaknesses of a particular group of students.

That’s my opinion, and I’d like to hear yours. I’m sure Daniel Willingham would as well. So respond to both of our blogs today and continue this important professional conversation.