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How We Teach Changes Brain Size

  • 2002 4 Sep
How We Teach Changes Brain Size


Does how we teach our children physically change their brains and the way in which their brains are wired? In her book entitled Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, Jane M. Healy, Ph. D., relates experimental findings which compare the brain size of three groups of rats.

The three groups of rats had identical food, water, and cages, except the "enriched rats" were given all kinds of stimuli with which to experiment. The second set of rats merely watched the first group of rats interact with the stimuli, while the third group of rats was kept in another room without any stimuli and without any stimulated rats to watch. The results of this experiment found that increased environmental enrichment created "brains that were larger and heavier, with increased dendritic branching," which meant better communication from nerve cell to nerve cell.

Experiences create concepts.

Dr. Shirley O’Rourke, an education analyst and a public school kindergarten teacher, affirmed the importance of experiences when she commented to Healy,

"Without experiences, there are no concepts; without concepts, there’s
no attention span, because they [the students] don’t know what people
are talking about."

Dr. O’Rourke laments that today’s children come to school with fewer social skills, less language ability, less ability to listen, and less motor ability than in years past. "Years ago the children had experiences, their parents took them places, they talked to them instead of at them, they read to them . . . But today . . . what some adults seem to be calling experiences is to go buy a workbook," concludes O’Rourke.

Units + experiences = excited learning

Whatever does rat research have to do with teaching home-school children the basics? My answer: “EVERYTHING!!” If we want a child to be an excellent writer and reader, we first start with hands-on experiences that build concepts and hold the child’s attention. Because home schoolers have fewer than 20 kids per class, hands-on experiences are more do-able than in a classroom.

Further, since home schools have only one teacher, Mom, it is possible to integrate all academic subjects into a unit. The unit studies method intertwines hands-on experiences with the unit’s reading and writing, locking the child’s mind on the wavelength of the unit thereby increasing retention, since all subjects are interrelated. How much easier it is for a child, while studying Medieval times, to write about the parts of a castle if he has just built one out of appliance boxes and labeled the parts with index cards; or, while studying animal classification, for him to write a report on the starfish, that he has not only dissected, but dressed up as, and acted out!

The unit approach never requires children to write about unrelated subjects out of the blue. Rather, it allows children to write about the subject in which they are immersed.

Messes build brains.

I recently received an e-mail from a woman who loved the hands-on approach for her children but was married to a clean-freak, Felix-Unger type. While the mother wanted the children to set up a model ear under the dining room table that they could crawl through, the father preferred the children fill in many pages of workbooks. To him, messiness was non-learning despite the fact that research indicates learning and retention increase when experiential activities are added.

Fortunately, the mothers of Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and Teddy Roosevelt allowed their young boys’ genius to develop amid a mess. These mothers’ tolerance of messes netted the twentieth century the light bulb, the airplane, and a U.S. President. I am convinced that the Yankee ingenuity of yesterday has been stifled today by adults’ compulsion for children to fill in workbook blanks neatly! Do you want kids with bigger brains? It’s simple – allow numerous messy experiences to stimulate small brains and weave all of your literature, history, science, and writing into one focused unit.

TA-DAH! Bigger brains.

Jessica Hulcy, co-author of KONOS Character Curriculum, has home schooled her four boys for the last 17 years. Jessica writes curriculum, contributes magazine articles, and speaks nationally. Information about KONOS is available at P.O. Box 250 Anna, Texas 75409 at (972)924-2712.