By the time I finished reading this chapter of John Medina’s interesting science-for-dummies book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, I was scribbling notes frantically and reading quotes to my twelve-year-old son who was with me at Starbucks. I’m slightly suspicious that my decaf mocha wasn’t really decaf, nonetheless, it was one of my favorite chapters in the book. It has so many implications for educating our children with finesse and gives hope for greater success.
The chapter on how our brains become wired is mind blowing. That’s a bad pun, but it’s true! As learning takes place, neural connections blow apart, or split, creating new connections. Like a highway system continually under construction, more learning equals more complex neural connections crisscrossing the brain. More is good! Medina points out interesting research done on the brains of violin performers for example. Their brains resembled Seattle’s Spaghetti Bowl (For you non-Seattle readers, it is a complex section of highway on and off ramps south of town.)
It all starts at infancy, when the brain is hyper-developing. A three-year-old’s brain has two to three times the neural connections in specific regions. But he doesn’t get to keep them. Interestingly, by the time the child reaches eight, his brain development is “pruned” and back to normal. Then in puberty, another phase of frenetic neural growth happens until age 18 is reached. Doesn’t that explain a lot!
Just as kids come in all shapes and sizes in spite of age, Medina is quick to point out that brains develop as uniquely as bodies. Early and late bloomers are encompassed in “normal,” even with respect to the brain. However, what we learn creates a unique neural configuration. So our brains are customized based on our experiences, like the violin player’s. The modern science of brain mapping, where scientists can track the neurons firing (called “lighting up”), showed that even twins have individualized brains because of their unique responses to similar events.
Messy World of Brain Development
Every brain learns differently, concludes Medina and other brain researchers. One neurosurgeon, Howard Gardner, wrote a book about his findings. Called Frames of Mind; the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner suggests other intelligences besides the old IQ measurement exist. His list includes: Verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, logical/math, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal/intrapersonal, and nature. Logically, different brain configurations would equal different skill sets. Brain surgeon, George Ojemann, maps brains and then does surgery to allow epileptic patients to get relief from seizures. As he stimulates different regions of the brain to find the trouble areas, he has observed that no universal regions for specific functions exist in the brain. That means that approximately 7 billion unique brains inhabit planet earth today.
Brain research merely reveals something we parents and teachers already know. There are no two kids under our roofs, in our classrooms, or in our neighborhoods that are exactly alike. And as we pour our hearts into educating our kids to the best of our abilities, it is a very inexact science. Medina concludes that exact thing: “The ability to understand the interior motivations of someone else and the ability to construct a predictable theory of how their mind works based on that knowledge” is what is needed to help students learn. We need to be students of our students! And that takes time and proximity. As we live and work with our kids, experience will help us discern the best ways for “teaching to be transformed into learning.”
Remember my failed experience teaching my daughter about Johnny Appleseed? What I’ve learned about brain wiring tells me that it’s ok that my kid’s learning process is messy. My daughter’s singular after-class memory of “Jerry Somebody” provides clues into how her brain works. As I continue to observe how she learns best, it will lead to more insights and a better learning experience. My expectations are shifting as I understand there are no teaching formulas. Finesse and success will come with experience. And that’s what has given me an excitement equaling a coffee buzz!
-posted by Donna Detweiler, who finds the uniqueness of brains both exhilarating and exasperating!