Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tools of the mind

"The more of you that gets involved — the body, the emotions, everything — the more you get out of it in many ways because it changes the brain. Nurtures the brain. The social nurtures the brain. The joy nurtures the brain. The physical activity nurtures the brain. And it also nurtures your physical health. You're going to be more physically healthy if you're socially connected, if you're physically fit, if you're using your mind actively." 
The above quote is by Adele Diamond, a researcher studying developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A friend of mine sent me a Speaking of Faith transcript of an interview with Prof. Diamond titled Learning, Doing, Being: a new science of education. Diamond offered fascinating insight into the methods we use to educate our children and how those methods affect their performance on tests, their development of a life-long love of learning, and their ability to be creative and solve problems.

Prof. Diamond argues that we need to reevaluate the way we teach our children. That education should emphasize activities that help foster a love of learning and promote problem-solving skills. In particular, she argues that we need to increase the exposure of children to activities such as music, dance, storytelling, sports, and play (all of which have been on the decline in public schools), and reduce our emphasis on memorizing "content." Details are forgotten, but knowing how to find the information you need and apply it in a novel situation is a skill that serves us every day of our lives.
"[T]he schools are tending to think, 'Oh, my god. We don't have time for play. And we don't have time for the arts…. And we have to focus on the academic content, because you're going to get tested at the end of the year and we have to make sure they do well on these tests.' But our research and others' is showing that if the children have more time to play, they do better on these academic outcome measures than if they spend more time in direct academic instruction.

[T]hings like the arts or sports or any of these other things, they develop your cognitive skills dependent on prefrontal cortex. Like sustaining attention, like being able to hold information in mind. They speak to your social aspect because you're part of a group.... Which is terribly important to doing well. They also use your body and we know that if you're physically healthy, your prefrontal cortex and brain work better, specifically your prefrontal cortex. And leading a sedentary life is terrible for your brain health or your cognitive health."
Here we have a researcher arguing that we are taking our educational methods in the wrong direction. That we need to bring back physical education, music and art classes, and give children time to play. Depriving them of these activities in favor of academic instruction actually hurts their ability to perform well on standardized tests. Not to mention their ability to deal with problems they encounter later in life. Sure, pursuit of a career in the arts may seem superfluous to most people, but every single one of us needs to be able to interact with others and handle difficult problems when they arise.

Interviewer Krista Tippett explains that Diamond's research focuses on executive function, "... the brain's capacity to coordinate the many kinds of mental activity that are involved in any human experience and certainly in learning, from how we focus to how we feel. Executive function enables us to take charge of our responses and actions."

Executive function involves three fundamental aspects:
  • inhibitory control "You need inhibitory control to stay on task when you're bored or when you meet initial failure. You need inhibitory control to focus in on something in the environment so that you're not overwhelmed by all the other things around."
  • working memory  "It's holding information in mind and playing with it, and you need working memory for anything that unfolds over time. You also need working memory for creativity because the essence of creativity is holding things in mind and disassembling them and putting them together in new ways"
  • cognitive flexibility "It's being able to switch your perspective or switching the way you're thinking about things, being able to think outside the box. And of course, that's also an aspect of creativity." 
 Taken together, these three aspects allow us to be more creative people, better planners, and better problem solvers.

 I have written before about the effect of exercise on mental function and creative problem solving skills, and on the importance of giving children (and ourselves) time for free play. The information here may seem paradoxical, in that free play is often lost in pursuit of extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, art, or dance lessons. I think the solution, however, is to return those activities (or at least a good subset of them) to schools. They needn't take up all of our children's after-school and weekend time. As Diamond argues, they should be integrated into the learning process. Everyone will benefit.

How do you think education should be structured to best serve children (and future adults)?


  1. I am not sure the best way to structure our education system, but I do agree that we are going in the wrong direction. As a speech-language pathologist at a pre-school, this is a great article that supports what I deal with day to day. At our school we get pressure all the time to teach academic concepts that children are not developmentally ready to learn. Parents and other adults look at the school and say things like, "All they do is play. When are they going to learn to write their names?" I wish more of the “decision makers” for the schools would read this type of article. I hope that the research begins to spread and become more accepted before I have kids in school. I never thought I wanted to home school my own kids, but sometimes I wonder.

  2. I agree, Kristin. I don't know that there is a "right" way to do it, but there is so much evidence that what we are doing doesn't work. We need people to bring educators, administrators, and the researchers to the table to discuss what works and what doesn't. Why play and the arts are important, and too much "instruction" can be detrimental. And how we can better structure our curricula to give students (of all ages) the tools that they need to succeed.