The Growing Brain

As I read through the pages of The Brain and Learning and Brain Matters, I find myself constantly reflecting on my own experiences as a child, adolescent, and now an adult. The Jossey-Boss Reader contains an essay by John T. Bruer where he discusses brain based education vs. mind based education. Bruer explains that many brain-based educators who claim to back their educational philosophies on the study of the brain, in fact, base them on the study of the mind. One example of this Bruer gives is the idea of a ‘sensitive period’ or ‘critical period’ of learning for young children. Many educators subscribe to the idea that there are specific ages at which children’s brains are more susceptible to learning. Bruer suggests that this idea is not based on any science about the brain or brain activity, but rather on the mind of children, it better qualifies as educational psychology than it does brain-based education.

A few classes on language that I have take at SPU have discussed the topic of a critical period. The more research I do on the subject and the more in interact with my own preschool age students, the more I am apt to believe that no such period exists. In my preschool class, I have several students who came to me speaking absolutely no English. As in any situation, the need to speak the common language for simple communication purposes is present at all times, however, there are no educational demands on my young students. Students participate in discovery learning and are focused on social and emotional development alongside handwriting, math, science, and reading in my class. There is no homework given at this age, and very few academic requirements. Students have the opportunity to be completely immersed in a new language and to experiment with that language without fear or pressure. As ESL children grow older, there are more requirements put on them and learning the new language is more pressing. I believe that children learn languages (and probably many other concepts) easier at a young age simply because they are given the opportunity to do so.

Another idea from this week’s readings that I reflected a lot on, is the development of the adolescent brain. I have spent time considering my experiences as a teenager and I feel much less guilty about all the bad choices I made! Wolfe discusses sleep and the adolescent brain in chapter 6 of Brain Matters. She discusses the need for teenagers to get 10 hours of sleep, while the average teenager gets less than 8. At the same time, it has been discovered that a teenager’s internal clock is set much later than younger children, meaning they get tired much later and are not ready to wake up until around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. This is much later than most high school’s start their day (mine started at 7:15). I can recall the lack of focus I had in the first few classes of the day and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t wake myself up in time to be alert for school. In fact, I had a hard time getting to school at the right time, let alone being alert! It makes sense to me that teenagers need more sleep in the morning and I really hope that someday the school day will be adjusted accordingly.

Early Brain Development

Being a preschool teacher, the articles discussing early brain development are very relevant to my every day job. Pat Wolfe’s article Early Brain Development was useful in that it offers specific advice to early childhood educators and parents.

Wolfe describes the ‘sensitive periods’ of brain development when the brain is most susceptible to growth. The best way to aid development in these sensitive periods, is by providing stimulus, the more a child is exposed to things such as language, the more they will develop in the early years. On the flipside of that, if a child’s brain is not stimulated during those sensitive periods, normal development does not occur. For example, if a child is not exposed to language before age 10, because of deafness or other factors, they will be less likely to develop language at all.

I appreciated that Wolfe takes time to talk about the specific needs of children at this age. Over stimulus, such as enriched environments, extra academic help, language tapes, etc. has no effect on brain development. All children need is a normal environment with lots of adult interactions. Children will thrive given an environment where they can explore and make connections on their own.

Human Development Module 1

What struck me most while reading the first few chapters of Brain Matters and completing the assignments for module one was how much there is left to learn about the brain. Chapter one discusses the history of brain scans and the evolution of our knowledge about the organ. It showed progression and improvements over time of the way we determine information regarding the brain. At first, scans were vague and gave us little information, now they are more complex and we are able to gain more knowledge with each study. We still don’t know everything about the brain and all it’s functions. There are many diseases and disorders that stem from imbalanced or improper brain function, yet we haven’t found the sources of the problem for most. The more we are able to study the brain, the more likely we will be to help those who suffer from these neurological disorders.

I recently enrolled a young girl in my preschool class who has been diagnosed with autism. I work tirelessly her therapist to help her be successful not only in my class but in her daily life. We try and develop social skills, communication skills, and academics, but it is a struggle for her each day. Autism is something that many scientists have studied over the years and yet, neither a cause nor a cure have been discovered. I see how frustrating it can be for many children to not only keep up academically with their average developing peers, but often to simply function normally in their home lives. I look forward to the day that we have enough knowledge about the brain to help those who suffer from disorders such as autism.