Teaching ‘brains’, or children?

Scientists today are constantly talking about the brain and what it does or does not allow us to do at different stages of development. Because a two-year-old’s prefrontal cortex is at a rudimentary stage of development they have a very short attention span and are always interrupting other people who are trying to talk or tell them a story. When there’s enough “biological substrate” to the brain they can learn to behave better. And so on. So it is a relief to hear that some scientists are looking at the reverse process: how behaviour can develop the brain.

A “small group of educational and cognitive scientists now say that mental exercises of a certain kind can teach children to become more self-possessed at earlier ages”. Ordinary mortals might talk about self control and how it’s never too early to start teaching kids the virtues involved. These scientists talk about the prefrontal cortex, or executive function of the brain. Their aim is to develop certain abilities: to resist distractions or delay gratification to finish a job; to hold more than one idea in the mind; and to adapt to changing circumstances.

Researchers have designed school-based curriculums to improve each of these abilities; one is called -- in keeping with the scientific rather than moral focus -- Tools of the Mind. In one activity, done in pairs, one child tells another a story while the other listens. The listener holds a drawing of an ear, reminding him to listen and not to interrupt. The story-teller holds a drawing of a mouth. After about two months, children didn’t need the props any more: they had internalised the rules about speaking and listening. A study of preschoolers showed that after two years they scored 20 per cent higher on executive function measures than children in the basic literacy programme.

There’s training for parents, too, with helpful hints like keeping eye contact with a child while reading them a story and not allowing them to see the pictures -- so they follow the words more carefully. Science can no doubt be a helpful tool, so long as the child is not reduced to a “brain” -- as in the heading of the article summarised here: “Teaching Young Brains to Behave” ~ New York Times, Sep 15



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