Educating the Whole Brain

Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of genius in each.—Plato

Second grader Miranda says to the teacher: “I was looking at the tomatoes with Patrice and Josh, and we saw a wasp tackling a fly. Then it tore the fly’s head off and flew away with the body. An ant found the head and started eating it and the fly’s eyes separated from its head.” The teacher asks, “What did you think when you saw this?” She replies, “I thought, I wouldn’t want to be that fly.”

Later, Sasha and Kate join them in the garden and Kate observes, “The garden seems to be so calm when you first look at, it but when you look closer it’s very alive.”

On another day first graders find the front half of a dead snake and immediately start generating hypotheses as to what happened: “It was a hawk.” “Maybe a chicken ate it.” “Maybe a sheep stepped on it.”

After school four third graders, with their teacher in smiling attendance, brought me a live salamander.  One of their classmates had found it, and they judged that it needed care.  So, (as several of them later wrote) they found a home for it, gave it dirt, water and plant matter.  The students had studied worms in class and had learned several observational skills such as shining a flashlight on them in order to see through their translucent skin and study their innards.  Under careful scrutiny they discovered that there was a pink dot on the salamander’s belly.  One child suggested it was pregnant—she’d read it in a book.   Another explained that salamanders are cold-blooded, and therefore, those were eggs, not embryos.   The students decided not to keep her but to release her back into the wild. They reported on their findings at the assembly at the end of the week.

Why do we teach science? Is it because:

  • a) there is a set of things that all children should know by the time they are 18?
  • b) we want them to learn certain disciplined ways of approaching a problem?
  • c) connecting with nature at a young age is critical to developing empathy for the planet we live on?

The answer is obviously: e) All of the above

My favorite—because it is inclusive of all the others, and more—is:
d) because kids love to have wonderful ideas. Children are human and want to know and understand their environment.

Studying how children learn, University of California, Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik

and her colleagues have learned that children are born scientists. The young human brain spends most of its time gathering data, forming hypotheses, testing these hypotheses and constructing a causal map of the world in their head. They never stop working the epistemological problem: How do you know what you think you know?

Curiosity is not a distraction from one’s purpose; curiosity is the very engine of purpose, and the disciplines of learning are those necessary to satisfy one’s interests.  Interest is the brain’s way of guiding a person into the world toward optimal brain development.

Musa age 3. Abdallah age 5.

Each academic ability–from filling in the right bubble to writing a short story to investigating a hypothesis–rests on a complex web of knowledge stored in different locations all over the brain. Education is a process of sophisticating each location and building strong links between these locations. To be good at mathematics a child needs to spend hours practicing arithmetic problems, but she also needs to spend hours drawing pictures, arguing with friends, building playhouses, making music, creating dances, shooting baskets, and planting trees.

For best results, everything in the curriculum from writing to mathematics to science to music should be taught so as to activate and utilize as many parts of the brain as possible. Even if all we cared about were high test scores, we would still need school to be socially complex, intellectually rich, and emotionally supportive and challenging.

Creativity is essential for all aspects of brain development.Brain building is, also, spiritually enriching.  Genius to Plato meant the origin of a person’s uniqueness, one’s evolving gifts and guiding voice, one’s spirit or soul. Plato understood education to be leading this genius out into the world to contribute creatively and gracefully to it—finding one’s calling.


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