So I just finished reading a ridiculously good book titled, Your Brain on Childhood, by Gabrielle Principe, and it has my head spinning with ideas, questions, concerns and wonderings about the kinds of experiences that we regularly give to our kids in school and at home. I find it super interesting to read books like this, which through research address the kinds of things that we do with children, and the kinds of things that we’ve seemingly always done with our students, that simply don’t make a whole lot of sense. We do these things because we’ve always done them, but just because we’ve always done them doesn’t make them right. The small print title on the front cover reads, “The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan”, and honestly, if you’re an educator, a parent, or at all interested in brain development, this book is a must read in my opinion…order it now for your next birthday present to yourself.
It’s tough for me to know how to organize my thoughts around the chapters, as I just put the book down a couple of days ago, and I need more time to digest the information. There seems to be a blog post screaming out to be written on every second page, but there are a few topics that really caught my attention, which speak directly to some changes that we can be making in our traditional school environments that would enhance learning with our students immediately.
The first chapter that I want to quickly discuss talks about our need and want as educators and as parents to prepare our young learners for the future…focusing on the adults that our children will eventually become instead of on the children that they are NOW. She calls the chapter the Butterfly Effect, and illustrates her point with an example of a colleague of hers who won’t take his children to Disney World until they are old enough to remember it. He tells her, “why would I spend thousands of dollars on a trip that they won’t even remember?” Her concern is that as parents and educators, we often choose experiences and make choices for our kids that we think will make a positive difference later in their lives, which may or may not be true, and we then ultimately forget about the experiences that will make our kids feel good now, and make them happy now. She also points out the unintended pressure that adults often put on kids through extra “enrichment” activities, over scheduling children (excessive activities and homework) in the belief that this will somehow be the golden ticket to getting into Harvard. She ends the chapter suggesting that there is no basis for belief that speeding up a child’s development, or delaying enriching experiences (like going to Disney World) will do any good…if anything, these adult choices are often counterintuitive.
Another interesting chapter is called Organized Crime, and it deals with the difference between self-esteem and self-respect in children, and which one we should be focusing on in classrooms and on the sports fields…it’s self-respect by the way. It reminds me of much of Carol Dweck’s research around Mindset and grit and praise, where effort and failing forward and mistake making are the skill sets that we should be developing in our kids. She also tackles the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems, and the research around how extrinsic reward systems in classrooms don’t actually work as a way to change behavior in the long term. She states that, ‘it’s better to develop intrinsic self-respect, and to acknowledge that failure can provide harmless but valuable life lessons”. This has me wondering about how we speak to our kids in school, and what we are actually praising them for, and the language that we use to do so…the final part of the chapter deals again with how as adults we love to schedule and manage and supervise every aspect of our kids’ and students’ lives…she begs us to let go of our inner helicopter and stop spending so much time hovering over the lives of our kids. She implores us to give our kids plenty of time to do “nothing – to indulge in pretense, create their own fantasy worlds, and to foster their own happiness”.
The final chapter that I want to talk about (believe me I could write about them all, especially the chapter about nature as a classroom) is called Old School, and it touches on the importance of student brain breaks, recess, and how we view homework or home learning…things that I’m personally passionate about. With regards to recess, Principe believes that it (unstructured play time) should be seen as a vital part of the curriculum, just like math or science. Children need this time, just like with regular brain breaks throughout the academic day, to be best able to sustain attention on tasks and to help reduce fidgeting and increase attention. With regards to traditional homework, and the research which shows next to no link to academic achievement in the elementary grades, she asks the question, isn’t there a better use of a child’s time after the school day is over? My answer is yes, and I’m excited to continue this conversation at our school about what that may look like. Anyway, it’s things like this (limited recess, lack of brain breaks and traditional homework) that many, many schools continue to embrace when in actual fact it’s the absolute wrong approach to helping our students grow and learn and achieve…interesting to think about for sure, and I encourage you to do so, and to do your own research around these topics…read this book too.
Principe says it best very early on in the book when she says, “The problem is, despite parents’ and teachers’ real desire to help young brains grow into smart and successful adult brains, most know remarkably little about how brains really develop. Anyway, as you can tell I enjoyed this book very much, and it really got me thinking. Although we’re making great strides in moving away from our many traditional approaches to educating children, there is still work to be done. The first step is to understand what really works with kids, and to learn the truth around how they develop. It’s also important to be able to identify, and to step away from the urban myths around what we think is the best approach to helping kids learn…remember, just because we’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…
The more you and I learn about how the brain develops, the better we can care for and educate our children, and the better we can raise old brains in a new world – Gabrielle Principe
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