Thursday, 13 May 2010

Education and forming the brain?

A chap on the Today programme just now was claiming that no one becomes a top sportsman/woman without at least ten years of practice, which doesn’t just develop the body but changes the brain. Pretty well anyone’s brain and body, moreover, can get there with enough practice.

We know about the brain changing with learning from London taxi-drivers and the archaeologist I heard who’d taken singing lessons for a month (or perhaps it was a year) and had his brain scanned before and after -- sure enough one part had grown, and I imagine the change was in the structure too, what was connected to what, how many connections each bit had. Sorry to be so technical.

Dr Johnson said that education in childhood should be determined and relentless because that is when the brain is particularly retentive so that knowledge gained then lasts for life.

So I wonder: is there enough emphasis in contemporary ideas of education on the sheer volume of repetition and application needed? is education arduous enough? is there enough practice to decisively reconfigure the brain?

Ian Pringle and Aviva Freedman in the 1980s did a study of students' writing at different ages in a Canadian school board and concluded that by the age of ten children should be writing many pages of continuous text every week. It seems to me that most children are well capable of that if properly taught from the start, and that it should be happening.

Similarly, it’s necessary to read a certain quantity of poems in a school year. No one has attempted, as far as I know, to say how many but I'm sure it’s far more that most kids do have the chance of reading. Books likewise.

Classrooms cursed by too much variety of activity, not enough sheer application and persistence? too low a tolerance of the possibility of boredom?

Or am I just getting reactionary in my old age?

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