Education in the United States today is undergoing major reforms, and voices are calling for a return to the fundamentals: reading, writing, and…neuroscience? Dr. Bret Peterson explores how students can enjoy learning about the brain.
At first blush, teaching kids about neuroscience might seem silly. The topic is much too complicated for kids to understand, isn’t it? And even if this is not the case, it is certainly much too dry and boring to maintain their attention, right? Wrong… on both accounts. In fact, this Web site, BrainConnection.com, was founded on the idea that both assertions are wrong for just about everyone, including kids.
BrainConnection regularly turns to the teaching experience of contributing author, Dr. Eric Chudler, and associate editor, Dr. Simon Hanson. Both of these scientists are intimately familiar with exposing children to neuroscience and have found it to be a very rewarding enterprise. In their experience, pupils embrace neuroscience topics with a great deal of enthusiasm. Students are eager to learn more about themselves, and they quickly realize that learning about how the brain works can give insight into their every day experiences.
But even if this is the case, isn’t neuroscience a bit esoteric for most children when there is so much else that they need to know? Does teaching about the brain serve any real purpose? Aside from learning about the brain for its own sake, there are several other benefits that children obtain from this course of study. First, the brain provides a useful point of reference to which other social, physical and emotional aspects of children’s lives can be objectively related. Second, neuroscience provides a wealth of topics that encourage in-depth study habits that are supportive of a wide range of abilities. Finally, neuroscience is a great introduction to the role of “awe” in science.
Evolution is one of the most powerful concepts in biology because it provides a foundation upon which all other concepts of biology can be built and explained. The brain plays a similar role with respect to human behavior and identity. Children are able to understand on some level that their brain is a large part of who they are, and somehow this materialistic explanation lends a certain objectivity to arguments regarding their behavior. With my own young children, they do not question wearing their helmets because they know they must protect their brains. For older children, the argument for the helmet becomes the argument against recreational drug use. From tragic stories of brain damage, altered selves, and distorted realities, children grasp that they must protect their most valuable resource floating precariously within their skulls.
Science in general, and neuroscience in particular, are great ways for children to learn how to learn. They can take a seemingly simple topic like “reaction times to a stimulus” and explore it to any level of depth that their abilities will allow. Because children can be their own subjects for such simple psychophysical tests, these activities are useful for piquing their interest in an engaging way before they must hit the books to find out more. Illusions, like the ones on BrainConnection.com, are another good starting point. For young or less able students, they learn to ask basic questions about these neurologically-based activities and perceptions that they themselves experience. For the more advanced students, there is a plethora of literature and related resources from which they can draw to find increasingly sophisticated explanations of behavioral phenomena.
Soon after students begin probing an area of neuroscience they inevitably generate questions to which there are no good answers. Such questions provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the great quantity of information that is known and that is being discovered about the brain, as well as the much vaster body of knowledge remaining to be revealed. Neuroscience is literally a frontier, and this fact should be used to foster children’s sense of awe about themselves — their brains are too complicated for all of the great minds and powerful tools of science to adequately explain. This sense of awe magnifies the desire for greater understanding, in scientists as well as children, and underlies a shared sense of excitement as new discoveries are made each day.
Upon further reflection it seems that neuroscience is in fact perfect for children because children love a great story, and the brain provides a remarkable tale, with all of the critical components: characters they can identify with (themselves); danger (from bonks on the head to villainous chemicals); tragedies (from Phineas Gage to H.M.); triumphs (from discovery of the minicolumn to fMRI); conflict (the brains remarkable ability to learn vs. the complexity of the brain); mystery and magic (consciousness); and hope (that they themselves may someday contribute to this important body of knowledge). The story of the brain is the story of who we are, and we should share it with our children.