The last fifteen years have seen a revolution in neuroscience. Central to this revolution is the recognition of brain plasticity. The brain is plastic. It molds, changes as we learn. Though lacking the benefits of modern technology, one hundred years ahead of her time, Charlotte Mason recognized the importance of neuroplasticity, "Physiologists tell us that thoughts which have become habit make somehow a mark upon the brain substance" Philosophy of Education.
Today’s popular recognition of neuroplasticity has led to the birth of an entire industry. The websites of such companies suggest that they have found, thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity (and indeed neuroplasticity is wondrous), the secret to fixing the brains of struggling children everywhere. While there is no reason to doubt, the intentions of persons so employed, there is great reason to doubt whether their proposed solutions are right for most struggling children. A neurosurgeon once told a friend of mine that there was nothing wrong with his lower back that surgery couldn’t make worse. It is certainly true that at times back surgery may be called for. When such is the case, we are thankful for its availability. But, it is a gross mistake to think of surgery as the primary solution for most backache. This is very much the case with various brain repair programs now popularly marketed. In most cases, children’s brains don’t need to be fixed. They need to be provided the opportunity for healthy “due self education.”
In bullet form, my critique is as follows:
- An important distinction needs to be made between brain capacity and brain skill. Brain capacity has to do with the potential of a child's brain to acquire a particular brain skill. For example, a child with severely damaged optical nerves may lack the capacity to learn how to read. But, the fact that a child has the capacity does not guarantee that he/she will have developed the skill.
- The human brain is the most complex entity in the universe and its capacity far exceeds the sum of particular skills. When effort and attention are applied, the human brain has an amazing capacity for growth. It does not need to be treated, so much as given the opportunity for growth. "All education is self education."
- The great majority of children have the necessary brain capacity (which defies our ability to measure) to master the skills necessary for a full and free life.
- In the great majority of cases, children will naturally develop the necessary brain skills simply by following the due curriculum in the right manner, in optimal atmosphere, with the shoring up of weakness through the training in habit.
- The direct training of specific brain skills (or faculties) is not education and, in the case of children with normally function brains (the great majority of children) is counter productive to healthy cognitive/emotional development. Much as the feeding of healthy children with medically developed food substitutes is contrary to physical health.
- There are cases in which brains with normal capacity have not mastered certain brain skills, usually because of the lack of an abundant, highly engaged, attuned relationship with an adult who possessed the brain skill and who through an abundance of healthy life together, consciously or unconsciously provided the child's brain with the opportunity to learn the needed skill. For example, we learn to appropriately balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by focusing our attention (being in an attuned connected relationship) on an adult who joyfully self-regulates and expects us to grow to do the same.
- If a teacher approaches her class by looking for brain dysfunction to treat rather than personal weakness to support, the teacher-student relationship will be highly distorted and the atmosphere of the classroom very much contaminated, and "we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense."
- In the cases of children who have not developed sufficient mastery of a given brain skill at the usual stage of development, there is the possibility of lack of brain capacity (rare) or lack of appropriate support at the needed time of development (increasingly common). In such cases, specifically targeted opportunities for growth (not brain treatment) may be very helpful. And, the “brain train” industry may be helpful, providing exercises that allow mind and brain to practice tasks in a way that facilitate needed growth. But, as a paradigm for education, they are vastly inadequate and, as a norm for student-teacher engagement, actually destructive.