I’m going to give the politicians a break today, and go after the scientists. The September/October 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind contained a special report on education. The report included sections on character, training the brain, and stress.
The premise of the study is that self-regulation, the ability to focus, and stress relief are all skills that can be taught. I agree with this completely. There are many skills, especially those involved in social interaction, that are being neglected in our educational system.
The scientists involved in these experiments studied how breathing and mental exercises can help instill self-regulation in students. How cognitive training exercises can improve fluid intelligence. How too much stress can impair performance.
The scientists designed programs to enhance children’s ability to self-govern; to practice focusing their attention; and to reduce cortisol levels by giving their parents more effective coping skills. All are laudable goals, and I wish them success in achieving those goals.
That being said, I have to wonder about the methods the scientists explored. These skills were all to be enhanced through mindfulness, using breathing exercises, meditation, sensory awareness, and computer games. The scientists are concerned about the inability of children to control themselves, to be patient, and to focus. All hallmarks of ADHD.
Also hallmarks of young children who have been cooped up in a classroom for too long without the release of running around and playing games; whooping it up and going rough and tumble; jostling for position in line at the slide and tossing a ball back and forth.
These scientists want to test whether students can calm themselves when they are upset, study quietly in class, deal with the stress of living in today’s world. Want them to calm down? Have them run laps for ten minutes or so. They’ll be calm for awhile. If that doesn’t work, have them run laps and play on the jungle gym for a half hour. They’ll be ready to sit in a seat without protest after that.
Want them to study quietly? Well, that’s not going to happen, sorry. But they will focus and pay attention to something that holds their interest. Pictures in a book won’t do it. Tuning out a droning teacher won’t do it. They need to have something they can touch. Something they can manipulate. Something that they need to figure out for themselves.
Want to see a classroom full of rambunctious students lose themselves in their work? Toss in some rocks, some sand, and some water, and tell them to go nuts. See how absorbed they’ll become in building, shaping, observing, sharing, helping each other, and even, yes, taking turns and self-regulating. They may even learn a little bit about physics, chemistry, and geology at the same time.
Want to see kids relieve stress? Give them a ball, any kind of ball, and tell them….nothing. Let them figure out the rules of play and the appropriate negative consequence for inappropriate behavior. They will operate as a better police force for themselves than any distracted teacher can.
We have so altered the normal conditions for human learning and stress relief and social interaction in our schools that we think that we need to invent new ways to help children cope with the new parameters. Instead of trying to fit children into scenarios that are not conducive to their proper behavior, instead of trying to change the children to fit the situation, how about we use what actually works?
When was the last time you saw a dog or a cat read a book on appropriate mammalian behavior? Dogs and cats learn by doing—a lot. They run. They jump. They play. They growl. They bark—well, the cats don’t bark. They interact with each other, making up rules as they go along. Mostly, they exuberate. They go over the top with their emotions, and their play. They run faster than necessary, they jump higher than they have to, they act more fierce than they can ever hope to be.
Children, like it or not, need the same sort of activity. They need to run, to jump, to play, to be free of adult-imposed rules. That’s how the human brain is wired to learn. You want children to learn in school? The first thing you need to do is let them play.
Somebody acting up in class? Start a chase game. Within minutes, everyone will be involved, and shortly after that, they’ll all have collapsed in their chairs, ready to absorb a lesson in math. Especially if that math lesson involves them negotiating a trade of a peanut butter sandwich for two bananas and an Oreo.
We have made schooling way too complicated, and now we are working on making dealing with school too complicated. Especially when we are talking about elementary school, the release of energy, not the suppression of it, is one of the most important components.
But we don’t do run and jump and play any more. We act as though, if we merely impose our will harshly enough, we can alter human nature. If we teach children the parts of the brain, they will be able to overcome genetic behavior that has been programmed into us since time immemorial. With all of the evidence around us, we still haven’t been able to figure out that sitting children in a class all day does nothing for their ability to focus, to self-govern, or to relieve stress. The only thing it does do well is encourage obesity, which further taxes the brain-body connection.
And the biggest shame is that, if the children are unable to overcome their biology, they are blamed for not trying hard enough. Instead of steepling his fingers and concentrating on his breathing, give the unruly child a bow and arrow and a target. See how hard he is able to concentrate then.
But these are the days of stamping out everything dangerous. If we keep children away from everything harmful, maybe they’ll live forever. Or maybe they’ll learn to sit, doped up and complacent, their bodies growing ever softer, staring at a “gratitude stone” as though it holds the key to self-governance, scarcely lifting their eyes to gaze out the window, where the key to true self-governance awaits.