Brain-Based Learning vs. Formal Academics

There are two, very different, ideas about the way children learn. One idea, advanced by the field of science, (neurology, biology, and psychology) says that learning is controlled by the healthy growth of the brain, a physiological process that occurs in all children in a progression that can’t be stopped, except by a physical or emotional calamity. In other words, despite outside factors (such as school and work), children naturally get smarter as their brains develop. We call this brain-based learning.

The second idea is forwarded by most professional educators. They say that learning is achieved when students acquire information. In other words, children graduate from one grade level to the next once they have mastery over a specific body of information. First graders graduate to second grade. Second graders graduate to third grade. And so on. We call this “formal academics.”

The two approaches differ greatly in their execution. Formal academics require a structured environment, an outside teacher, and a textbook. Brain-based learning relies on student-directed activity in a less-structured environment, where creation and exploration take precedence over systematic instruction. Formal academics prepare children for tasks ahead by teaching specific skills and relaying detailed bodies of information, while brain-based learning eschews preparation without purpose and suggests that the brain is big and mighty enough to handle daily tasks and problems as they arise.

Like most homeschool teachers, I practice a hybrid of the two approaches. But I tend to embrace brain-based learning far more than formal academics.

Formal academics are actually a fairly new phenomenon in the course of human history. It’s only been in modern times (the last 100 years) we have made the acquisition of knowledge the pinnacle of purpose for young people. Children used to go to school just a few hours a day. Family time took precedence over school. As did church. And neighbors. And chores. School is what you got to do when all the important stuff was done. It was a privilege and a luxury, not a priority.

But, you say, that was an agrarian society. Don’t we need more formal schooling in a technological age? Not really. Bill Gates knew a little something about technology. He dropped out of college. So did Stephen Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I’m pretty sure these men learned little about creating new technologies and billions of dollars in income from a teacher or a textbook. In fact, there are legendary stories about how these men couldn’t wait to leave the confines of classrooms so they could get home to work on developing new ideas. How did they accomplish so much in  advanced fields of science and technology armed with no more formal education than a high school diploma? They did it the same way farmers, small businessmen, and families solved problems 100 years before. They put their brains to work and then watched the sparks fly.

In reality, this is how ALL people get through life, both today and throughout history: They rely on their brains. Ask any well-functioning adult how much information from their school days they use in their lives and careers and they will tell you “not much.” The small amount that IS utilized could have just as easily been learned later, when the information was needed for application. Need to write a budget? Learn accounting. Need to create a website? Learn computer science. Need to write a legal brief or business proposal? Learn English mechanics. There is a time and place for everything and the best time to acquire knowledge is when you actually need to use it.

Purposeful learning – learning that occurs as a result of a specific need — is both economical and effective. Currently, my youngest daughter, Izzy, is studying measures of weight in her math curriculum, the only “formal” curriculum we use in our homeschool. She is struggling because many of the names for liquid measurement are meaningless to her. She knows the size of a gallon because we always have a gallon of milk in our refrigerator. She knows the size of a 2-liter bottle because we always have a few bottles of pop in our closet. She knows the size of a cup because she likes to bake chocolate chip cookies. But the size of a quart and a pint remain unimportant and unlearned.

Last week I noticed Izzy had taped hand-made tabs to five different pages in her math book to mark the places that talk about pints and quarts. That’s an unusual amount of effort on her part so I figured she was getting really tired of the time it was taking to flip back in her math book for the information every time she encountered a problem concerning pints or quarts.

In an effort to help her out, I went to the grocery store and bought milk in a gallon, a quart, a pint, and a cup. This did the trick. After a couple of days of going over the various sizes, Izzy eventually committed to memory the name for each size of container.

So what’s the problem? I bought the same four containers two years ago. And also the two years before that. Each time, Izzy quickly memorized the size of each container. And then promptly forgot it. Because the learning wasn’t purposeful to her real life, there was no retention. Will she remember this time? Perhaps. But is this extreme expenditure of effort and time really worth it? Just to learn the names of a quart and a pint?

This is the problem with formal academics. They relay information on a timeline completely unrelated to the needs and interests of the child. Because there is no hook to grab and keep the child’s attention or any real need to remember what has been learned, the information much be taught over and over and over again. It takes huge amounts of life’s most important commodity –time. And the constant re-teaching fills the brain with lots of useless activity at the same time the brain is screaming to be left alone so it can engage in its natural growth process, a process that thrives on space and creativity and imagination and exploration.

Someone who brought a good deal of common sense to this discussion was Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the early 1900’s whose philosophies have been kept alive in the American homeschooling community.

Charlotte founded a chain of parent-directed schools across England utilizing teaching strategies based on brain research. The hallmarks of Charlotte’s approach to education were short lessons, no tests, and no homework. She did not like textbooks and said children should read “living books,” which are books that engage the minds and hearts of children, spurring them to think and feel. She wanted the lessons short so students would have plenty of time during the day to play, which Charlotte believed was more important than lessons because it was when students could direct their own exploration of the world around them. Charlotte did not believe children were empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge dispensed by teachers, but possessors of well-functioning brains, perfectly capable of thinking for themselves.

Today, thousands of homeschooling families follow the philosophies of Charlotte Mason. I believe they, and other adherents of brain-based education, have made a good choice.

Until next time…be fearless.



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