Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Wrap-Up (Part 5)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of blogs titled “Homeschooling in a Virtual Age.” Each blog addressed a different topic related to the overall subject. But how do the various topics fit together? Here’s a chronological summary of the main points:

1. The rapid advances in technology have completely changed the way we live and work in the world. Almost every career field in America has been changed at its very core by the fact that computer technology can put large amounts of information and diagnostic services at the fingertips of every American.

2. To succeed in this new environment, people no longer need specialized information or skills, but the ability to select, synthesize, manage, and apply mega amounts of information quickly and wisely. The ability to do this takes smart people. It takes people who can think. It takes people with well-functioning brains.

3. To help children prepare for life and career in this new world, parents and teachers should focus on providing instruction and activities that build the brain. Recent advances in scientific brain research have made it clear how this is accomplished: Brains are built through exercise. The more the brain is utilized and the higher the order of thinking, the faster the brain functions and the bigger it grows. In other words, brains don’t just “fill up,” they expand and contract and speed up or slow down based on the degree to which they are used.

4. Therefore, in homeschooling, parents should be seeking out assignments and activities that engage and stimulate brains, spark higher order thinking, and demand as much multi-level use and quick application of brain function as possible. These kinds of activities typically do not happen in traditional classroom environments where assignments rely on one or two steps of problem solving or focus on unnecessary acquisition of knowledge readily available to students via the Internet. Brains are built far better in places like backyards, playgrounds, studios, stages, ball fields, libraries, living rooms, and even bedrooms. Because these are the places where children live, work and play. The places where children solve real problems of complexity and are inspired to imagine and create new ways of playing, living, and learning.

Home schools are strongly positioned to engage in brain-building activities. Even if homeschool families teach and learn using the same methodologies employed in traditional classrooms, they are still far ahead of their public and private school counterparts because they do it for less time each day.

Instead of the six-hour brain drain that most school children go through each day (not to mention the hours of homework each night), homeschool children complete their assignments in a fraction of that time. Afterward, they are free to engage in the types of activities that truly build brains.

One of the most interesting research studies I encountered while preparing for this blog series involved London taxi and bus drivers, two very different occupations requiring very different skills and preparations.

The difficulty of being a taxi driver in London is legend. People seeking a taxi license must demonstrate they have memorized the location of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, as well as all the routes between them. This gargantuan task is made even more difficult by the fact that London streets twist and turn and follow no grid pattern at all. After memorizing this information, London taxi drivers must employ it by picking up any number of different clients each day and transporting them to where they want to go, expertly navigating a city of 8 million people without GPS.

On the other hand, London bus drivers must pass a far simpler test, and then follow it up by driving the same, simple route each day.

When scientists looked at the brains of the two groups, they saw that, as a group, taxi drivers’ brains were much different from those of bus drivers. Specifically, the hippocampus in the posterior region of the brain was much larger, a critical finding considering this area is where short-term memory is transferred into long-term memory. The conclusion? When large amounts of information are sorted and applied regularly, the brain physically grows. This, in turn, increases the opportunity and capacity for even more complex learning in the future. Simply put, London taxi drivers, by virtue of their daily activities, are smarter than London bus drivers.

If homeschoolers want to get smarter they should avoid the simple tasks and routine of the London bus driver and open themselves up to the complex, real world of the London taxi driver. Their brains will be bigger and better because of it.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thirteen Splendid Activities to Build the Brain (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 4)

In the past two decades there have been some amazing scientific breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works. Advances in technology have enabled scientists to see and isolate what physically happens in the brain at the cellular level when new tasks or problems are addressed. And here’s what they found: The more people learn and the faster people learn, the more the neurotransmitters in the brain strengthen and grow. New connections form and the neurons transmit faster and more accurately.

This is not supposition by scientists. New imaging techniques have enabled scientists to track each of the 85+ billion neurons in the brain and the trillions of connections they make. The results have been surprising. Instead of the brain being “static,” as scientists previously thought, they now know we can actually “build” brains.

This has huge implications for learning and education. In the past, we only thought we could “fill up” a brain. We could teach it about things and have it experience things, but the capacity of the brain would remain the same through it all. We thought the brain was simply a genetic gift we were either stuck with or blessed with.

Now we know the brain is like a muscle that can be physically increased and strengthened with exercise. People learn to learn by learning. They learn to think by thinking. The more complex and stimulating the learning, the more the brain changes and adapts to handle even more complex learning in the future. The entire process is not all that different from building muscles by lifting weights. It really doesn’t matter what you lift—bar bells, sand bags, canned vegetables–because the benefits are derived from the exercise itself. The same is true for brain building. It’s not the content of the learning that matters, but the nature and intensity of the workout.

What does this mean for homeschool teachers?

First, we should not spend 13 years of our children’s lives entirely focused on transferring content from books and curriculums to the brains of our children. We will literally put our children’s brains to sleep by slowing down the neural activity. Instead, we should challenge them daily with new and complex activities that stimulate their minds and, ultimately, lead to new brain development.

Sound hard? Not really. There are thousands of activities and pursuits that build brain activity better that traditional school lessons. Just look for activities and tasks that require the brain to:

  • Process new information
  • Analyze and evaluate information
  • Apply learning to new situations
  • Make decisions quickly

Some formal school lessons can touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building brainpower, but it takes more complex activity than just “studying” to really boost brain function. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Organized Sports

Organized sports build the brain because they require players to constantly be incorporating new information into old to make rapid-fire decisions about how to play a game. Competition and team-based elements escalate learning.

2. Playground and Lawn Games (Unorganized Sports)

Games like tag, hide-go-seek and other recreational sports aren’t as good as team sports because they are less complex and are typically played at a much slower pace. But they are still good mental workouts.

3. Music Creation

Creating music requires mental and physical dexterity and boosts many specific brain functions, including attention, decoding, recognition of patterns, creativity, visual discrimination, auditory processing, and memory. The cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument have often been studied and the results can be found here. Listening to music also has cognitive benefits, but not as many as creating it.

4. Card Games

Card games teach more than just math skills. They boost brainpower as players consider strategy based on how the game unfolds from one moment to the next. Card players must make a new decision each time a card is played in a game. Good card players actually play several games at the same time because they understand and consider what other players are thinking and doing throughout the game.

5. Strategy Board Games

These hold similar cognitive benefits as card games. Among the best? Dominos, Chess, Checkers, Risk, Mastermind, Scrabble, Backgammon, Settlers of Catan, Axis and Allies, the list goes on and on.

6. Video and Computer Games (Strategy and Simulation)

Don’t let popular sentiment about computer games sway you. Most carry some cognitive benefits and many carry a lot. Strategy and simulation games are the best. Check out their cognitive benefits here.

7. Video and Computer Games (Brain Building)

The full cognitive benefits of these are debated, but most studies are showing at least some considerable benefits from playing computer-based games that exercise specific brain functions. The popular web site Lumosity currently has 60 million users, including myself. Based on my own experience, these games are beneficial. But the benefits are limited by very defined objectives and lack of broad-based thinking required.

8. Reading

Schools destroy the cognitive benefits of reading by requiring students to answer questions about what they have read when they finish. Smart kids quickly figure out they need to isolate pieces of information and notate possible test answers when they read, rather than engage in the open-ended, creative process of embracing a complex story as it unfolds. When people read for pleasure, they explore and interact with the story, developing new ideas as they go along and predicting the outcomes as the details of the plot are unearthed. This is higher order thinking that builds the brain. Read more about the cognitive benefits of reading for pleasure here.

9. Watching Video, Television, and Film

Similar to the benefits of reading, stories played out on the small and large screen stimulate brain interaction with the plot and characters. Obviously, complex and sophisticated video stories require much more brain function than others. Keep in mind; some shows require so little brain function they may be of no cognitive benefit at all. Also, compared side by side with reading, visual media is typically not as beneficial. Readers have the advantage of being able to slow the story down in order to explore and interact more with the characters and plot. They also must use more creativity to fill in all the visual details of the printed story.

10. Telling or Writing Stories

Communicating a story, event or an idea takes a lot of brainpower. An experience must be recalled or created. It must then be ordered and organized in a manner that makes sense. Finally, it much be delivered with impact. Encourage children to write and tell stories. The more creative the better. Today, there are many ways to tell stories–journaling, letter writing, email, creative writing, blogging, videos, or the old-fashioned way, which is sharing with family around a dinner table.

11. Art

Any art activity that encourages people to be creative has cognitive benefits. The more open-ended and creative the project, the better. But even coloring books build brains because they require attention, discrimination, and a modicum of creativity. 

12. Creative Play

Playtime can be the most important, brain-building time of the day. Any play that involves moving, thinking, creating, imagining, and/or the five senses is superb. Think cowboys and Indians, princesses and action heroes! Avoid toys. 

13. Performing Arts

Drama, dance, vocal music, and other performing arts are all wonderful platforms for building brain function.

As I look through this list of 13 activities two thoughts and two questions come to mind. First, these are activities that most children would classify as fun. So why frustrate children with boring school lessons and homework when they can be engaging in activities that not only are more fun, but also build the brain better anyway?

Second, for most children, even homeschoolers, these 13 activities are typically done AFTER school. It seems a shame to keep children at the kitchen table all day “doing school” and then hoping they’re not too tired later to participate in the activities that would teach and build their brains far more. Maybe homeschool parents should pencil into their schedules the activities listed here FIRST, and then do traditional school lessons in the time they have left over?

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

 

Soccer is More Important Than School (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 3)

Last year I was speaking to a group of homeschool parents and I said something that startled some people. I said: “If I had to choose between school or soccer for my children, I would choose soccer.”

It was an uncomfortable moment. Heads turned. Eyebrows raised. Nervous laughter sprinkled the room.

But I was being serious. I truly believe that soccer (and many other sports and activities) are more important to building a person’s brain, mind, and character than anything that can be accomplished in a classroom.

In 2012, The Economist Group, a highly respected multi-national media company which publishes The Economist and specializes in international business and world affairs information, took an exhaustive look at current educational practices across the world and how they relate to living and working in a democratic, market economy. The group identified eight skills needed by today’s students. Here they are:

1. Leadership

2. Digital Literacy

3. Communication

4. Emotional Intelligence (ability to identify and control emotional well-being)

5. Entrepreneurship

6. Global Citizenship

7. Problem Solving

8. Team working

I don’t think many people would argue with this list of practical skills and abilities needed to function well in the world today. So I ask you: What teaches these skills better? Soccer or School?

Is it even close?

Most people are aware of the many benefits of sports for building character when they are played in proper environments with good leadership, but few people consider the cognitive benefits. Soccer (and other sports) are a splendid learning environment for the brain because they present real world problems in a rapid fire, do-or-die environment. Students rise to the occasion and perform or they sit the bench. The environment both inspires and ensures the brain performs fast and well.

The opposite is true for the traditional school environment. Here’s the problem with formal academics: Problems are broken down into tiny, fundamental pieces requiring only low-level brain function applied one step at a time. In schools, most assignments have one, very defined objective, easy for most kids to think through (and teachers to grade). Read a story and answer the comprehension questions. Compute a math problem. Even complicated math problems are typically just multi-step problems that utilize basic skills.

Instead of these kinds of simple academic tasks, parents should be looking for real or simulated problems/activities where students are either forced or inspired to make lots of cognitive decisions of all levels and nature very quickly. These kinds of activities are the training ground of the mind because not only are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions being made in a short period, but the consequences of those decisions are being realized in real-time, forcing the mind to be constantly rethinking possible outcomes and then recalibrating for success.

Sports are a great vehicle for training the brain for peak function. The more intricate and fast the sport, the better. Team sports are particularly valuable because players have to not only be aware of their own decisions, but what everyone else is doing and thinking as well. The game changes by the second as the ball moves and people move, requiring a new evaluation and decision by the player each new moment. Secondary considerations are also constantly in play: What is my position and role? What are the coaches’ expectations for me? What is my teammate yelling and what is he trying to get me to do? Will I be subbed out if I don’t perform? Am I too tired to continue?

This is the nature of real-world problems. They are not simple and they do not come at you one at a time. In schools, the brain has to work harder figuring out how to traverse a difficult social environment than how to memorize a body of information for a test. Memorization is the lowest form of learning, while analyzing and evaluating are two of the highest.

Since the brain learns by performing, parents should seek out high-level performance tasks for children. There are many that are not only valuable, but fun as well. In my next blog, I’m going to be sharing 10 activities (beyond sports) that build brains better than formal school lessons.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Learning Like a Slumdog (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 2)

There’s a new buzz word in education and, for once, it’s a good one. It’s “executive function.” This term refers to the ability of a person to supervise and organize his own cognitive processes to achieve success in tasks presented to him. Executive function is the key to how a person functions in the world around him and is the number one predictor of success in school and work.

This is a huge step forward for educators to acknowledge that it’s not what a person knows or even the basic skills he possesses that’s important. But it’s how he manages his thinking and applies it to life.

Since the beginning of organized education, schools have been focused on building basic academic skills (reading, writing, etc.) and imparting large bodies of information (history, science, etc.) These things aren’t inherently bad, but they are only the building blocks of learning, and not even the most important ones at that. When we spend 13+ years focused on imparting details and working on preparations, we rob children of the time to engage in real learning. It’s like spending all your time accumulating the ingredients, but never getting to bake the cake. Or training to kick or hit a ball, but never getting in a game.

In schools, we have reduced learning to basic skills and information and we have bored our children to death in the process, leading to a massive lack of learning. It reminds me of the time my husband took my five-year-old nephew skiing for the first time. Before he let him loose on the beginners’ slope, my husband tried to explain to him all the ins and outs of skiing down a hill without breaking your neck. About halfway through the speech, my nephew interrupted him and said, “Can I PLEASE just ski down the hill now?’ He then took off straight down the hill at breakneck speed.

I really don’t remember if my nephew made it to the bottom of the hill on his feet or if he crashed halfway down. It doesn’t really matter. Because, no doubt, he learned more about skiing in the 30 seconds it took him to fly down that bunny hill than he could have learned in 30 minutes in my husband’s beginner ski class. Real learning occurs from properly executing in real life situations, or learning from your mistakes when you don’t. That’s how children and adults employ and improve executive function.

Executive function is both an inherited and acquired ability. But it’s not a learned skill. You can’t take a class on it. You can’t break it down into blocks of learning and you can’t measure it’s growth with any kind of standardized measurement. Executive function improves through trial and error in real life situations. Schools and “schoolish” activities are not the place to learn executive function.

In my last blog, I promised to write practical ways homeschool parents can help children develop their brains and higher level thinking processes (executive functioning) for the 21st century. I still plan to do that. But, I can’t move forward with that until I point out what homeschool parents should NOT do. What you should NOT do is more important than everything you SHOULD do put together. Here it is:

Stop doing school.

That’s it. So simple, yet so hard for most homeschool parents. If you can’t bring yourself to completely stop (I haven’t), then delay, postpone, or cut back. WAY back. Stop wasting everyone’s time teaching things that don’t matter and/or can be self-taught at a later date (using executive function). Instead, free up your child’s schedule to start engaging in activities of their own choosing where real-world “problems” can be addressed. As children start engaging and solving problems in the world around them, they get smarter. And they naturally pick up and learn those basic skills and pieces of information that teachers want students to know in the process.

One of the most amazing experiments related to how children learn was conducted in 1999 by Dr. Sugata Mitra. Famously titled, The “Hole in the Wall Project,” Mitra, while serving as chief scientist at a leading software company in New Delhi, embedded a high-speed computer linked to the Internet in a hole in a wall in a slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. Mitra wanted to see if the children who lived in the slum, none of which had access to computers in their homes, schools or communities, would discover it on their own and teach themselves how to work it. He provided no written or verbal instruction about how to use the computer before he walked away.

When Mitra returned at the end of the day, a large group of children was huddled around the computer. They had already figured out how to use a little hand-held device called a “mouse” to link between their isolated slum in India and the rest of the world via the Internet. Within two months, the children were using the Web in sophisticated ways to explore their interests, learn new concepts, paint, record music, and play games on the Disney web site. Not only did they accomplish this without a teacher or instruction, they also had to teach themselves the English language as they went along.

This is the way executive function works when the brain is firing on all cylinders and the environment for learning is right. Give a child time and reason to learn and his capacity to make it happen escalates proportionately. It’s no longer about what he knows or has stored in his memory, but his willingness to collect, process, and apply NEW information to the problem at hand. This is the skill needed to function well in the 21st century.

Today, Mitra operates 30+ “learning stations” across India that engage in what he calls “self-organizing learning environments” or “minimally invasive education.” His schools were the inspiration for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which won 7 Academy Awards. Last year Mitra was awarded the prestigious $1 million Ted prize, which is awarded to one extraordinary individual each year who has a bold and creative vision capable of inspiring the world and sparking global change. You can watch Mitra’s fascinating Ted Talk here.

As homeschooling parents, we should take our lead from Mitra. Rather than modeling our homeschools on traditional schools, we would do better to replicate the unique learning environment of Mitrra’s slum experiment. We need to kick the kids out of the classroom and into the real world where they can discover and explore things of real interest and are inspired to solve problems of worth.

Until next time…Be fearless.