by John Long, Head of School
“Brains are built over time,” says Jack Shonkoff, Director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. “They also don’t come fully wired.”
1500 Montessori teachers gasped in unison while watching a videotape of two nerve cells growing together after repeated ‘firing”, forging a new strand and strengthening an existing pathway in the brain. Speaking to an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) conference, Houston neuroscientist Bruce Perry, M.D., PhD. (director of The Child Trauma Academy) affirmed Dr. Montessori’s observation that children construct themselves from their experiences.
When I first read Montessori’s observation thirty years ago, I assumed she was speaking metaphorically, offering a precursor to the core principal of contemporary “constructivist education”: that through active engagement and hands-on learning a child “constructs” his own understanding of the world.
I agree with that observation, but there is more. It is not just knowledge that the learner constructs; each of us literally constructs our own brain during childhood. We actually, physically construct our organ of learning during the years of childhood and adolescence. The brain is molded by experience. Unlike a computer, the human brain is not fully wired when it comes out of the box; while the full complement of nerve cells is in place, the connections between them are “wired” during the first years of life—a process that isn’t fully completed until age 24.
“What science now tells us is that very early in life there are ‘sensitive periods,’ fixed windows of opportunity when certain parts of the brain are being wired for certain skills, such as associating sounds with objects or putting words together. Once that sensitive period passes, the circuit is formed and can’t be rewired.
“’As new circuits are being built, if they’re building on earlier circuits that were wired properly, they work really well,’ Shonkoff says. ‘If they’re building on earlier circuits that weren’t wired properly, it’s a harder job for the brain to adjust. There are greater energy demands on the brain. It’s a bigger cost to the brain to try to develop adaptive behavior and adaptive skills by overcoming and getting around faulty circuits.’”
Dr. Montessori intuited what modern neuroscientists have proven. The brain is quite malleable during the first years of life, enabling the young human to adapt to his culture and environment. Dr. Perry described how “patterned, repetitive practice” shapes the network of neurons in the brain. Neuron pathways that are used frequently, grow together and increase in size to handle more information. Neurons not used are “pruned”. We actually have a greater number of neurons in the brain during infancy than at any other time of life—but the network of connections between those neurons is not well developed. During this time of self-construction we pave the main highways and let grass grow over the seldom used footpaths. Perry emphasized that this process is active in the acquisition of physical skills, cognitive skills and social skills.
In other words, the same mechanism that takes us from tentative exploration to fluent competence in walking or catching a ball, also operates when we are learning basic cognitive skills like subtraction, or more complex problem-solving skills like building a robotic car for an engineering competition. We learn to put one foot in front of the other without thinking, and we learn to borrow from the next column when we need to. These are specific skills that call upon a particular set of neurons in the brain every time we need to perform those actions.
On a more global level, our experiences in school shape our attitudes: our attitude toward learning and our approach to life itself. Our experiences shape our brain toward being comfortable—or uncomfortable—with the ambiguities inherent to invention, creativity and exploration; attitudes that are literally hardwired into our brains by our experiences.
Patterned, repetitive practice hardwires our brains for social interaction, too. Social intelligence and emotional intelligence are largely learned behaviors and they are not learned through preaching and exhortation, but through doing. We learn to cooperate by working with others over and over. In the same way we learn to value the input of others, to celebrate diversity, to understand the emotional responses of others, and to understand our responsibility to the group. Actions that practice these skills over and over again hardwire our brains. These social and emotional skills then become as automatic as walking.
Education blogger David Warlick writes, “How many leaders are we losing when we teach children to be taught instead of teaching them to teach?” His question reiterates that school is not just about what we learn; more importantly the way in which we learn shapes who we become.
“Montessori kids are good at doing things.” Pediatric neuropsychologist Stephen Hughes was speaking to a friend who is a guide for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and who works with adolescents in the Boundary Waters Wilderness of northern Minnesota. Thinking about himself as an adolescent, and thinking about his friend leading groups of adolescents on wilderness expeditions, he ironically asked, “Who are the good kids?” She didn’t take it as a joke, but instead reflected for a moment and replied, “The Montessori kids. They’re good at doing things. When I ask adolescents from traditional middle schools to do something, I have to ask them again; then I have to remind them; then I have to nag them. When I ask the Montessori kids to do something, they do it. Joyfully. They do it well. Then they figure out a better way to do it, and then they embellish it. Montessori kids are good at doing things.” Dr. Hughes was so struck by that answer, he enrolled his young daughter in a Montessori school. And so did most of his colleagues in his department at the University of Minnesota.
Why are Montessori kids good at doing things? Why are they joyfully industrious? Why do they take ownership of a task, embellishing on the result? Why do they take responsibility and initiative? Why do they work together with such easy cooperation? Why do they have such a positive rapport with the adult leaders? Because this has been their experience in the Montessori classroom beginning at the age of 2 or 3—and it has been built into their brains.
The way we learn shapes who we become. Our brains are literally hardwired by our experiences, embedding not only information, but even more significantly, outlook, attitudes and behavior. Montessori kids are hardwired for a lifetime of success.