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Classrooms as cages vs. classrooms as everywhere

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Scene: 1950s & 60s. UC Berkley. Laboratory of Dr. Mark Rosenzweig

Study: Environmental therapy and its effects on brain development and plasticity

Subjects: Rats

Environment: Mark Rosenzweig and his colleagues raised one group of rats in a sensory-limited environment. (Read as: Extreme deprivation. The human equivalent? Raising a child by leaving them under the stairwell.) Another group was raised in an “enriched environment.” (Read as: Caged with tunnels, ladders, wheels and other such “toys.” The human equivalent? Raising kids inside with stuff from the store.)

Findings: Rats in the “enriched environment” were more successful at navigating mazes than the rats in the “impoverished” environment. Essentially, they dominated at the rat equivalent of the IQ test.

Legacy: Because of his research, Dr. Rosenzweig is considered among the pioneers of modern neuroscience. More importantly though, he is considered practically a saint by people who want you to buy heaps of their products for your kids’ brains.

Importance of this groundbreaking research: Until then, innate intelligence was widely accepted. Aside from size, you were born with the brain you’ll have for your whole life. However, Dr. Rosenzweig’s replicable studies made the case for the environment in the nature vs. nurture debate. With this research as the foundation, it is now widely accepted that the brain remains “plastic” throughout our lives, constantly changing in response to our environment. When we understand this, in the work of Carol Dweck, we have a “growth mindset.”

Oversimplification of this groundbreaking research: The distilled (and misleading) conclusion: Stimulated brains are bigger and better than un-stimulated brains. Therefore, buy our battery-powered, wiz-bang products to stimulate your child’s brain and they’ll be brilliant.

Problem with reporting of this groundbreaking research: Dr. Rosenzweig also conducted research on rats raised in their “normal” conditions. (Read as: Outside, in the natural environment, dealing with the “real” world. The human equivalent? Outside, in the natural environment with rich, authentic, multi-sensory stimulation and activity.) These rats developed more extensive “cerebral cortal changes” than the others, according to Marian Cleeves Diamond, Johns Hopkins. However, these studies are much less bally-hewed. Interestingly, similar findings were earlier reported by Darwin, who found that animals raised in their natural habitats had brains 15-30% larger than their domestically-raised brethren. As Gabrielle Principe put it in her book “Your Brain on Childhood,” “The natural world wired the animals’ brains best.”

What might this mean for learning?

While neuroscientists caution us against making too many assumptions about what their research means in the “real” world (allegory of Baby Einstein, anyone?), we can at least consider some implications about the conditions that best support learning from Kurt Fischer’s, Christina Hinton’s, and Catherine Glennon’s publication, “Mind, Brain, and Education” from The Students at the Center’s Learning Theory Series.

  • The brain changes that underlie learning occur when experiences are active, not passive.
  • Environments that promote positive relationships and a sense of community promote learning.
  • Each student has a complex profile of strengths and limitations and learns best through experiences tailored to his or her needs and interests.

Between the rats whose brains developed fullest when raised outside the cage and the three ideas above, I can’t help but feel we are missing something in our effort to engineer academic achievement. As we race to embrace standardized stimulation in the form of new-fangled curricula and enhanced assessment batteries, we eliminate play, physical activity, the outdoors, collaboration, creativity and, effectively, communication.

The potential losers in this race to the cage: Brains that thrive when active in environments that personalize learning and cultivate relationships. Read as: students.

Our students need learning communities that challenge them with real problems that necessitate engaged collaborative learning in body and mind. As Judy Willis often says, “Our minds evolved as complex problem solvers seeking pleasure and patterns.” Perhaps it is time for us to step outside the cage and enable learning beyond the classroom, the textbook, and the test score.

Perhaps it is time we reconsider what we want our schools to be: Collections of classrooms that provide students with the latest “brain-based” curricula or learning communities that engage students as growth-minded co-creators in constructing understanding?

Me? I’m for giving the latter a try.

Jason Flom is director of learning platforms for Q.E.D. Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to creating, inspiring, cultivating, and sustaining cultures of transformational learning. He is the founding editor of the multi-author blog, Ecology of Education, and a former elementary school teacher of 11 years. He can be found on-line on Twitter or off-line in the woods with friends and family.