Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We Can

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Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We Can

Postby admin » Fri Sep 27, 2013 10:06 pm

by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.
© 1990 by Jane M. Healy
Introduction © 1999 by Jane M. Healy




Table of Contents:

• Part One: Changing Brains
o 1. "Kids' Brains Must Be Different ..."
o 2. Neural Plasticity: Nature's Double Edged Sword
o 3. Malleable Minds: Environment Shapes Intelligence
• Part Two
o 4. Who's Teaching the Children to Talk?
o 5. Sagging Syntax, Sloppy Semantics, and Fuzzy Thinking
o 6. Language Changes Brains
• Part Three: Attention, Lifestyles, and Learning Disabilities
o 7. Learning Disabilities: Neural Wiring Goes to School
o 8. Why Can't They Pay Attention?
o 9. The Starving Executive
• Part Four: Clashing Cultures
o 10. TV, Video Games, and the Growing Brain
o 11. Sesame Street and the Death of Reading
o 12. "Disadvantaged" Brains
• Part Five: Minds of the Future
o 13. New Brains: New Schools?
o 14. Teaching the New Generation to Think: Human and Computer Models at School and at Home
o 15. Expanding Minds

Dr. Diamond continues. "Here's a summary of the data comparing brain size and weight of rats reared in the standard cages, those who lived in the 'impoverished' environments, and here" -- she pauses dramatically -- "are the results with the animals who lived in the enrichment cages. Notice how, with increasing amounts of environmental enrichment, we see brains that are larger and heavier, with increased dendritic branching. That means those nerve cells can communicate better with each other. With the enriched environments we also get more support cells because the nerve cells are getting bigger. Not only that, but the junction between the cells -- the synapse -- also increases its dimensions. These are highly significant effects of differential experience. It certainly shows how dynamic the nervous system is and how responsive it is to its internal and external surroundings."


Another point: Has no one noticed that children are very culturally literate -- except that it's for a different culture? Just make up a list of any details from Roseanne, Family Ties, Sesame Street, etc. and most kids would come out looking as smart as they really are. The problem is that our children have exposed us to ourselves, and we don't like what we see. We have shown them what is really valued in our society, and those little cultural apprentices have happily soaked it up.

If we are serious about wanting them prepared by a knowledge base to gather the intellectual fruits of world cultures, the obvious expedient is to change the content of children's television programming and use other video as enrichment. In my opinion, this should be a major responsibility of both educational and commercial networks. Otherwise, we will soon be forced to revise university-level curricula to include in-depth studies of talking animals and human buffoons.

Schools cannot plaster children with a paste of "cultural literacy" that the culture itself repudiates. Nor can schools completely counteract the powerful effects of television programming that works at direct cross-purposes with our efforts to teach children to think.


While dining not long ago with a scientist who probes the workings of the brain, I enjoyed hearing about the intellectual exploits of his three-year-old daughter, clearly the apple of her Daddy's eye. I enjoyed his stories, that is, until we got to dinosaurs.

"She can recognize all the names when she sees them on the computer screen: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus, whatever -- and she matches them right up to the pictures'" he said happily. "The program we got her even teaches about what each one ate, and whether they could fly, and all kinds of stuff. It's amazing!"

I didn't say what was really on my mind at that point . . . something like, "I'm sure that will be really useful for her when she takes her first course in paleontology." Being something of a wimp in the presence of those who spend their days rooting around in other people's brains, I only said,

"And how long did it take her to learn all this?"

"Oh, she loves her computer. She spends a lot of time at it. When my wife and I are busy we would much rather see her there than watching TV. At least we know she's doing something educational."

"Does your little girl ever just play -- by herself, or with other little kids?"

"Oh, sure." He thought for a moment. "But she really loves that computer! Isn't it wonderful how much they can learn at this age?"

"What do you think that computer is doing to her brain?" I asked.

He paused. "You know," he said slowly, "I never thought about it. I really haven't a clue."

-- Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Fri Sep 27, 2013 10:07 pm


It was a dreary, wet May afternoon ten years ago when I stumbled, bleary-eyed, into the post office to mail the final draft of Endangered Minds. I distinctly remember thinking, "Probably no one will ever read this, but at least I got it off my chest!"

As it happened, many others shared my concerns, and the book struck an immediate chord both in the United States and abroad. I started to receive notes from teachers that began, "So I'm not crazy! Kids really are getting harder to teach .... " and from parents along the lines of, "Thank you for giving us the courage to set some limits on TV in our house and spend better time with our kids." As a congenitally insecure author, I remain eternally grateful to all those who have taken the time to tell me that my ideas have helped. Just last month at a workshop, a participant passed me the following note, typical of many I have received that make all the effort worthwhile:

Five years ago your book saved my career. I was just about to give up teaching, but you inspired me to re-think what I was doing in my classroom, stop blaming my students, and try some new approaches. My job is more fun than ever, and now I want to go back to graduate school to study the brain and learning.

What more could I ask for?

Now, given the opportunity to comment once more, I am heartened that the content of Endangered Minds has stood the test of time and further research, and that greater interest has been aroused about connections between neuroscience and education. I am dismayed, however, that we have not made more headway into curbing toxic electronic and educational environments for children.

I was pretty far out on a theoretical limb when I first presented the hypothesis that children's brains might be so significantly changed by contemporary culture as to be increasingly maladapted to our traditional notions of "school." In the intervening years, however, the concept of cortical plasticity -- the process by which the brain shapes itself in response to various environmental stimuli -- has become a staple of the mainstream press and has even sparked a White House conference.

Given this understanding, the following implication doesn't seem so far-fetched: Children surrounded by fast-paced visual stimuli (TV; videos, computer games) at the expense of face-to-face adult modeling, interactive language, reflective problem-solving, creative play, and sustained attention may be expected to arrive at school unprepared for academic learning -- and to fall farther behind and become increasingly "unmotivated" as the years go by. The current educational scene attests to this misfit even more strongly than it did when this book was originally published. Just ask any teacher at any grade level. Moreover, when I warned about the "starving executive" in Chapter 9, little did I know that the fastest-growing category of learning/behavior disorder was soon to become something called "executive function disorder."

Neuroplasticity is now thought to include emotional/motivational as well as cognitive circuits. This would mean that a child's habits of motivation and attitudes toward learning don't all come with the package, but are physically formed in the brain by experience. Thus, if a child is discouraged, defeated, or emotionally abused by parents or teachers, she might develop physical "tracks" in the system or a negative pattern of neurochemical response that become increasingly resistant to change. When she enters a new learning situation, therefore, she brings a brain predisposed to apathy, negative response, and failure. Those of us who have worked with many such youngsters can readily accept this idea, but we also know that even the most "turned-off" kid has potential -- it just takes a lot of time and hard work to reroute those maladaptive connections!

We see increasing confirmation of the reality of developmental stages (or "waves") and critical/sensitive periods in the brain's trajectory of growth. New stages of development may even occur into adulthood. And, hooray! -- mental activity does indeed continue to improve the brain even into old age; serious mental decline is not inevitable for healthy adults, and those who keep their minds active may be better buffered from the effects of debilitating diseases (e.g., If you get Alzheimer's, you may not decline as rapidly.)


I learn about the issues on people's minds during the question period at lectures and workshops. One of the big questions for parents and teachers continues to be this peculiar "epidemic" of attention problems, or ADHD. The diagnosis of attention deficit disorder is skyrocketing, and large numbers of children are given prescriptions for stimulant drugs. I have been in schools where teachers told me that up to 50 percent of the students in their classroom are on Ritalin! I know that people who say "I told you so" are pretty obnoxious, but I must point out that since I originally wrote this book, researchers have confirmed major involvement of the executive systems of the prefrontal cortex and its subcortical connections.

Although, believe it or not, we still await definitive research on media and the brain, I continue to believe this astonishing incidence of "illness" in kids results from several factors: heredity, pre- and postnatal brain "insults" from injury or toxic substances, frenetic and electronic mental environments that "upshift" a child's impulsiveness, lack of appropriate models and limits to teach children to control behavior, language erosion, and media that coach children in being thoughtless and disrespectful. We are asking a lot from our teachers to remediate the cultural debris of large classrooms of kids whose brains have been blasted into academic insensitivity since birth.

To this list, however, I must add school environments that place impossible attentional and academic demands (often in the name of "competency") on unprepared brains, and try to cram creative and lively children into boring mental boxes. Consider also some current idiocies such as limiting active play and recess to give kids more time to sit at their desks.

Thousands of pages have been written about effective approaches to treat attention problems. Among other imperatives is behavioral counseling to help parents, teachers, and the child structure the environment and learn strategies to manage the difficulty -- either with or without drug treatment. But this approach requires adult time and patience that too many adults are unwilling to give. So we administer drugs and expect them to do the job. For many youngsters, stimulant drugs such as Ritalin, Cylert, or Dexedrine provide a gateway into new behaviors, but long-term treatment is still an iffy prospect. ''Although children may calm down, concentrate better, and behave less disruptively while taking a stimulant, there is no solid evidence that their school work improves in the long run or that the adult outcome is affected," reported The Harvard Mental Health Letter in 1995. Certainly, adequate research on possible long-term side effects of these drugs should be undertaken immediately.

Another lingering question is whether deficits in a brain that has missed out on appropriate stimulation at any of its developmental stages can be made up. I wish I had a complete and satisfying answer to this question. My own experience suggests that, given the brain's long developmental trajectory, we should never give up on it. As it matures, learns, and develops new systems, and thus new types of learning potential, skills that were missed earlier may be taken up by different networks or accomplished in different ways (e.g., learning spelling through rule systems rather than visual memory). Moreover, if you can help the youngster (or adult!) develop more confidence, positive emotional response, and intrinsic motivation, you may see amazing results, since the brain's emotional centers are so intimately involved in priming circuits for learning.

On the other hand, certain types of deprivation or damage are hard to compensate for -- consider the lasting effects of perinatal complications associated with cerebral palsy, for example. At more subtle levels, severe emotional deprivation or abuse during very early critical periods may permanently alter chemical receptors in the brain so that the individual may be predisposed to depression or violence. Lacking sufficient research, I say, "Go for it -- try anything and everything, and have faith in the brain's powers of recovery." New interventions are constantly being developed for both physical and cognitive problems, but let's not forget that it's much easier -- and less expensive -- to do it right the first time around! (Please see Chapter 12 for a fuller discussion.)

Another issue dealt with in this book is bilingualism, which is still a hot topic. As stated here, bilingual or multilingual brains seem to end up with more neural turf and stronger language/cognitive skills than others if they develop the second language(s) in a natural and supportive environment -- and if they do not have a language disability to begin with. Nevertheless, here is another area where we need far more good, objective, research. In the United States, at least, this field has been so fraught with political/economic influences (e.g., government funding for various types of programs), and many studies have been so poorly controlled, that it is hard to believe anything one reads. I believe we can state confidently that the phonology ("accent") of a language has a sensitive period in very early childhood, that the best way to learn a second language is generally in a bilingual, language-rich home, and that teaching should generally start at the oral rather than the written level; beyond that I do not see brain research yielding any firm prescriptions on this question.

The "reading wars" were just starting when Endangered Minds was first published, so I would like to take this opportunity to clarify my position on the issue of "phonics" vs. "whole language." (Practicalities of this question are detailed in my book Your Child's Growing Mind.) Let me just point out here that the unfortunate fiasco inaccurately labeled "whole" language ran into trouble because it neglected a major part of language: direct teaching of sound-symbol relationships ["phonics"] and spelling rules. Nonetheless, true whole language has a lot to teach us, not the least of which is that meaningful and involving content, with active questioning and writing by students, must be a part of the process. Reading is skill-based, but it also needs to be enjoyable, thought-provoking, and a pathway into imagination.

Parents are always anxious about when and how to teach a child to read. When a child is ready, interested, and has the requisite linguistic and cognitive skills to learn successfully, our approach should be flexible, including every technique available according to the individual's needs. Unfortunately, tests administered to elementary teachers now show up an alarming lack of familiarity with the rules of written language, "phonics," diagnosis of difficulties, or even how to go about systematically teaching a child to read. If we want to beef up children's reading abilities, teaching the teachers would seem a good place to start!


Although awareness of the brain's role in learning has taken giant leaps forward and neuroscientist-educator dialogue has begun, caution is still advised in drawing overly specific implications of brain studies for classroom practice. Teachers sometimes ask me questions like, "What does brain research say about the eighth-grade social studies curriculum?" Certainly, some useful (and commonsense) principles can responsibly be drawn from the research -- for example, the more engaged your students are in a topic, and the more modalities they use to process it, the better they will understand, remember, and apply it; or that not all eighth-graders have fully developed frontal lobes, so concrete, hands-on experiences will help them gain more abstract viewpoints. It is a mistake, however, to use our limited understanding of neuroscience to develop "formulas" for teaching or to support any sort of doctrinaire pedagogy.

Many parents now understand the necessity to limit TV viewing. Moreover, programs such as Sesame Street have made serious efforts to improve their formats and involve parents in active viewing (although much of the criticism in Chapter 11 still holds.) On the other hand, we witness alarming efforts to market video addiction and over-stimulation at ever-younger ages, with so-called "educational" programs targeted at the infant-toddler set. Since these ages represent a particularly critical period when irrevocable foundations for emotional, social, personal, and language abilities are laid (or not), this commercialized assault on baby brains presages troubling long-term consequences.

Much of the time previously devoted to children's TV viewing is now occupied by computer use. I explore the positive and negative aspects in my book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It. Suffice it to say here, as of this writing, there is plenty of bad along with the good. Parents and teachers should fully inform themselves before they expose their children's brains (particularly before age seven) to today's software or Internet use, and they should be on hand as an active part of their children's cyberlife.


A number of interesting trends are emerging in the research. Most notably, the development of new methods of scanning the brain in action (e.g., PET scans, functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI]) presage better understanding of how to facilitate learning and why things sometimes go wrong. For example, studies have mapped the widely distributed brain areas involved in tasks of language reception, comprehension, and expression, as well as in reading. In the future, tests given early on may determine not only which children will be at risk for language or reading problems, but also what instructional method will be best for each child.

Such techniques complement basic research on neurochemicals (neurotransmitters, steroids, and peptides), which operate at the synaptic level to create our mental life -- both cognitive and emotional. Brain scans can indicate how well neural systems are working; brain areas showing up as underactivated may indicate that the requisite neurochemicals are not available or properly utilized. For example, scientists have identified a so-called "biological signature" for attention deficit disorder. The implications of such findings are profound. It would be nice to be able to make a definitive diagnosis of this puzzling problem, but we must be wary of any arguments that "biology is destiny" and there is nothing to be done about it. The end point of such reductionist thinking might lead, for example, to testing all infants soon after birth and discarding or irrevocably labeling those who show up as potential troublemakers. After all, differences (or deficiencies) in brain function -- even at the chemical level -- can be learned as well as inherited, and there is every indication that positive environments and skilled teaching can influence even genetic deficits for the better.

The surge in research on brain chemistry, reflected in a proliferation of psychotropic drugs (e.g., mood enhancers for those suffering from depression, drugs for schizophrenia) will doubtless continue to be the biggest news in brain science in the near future and may answer some very important questions. How much of this neurochemical system is, in fact, "plastic"? Many people know that going out for some vigorous exercise can improve their mood, and even mustering up a smile may positively alter your neurotransmitters. On the other hand, if you grow up in an insecure or stress-inducing environment, your brain may always tend to be hyperreactive to frightening or stressful situations. What about the long-term effects on the neurotransmitter systems of youngsters repeatedly exposed to startling media and violent video games? What, too, are the neurochemical effects of long-term exposure to stressed-out or incompetent caregivers, or to nonhuman surrogates (TV; computers) which cannot respond in personal or emotionally supportive ways to young children? Interesting questions.

Increasing recognition of the close chemical links between brain, body, and emotions bodes some shaking-up of traditional educational practice. Exclusive emphasis on the cognitive brain must be reconsidered in light of the new information; the human organism is much more than a pure thinking machine. Even the immune system has reciprocal ties to the thinking brain. Certainly, trying to teach the head while ignoring the body and emotions may account for a great deal of school failure. But positive emotional climates are not those contrived situations in which students are constantly praised for whatever work they muster up the energy to do. Students need to be safe from physical danger and ridicule but challenged to master important content, listened to, and supported ("scaffolded") in achievement as a function of personal effort. If we could set up this sort of environment, many of our "educational problems" would probably vanish.

We will also see a reawakening of awareness about the close ties between brain development and the child's motor system, also slighted in our frenzy to make kids smarter. We may even prove that some regular downtime playing on a jungle gym or inventing social games contributes more to intelligence than grinding through yet one more page of rote arithmetic calculations! Likewise, as researchers begin to document the neurological contributions of music, visual arts, dance, pretend play, and other aesthetic or creative activities, those who recommend or allow the cutting of these "extras" in the curriculum will look even more foolish than they already do.

Finally, I would call attention to some redefinitions of intelligence that complement this more holistic view of the human brain. Straight academic learning is far from the only quality that makes for a successful person. Self-control, motivation, everyday problem-solving, self-awareness, reflection, and the intangible qualities of spirit may matter even more -- and, according to today's teachers, are at least as endangered in our media-ized kids as are formal academic skills.

I have tried here to update some very complex arguments in a very few words. I recommend that you stay tuned to the research and remember that we still have a great deal to learn.

As to a short wish list for research, I would still like to see some cutting-edge studies of what our electronic baby sitters (computer software) are actually doing to kids' brains. It would help with educational decision-making if we understood more about the developmental stages in the brain, with more specific markers of when it is most receptive to different types of experience. We could certainly use more specifics on critical/sensitive periods for the development of attention skills and motivation, or even for mental imagery and creativity. Many educators and parents wonder about the process of maturation as indexed by myelination and whether and how intellectual maturation can be enhanced. And what are the most effective long-term interventions when children have missed out on important experiences?

It will continue to be interesting to observe whether newer electronic environments will be developed to expand or contract the abilities of the brain. I continue to wonder how the human mind will evolve -- and even whether it will end up as boss -- in a world increasingly dependent on nonhuman cyber-entities. Doubtless progress toward a livable future will depend a great deal on the human values and interactions we offer our children today. In the long run, a society gets not only the leaders but also the young people it deserves. Given our children's native spunk, guided by the multitudes of parents and teachers who do care enough to spend the requisite time and energy, I think we still have a fighting chance.

Vail, Colorado
January 1999
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Fri Sep 27, 2013 10:08 pm


Several people whom I respect very much advised me not to write this book. "You can't prove it -- even if it's true," said the first neuropsychologist I called. "Why don't you write about something else?"

"Leave it alone. We've already had too much overpopularization of the brain. The public isn't ready to hear about these things," warned another.

"Don't give everyone more excuses to blame the kids," a thoughtful educator pleaded. "Teachers do too much of that already!"

I debated. Could I accurately explain to nonscientists that changing lifestyles may be altering children's brains in subtle but critical ways? Could I write a book that would tell the truth -- without sounding like a crabby middle-aged academic? Should I go out on a limb with a thesis that available technology cannot test, much less prove?

On the verge of abandoning my idea, I scheduled more interviews, excerpts from which are included in the following chapters. These scientists had a totally different response. They got excited when I told them what I wanted to write about. Moreover, they convinced me that my ideas were not so farfetched after all. Some even told me to hurry up and get started. "These things need to be said -- and the sooner, the better," one insisted.

They also goaded my own curiosity and provoked new questions. The process of tracking down the answers has been a rigorous one that has led me to offices, clinics, schools, and conference sessions in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Having produced some deeply troubling and eye-opening experiences, it has also yielded moments of refreshing optimism. I hope the reader will similarly be able to put the negatives into perspective and sense the promise as well as the obligation implied in the following chapters.

One of the most reassuring aspects of this search was the quality of the many people I met who are sincerely concerned about the intellectual development of children and teenagers. I would especially like to acknowledge my gratitude to a number of thoughtful scientists busy pursuing research on how the brain grows and learns but not too busy to answer phone calls, schedule interviews, explain complex ideas, and offer helpful suggestions on the manuscript. Their names are found, along with some gleanings of their wisdom, throughout these chapters. Scores of school administrators and teachers cared enough to write, phone, welcome me into their classrooms, and talk earnestly about their concerns, while at the same time communicating their dedication to students and to the art of good teaching. Above all, I am grateful to the students -- my own and all the others -- who keep me continually reassured that they really are worth the best efforts we can give them.

Of course, I must acknowledge that any work I do is the product of a joint effort: Angela Miller and Carole Lalli got this book off the ground, and the secretarial talents of Jane Piszczor have kept it aloft. I am particularly indebted to Bob Bender for stepping in at a critical moment with much-needed support and direction. My sincere thanks, as well, to the friends and colleagues who interrupted their own lives to read and offer thoughtful comments on the manuscript. Above all, my mother and the four wonderful men in my life have provided wise counsel and a necessary backboard for ideas to an oft-distracted writer. Special thanks to my husband, Tom, for using his "big picture" skills to keep me aware of what I am really trying to say.
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Fri Sep 27, 2013 11:00 pm



CHAPTER 1: "Kids' Brains Must Be Different ... "

"Kids' brains must be different these days," I remarked half jokingly as I graded student essays in the faculty room late one afternoon.

"If I didn't think it was impossible, I would agree with you," chimed in a colleague who had experienced a particularly frustrating day with his English classes. ''These kids are so sharp, but sometimes I think their minds are different from the ones I used to teach. I've had to change my teaching a lot recently, and I still wonder how much they're learning. But a human brain is a human brain. They don't change much from generation to generation -- do they?"

"Changing brains?" mumbled a math teacher, putting on her coat. "Maybe that accounts for it."

Changing brains. The idea kept returning as I taught and watched students at different grade levels. I began to observe more carefully; these youngsters did seem different from those we used to teach -- even though the average IQ score in our school had remained solidly comparable. Today's students looked and acted differently, of course, and they talked about different things, but I became increasingly convinced that the changes went deeper than that -- to the very ways in which they were absorbing and processing information. Likable, fun to be with, intuitive, and often amazingly self-aware, they seemed, nonetheless, harder to teach, less attuned to verbal material, both spoken and written. Many admitted they didn't read very much -- sometimes even the required homework. They struggled with (or avoided) writing assignments, while teachers anguished over the results. When the teacher gave directions, many forgot them almost immediately; even several repetitions often didn't stick. They looked around, doodled, fidgeted.

Were kids always like this? I started to listen to the veteran teachers -- not the bitter, burned-out ones who complain all the time about everything, but the ones who are still in the business because they love teaching and really enjoy being around young people. I visited schools. In every one, from exclusive suburbs to the inner city, I heard similar comments:

Yes, every year I seem to "water down" the material even more. I request books for reluctant readers rather than the classics we used to use in these high school courses. I use library-research worksheets instead of term-paper assignments. I have to start from the beginning on conjugating verbs and diagramming sentences -- and most of them still don't get it. Lectures can't exceed fifteen minutes. I use more audiovisuals.

I used to be able to teach Scarlet Letter to my juniors; now that amount of reading is a real chore for them and they have more trouble following the plot.

I feel like kids have one foot out the door on whatever they're doing -- they're incredibly easily distracted. I think there may have been a shift in the last five years.

Ten years ago I gave students materials and they were able to figure out the experiment. Now I have to walk them through the activities step by step. I don't do as much science because of their frustration level.

Yes, I've modified my teaching methods because of their lack of attention span and their impatience. I don't do much of the lecture-notetaking method. I'm using student workbooks, prepared worksheets and tests because they are readily available.

I teach biology and I have them spend more time on paperwork just to get them to look at the material. They refuse to read the book, so I must keep trying techniques to get them to read it.

I've been hoping someone would notice! I've been worried about this for some time. Kids' abilities are certainly different -- I use with gifted sixth graders a lot of what I did with average fifth graders in '65-'66. They complain of the workload.

It's scary! When I started teaching here [a "fast-track" private school] in 1965, I used Evangeline with the seventh grade. Imagine, Evangeline! And the kids loved it and understood it. Now there'd be no way . . . but I'm supposedly teaching the same kind of kids in the same grade!

Scary indeed! I became increasingly convinced that I was tapping into a major phenomenon with profound implications, not only for teaching and learning, but also for the future of our society. Scariest of all was the growing discrepancy between what children were apparently equipped to do and what teachers thought they should be capable of doing. Teachers of the youngest children, claiming they see more pronounced changes every year, warned that we haven't seen anything yet!

Changing brains? Could it be possible? As I went from school classrooms to professional meetings where neuroscientists were excitedly starting to discuss new research on the subtle power of environments to shape growing brains, I began to realize that it is indeed possible.

"Of course, experience -- even different kinds of learning -- changes children's brains," I was told again and again. If children's experiences change significantly, so will their brains. Part of the brain's physical structure comes from the way it is used.

"But," everyone always added, "there's no way to measure subtle neurological differences between past generations and this one. You can't prove such changes because the technology has not been available to measure them."

No "proof," but plenty of circumstantial evidence. I developed a questionnaire requesting anecdotal information on cognitive changes observed in students. I handed it out at national meetings and conferences to experienced teachers in schools where population demographics had remained relatively stable. Approximately three hundred teachers responded, and I was amazed by the unanimity of response. Yes, attention spans are noticeably shorter. Yes, reading, writing, and oral language skills seem to be declining -- even in the "best" neighborhoods. Yes, no matter how "bright," students are less able to bend their minds around difficult problems in math, science, and other subjects. Yes, teachers feel frustrated and would like to do a better job. This was a long way from "proof," but I found it provocative -- and troubling.

Meanwhile, newspaper headlines screamed daily about declining test scores. International assessments comparing math and science performance of thirteen-year-old students from twelve countries found U.S. students at "rock bottom," particularly in understanding of concepts and more complex interpretation of data. Analysts from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development suggested that test scores do not even reveal the total extent of the problem, as they are poor measures of the type of thinking abilities today's youth will need on the job. "Will our nation's young adolescents be able to function as the foundation for America's ability to compete in the global economy?" they wondered. [1]

News programs featured a report concluding that most American seventeen-year-olds were poorly prepared to handle jobs requiring technical skills and that only 7% could handle college-level science courses. A numbing national march toward mediocrity was predicted. A cover story in Fortune magazine compared the "crisis" in education to the attack on Pearl Harbor. "In a high-tech age where nations increasingly compete on brainpower, American schools are producing an army of illiterates," it proclaimed. [2] A survey found 68% of major business firms "encumbered" by the educational shortcomings of their employees; 36% were already offering remedial courses in reading, writing, and math, with another 28% acknowledging they were considering the possibility.

In a special issue focusing on problems in education, the Wall Street Journal documented the growing incompetency of high school graduates by surveying managers who have trouble finding even minimally competent workers to hire. ''I'm almost taking anyone who breathes," said one bank manager whose new tellers can't add and subtract well enough to balance their own checkbooks. An advertising firm in Chicago admitted that only one applicant in ten meets the minimum literacy standard for mail-clerk jobs, and Motorola, Inc., provided statistics showing that 80% of all applicants screened nationally fail a test of seventh-grade English and fifth-grade math. [3] Clearly, opined the observers, schools are not doing their job.

Inadequate schools may well be a problem in a land where neither teachers nor the educational enterprise itself get a great deal of respect. Moreover, inferior graduates may well become inferior teachers. But is this the whole problem? Our knowledge about how to teach has actually improved during the last twenty years. I have been hanging around university education departments since the fifties; during that time professional training has been considerably upgraded. Thoughtful research on how children learn has paved the way for dissemination of better classroom methods and instructional materials as well as a much clearer understanding of students who have trouble learning in traditional ways. It hardly seems reasonable to believe that the majority of teachers have suddenly become so much worse. In any school I visit I find many good, dedicated professionals. They claim tried-and-true methods aren't working anymore. Why? Are children becoming less intelligent? Could changes in mental abilities reflect underlying changes in brain development as much as bad pedagogy?


In a highbrow private school in Manhattan, a college counselor laments, "Look at these verbal SAT scores! How am I ever going to get these kids into the colleges their parents want?" While this counselor has good reason for concern, he may be somewhat comforted by the fact that his students are certainly not unique.

Very few tests in the United States have stayed the same long enough to provide a long-range view of young people's abilities across the past few decades. Three organizations producing the most consistently standardized measurements have been the College Board, which publishes the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) taken by students who intend to apply to college, the similar American College Testing program (ACT), and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests academic achievement of school children at representative grade levels. As anyone who even scans the headlines knows, they have shown drastically declining scores, particularly in the areas of higher-level verbal and reasoning skills.

Although the SAT has been criticized for a number of failings, including various types of bias, it provides a consistent source of data over a period of years. Purportedly a test of ability rather than of what has been learned, the test is, in fact, highly dependent on background experiences such as vocabulary exposure, reading facility, and math courses taken. By the time students are in high school, it is difficult to separate out the various effects of school learning and native ability. Thus its scores reflect both basic intelligence and experience.

Starting in 1964, average SAT verbal and math scores declined steadily until the mid-1980s, when they leveled off and then experienced a very slight rise. Subsequently, math scores have remained stable and verbal have begun another gradual decline. Overall, verbal declines have been considerably greater, 47 points by 1988 (from 475 to 428) as opposed to 22 for math (498 to 476). [4]

Losses of this magnitude have caused justifiable concern, and many reasons have been proposed for this apparent erosion of national brainpower. The fact that a less rarefied group of students, including more from less "privileged" educational backgrounds, now take the test has been shown to account for some, but not all, of the decline in average scores. Recently, in fact, scores of minorities are the only ones showing consistent improvement, with black students particularly making impressive gains. Moreover, the past few years have seen the growing popularity of courses that claim great success in coaching students in test-related subject matter and test-taking "tricks." These should have raised scores at least a little, particularly for the more privileged group who can afford the courses. Is it possible that without their influence, overall declines would be even greater?

For all students, steady increases in television viewing and less time spent reading are accepted as negative influences on verbal scores. The culpability of those factors, as we shall see in later chapters, goes far beyond what most people are willing to admit. Schools have also been blamed for giving less homework, lowering academic standards, and using less challenging materials. Of course, teachers complain they have been forced to these expedients because of skill deficits in the students they are attempting to teach. In short, no one really agrees on the reasons. Everyone agrees, however, that the situation is serious. Most alarming is the suggestion that the "top" layer of students, our potential pool of future leaders, is being seriously affected.

The "Best and the Brightest"

To investigate this possibility I contacted The Educational Testing Service, which publishes results of Graduate Record Examinations which are taken by a self-selected group of students who intend to pursue graduate study. I learned right away that it is hard to extract any firm evidence about scoring trends on these tests for several reasons, which I will explain shortly. Nevertheless, in digging through the data from the last fifteen years, I did find some interesting clues indicating that both interest and ability in primarily verbal fields of study appear to have declined rather startlingly.

The GREs include general measures of verbal, quantitative, and analytical ability as well as subject area tests in a number of disciplines such as history, English literature, psychology, math, etc. The subject tests are optional, as they are required for admission only to certain departments in certain schools. GRE scores must be cautiously interpreted in terms of general trends, since rising scores may indicate simply that brighter students, on the whole, are choosing to apply to graduate school, and vice versa. Moreover, the growing use of "prep" courses may also mask declining ability of GRE applicants.

Increasing numbers of students whose primary language is not English have unquestionably affected verbal scores on the general intelligence tests which all applicants are required to take. The percentage of total GRE test-takers who are not U.S. citizens has more than doubled since 1975 to about 16%. Since a large proportion of these students are math and science majors, math and analytic scores would be expected to rise, which they have. Between 1972 and 1987, average quantitative scores rose from 512 to 550; analytic scores have also increased. In the same period, however, verbal scores fell from 497 to 477.

This overall decline in verbal abilities may not be totally attributable to foreign-born applicants, since the same trend shows up on subject tests which are chosen only by students intending to study a particular field -- in which they presumably consider themselves competent. Between 1972 and 1987, average scores of students choosing to take the English Literature test (who are overwhelmingly of English-speaking origin and have usually been English majors) declined from 545 to 526, while those on foreign language tests in French, German, and Spanish also tended downwards. The number of students taking tests in language or literary fields also declined precipitously; only one-half of the 1972 number took the English Literature test in 1985; the pool of French language test-takers declined to approximately one-fifth of its previous size. The same trends were evident in other fields heavily weighted toward verbal skills: History, Political Science, and Sociology scores fell off dramatically, as did the number of test-takers. In 1972, 1,354 students took the philosophy test; in 1984, only 252 signed up, and the test was subsequently discontinued.

These apparent declines in verbally oriented fields -- even by native English-speaking literature majors -- has troubled many observers who feel that a society needs good philosophers, statesmen, and writers as well as outstanding technological minds. In direct contrast, the same years have seen relatively large scoring gains in the fields of engineering, mathematics, psychology, and economics. For example, more students took the engineering test in 1987 than in 1972, and the average score rose from 593 to 623. The number of non-U.S. citizens in these technological fields who will decide to leave the United States after they obtain their advanced training is, of course, unknown.

Let me speculate for just a moment about what these changes might suggest. For reasons which I hope will become clear later in this book, sequential, verbal-analytic reasoning (such as that needed for fluent, accurate reading, writing, and oral language expression) depends on quite different uses of the brain than do skills depending more heavily on nonverbal, "simultaneous" mental processes (e.g., engineering, some aspects of higher mathematics). No clear statement, much less any conclusions, can be drawn from this spotty scenario, but one might be tempted to ponder whether, whatever the reason, we are seeing some sort of shift in abilities -- or at least interest -- among our future academic leaders.

. . . and Back in the Trenches

Of course, few of our students make it to graduate school. For the vast majority of American youngsters, declines in math and science achievement as well as in verbal skills are a source of national alarm. Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have shown particular deficiencies in higher-order reasoning skills, including those necessary for advanced reading comprehension, math, and science. Although younger students, in the wake of a clamor for educational reform, seem to have improved test scores slightly, "most of the progress has occurred in the domain of lower-order skills." Math scores, according to the NAEP findings, are particularly dismal when students are required to sustain attention for problems requiring more than one step. For example, only 44% of high school graduates could compute the change that would be received from $3.00 for two items ordered from a lunch menu. [5]

The same deficiencies in sustained reasoning are found in other subjects. Thus, according to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, only 20% of seventeen-year-olds could write an organized job-application letter, only 4% could make sense out of a sample bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size. Dr. Shanker goes on to comment that only 20 to 25% of students currently in school can learn effectively from traditional methods of teaching. [6]

Particularly troublesome is the fact that, with the exception already noted of foreign-born math students, older and better students are falling behind similar students of previous decades. [7] Eroding abilities in the "best" students first started to show up in the NAEP results in the seventies. A similar trend showed up when a well-recognized test of basic skills for grade school students was revised in 1977. Scores of a nationally representative sample of 40,000 fourth and eighth graders were compared with those of their 1970 counterparts. "Average" fourth graders in 1977 were slightly worse in all areas than fourth graders of 1970, and "language usage" among the better students had dropped significantly. "Average" eighth graders of 1977 had fallen half a year behind those of 1970 both in language usage and mathematics concepts; the "fast" eighth graders had declined most of all. They scored significantly lower in all subjects, with a full-year drop in language usage ability. [8] As will be shown later, the effects of these universally noted trends have begun to show up even in highly selective colleges, as professors find they must water down both reading and writing assignments as well as expectations for analytic reasoning. Despite a serious effort on the part of elementary and high schools to beef up the curriculum, students of all ability levels show virtually no gains in higher-order skills.

Exhibit A in the current academic crisis is the state of reading abilities. Although declines in reading ability have already raised a loud outcry among educators and employers, most people are not aware either of the breadth of the problem or how the manipulation of test procedures are masking its real dimensions.


Some of my seniors will graduate from high school reading on a lower level than the students who graduated from junior high school in 1970. -- English teacher, suburban school, Virginia

My students? Well, they don't read. The culture doesn't read. They don't use language above the colloquial expressions because the mainstream culture is dangerously indifferent to the importance of precise language. I don't have much hope of producing readers in the classroom until we can produce readers in the larger social context. I used to be able to use Tale of Two Cities in a good eighth-grade class; now, even with ninth graders I approach it warily. If they read it on their own, they miss the connections and so much of the meaning -- particularly the subtle ideas. The syntax is just like a foreign language to them. -- English teacher, independent school, Ohio

Toward an Inarticulate and Aliterate Society?

The state of literacy in the United States today is declining so precipitously, while video and computer technologies are becoming so powerful, that the act of reading itself may well be on the way to obsolescence. The alarming incidence of illiteracy in the United States has been widely publicized, alerting the public to the fact that up to 23 million Americans in the work force lack the reading and writing skills necessary to compete in the job market. [9] Not so readily recognized, or admitted, is a growing decline in skill and interest in reading among the functionally literate. Those who can read (or at least pronounce the words) -- do not.

Approximately 90% of young people can read simple material. Yet the majority have difficulty understanding text above elementary school level, drawing inferences beyond simple facts, following an author's point or the sequence of an argument, or using facts to support an argument of their own. [10] As in other subjects, college-bound students have declined in both reading ability and interest, despite national and local initiatives toward improved instruction for them. [11] The NAEP's most recent report found that only 5% of high school graduates could satisfactorily master material traditionally used at the college level.

The situation may get considerably worse. Many of the upcoming generation of teachers dislike reading and avoid it whenever possible. One study conducted by two Kent State University education professors in a children's literature course found surprising changes in prospective teachers' attitudes. "Many students enter our courses with negative attitudes toward reading in general and, more specifically, toward the types of literature that make up the main content of our courses" (i.e., "good" books for children and adolescents). More than one-fourth of these potential teachers confessed to a "lifelong discomfort with print," and many acknowledged that they made it through English courses by relying on "Cliff Notes, book jackets, or cursory reading to supply them with just enough information to pass tests or to prepare book reports." [12] Others of us who are teaching teachers can unfortunately confirm that this observation is not an isolated one.

These young people, who will convey to the next generation not only the higher-level reading and reasoning skills they have so handily circumvented but also their own attitudes toward reading, are reflections of the society in which they live. Americans, on the whole, are not particularly entranced with the written word. Although sales of children's books to affluent parents, who want to give (perhaps literally) their child every educational advantage, are growing, no one is really sure who -- if anyone -- is actually reading the books. Despite incontrovertible evidence that children who read well come from homes where reading is a prominent part of life, most parents do not read themselves. Eighty percent of the books in this country are read by about 10% of the people.

The proportion of readers in the United States is continuing to become smaller with a steady and significant decline in the number of book readers under twenty-one, according to Dr. Bernice Cullinan of New York University. She reports on one large group of "typical" fifth graders queried about the average amount of time they spent reading outside of school:

50% read four minutes a day or less
30% read two minutes a day or less
10% read nothing

This same group of children watched an average of 130 minutes of TV per day. Yet, as Dr. Cullinan reminds us, children become good, insightful, analytic readers only by lots of practice with reading.

Our society is becoming increasingly aliterate, says Cullinan. "An aliterate is a person who knows how to read but who doesn't choose to read. These are people who glance at the headlines of a newspaper and grab the TV schedule. They do not read books for pleasure, nor do they read extensively for information. An aliterate is not much better off than an illiterate, a person who cannot read at all. Aliterates miss the great novels of the past and present. They also miss probing analyses written about political issues. Most aliterates watch television for their news, but the entire transcript of a television newscast would fill only two columns of the New York Times. Aliterates get only the surface level of the news." [13]

The serious audience for books in this country is getting steadily older and shows no signs of growing, confirms Jack Shoemaker, the editor in chief of North Point Press. "I think that a quick survey of some of the big independent booksellers will confirm my sense that there is no meaningful audience in their teenage years or people in their twenties. These [book] stores are largely supported by people in their late thirties to mid-fifties," he remarked recently. [14]

Similar although less dramatic trends are appearing in other countries as well. The Japanese publishing industry reports a steady decline in hardcover sales despite the fact that, comparatively speaking, the Japanese are voracious readers. Literary critics in that country complain that young people are not as interested in literature as previous generations. [15]

Despite similar murmurs from other countries, publishers in the United States have particular reason to be concerned that readers are an endangered species. Book sales in this country are twenty-fourth worldwide, and figures on newspaper sales show significant loss of readership; fifty-four daily papers have died since 1979, and papers sold per thousand residents are only half the number sold in Japan. [16] A proliferation of pictorial and technically oriented magazines (e.g., fitness, home design, motorcycles, computers) fill the newsstands.

The problem results not only from disinterest in reading but also from increasing numbers of students with poor reading skills. Curiously enough, many of these poor readers do not recognize they have a problem. A survey of 443 students entering a community college showed that although a horrifying 50% were reading below ninth grade level, only 80 acknowledged that they needed any help with reading! Even among the 221 who scored anywhere from third- to eighth-grade level, 178 believed they were doing just fine. [17] This all-too-typical statistic certainly hints at major inadequacies in the expectations of their previous schools. Even more, however, it may reflect on the value the students place on reading or their ability to take responsibility for and look inward at their own mental processes.

The Two-Minute Mind

Why don't -- or can't -- most young people read? One of the most common complaints among this generation is that books are "too hard" or "boring." Many have trouble with the mental organization and sustained effort demanded by reading. Coming to grips with verbal logic, wrestling one's mind into submission to an author's unfamiliar point of view, and struggling to make connections appear to be particularly taxing to today's young intellects.

Informal reports help explain the reality behind the statistics. Even some English majors now find sustained prose a drag. Kristin Eddy, a news aide at the Washington Post and a literature major at George Washington University, reported recently on a hands-up poll revealing that only half of her upper-level classmates had bothered to finish the assigned All the King's Men, a best-selling favorite of a previous student generation. Why? "Boring!" "Too hard to follow." Another classmate commented that Sarah Orne Jewett's beautifully written The Country of the Pointed Firs "went so slowly that it seemed like it was written by a retarded person."

To read well, minds must be trained to use language, to reflect, and to persist in solving problems. Students may learn to sound out the words, but unless they possess the internal sense of responsibility for extracting the meaning, they are engaging in a hollow and unsatisfying exercise. With major efforts, we have succeeded in teaching students in early grades to "read the words." Test scores jump off a cliff, however, when students must begin to plug the words into language meaning and grapple with the more advanced grammar, vocabulary, and the sustained intellectual demands of a real text.

Reading Abilities: Worse Than We Realize

Starting in the 1970s, reading test scores in American schools took such a dive that major initiatives were launched to improve instruction. Educators developed new materials based on research about how children learn to read, better training of teachers became a focus in many schools, and instruction in "phonics" (systematic sounding out of words) was stressed. A slight rise in reading test scores in the early grades resulted.

However, as Fred M. Hechinger points out, young students may be sounding out the words better, but they are actually understanding less. [18] Children cannot comprehend, remember, and apply what is read. The 1986 NAEP report found, as have other recent assessments, that students' related problems in reading and expressing ideas in writing stem mainly from difficulty with verbal reasoning.

"Reading instruction at all levels must be restructured to ensure that students learn to reason more effectively about what they have read," states the report, which showed such a drastic and "baffling" decline in reading performance of nine- and seventeen-year-olds that the report was delayed for five months while researchers refigured the statistics and reexamined the test items. They still could not explain the decline. NAEP officials had planned to publish a study showing trends in students' reading performance since 1971, but these plans were canceled because no one wanted to believe the results. [19]
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

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Why We Shouldn't Trust the Tests

This fiasco only illustrates what educational psychologists already realize; strange goings-on sometimes occur in the name of "testing." Test results, in fact, can be quite misleading estimates of just how well, or how poorly, children can read. Perhaps the NAEP results really were accurate. They probably appeared so surprising because other current reading tests -- believe it or not -- actually make students' abilities look considerably better than they really are! Here are several reasons why most test scores should be taken with a large grain of salt:

1. What Is Reading?

How do you define "reading"? I have described in my first book an unusual group of children called hyperlexics, who teach themselves to read as early as age two and continue to read obsessively from any written material they can get their hands on. One five-year-old hyperlexic boy whom I tested brought the New York Times to my office and proceeded to read it aloud with flawless elan. Not surprisingly, he also scored at the level of an average high school senior on a commonly used reading test that measured how well he could sound out and pronounce words he had never even seen before! With scores like this, the child must be a gifted reader, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, he could not understand the meaning of even a first-grade story. Like others afflicted by this strange syndrome, he could "word-call," but he comprehended little.

The ability to "bark at print" is not reading, but many people, including well-meaning parents, think it is. Tests which show that young children's scores are rising may simply be focusing on the "lower level" skills of word reading while neglecting the real heart of the matter: How well do they understand what they have read? Can they reason -- and talk, and write -- about it?

2. How Do We Test It?

When testing children on reading skills, it is relatively easy to check out "phonics" and other word-reading abilities. It takes much longer to find out how well students have understood a passage. Because it is time-consuming to sit down with each child and do a thorough job, most standardized tests used today are given to large groups of children and scored by machines. They are poor vehicles for assessing comprehension because the student is not required, to formulate (say or write) anything, merely to fill in "bubbles," to check off one of a given set of answers. Such multiple-choice tests receive a lot of well-justified criticism because they tend to concentrate on "lower-order" literal questions. Sometimes you don't even have to read the passage to get the right answer:

What color was John's wagon?

"It's testing for the TV generation -- superficial and passive," commented Linda Darling-Hammond, director of education for the RAND Corporation. "We don't ask if students can synthesize information, solve problems, or think independently. We measure what they can recognize. But this is very different from what actually goes on in our information society. No one goes to work and finds a checklist on their desk." [20]

Even poor readers may manage to answer "little red wagon" questions, but they start to flounder when the language, the texts, and the questions grow up. One effective way to probe a reader's understanding is to ask him to "tell what happened," give a summary or a paraphrase. Many students today have particular difficulty with such questioning, perhaps because they have never been required to synthesize or talk about texts in this way; they've been too busy filling in the bubbles.

3. "Dumbed-Down" Tests

Most people are unaware that there has been a major "dumbing-down" of reading tests since the 1960s. It is a shocking fact, considering their poor scores, that our children are taking tests drastically more simple than those of only two decades ago. The evidence suggests that test-makers are making children look better than they really are by manipulating the level of difficulty of both the reading and the types of questions asked.

When discussing tests, I often think back to the mid-seventies, when I was principal of a primary school and we switched to the brand-new, updated form of a nationally normed achievement test. Every child's scores magically rose because the new test was so much easier than the previous one. By simply using the new form, we could raise scores significantly without even teaching anything! Educators went around at professional conferences that year telling each other, "If you want your school to look really good, switch to the new form of Brand X achievement test."

What a wonderful discovery! If scores continue to decline -- why, just keep changing the tests.

Reading abilities of contemporary children cannot easily be compared with those from past decades because most of the tests have been changed every eight or ten years. In 1978, one college professor in Minnesota gave students in his classes the same reading test that had been used in 1928. Their scores were more like those of the high school students of fifty years earlier. [21] Such comparisons are not terribly valid for a number of reasons, including differences in standard vocabulary and usage from one generation to another, yet there is every indication that reading abilities have undergone even more accelerated declines since he did this research in 1978. At the same time, we have seen increasingly frequent revisions of the major tests. Do these more frequent changes reflect a greater need for a fix-up?

In 1987, Dr. James Cannell blew the whistle on test-changers. In an incendiary report he charged that the degree of difficulty in the reading comprehension section of the widely used California Achievement Test for second and third graders was a full grade level below that of the 1977 version of the same test. The equally popular Stanford Achievement Test, said this report, "showed a profound drop in expository reading difficulty between 1972 and 1982." Despite noisy protests from the testing establishment, the essential truth of Cannell's findings was subsequently confirmed by a federally sponsored analysis. [22]

Are the test-makers really at fault? "Norms," by definition, vary according to the abilities of the group of children used to develop the scoring system for any given test; if overall abilities decline, so do the standards of the test. If sixth graders in the 1980s are poorer readers than sixth graders were in the 1960s, the 1980s test has to be easier in order to get a "normal distribution" of scores, with many children receiving average scores and only a few out on the extreme high or low ends.

Moreover, because administrators tend to shun tests that make their children look stupid (and themselves incompetent), publishers are naturally pressured to produce tests to make kids look good. They appear to have done exactly what Cannell claimed. When I compared the 1964, 1972, and 1982 forms of a typical, widely used reading test, I was shocked to observe the differences. Each successive edition was so much easier than the previous one that it was hard to believe they were actually given to children of the same grade level! As just one example, Figure 1 shows comparable items (the last page) from the 1964 and 1982 forms of the test for fourth graders. You don't need a master's degree in reading to notice the increasing simplification of content, vocabulary level, sentence length, etc. This test, incidentally, is advertised as "the standard by which all other achievement tests will be measured." [23]

The most scary of all is a new "Advanced" form, designed for ninth graders and published in 1988 (Figure 2), which calls on such complex skills as reading a menu in a fast-food restaurant. This entire test is demonstrably easier than what fourth graders were expected to read in 1964.

Is the publisher's advertisement of this last instrument as "Testing Today's Curriculum" an unconscious irony? Personally, I find it incredible that this is called a "reading" test, yet it is one of the major instruments by which "competency" is evaluated.

4. Teachers and Administrators Can Cheat, Too

When the pressure is on for better test scores, administrators may report falsely inflated results to make their schools or districts look better. Cannell's study found, in fact, that all fifty states were above the national average, [24] although no one knows quite how this apparent miracle occurred. Teachers, too, are susceptible to pressure. When one's evaluation -- and maybe one's job --- is on the line, even a responsible teacher may slide into a seductive practice called "teaching the test." When the same test is used for more than one year and teachers become familiar with the questions, they tend, perhaps even unconsciously, to focus instruction on the items ("Remember this word -- you just might see it again. . .") that will make their students shine statistically.


Grade Four Reading Test, 1964
Test 2: Paragraph Meaning
Although we cannot always see the difference with the naked eye, stars are of different colors, and astronomers with 49 to aid, them can see this. Since heat produces light, one thing that the different 50 of the stars tell us is the 51 of each star.


The flowers of trees differ widely in their size and prominence, so that, while we all know the flower of the cherry tree, we may never have noticed that the oak has a flower. Yet, if we could trace back the history of every acorn, we should soon find that the oak does have a 52. The size and appearance of what we call a flower usually depend on the part we call the petals, but these are not necessary parts of a flower at all; and there are many flowers which have no 53. All 54 have flowers of some sort. They may be large or small, but they exist.


FIGURE 1. Comparison of Reading Achievement Tests, Grade Four: 1964 and 1982. (A, Stanford Achievement Test: 6th edition. Copyright © 1964 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved. B, Stanford Achievement Test: Copyright © 1982 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.)

Van Gogh was intensely conscious of life and creation, and the forces that govern Nature. Since he could not express what he felt by ordinary methods, he resorted to a strange manner of 55, drawing his pictures in masses of waving lines. It seemed to him that things so full of life as the sky, and the sun, and the earth could only be expressed by 56 that seemed to be always moving and were as nearly 57 as a line on a canvas can be.


Water is sometimes referred to as H20 which is the chemical formula for water. This is the 58 way of saying that every molecule of 59 contains two atoms of hydrogen (H2) and one 60 of oxygen (0).

Reading Comprehension
I am awakened by the sound of thunder. Quietly, I sit up in bed. I am all alone in the trailer. The air holds mysterious sounds. "Are you safe, Jeremy?" I ask myself. I see a shadow in the window! The sight of it scares me. I slip beneath my blanket. The room is dark, except for the glow from the candle. I hear footsteps outside. Could they belong to some strange creature? I have never been this frightened before. Then I hear a tap on the door. "Who is it?" I whisper softly. What a comfort to hear Uncle Mike's voice!

50 What did Jeremy see in the window?
f a flame
g a shadow
h a tree
j an animal
51 This story takes place in a --
a barn
b trailer
c tent
d cabin
52 The footsteps belonged to Jeremy's --
f friend
g brother
h uncle
j cousin
53 Jeremy was awakened by --
a a knock on the door
b footsteps
c thunder
d a bright light
54 How did Jeremy feel at the end of the story?
f confident
g tired
h sad
j relieved
55 The author creates a mood of --
a warmth
b sadness
c peace
d excitement

School doors open
At summer's end,
In the lonely building
The children attend.

Faces happy, faces glad --
With faded jeans and wind-blown hair
Legs climbing.
Stair by stair.

Teacher waiting at her desk --
Room smells musty,
Walls are bare,
Books all dusty.

Goodbye, white sand;
Goodbye, pool.
Hello, Miss Rosen!
Hello, school!

56 The books need to be --
f brushed off
g repaired
h put away
j covered
57 Where is Miss Rosen?
a in the schoolyard
b in her classroom
c in the hallway
d on the stairway
58 In this poem, what do the children's faces tell us?
f how hungry they are
g how happy they are
h how old they are
j how well behaved they are
59 In this poem, the children are saying goodbye to --
a their teacher
b their friends
c summer vacation
d winter
60 The children's hair probably looks --
f wet
g faded
h dusty
j tangled


FIGURE 2. "Advanced" Reading Achievement Test, Grade Nine: 1988. (Stanford Achievement Test: Copyright © 1988 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.)

1 Before sales tax is included, a small Dino-cheese pizza with sausage, green peppers, and' onions will cost --
A $3.50
B $3.75
C $4.00
D $4.45
2 Which dish contains spinach?
F Tyranna-Vore
G Stega-pizza
H Bronta-Vore
J Dino-cheese pizza
3 How much will the coupon save Bob if he orders a medium Stegapizza and a 32-ounce root beer?
A $0.79
B $4.50
C $6.00
D $6.79
4 All of these can be ordered on a Dino-cheese pizza except --
F clams
G bacon
H pistachios
J mushrooms
5 This advertisement was not designed to be --
A published in a newspaper
B handed out at Pizza Plus
C broadcast on television
D distributed in people's mailboxes
6 You cannot get a Bronta-Special for-
F dinner on Saturday
G lunch on Friday
H dinner on Friday
J lunch on Sunday

There are other clever little ways to manipulate test scores. One group of elementary teachers from Michigan told me they always give the pretest (in September) late in the afternoon and tell the children they can go out on the playground as soon as they finish. For the "post-test" (by which the "gains" from their teaching are judged at the end of the year), they give the students orange juice and a healthful snack first thing in the morning; then when blood (and brain) sugar are at peak level, they hand out the test and encourage the class to take their time and stay in their seats to check answers if they finish early.

Why We Shouldn't Trust the Textbooks

"Johnny is only in third grade, but he's already in a fourth-grade reader!" carols a delighted mother. Unfortunately, she should not assume this accomplishment proves Johnny to be other than a mediocre reader, since many textbooks have also undergone "dumbing down." For some time, textbook publishers have been under pressure to make texts more "readable," unfortunately defined as having shorter sentences, less complex vocabulary, and more pictures. Elementary school textbooks ("basal readers") have increasingly contained short, unnatural sentences and awkward prose that can hardly be expected to endear to students the cadences of good language and literature.

Quality has also been jeopardized by superficial standards of reading "competency." According to a 1988 report of The Council for Basic Education, "Editors are increasingly organizing elementary reading series around the content and timing of standardized tests." The result? "A thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes, and charts." [25]

High school textbooks (in science, history, etc.) have been pruned in response to complaints by teachers that students cannot understand books with traditional levels of complexity. Given the caliber of prose "infecting" current history texts, laments history buff Jack Valenti, they "would all fail the essential test: Was it read, enjoyed and remembered?" [26]

In a scathing critique published in Education Week, Arthur Woodward of the University of Rochester took textbook publishers to task for the new stress on visuals that drastically weakens texts. In many cases, he wrote, "instructional exposition takes second place to the design characteristics, which generally resemble those of a coffee table picture book." He blames the high proportion of pages devoted to illustrations, often quite unrelated to the material at hand, for "the difficulty publishers face in handling given topics with sufficient substance." [27]

Even college-level texts have suffered by becoming more "homogenized," less academic, longer, easier, and more superficially glossy, claims Dr. Diana Paul of the University of Massachusetts and Harvard. These changes came about, at least in part, because "increasing .. numbers of college students were reading at a level that made it difficult for them to cope with traditional college textbooks," she explains. [28]

Overall, the state of reading points up fundamental changes, not only in skill levels, but also in the way today's students approach thinking and learning. Is it possible that reading is, indeed, an unnecessary relic of a passing culture? Could new habits possibly be more adaptive for today's kids or for society? While these are notions we will consider in the final chapter of this book, most educators see trends away from literacy as overridingly negative. Not only do they put students into direct conflict with the stated goals and methods of education, but they also render them less able to compete in the practical world of work in an information-processing society where verbal and problem-solving skills are in high demand.

Moreover, the expanded mental and human perspectives gained from reading may be a particular imperative for a generation destined to live -- and provide leadership -- in a technological culture. Do we want policymakers who are untroubled by the weighty realities of history because they have never read -- or reflected -- about them? Or business leaders who never heard of the likes of Babbitt? Or voters who have never peeked around the corner of their own thinking?


Logically, one might expect that major changes in a generation of brains would show up on IQ tests. Do today's kids also get lower scores on them? No! Students today -- at least the young ones -- actually appear to score better than the children of previous generations.

To try and make some sense out of this apparent contradiction, I looked up the handful of studies that have surveyed trends in IQ scores over generations. I also compared scores on verbal sections of the tests (which require, for example, vocabulary knowledge, listening, verbal expression and reasoning skills) with the nonverbal sections (which contain items such as visual puzzles, mazes, imitating block constructions, etc.). Predictably, no easy answers were forthcoming, but studies over the last few decades did suggest that verbal abilities have recently begun to decline relative to nonverbal ones. This pattern, which has surprised researchers, is beginning to be seen in several European countries, but the United States is definitely leading the way. Whether these changes are attributable to some inherent weakness in the tests themselves or whether they represent an important trend has not yet been agreed upon. [29-31]

In fact, most researchers themselves have decided that looking only at people's "IQs" is not a very good way to compare mental abilities of successive generations. First of all, no one is really sure exactly what different types of tests actually measure -- which may not be "intelligence" at all. Moreover, the "experts" have yet to agree about what "intelligence" really is.

According to total scores (verbal plus nonverbal) on the Wechsler Scales, probably the most commonly used IQ tests in the United States and several other countries, children appear to get smarter all the time. In fact, unlike reading tests, each new version of the test has been made slightly harder because scores have tended to rise across generations. People in this part of the testing business have come to expect that each generation will do better, on average, on the same types of items than did their parents. Yet, not surprisingly, this may only reflect the fact that more people have spent more years in school. No matter how hard test-makers try, it is almost impossible to test "intelligence" without including factors that are improved by attendance at school -- not the least of which is test sophistication. Moreover, as more parents attend school longer, more children are brought up by people who think and talk "in the culture of the tests"; so they may test "smarter" even if they are intrinsically no brighter. Moreover, as more people go to school longer, their scores continue to rise even into their twenties, so that recent revisions of the test have actually seen adults getting proportionately "smarter" faster than adolescents. [32]

In addition, improvements in the average levels of nutrition and prenatal care naturally tend to raise the average scores of any population. Since the 1930s, when tests for mental ability became widely used, average scores in the United States have increased substantially, with slight declines only for children born in the Depression and the postwar baby boom. The latter drop is doubtless linked to another statistical fact: increasing family size produces lower average IQ test scores. Conversely, when people have had smaller families, IQ scores have normally risen, presumably because parents of fewer children have traditionally spent more time with each child. [33]

As standards of living have increased in countries around the world, so have IQ scores, and scores in the United States are now leveling off compared to those in other countries. Dr. James R. Flynn of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, recently collated all available information on IQ trends over time. His study, the largest to date, took data from fourteen developed nations; overall, they showed "massive IQ gains."

Viewing these results in light of reality, however, Dr. Flynn became skeptical. Are people today that much smarter than the average man on the street in previous eras? "A generation with a massive IQ gain should radically outperform its predecessors. . . . [If these changes are real] the Netherlands alone has over 300,000 people who qualify as potential geniuses. The result should be a cultural renaissance too great to be overlooked," he wryly observed.

Yet, Flynn pointed out, a major survey in Europe "contained not a single reference to a dramatic increase in genius or mathematical and scientific discovery during the present generation; no one has remarked on the superiority of contemporary schoolchildren. . . . As for inventions, the number of patents granted has actually diminished."

Moreover, comparisons between IQ scores and results on other tests are puzzling, to say the least. As American IQs have continued a moderate rise, scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), have taken their major nosedive. Dr. Flynn comments, "Thanks to gains on [IQ] tests, it seemed that those entering American high schools were getting more and more intelligent, and yet they were leaving high school with worse and worse academic skills. Unless nonintellectual traits, such as motivation, study habits, and self-discipline were deteriorating at an incredible rate, how could more intelligent students be getting so much less education?" [34]

Flynn himself concludes that IQ tests really do not measure intelligence at all, but rather a specialized type of problem-solving that may not transfer very well outside of the test situation. Environmental factors only tangentially related to real intelligence may actually be responsible for the scoring gains, he suggests. Whatever the tests measure, however, the United States is leveling off faster on both verbal and nonverbal scales than other nations. "Evidence is pouring in from all over the technologically developed world that the U.S. gains are below average, and the new evidence sets aside any doubts about measurement error," he states. [35]

Let us return for a moment to Dr. Flynn's offhand speculation about the deterioration of "nonintellectual traits," which may deserve more emphasis than he gave it. In later chapters we will explore their underestimated importance as well as their endangered state. It should also become apparent that the parts of the brain storing information and producing high IQ test scores are essentially separate systems from those enabling people to organize, plan, follow through, express themselves accurately, and use the facts they have absorbed. These latter areas, probably an even more important source of "intelligence," are the ones the tests don't tap -- and the ones most in jeopardy for children growing up in today's culture.

As we shall see in the next chapter, the power of children's brains can indeed be increased by good nutrition, adult companionship, and the stimulation of active play, toys, books, and games. Television provides many bits of knowledge that enable youngsters to look good on IQ tests, especially during early years. Computer use may also spuriously make young children look "smarter," although some ways of using computers may actually be detrimental to overall reasoning ability. These foundations are only the beginning, however. If no one shows youngsters how to use their brains for thinking, the apparent advantages will soon be lost.


While society blames educators for academic declines, educators on every level complain that society is sending them children who are ill-prepared to learn. Almost everyone accepts the fact that "disadvantaged" youngsters need special educational attention; few realize that changes in contemporary lifestyles are affecting even "advantaged" children.

Voices From the Trenches

Dr. Shirley O'Rourke, a thoughtful analyst of the current scene and an energetic public school kindergarten teacher in a "typical" small Midwestern town, has children in her class from all socioeconomic groups. I asked her if she had observed any significant recent trends in the learning abilities of her students.

"You bet," she responded instantly. "They're neat kids. At this age they can make fantastic progress, but we have to work harder at it these days. And it's not always my children from the higher socioeconomic sections of town that do the best," she added quickly. ''This is my sixteenth year, and I have found, over about the past seven or eight or so, the children from every neighborhood come with fewer social skills, less language ability, less ability to listen, less motor ability. I have my theories, of course -- the TV, parents being so busy.

"Their social skills, the ability to interact appropriately, they're very rough, too. When I started teaching, children's first reactions would be through conversation; now, before they even find out if anyone accidentally bumped them, it's bam, slug it out -- girls and boys both.

''Their listening is really worse. I always say 'excuse me' when I want them to listen to me; now I find myself having to explain what 'excuse me' means, that it's my turn to talk and their turn to listen. Kids used to know that conversation means taking turns; I don't think they know that now. Everyone wants to talk at the same time.

"Years ago, the children had experiences, their parents took them places, they talked to them instead of at them, they read to them. In sports, the parents would be outside, having fun casually. But today, the experiences are changed, what some adults seem to be calling 'experiences' is to go buy a workbook.

"I can't blame it on the fact that parents are working, because I've seen parents who are both working and doing an excellent job with their children in terms of experiences; I don't know if it is because others are too busy and don't realize how important experiences are. Without experiences, there are no concepts; without concepts, there's no attention span because they don't know what people are talking about."

Dr. O'Rourke remains hopeful, however, about possibilities for filling many of the gaps.

"I have some children from the saddest backgrounds and I will not believe anyone who tells me that a child needs to have all this special help when all they really need is to be actively involved, allowed to talk, allowed to relate to each other, and to use literature to develop that missing language." [36]

In a later chapter we will take a look at some teaching approaches that confirm Dr. O'Rourke's optimism. Clearly, new ideas and energy are needed at every level. In one well-known independent school, another master teacher, veteran of fifteen years in the same third-grade classroom, commented:

''Their attention span has gone way down. It's very short and they tune out all the time. Sometimes they tune out right at the beginning of a lesson or a discussion. One surprising thing -- many of them tune out their peers as well as me! I associate it with TV, but that can't be entirely it because some who are watching the more worthwhile programs are very sophisticated in their knowledge.

"I really hate to generalize because some of them are so good, but many kids have trouble integrating what they learn. It seems that their personal experiences are so skimpy that they have trouble separating from the bang-bang stuff they see on TV. But you know, there are exceptions. I had one kid last year whose IQ was much lower than the rest of my class, but he really did well. His parents were so good -- they read with him a lot, good worthwhile stuff, and they talked and discussed with him. We did one unit on Eskimos, and that father went with him to the library and they picked out two books and came home and they read them to him, and then they discussed them. Now this kid was so literal that if you said something about a 'bird's-eye view' he would go around looking for the bird, but when we talked about Eskimos in class, he really contributed some great insights.

"Then there are many others with much higher IQs whose performance is so poor -- of course you never know how much of that might be a learning disability, but sometimes I think the environments they come out of can make those problems worse through a virtual neglect of enrichment. You might say they're making the worst of what they have rather than the best." [37]

Dr. Arthur Costa, president of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, told me in an interview that he, too, believes there have been widespread changes in students that necessitate some serious educational rethinking.
"Not all kids, of course, but one thing so many are worse at is that they think episodically, they don't draw on past knowledge. Another is the lack of perseverance -- they give up ('I don't want to do this, I don't want to do thinking; thinking is hard work'); another is their impulsivity: they take the first thing that comes to mind, they make immediate judgments, snap, snap. They seem unable to listen to ideas and carry them forth and interact with each other; they're so busy with their own point of view that they can't get into anyone else's thinking. They've also got a sort of lack of awesomeness, curiosity ('Who cares? It's boring, this is dumb!'). I don't want to say all kids; what I am saying is that many kids come to school and they lack motivation, restraint of impulsivity, they're disorganized, they're out of tune with phenomena. Yet these thought processes will be so essential in the future. [38]

Ohio Teacher of the Year Rosemary Gulick, interviewed in her first-grade classroom in a middle-class suburb, thinks poor learning habits become increasingly resistant to change. "Children today are definitely harder to teach. They expect learning to be 'fun,' and they can't wait for anything. Everything is instant. My biggest concern is that they can't think through problems. By the time I get them at age six it's almost too late!"

A visit to Ms. Gulick's classroom soon demonstrated that she hasn't used this as an excuse to give up. "I have to train them to talk, listen, pay attention -- even show them how to work their way through problems; it takes time, but it's worth it!" [39]

Who's Minding the Children's Brains?

In the following chapters we will take a closer look at many interlocking factors of the scenario these educators are describing. New developments in the lives of today's children have the potential to put their brains at risk. The most obvious is increased physical danger from toxic environments, but intellectual hazards are also inherent in some of our society's favorite leisure-time activities, inappropriate educational methods applied to shape up lagging skills; and changing attitudes of adults toward the needs of children. All may be jeopardizing young minds in more subtle but equally significant ways.

Everyone wants our children to be smarter, but is anyone willing to take the responsibility? By 1995 more than three-quarters of all school-age children and two-thirds of preschoolers will have mothers in the labor force. Yet the quality of surrogate care is too often inadequate. It is estimated that 15% of primary-age and 45% of upper-elementary-age, children come home to a house without a parent or other adult. As women return to work, community agencies that have traditionally depended on volunteer support are no longer available to extend social networks, sports programs, scouting, and other activities to children who lack enrichment at home. For preschoolers, fewer women are available to take care of other people's children, and makeshift caregiving abounds. Not many fathers have working conditions flexible enough to fill these gaps, and good day care is expensive and hard to come by.

"Because society does not yet wholeheartedly support working mothers, we have done little as a nation to provide optimal substitute care for small children. It is frightening to leave a small child in less than optimal care, and yet 50% of parents do not have adequate daycare available to them," emphasizes Dr. T. Barry Brazelton. [40]

Dr. Susan Luddington-Hoe, an authority on infant development in California, is particularly concerned about the effects of inadequate environments on early brain development. She says that erosion of the quality of interpersonal interactions for youngsters may have long-range effects.

"It's really ironic, just as we're becoming so enlightened as to the importance of the brain's interactions during the first year of its development, we're having fewer interactions! Mothers are looking for other resources to baby-sit their babies, and as mothers pull away from babies, babies are not getting the challenge they need. You visit some infant care centers, and it is so sad; I went to visit one two doors down from me and they have eight to twenty babies there, all under the age of one. I walked in and there was absolutely nothing -- I mean it, no pictures, no toys, nothing. The babies were just sitting there on blankets on this carpeted floor -- this is a licensed, recommended infancy center in California. There were three care-givers: two were Spanish-speaking and one was Iranian; none of them spoke English, but all the babies were English-speaking. Children in settings like this are not getting the optimal brain growth, they're not getting the activity that establishes the cognitive pathways or keeps them moving." [41]

Professionals' concerns do not end with the early years. Continuing changes in language development, personal habits, and problem-solving abilities can be a function of alteration in adult-child interactions even into adolescence.

Dr. Dee Coulter, a Colorado teacher and lecturer on brain development and learning, is concerned about a seeming epidemic of attention and learning problems in older children. She comments, "TV is an easy scapegoat for everything bad that's happening. But I don't know if it's the TV per se, or if it's an indicator that the family has a fairly sparse repertoire of options -- and I'm not just talking about kids in the ghetto. Maybe TV is the only way lots of kids can settle themselves down because no one is there to show them how to work with paint supplies, modeling clay, musical instruments; they have no other nurturance, no one to read them stories, no nature to walk out in, no pets to take care of. We are looking at the absence of all these things in so many children's lives. TV becomes a side effect." [42]


The purpose of this book is not to criticize either parents or teachers. Both groups feel helpless in the face of contemporary pressures, and most do their best. They are fighting an uphill battle, however. Many parents realize only too well that old formulas for family structure and child rearing don't always apply. And while most educators -- many of whom are parents themselves -- would like to help, too many do not understand what is needed. Only when both groups become aware of what is really happening to children today can we all stop blaming each other and start working on solutions.

It makes no sense to blame the kids, although this is an expedient too often seized upon by frustrated adults. Of course, adults of every era lament the fecklessness of the upcoming generation. Cultural change is inevitable, and as the young rise to meet new sets of challenges, generational rifts in priorities naturally occur. In the long run, of course, things usually work themselves out (although a cynic might remark that many oft-quoted comments about the unworthiness of youth have been followed by the decline of the civilization in question). It is important to note, however, that within the vehicle of gradual change, parents and teachers have customarily remained at the wheel even while they complained about the noise in the backseat. From this position of control they continued to guide the mental habits of the young in the directions they deemed appropriate.

Currently, technological and social change have seized the accelerator, propelling us into an uncertain world -- of video, computers, the "global village." In this vigorously bubbling "information age," many adults feel they have little control and perhaps even less knowledge than their children. Unlike their own parents, they may be reluctant to assert themselves against their offspring. The young, who appear to command the new machines -- as well as the mores of the bedroom and the shopping mall -- are sometimes viewed as having more wisdom than they really do. Parents, themselves overwhelmed, abdicate to the peer and popular culture much of the shaping of their children's mental habits.

We have failed to recognize, however, that if a society expects its young to master academic skills and intellectual content, adults must help prepare children's minds accordingly. The purpose of this book is to call attention to the brain's needs, the neural imperatives of childhood and adolescence. Many are currently being violated. What we do with, for, and to our children's growing minds will shape not only their brains but also the intellectual "standards" that represent our cultural future.

The primary thesis of this book is that we are rearing a generation of "different brains" and that many students' faltering academic skills -- at every socioeconomic level -- reflect subtle but significant changes in their physical foundations for learning. These fundamental shifts put children in direct conflict with traditional academic standards and the methods by which they are usually conveyed. Particularly at risk are abilities for language-related learning (e.g., reading, writing, analytic reasoning, oral expression), sustained attention, and problem solving. The following chapters will attempt to demonstrate how and why these changes are occurring, what should be done about them, and finally, what they may mean in terms of the future. How, specifically, can parents and teachers help children acquire the skills that will be needed in a new technological age?
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Fri Sep 27, 2013 11:17 pm

CHAPTER 2: Neural Plasticity: Nature's Double-Edged Sword

The large auditorium is hushed as the lights dim and a statistical chart appears on the screen. I reflect momentarily that I have never heard a large group of educators this quiet.

"Now, I'll show you the effects of different environments on our animals' brains." Dr. Marian Diamond wields her laser pointer triumphantly. "We've been working at this for more than thirty years, so I hope you'll forgive me if I skip just a little." The audience chuckles appreciatively and subsides into rapt attention as Dr. Diamond continues. "Here's a summary of the data comparing brain size and weight of rats reared in the standard cages, those who lived in the 'impoverished' environments, and here" -- she pauses dramatically -- "are the results with the animals who lived in the enrichment cages. Notice how, with increasing amounts of environmental enrichment, we see brains that are larger and heavier, with increased dendritic branching. That means those nerve cells can communicate better with each other. With the enriched environments we also get more support cells because the nerve cells are getting bigger. Not only that, but the junction between the cells -- the synapse -- also increases its dimensions. These are highly significant effects of differential experience. It certainly shows how dynamic the nervous system is and how responsive it is to its internal and external surroundings."

This international audience has gathered to hear many speakers describe new concepts for education, but Dr. Diamond is clearly the star attraction. A professor of neuroanatomy at the University of California, Berkeley, she has pioneered studies that have opened scientists' eyes -- and minds -- about the power of environmental factors in physically altering the dimensions of growing brains. In experiments described in her book Enriching Heredity [1] and elaborated on in the next chapter, rats in an "enriched" environment, actively interested and challenged by frequent new learning experiences, develop larger and heavier brains and also show increased ability to run mazes, the best available test of a rat's intelligence. Moreover, in a series of recent experiments, she has demonstrated for the first time that the effects of personal involvement in new learning appear to be so powerful that rats of any age can develop new brain connections if they intensely pursue new challenges. "Yes," she concludes, with a flourish, "if we work hard enough at it we can even change the very old brain."

She is immediately besieged with questions. Aren't there some basic learning abilities the environment can't change'? What about heredity? "Heredity plays a highly important role in the form of these different [behavioral] repertoires," she acknowledges, "but we now have clear evidence that the environment can play a role in shaping brain structure and, in turn, learning behavior. It is the area of the brain that is stimulated that grows." [2]

The auditorium resonates with an undercurrent of response. An elementary school principal seated next to me whispers, "If this applies to human brains, too, think of the implications for teachers -- and for parents!"

I am eager to talk with Dr. Diamond, and an hour later, when she has finally been released by a swarm of questioners, I have my chance. This world-renowned scientist turns out to be an approachable and thoughtful person-- and it soon becomes evident that she takes her own theories to heart. Our conversation takes place as we stride vigorously through a nearby woods, impelled by the enthusiasm with which she approaches new ideas as well as new physical challenges. She has just returned from her first kayaking trip and is about to embark on a six-week teaching assignment in Africa.

Although Dr. Diamond is obviously convinced that stimulation is good for human as well as for rat brains, I am curious about how confidently we can apply her animal research to children. I explain my questions about the effects of contemporary culture on children's brains. Do neuroanatomists believe that the brains of children, like those of the rats, can be changed by their environments?

"To those of us in the field, there is absolutely no doubt that culture changes brains, and there's no doubt in my mind that children's brains are changing," she replies. "Whatever they're learning, as those nerve cells are getting input, they are sending out dendritic branches. As long as stimuli come in to a certain area, you get more branching; if you lose the stimuli, they stop branching. It is the pattern of the branching that differentiates among us. The cortex is changing all the time -- I call it 'the dance of the neurons.' This is true in the brains of cats, dogs, rats, monkeys, or man." [3]

Many similar experiments have convinced other scientists of the changeability -- they call it plasticity -- of brains. Although it is obviously impossible to conduct similar studies on humans, researchers agree both on the validity of principles derived from animal experiments and on the fact that human brains are probably the most plastic of all. Another expert in the field, Dr. Victor H. Denenberg, recently commented, "One would expect even more powerful and more subtle effects with the human, whose brain is vastly more complicated than that of the rat, and who lives in a much more complex social and environmental milieu." [4]

With the reality of brain plasticity well-accepted in scientific circles, it was still a new idea for many of the educators attending Dr. Diamond's presentation.

"I guess it seems obvious, but I somehow never really believed that what I did in the classroom would physically influence the size or shape of my students' brains!" commented one teacher. "It does put being a teacher -- or a parent, for that matter -- in a whole new light."

Indeed it does. In order to interpret any research responsibly, however, it is necessary to understand it. Although scientists themselves do not claim to have any final answers, this chapter will summarize what is currently known about environments as sculptors of growing minds both before and after birth. Let us start by entangling ourselves briefly in a very old, but fundamental, controversy.


"Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." Common sense suggests that growing organisms are highly adaptable to external influences, but what seemed so apparent to Alexander Pope has caused psychologists to argue bitterly for years. How much is mental ability shaped by environments and how much is in the hands of heredity? After all, the tree still develops bark, leaves, and a functioning root system no matter how the twig gets bent. Psychologists have tried to resolve this issue with studies comparing identical and fraternal twins. Currently, heredity and environment are each assigned roughly 50 (or 40, or 60)% of the credit. As parents of wiggly little children can understand, however, their physical behavior resists numerical formulas -- and so does their mental behavior: learning. So-called "nature-nurture" interactions are complex. For example, in a case to be considered in a later chapter, a learning disability that runs in families may result from changes in the child's brain before birth. Cells in the fetal brain get rearranged by chemicals produced because of an inherited response of the mother's own autoimmune system (don't worry, scientists are confused, too) -- which the child may also inherit. Would you say this disability is caused by heredity or by the prenatal environment?

In another controversial example, children from lower socioeconomic groups tend to score below average on standard IQ tests. Is this because poor environments depress their intelligence, or because they never learned good test-taking skills, or because, as some believe, families with nonstandard intellectual endowment might get trapped in lower socioeconomic groups? In another chapter, when we consider the results of efforts to alter such children's intelligence, we will see how difficult it is to sort out these factors.

Brain research is now giving these old issues an interesting new dimension by changing the focus from heredity versus environment to heredity plus environment. Until recently, so little has been known about the "brain" that most theorists sidestepped it when trying to explain intelligence (and they produced some mindless theories as a result). Now we acknowledge that the basic genetic architecture for our brains lies at the heart of all learning and even much of our emotional behavior. When these inherited patterns interact with the child's environment, plasticity guarantees an unlimited number of interesting variations. The final pattern is determined by the way each individual uses that unique brain.

Behavior Changes Brains and Brains Change Behavior

"Do you really mean that the way children use their brains causes physical changes in them?" Since I began the research for this book, I have heard this question from almost everyone to whom I have talked -- everyone, that is, except the neuroscientists. Their response is quite different, more along the lines of, "So, what else is new?" These scientists already understand that experience -- what children do every day, the ways in which they think and respond to the world, what they learn, and the stimuli to which they decide to pay attention -- shapes their brains. Not only does it change the ways in which the brain is used (functional change), but it also causes physical alterations (structural change) in neural wiring systems.

"Would I be safe in saying that if you change what a child does with his or her brain, you're physically going to change that brain?" I asked Dr. Kenneth A. Klivington of the Salk Institute in San Diego, California.

"That's absolutely correct," he replied. "Structure and function are inseparable. We know that environments shape brains; all sorts of experiments have demonstrated that it happens. There are some studies currently being done that show profound differences in the structure of the brain depending on what is taken in by the senses."

We will return later to these and other studies, but before we get too far into the details, we should undertake a look at the way the brain develops before and after birth, focusing on this whole concept of its changeability. A good starting point is the brain's most basic structure -- the cells and their connections -- for therein lies the secret of neural plasticity.

Networking Neurons

All brains consist of two types of cells: nerve cells, called neurons, and glial cells. The neurons, numbering in the billions, arrive in the world ready and waiting to connect themselves together in flexible networks to fire messages within and between parts of the brain. No new cerebral cortical neurons will be added after birth, but since each of these nerve cells is capable of communicating with thousands of other neurons, the potential for neural networking is virtually incomprehensible. Surrounding glial cells provide the catering service for the nervous system, supporting and nourishing the neurons as they go about their delicate task of creating, firing, and maintaining the connections for thinking.

If you hold your hand out in front of you with fingers extended, you can get a rough idea of the shape of the average neuron. Your palm represents the cell body, with its central nucleus, and your outreaching fingers are dendrites. These microscopic projections extend in treelike formations to act as intake systems, picking up messages from other neurons and relaying them to the cell body. After reaching your palm, a message would travel down your arm, which represents the axon, or output system. When it reaches the end of the axon, it must jump across a small gap called a synapse before being picked up by dendrites from a neighboring neuron. This primordial intellectual leap is facilitated by chemicals -- called neurotransmitters or neuromodulators. It is repeated untold billions of times as this vast array of potential goes about the business of daily mental activity. The strength and efficiency of synaptic connections determine the speed and power with which your brain functions. The most important news about synapses is that they are formed, strengthened, and maintained by interaction with experience.

New Experiences: New Connections

Dr. Richard M. Lerner, professor of child and adolescent development at Pennsylvania State University, and author of On the Nature of Human Plasticity [5] points out that you can't have a developing, changing, responsive organism without its brain being able to be altered structurally by environmental encounters. Structural change, in this case, does not mean growing new neurons, but rather creating new structures, like road systems, between the ones that are already there. As the structures of dendrites and synapses change in response to experience, the new pathways formed allow different functions to follow them so the child becomes able to master new skills. The brain's flexibility is also increased, since new pathways provide alternate routes to the same destination. During our discussion, Dr. Lerner used the analogy of a road system in a developing town. At first, there may be only one road through town; as alternate routes form, a driver has more choices of how to get to a destination. The structural changes are comparable to building a new road, and the functional ones to deciding which of several roads to take to reach a goal. The systems are mutually interactive, since the roads are constructed as a response to demands for certain types of functions.

I asked Dr. Lerner about the possibility that children's brains today might be constructing slightly different road systems from those, say, twenty years ago. If they are being attracted to different types of stimuli, both structure and function could be altered, he acknowledged. Yes, taking a large group of children and exposing them to certain experiences might modify them in a particular direction. Of course, any conclusions of this sort would require a good deal of evidence, this conservative scientist hastened to add. [6]

Scientists hesitate to make definitive statements on this point because they have not had the technology available to get the evidence for large groups of "normal" children. Even with new computerized techniques of brain imaging, it is still difficult to pin down subtle changes at the level of the neuron. Moreover, most research dollars have gone to the pressing issue of serious disability, so most available evidence comes from youngsters whose brains have been injured through illness or accident. They provide dramatic evidence for plasticity. Frequently children master skills even when the neurons thought to be important are missing or damaged. For example, very young children with severe injury in the brain's language areas can develop remarkably good abilities to talk, understand language, read, and write. These brains have been able to develop new structural connections to bypass injured areas and also to reorganize functionally by using alternate, undamaged areas. With a cast of understudies, the final performance is usually somewhat impaired, but young brains are astonishingly flexible.

What about older ones? While new tricks are indeed harder for old synapses, studies of stroke victims prove that with sufficient effort the human brain may be remolded to some extent at any age. The latest research confirms this principle for healthy brains as well. In fact, as I write this book and you read it, our brains are not even the same from moment to moment. The very acts of writing and reading are doubtless changing, very subtly, the way some cells connect together. I find this idea thought-provoking, and I can even become somewhat confounded thinking that while I am thinking this thought-provoking thought, my brain is probably being changed by it!

It is much more difficult, however, to reorganize a brain than it is to organize it in the first place. "Organization inhibits reorganization," say the scientists. [7] Carving out neuronal tracks for certain types of learning is best accomplished when the synapses for that particular skill are most malleable, before they "firm up" around certain types of responses.

Hard Wiring and Open Circuits

Animal brains have an easy time of it. They carry out many of the basic routines of keeping alive, fed, and safe, reproducing and caring for the young, with preprogrammed neural systems that do the work without asking questions. While these more primitive brains are clearly capable of learning, more of their cells are committed to hardwired networks genetically programmed to function with a minimum of flexibility.

Human brains depend on these hard-wired systems, too, but we also have larger areas of uncommitted tissue that can mold itself around the demands of a particular environment. A human brain is thus well adapted for life in a complex society. Our species has a better chance for survival with mental equipment flexibly engineered for the challenges of an ever-changing world. Thus, human brains and the culture they generate are intertwined. As the culture acts to modify our brains, they, in turn, act to modify the culture. [8]

Researchers have debated heatedly about which learning abilities are hard-wired and which are more open to experience. One of the foremost authorities on early brain development, Dr. William T. Greenough [9, 10] of the University of Illinois, has recently found a new way of looking at this problem. According to his explanation, some systems, which he calls experience expectant, are specifically designed to be easily activated by the type of environmental information that a member of a species may ordinarily be expected to encounter. Most human infants, for example, have sufficient visual, auditory, and tactile experiences to activate circuits for seeing, hearing, and touching. These brain cells require proper experience at the proper time, but even a brief period of normal input causes connections to be formed.

Some aspects of more complex skills like language also seem to be built into this "experience expectant" system; the brain "expects" to be stimulated by a set of sounds and some basic grammatical rules (e. g., little children soon pick up the idea that verbs come before objects -- "want cookie"), so these abilities are learned readily by children who have even minimal language experiences in early years. Experience-expectant neurons can be foiled, however. Later in this chapter we will consider what happens to children deprived of even basic sensory experiences.

The open circuitry that accounts for many human learning abilities, however, develops from connections that Greenough calls experience dependent. These systems are unique to each individual's experience and account for the fact that we all have quite different brains! For example, learning about one's physical environment, mastering a particular vocabulary, or trying to pass algebra means the brain must receive enough usable stimulation to carve out its own unique systems of connections between cells.

Since so many children these days seem to lack higher-level language development, I decided Greenough's research might offer a clue. I asked him whether all language should develop almost automatically from a minimum of environmental exposure (experience expectant), or whether higher-level language abilities might depend more on special amounts and types of input into the system (experience dependent).

"My opinion is that language development is heavily experience dependent," he replied, "and therefore would have a great deal to do with the way a child is reared. Hypothetically, children who grew up receiving a great deal of their input from television, for example, might be different from children who grew up getting input from an individual speaker."

"If they get different types of language input, could the language areas of children's brains be subtly different from those of twenty years ago?" I asked.

"I think you can make a case for it, although our work can only indirectly say anything about that. What we know is that the brain very selectively can be shown to respond to its particular experiences; if an animal, for example, learns a motor task, you see very selective changes in the brain regions that govern that task; so that there is no question that these changes are highly specific to the events that produce them. It's certainly quite conceivable that a major difference in the way in which kids grew up would lead to a major difference in brain organization for information processing. There's remarkably little evidence available, however," he added.

"Is it possible that the pace of our contemporary life, when many children are constantly being stimulated from outside so that they have little time to sit, think, reflect, and talk to themselves inside their own heads -- could that make a physical difference in their brains?" I ventured.

"I think it's a reasonable hypothesis," Dr. Greenough responded thoughtfully.

In a later chapter we will examine research that sheds considerable light on some of the subtle language deficiencies shown by many of the current generation. For now, let us resume our survey of how the brain learns to think -- and what happens if it doesn't. While I personally believe that most of the worrisome changes now occurring in children's brains are caused by intellectual environments, some drugs and chemicals to which children are now exposed before birth may also be contributing to the increased incidence of learning difficulties.


The very flexibility of systems that rely on experience for their shaping, or even for their survival, makes plasticity a double-edged sword. On one side is the optimistic news that brains are designed to make the most out of the situations in which they find themselves. At any age we take an active role in shaping our own brains according to what we choose to notice and respond to. On the other hand, however, lie several serious issues. What happens if significant numbers of cells are damaged during the process of development so they can't respond efficiently? What if the "right" stimulation is not available? Is it possible to focus too heavily on one set of stimuli and neglect others? In order to address these complex questions, we must first get an overview of the prenatal process that sets the neurons into place. Then we will move on to consider sources of flaws in the system.

Building the Fetal Brain: Neurons Compete to Survive

Most people are unaware that nature over-endows us with brain cells, yet this apparent wastefulness is our assurance of adaptable mental equipment. In the nine months before birth, the fetal brain grows rapidly from a small cluster of cells into an organ that contains too many neurons. By the fourth week of gestation it has started to differentiate into separate areas. Neurons and glial cells are produced at a rapid rate and then, to the continuing amazement of neuroanatomists, manage somehow to "migrate" to the areas for which they were designed.

The first cells out form areas for more basic functions such as physical drives, reflex movements, and balance. Somewhat later come relay stations for sensory stimuli and some technical equipment to help with memory and emotion. These abilities are mainly "hardwired" into systems underlying the neocortex, whose convoluted surface covers the rest of the brain like an elaborate layer of gray frosting. Hardly a superficial addition, however, the cortex is the control panel for processing information at three levels:

1. receiving sensory stimuli

2. organizing them into meaningful patterns so that we can make sense out of the world

3. associating patterns to develop abstract types of learning and thinking

These later-developing "association areas," so critically important for planning, reasoning, and using language to express ideas, are the most plastic of all; their development depends on the way the child uses his or her brain at different stages of development.

Surprisingly enough, all these abilities emerge as a result of a violent competition by which the brain literally "prunes" out and disposes of its excess neurons. Because there is a limited number of available connection sites, the mortality rate for neurons is staggering. Even before birth up to 40-60% die off because they can't find a permanent home. During gestation, each cell migrating to the cortex tries to find a prearranged spot in one of six layers. They don't all arrive, however. The first cells out arrange themselves in the first, or inner, layer, and the later arrivals quite literally must climb between and beyond them, stacking themselves up until eventually all six layers have formed. The final layers hold the potential for the highest-order, latest-developing mental abilities, but these cells have the hardest job finding their proper station in life.

"So, you can see right away that we can all be considered brain damaged in one respect," wryly observes Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein. [11] But some of us get labeled, and some don't. As we talk, I notice that one wall of her office in Boston Children's Hospital is covered with drawings made by some of the children that she sees every day. As a clinical neuropsychologist working with children called learning disabled, she attempts to understand behavior -- primarily learning behavior -- in terms of brain structure and function. She is convinced that brain shapes behavior, but also that experience in the world shapes the brain as it develops, through a process that she terms "competition for connections." This mechanism is initiated before birth by nature's clever overproduction of neurons.

"Cell death appears to be a natural consequence of the competition for connections: those cells that don't connect are lost. Ideally, this process will result in a very efficient structure, but it can go wrong, too. Sometimes damage before birth to an early-maturing part may lead to abnormal patterns of connections; if early-arriving cells preempt the connections that should belong to later arrivals, the later ones have nowhere to go and sort of fall off the cliff. It's important to realize that early development after birth may seem normal -- after all, some basic connections have been made; later on, however, it's likely to be a different story. Higher-order thinking skills that should develop with maturation have no foundation!" [12]

What happens, then, to the potential learning ability of this brain? Why would nature set up such a risky system for developing mental connections?

"It seems to me that this sort of competitive connectivity model is the basis for a great deal of our uniqueness as individuals. The playing out of these patterns is presumably what allows brains to be generally competent at the same skills but different in the individual case," reflects Dr. Bernstein.

Not everyone agrees with Dr. Bernstein's terminology. "I hate the term 'brain damaged'!" Marian Diamond argues. "We each have different kinds of brains; the connections are different, giving us different kinds of abilities. Give the young people the benefit of the doubt. . . we have different brains to develop and this is a positive connotation, not a negative one!" [13]

Whatever words may be most effective in getting people to realize that not all children learn in the same way, it is clear that environments play an important role in these differences. Later, we will return to some of Dr. Bernstein's opinions about how neural patterns are being "played out" for today's children. Now, however, we should finish our look at prenatal life by considering some of the specific factors that may alter these patterns of connectivity -- for better or worse. They fall generally into two categories: those that come in from outside, and those that are produced in the environment of the womb itself.

The Vulnerable Fetal Brain: "Birth Defects of the Mind"

The brain is always most plastic at times when it is growing fastest. The fetal brain is especially vulnerable, not only because of its increased metabolic rate, but also because of an underdeveloped ability to detoxify harmful substances. Not so many years ago, obstetricians earnestly assured their patients that the placenta was an effective screen for toxic materials, but they were wrong, as the thalidomide tragedies eventually demonstrated. We are now acutely aware that many toxins are able to cross the placenta. Because of its rapidly proliferating concentration of cells, the fetal brain is a natural target, and the systems growing fastest at the time of exposure are on the front line. [14]

Even toxic material that doesn't cross the placenta, such as residue from cigarette smoking, may accumulate in the placenta and disrupt the baby's nutritional intake. Many prospective fathers are unaware that they, too, can harm their unborn children. If they have been exposed to toxic substances, their contaminated seminal fluid may expose the fetus during intercourse or cause birth defects if toxins have damaged the genetic structure of the sperm. [15]

Because of the finely timed schedule of cell proliferation and migration, different effects may come from exposure at different times. Some are more obvious than others. Damage during the first few days of pregnancy usually results in spontaneous abortion, of which the mother is probably unaware. From one to eight weeks of gestation, when cells start to move toward their target destinations, fetal death or major abnormalities usually result. After eight weeks, when neurons begin to settle into place, toxic exposure may result in subtle rearrangements of their placement or with their potential ability to communicate. These seemingly minor structural and functional abnormalities have aroused growing concern from a group of scientists in the new field of behavioral teratology: the study of the effects of toxic substances on the developing brain. These researchers are convinced of the potential of teratogens, or toxins, to cause subtle but pervasive difficulty with learning and behavior -- the type of problems that, even years later, earn some children the label of "learning disabled." [16]

"Yes, it's a serious problem. There are clear links between substances commonly found in the environment and later development of learning and behavior difficulties," says Dr. Brenda Eskenazi of the departments of Maternal and Child Health and Epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley. "You might call these 'birth defects of the mind.' The effects on the brain are so subtle they don't show up on routine screening measures, and it may be years before the problem gets identified." [17]

Most such problems are of three major types: motor clumsiness and/or perceptual difficulties; problems with attention; or disabilities in specific types of school learning such as reading or math. As Dr. Bernstein pointed out, while it is sometimes hard to understand how prenatal exposure can show up only years later in school, early damage to higher-order systems may not become apparent until those particular systems are called on, as, for example, in reading comprehension or math reasoning. Since exposure to toxins after birth may also invite subtle forms of damage, causality is hard to pin down.

Hazardous Substances for the Fetal Brain

What are the hazardous substances? Although many potential candidates have been identified, conclusive results from well-controlled testing are few and far between. Here is a summary of the current field:

Lead: Clearly implicated in mental retardation, lead exposure both before and after birth has been shown to lower IQ even in potentially gifted children as well as causing problems with attention and academic learning. Yet the source of the problem may go unrecognized. Dr. Herbert L. Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is convinced that many children who have real learning and behavior difficulties in the classroom look "fine" when examined in a doctor's office. He estimates that as many as 650,000 American children may be affected. Authorities all over the world are beginning to share this concern. [18]

Other metals: Methyl mercury, arsenic, aluminum, and cadmium have all been implicated, particularly when combined with exposure to other toxins or with lead.

PCBs, PBBs, solvents, pesticides, and some chemical fertilizers: All contain ingredients that may affect the central nervous system. The presence of these substances in many work environments has resulted in new precautions and some regulations concerning exposure for people of childbearing age.

Recreational drugs: Alcohol may cause serious abnormalities in both mental and physical development or may exacerbate the effects of other toxins. The level of susceptibility appears to vary widely among individuals, and it is not known how to determine what amount, if any, is safe for anyone person. Narcotics known to be toxic to the developing brain are heroin, methadone, and codeine. Most research on marijuana is out-of-date and poorly controlled; new studies suggest extreme caution by both potential mothers and fathers. [19] Likewise, many authorities warn that growing cocaine use by pregnant women will soon flood the schools with children who have attention, learning, and social problems. In all, drugs taken during pregnancy are producing a substantial subpopulation of children who begin life with significant neurological impairment. At this writing, it is estimated that at least one out of every nine babies born in the United States is affected. [20] And these children are not even included in our already declining test scores!

Prescription drugs: Prospective parents are advised to discuss potential childbearing with a well-informed physician who can advise them on current information regarding any medication they may be taking.

Over-the-counter drugs: Experts advise completely avoiding these during pregnancy.

When I began to investigate this topic for an article I was asked to write recently, [21] I found myself horrified by what I read and heard from experts in the field. Everywhere I looked, I could see (or breathe, or ingest) substances that were under investigation. How did my husband and I ever manage, I wondered, to have three healthy, well-functioning children? I procrastinated about writing the article, partially because I was worried about frightening expectant parents, yet I became increasingly convinced that this information should be promulgated. Finally, I placed another call to Dr. Eskenazi, who had mentioned the fact that she was expecting her first child. I asked her how she reconciled her own pregnancy with her extensive knowledge about hazards to her child's developing brain.

"You have to use common sense," she replied. "Even knowing everything I do, I don't get hysterical. I just maintain sensible precautions. I read labels and avoid situations where I might be exposed to toxins. I would certainly advise women to clean up their environments and their lifestyles before becoming pregnant, and then just be careful and relax as much as possible." [22]

This is good advice, but to what extent does our society help women "use common sense" or even inform them clearly about the issues involved? Where is the research that will clarify the dimensions of this worldwide problem? At every teacher workshop I attend these days, I am asked, "Do you think that drugs or medications taken by parents may be related to the rash of attention problems we are now seeing in schools?" Although I am convinced there are a number of other forces playing into children's attention problems, I am obliged to respond, "Yes, according to the research, it is certainly a factor."

One group of teachers in California, alarmed by newspaper reports about neurotoxic effects of crop spraying, wanted to know what connection it might have to an increasing number of diagnosed learning disabilities in their district. They are not the only ones wishing for better answers to questions like these. In recent testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Audrey McMahon of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities appealed for increased research on this global problem, the threat of which, she points out, does not end when the child is born. The brains of young children remain highly susceptible. Contaminants come from a multiplicity of sources, such as air pollution, automobile exhaust, foods that have been sprayed with pesticides, clothing worn by adults in a contaminated workplace, and even breast milk that has absorbed toxins stored in the mother's body fat. During the course of my interviews, a doctor in Germany told me that he and other physicians are advising women who live near the Rhine River, which has been heavily contaminated with pesticides and industrial residues, not to nurse their babies for more than a few weeks. [23]

The Stressed-Out Fetus

Toxins are not the only influences by which the fetal brain can be altered. A mother's illness and accident pose obvious risks. Recently we have also become aware of the importance of her nutritional and emotional status. It is encouraging to learn that these two variables are themselves doubled-edged swords that give parents some control over the general course of their baby's prenatal life. A sensible, balanced diet containing reasonable amounts of protein during pregnancy is a powerful protective factor against other risks. On the other hand, fetal brains are affected by malnutrition, and poorly nourished women also tend to give birth to children of low birthweight, who are statistically more at risk for learning problems. [24]

In today's fast-paced society, the subject of maternal stress is an issue that warrants better research. Animal studies have shown that stress during pregnancy can upset chemical transmission systems in the brain of the fetus, [25] possibly because hormone secretions associated with stress cross the placenta. One recent rat study from Israel demonstrated that "random" stress during pregnancy (i.e., the pregnant animal was exposed to loud noise or flashing lights on an unpredictable schedule) not only caused increased fearfulness and exaggerated stress response in the offspring, but also produced chemical brain changes resulting in permanent alterations in the relative size and shape of the two halves of the offsprings' brains. [26] (Is this an animal analogue for "different learning styles"?)

Published reports by several authorities have suggested that sustained stress during the first months of pregnancy may be a factor in the development of hyperactivity in children, but the professional literature does not offer any definitive guidelines. Expectant mothers are well advised to avoid prolonged, excessive stress if they possibly can -- although available definitions of what constitutes stress, or what "excessive" means for any individual woman, are frustratingly vague. [27]

The Flexible Mind: Overcoming Prenatal Damage

Before we move on to consider the way brains develop after birth, let me digress for a note of reassurance. The idea that brains can get changed around like this is a bit less frightening if we consider the point that everyone is "brain different" in some respect. Many children emerge apparently unscathed from difficult pre- and postnatal environments, while others end up "learning disabled."

There are doubtless several reasons for these different outcomes. First, environments continue to modify the brain long after birth, so their effects can actively counteract prenatal problems. Moreover, some children just seem to be genetically more resilient than others. Good prenatal nutritional and emotional environments provide additional insurance. Finally, because of the young brain's great structural and functional plasticity, it can arrange itself around some types of learning in a wide variety of ways, depending not only on innate predispositions but also on the way the material is presented.

Most school learning calls on many sets of connections, not just a single location in the brain, so some types of prenatal "damage" may be circumvented by later learning experiences. For example, youngsters learning to read by either sounding out words ("b-a-t") or by guessing at them from their general shape ("STOP") are using different systems of neurons in each case. Later, when they move on to rapid reading and comprehension of more complex material, they will connect up with higher-level systems. Thus, skilled reading is said to be "subserved" by a number of different combinations of brain cells in different locations. Some are obviously more critical than others (the ones that put the sounds together with the letters, for example), but it is possible to circumnavigate areas of weakness. Even without big "holes" in our brains, most of us have had to learn to compensate for certain sets of connections that don't hook up quite as easily as others! If you contemplate the potential arrangement and rearrangement of several billions (or hundreds of billions ) of nerve cells, you get a notion of the infinite number of ways in which a system can get arranged.

If some kinds of damage happen early enough, this flexibility, teamed with a drive to succeed and the help of a supportive environment, can generate seemingly miraculous results. One of the most remarkable stories I have recently heard was from Dr. Isabelle Rapin of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. One of her patients was a girl who had been born with, quite literally, a "hole" in her brain -- a large defect in the right rear quadrant of her cortex. Looking at an early brain (CT) scan of this child, which showed several distortions in addition to the large "empty" area, I had trouble believing she could ever have approached normal functioning. Yet, although she had some enduring visual problems, slow motor development, and trouble doing math, her verbal IQ registered in the superior range by the time she was nine years old. [28] When Dr. Rapin told me about this case, the girl was a student doing well at a well-known Ivy League university.

Some very specific types of damage or deprivation may noticeably effect basic "hard-wired" abilities, such as sensory discriminations (e.g., seeing visual features like vertical or horizontal lines; hearing certain kinds of sounds) because they are "localized" to very specific cells in the brain. Areas controlling attention and some related "executive functions" that will become important in later life (and in later chapters of this book) may also be vulnerable to early damage or deprivation. Many higher-level skills, however, can be approached in several different ways and thus may develop through more variable routes.

In his important book, Frames of Mind, Dr. Howard Gardner has suggested that separate types of intelligence call on many different brain areas. [29] A person may be highly gifted and have a wonderful memory in linguistic (language) intelligence, for example, but be unexceptional at music or interpersonal relationships. We can't draw a neat circle around any of these clusters in the brain, yet the various abilities within each seem somehow to work together. Specific skills within each cluster are developed at different stages of brain growth during childhood and adolescence.

Because the organization of the brain is so heavily influenced by the way it is used after birth, the home and school environment can do a lot to help potentially learning-disabled children learn more successfully. For example, as I have described in my previous book, a child's exposure to good language, a positively structured environment, and methods of instruction appropriate for his or her style of learning may determine whether learning problems materialize. [30] Moreover, the potential of teaching techniques to reorganize young brains is a hot new topic in the education world. We will see in a later chapter how one researcher claims to be changing brain function of reading-disabled schoolchildren with different teaching methods.

While the exact effect of brain-endangering substances remains undetermined, most of the academically injurious changes observed in today's children are probably much more a function of mental environments after birth. Fortunately, parents and teachers can actively do something about these influences. But they need to proceed wisely.

Engineering the Fetal Brain

Some people are in a real hurry to get started teaching their children. An increasingly popular attempt to "stimulate" brains artificially while they are in the womb is worrying many professionals.

"A lot of crazy, bizarre things are happening in the United States," reports Dr. Susan Luddington-Hoe, professor of maternal and child health at UCLA and author of How to Have a Smarter Baby. [31] ''There are now over fourteen programs for prenatal learning! Pregnant women are wearing belts with stereo headsets to try and stimulate their infant's brain. Some people are even holding a card with, say, an a on it to Mom's belly and shining a flashlight through it while they say 'a, a, a' so the kid will supposedly be born knowing the alphabet. Let me tell you, I don't condone any of this stuff."

During a normal pregnancy, the fetus receives a great deal of stimulation from the mother's and its own movement, from the sound of her voice and heartbeat, and even from the taste and smell of the amniotic fluid. Although scientists -- and mothers -- confirm that a fetus can respond to some external events, notably sounds, organized "learning" by fetal brains has a rather tenuous base in research. Studies have demonstrated that infant animals acquire preferences for tastes and odors in utero. [32] One researcher claims that human infants, while still in the womb, learn to prefer their mothers' voices and can even be "taught" to favor certain familiar stories that the expectant mother has frequently read out loud. [33] Dr. Luddington- Hoe's research has suggested that a fetus can differentiate its parents' voices immediately after birth.

Reports such as these have provoked a rash of commercial materials with which parents may attempt to create designer brains in their infants. There is even a "Prenatal University" for those who can't wait to get started paying college tuition.

"For heaven's sake," exclaims Dr. Luddington-Hoe, "nature has created the perfect environment; why should we mess around with it?"

Most responsible researchers agree that we do not yet know enough to do anything that risks distorting the natural processes of mental growth. Trying to "engineer" children's learning at any age can have disastrous emotional and neurological consequences.

The evolutionary history of our species has given us a neural architecture preprogrammed with a driving need to arrange itself adaptively. If a fetal brain is cared for and protected in following its own developmental timetable, it will emerge at the end of nine months ready to take on the challenge of molding itself around the demands of an awaiting -- and constantly changing -- world. We will now begin to examine this process.
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Fri Sep 27, 2013 11:19 pm

CHAPTER 3: Malleable Minds: Environment Shapes Intelligence

At birth, the average newborn brain weighs a mere 330 grams, one-fourth of adult weight. By the time the child is two years old, its weight will triple, and by age seven its 1,250 grams will represent 90% of adult weight. Meanwhile, however, it is losing neurons as the internal competition intensifies and cell groups consolidate into more efficient systems. How does this growth occur? To this question both animal and human research have provided some useful and provocative answers.


As both animal and human brains grow, three things happen that account for their increased size and efficiency. First, dendrites sprout many new branches and grow heavier as they reach out to receive messages and develop synaptic connections. Second, supporting glial cells increase in number. Both of these developments appear to respond directly to the types of stimulation sent in by the environment.

In addition, the axons, or output parts of neurons, gradually develop a coating of a waxy substance called myelin, which insulates the wiring and facilitates rapid and clear transmission. At birth, only the most primitive systems, such as those needed for sucking, have been coated with myelin, or myelinated. Myelin continues to develop slowly all during childhood and adolescence in a gradual progression from lower- to higher-level systems. Its growth corresponds to the ability to use increasingly higher-level mental abilities. The process of myelination in human brains is not completed at least until most of us are in our twenties and may continue even longer. While animal studies have shown that total myelin may reflect levels of stimulation, scientists believe its order of development is mainly predetermined by a genetic program.

While the system, overall, is remarkably responsive to stimulation from the environment, the schedule of myelination appears to put some boundaries around "appropriate" forms of learning at any given age. Before we go on to consider the exciting implications of the fact that environments can make brains grow, we should stop for a moment to discuss some potential hazards in trying too hard to "make" intelligence or learning happen. Some of the skill deficits of today's schoolchildren, in fact, may have resulted from academic demands that were wrong -- either in content or in mode of presentation -- for their level of development.

Forced Learning and Functional Mix-Ups

The same mentality that attempts to engineer stimulation for baby brains also tries to push learning into schoolchildren much like stuffing sausages. For example, some parents now wonder if their schools are any good if they don't start formal reading instruction, complete with worksheets, in preschool. Likewise, many schools have reading lists or advanced math courses for older children that look impressive but, being out of the reach of most of the students, convince them that reading or math are difficult and boring activities. I call this the "cosmetic curriculum" because it sounds impressive, but the learning is often, unfortunately, only skin deep.

Before brain regions are myelinated, they do not operate efficiently. For this reason, trying to "make" children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may result in mixed-up patterns of learning. As we have seen, the essence of functional plasticity is that any kind of learning -- reading, math, spelling, handwriting, etc. -- may be accomplished by any of several systems. Naturally, we want children to plug each piece of learning into the best system for that particular job. If the right one isn't yet available or working smoothly, however, forcing may create a functional organization in which less adaptive, "lower" systems are trained to do the work.

As an example, I think of the many children we see in second and third grade who grip their pencil in the most peculiar ways; some crumple their fingers around it in weird arrangements that make letter formation difficult and cause their hands to tire quickly; some use the base of their fingers instead of the tips to guide the pencil so that the process of handwriting resembles a fencing match more than a fine motor activity; some clutch it in their fists like a weapon. Any teacher will tell you that trying to correct "habits" like these is an uphill -- and usually unsuccessful -- battle. The reason would seem to be that a strong network of synaptic connections has already formed around these maladaptive patterns, making them automatic and difficult to change because they are now built into the system. How much better if we had taken the time to teach it correctly the first time around!

Neuromotor development moves only gradually from "gross motor," large, global movements, to the smaller muscles farther away from the core of the body (in this case, from the palm out to the ends of the fingers). It is certainly easy to speculate that these children were given pencils and encouraged to write -- without sufficient help on proper pencil-holding technique -- before the appropriate motor areas were "ready." Thus they practiced and made this learning automatic in the brain areas that were most available at the time -- to their lasting discomfort.

Can such changes in motor patterns really cause brain changes? In several provocative studies, monkeys whose fingers had been amputated showed altered brain structure as they learned to use different manual patterns. More subtle but equally striking changes occurred simply from having monkeys tap repeatedly with one finger; the related brain areas developed heavier sets of connections. [1]

This sort of study is clearly impossible to conduct on humans, and though we have come a long way, we are far from fully understanding which cell combinations mediate most higher-level learning. The way a child learns to hold a pencil will doubtless assume less and less importance in the age of computer word processors (see Chapter 15), but the same principles of neural readiness may apply to higher-level skills, since they are the most experience-dependent of all. As an example, let's take the kind of reasoning needed for understanding (not just memorizing one's way through) higher-level math. Perhaps some readers of this book shared a common experience when they took algebra: many of us functioned adequately until we reached Chicago, where two planes insisted on passing each other every day in class. When it wasn't planes, it was trains or people digging wells or other situations that did not seem in any way related to graphs and equations of X, Y, and Z. Personally, I found that the more I struggled, the more confused I became, until, soon I was learning more confusion than algebra. Moreover, I began to believe I was pretty dumb. Was I developing what Herman Epstein calls "negative neural networks" (resistant circuitry) toward this worthy subject? [2]

Having fled from math courses at the first available opportunity, I have since talked to other adults who confided that, after a similar experience, they also avoided math until forced years later to take a required course in graduate school. At this point, their grownup brains discovered they actually liked this sort of reasoning, although they were still confused by the planes that meet over Chicago! I often wonder how many children decide they are "dumb" about certain subjects, when the truth is that someone simply laid on the learning too soon in a form other than the one they needed to receive it in at the time. Thus they were cheated of the chance to learn it in an appropriately challenging and satisfying way.

In this personal example, it is very possible that the necessary neural equipment for algebra -- taught in this particular manner -- may not yet have been automatically available in my early-adolescent brain. The areas to receive the last dose of myelin are the association areas responsible for manipulating highly abstract concepts -- such as symbols (X, Y, Z; graphs) that stand for other symbols (numerical relationships) that stand for real things (planes, trains, wells). Such learning is highly experience-dependent, and thus there are many potential neural routes by which it can be performed. Trying to drill higher-level learning into immature brains may force them to perform with lower-level systems and thus impair the skill in question. Since every child's developmental schedule may be different for every type of learning (e.g., some get better at math faster than at English and vice versa), this concept of plasticity makes teaching a challenging task indeed.

I would contend that much of today's school failure results from academic expectations for which students' brains were not prepared -- but which were bulldozed into them anyway. Deficits in everything from grammar to geography may be caused by teaching that bypasses the kind of instruction that could help children conceptually come to grips with the subject at hand.

The brain grows best when it is challenged, so high standards for children's learning are important. Nevertheless, curriculum needs to be considered in terms of brain-appropriate challenge. Reorganizing synapses is much more difficult than having the patience to help them get arranged properly the first time around!

Teachers and parents can prime children's brains for complex learning, but no one knows yet (if they ever will) how to "make" maturation happen. We don't, so far, know how to make myelin grow in human brains, although impoverished environments and inadequate intake of protein may stunt its development. The relatively fixed order of myelinization in different brain areas may provide a real biological basis for "readiness" for certain types of learning. [3] Even if we wanted one, there is no prescription for maturing brains -- much to some parents' dismay.

Not long ago, a father of a teenage son blurted out a question in the middle of a lecture I was giving to a parents' group in an affluent suburb. "My son is fourteen now and he's been accused of being an 'immature late bloomer' by his teachers ever since kindergarten," he lamented. "Is there any place where I can buy myelin?" The audience laughed, and so did I. Many of us have done battle in that particular trench, but maturation is not so easily purchased. What is presented to the growing brain may indeed enrich it in many important respects, but the good intentions of adults who try too hard to manipulate the process can easily backfire.

Looking Inside the "Enriched Brain": What Works?

How, then, do we stimulate growing brains appropriately? And what can cause them to change for the better? In seeking an answer to these big questions, we can start once more in the rat laboratories, where, as visitors, we would observe colonies of rats living in very different types of cages. Although all get the same rations of food and water, some rats enjoy "enriched" environments while others live either in standard laboratory or "impoverished" conditions for mental growth. The "enriched" animals have larger cages and more playmates, but most important, they are also surrounded by toys such as wheels and balls, which they are busily investigating, pushing, rolling, and climbing through. These two variables -- companionship and active involvement with toys -- differentiate between "enriched" and "impoverished" conditions. According to Dr. Diamond, these environmental variations can change the size of the cortex by as much as 11%.

Other researchers have theorized that the areas maturing fastest at the time of stimulation are the ones in which the most growth is found. Thus, in a complex human brain, the same type of stimulation might affect different skills, depending on the brain's stage of development.

What happens to cells in the "enriched" brains? Dr. Mark Rosenzweig and Dr. Michael Renner, who started their work in Dr. Diamond's laboratory, describe several effects, "including changes in gross weight of the brain, weight and thickness of the cerebral cortex, microscopic changes in cell density and relative proportions of different cell types, and changes in the structure of individual neurons." [4]

Curiously enough, Rosenzweig has found that rats in the impoverished condition (IC) actually gain more in body weight than their counterparts in enriched condition (EC). Yet their brains are inferior in many respects, two of which are particularly significant. First, as Marian Diamond has shown, there are many more glial support cells in the enriched brains, and second, the neurons themselves have more dendrite spines and thus, presumably, more synapses. [5]

In another lab, Dr. William Greenough, also considering differences between groups of enriched and deprived rats, found differences in synapses as great as 20-25% in one area of the cortex. This finding, he says, "led us to consider what similar extremes might result if all neurons in the human brain were equally plastic. The difference of about 2,000 synapses per neuron in the rat would translate into many trillions of synapses on the 100-200 billion neurons of the human brain!'' [6] Although, as we shall shortly see, the mere existence of many synapses does not necessarily mean "smarter," this potential for change is indeed impressive.

The critical question is, of course, do these changes in brains have effects on learning? Yes, indeed, say Rosenzweig and Renner, particularly on higher-level skills. "In problem-solving tasks," they report, "the more complex the task, the greater the likelihood that EC-IC differences will be found. In these tests, the primary sites of environmentally induced anatomical plasticity are in those regions of the brain associated with the more complex (and presumably higher-level) cognitive functions, [particularly] higher-level problem-solving skills." Moreover, even when not being tested, the behavior of the enriched rats is more active and organized when they are exploring new situations. They appear to be picking up more and different information during exploration as a result of their lively curiosity.

As a teacher, I invariably think of some of my students when I read studies like these. We must always be cautious, however, in applying such research to human learning. First, while facts about nervous system development can be extrapolated from one set of neurons and glia to another, it is quite another matter to start drawing parallels between animal and human behavior in complex learning situations. Second, while these environments clearly differed from each other, none of them approximated a rat's natural habitat. It is rare to find a human situation as "impoverished" as the IC cages, although in a later chapter I will describe the effects on a human child of one that might be considered comparable. Even the "enriched" environments are less stimulating than those in nature where rats are constantly exposed to the real challenges of living in a free environment, finding food, defending themselves, and moving about when and where they wish. Animals growing up "in the wild" in the Berkeley hills outside Dr. Diamond's laboratory tend to have larger and heavier cortexes than do those raised in the cages.

The basic principles of plasticity have been shown to be constant across such species as mice, gerbils, ground squirrels, dogs, cats, and primates (e. g., monkeys, Japanese macaques). What can we learn from animal research about how to stimulate children appropriately? Many studies support the notion that brains -- and the organisms attached to them -- tend to gravitate to the types of stimulation that they need at different stages of development. If we encourage children to make choices from a selected variety of available challenges, both environmental and intellectual, we are no doubt following the wisest course.

Whose Brain Is Growing Today?

Another lesson from animal research is the importance of active involvement and interest on the part of the animal. For example, Dr. Diamond and others have found that to keep the enriched rats' brains growing, they must frequently change their toys to keep them curious and interested. In another experiment, simply having rats climb over a pile of toys to get their food caused visual areas of the cortex to increase 7%. [7]

Greenough agrees. "It appears that active interaction with the environment is necessary for the animal to extract very much appropriate information. Merely making visual experience of a complex environment available to animals unable to interact with it has little behavioral effect." In support of the latter point, animals have been placed in small cages inside the enrichment cage so they can watch their brothers and sisters play, although they cannot themselves get at the toys. The brains of the spectators end up not much different from those of animals in impoverished cages.

As well-intentioned parents and teachers, we all sometimes end up taking charge of learning and trying to "stuff" in rather than arranging things so that the youngster's curiosity impels the process. Since I began reading this research, I often ask myself when I am struggling to "make" a student learn something, Whose brain is growing today? It always helps to consider: Who is interested? Who is curious? Who is asking the questions? Children need stimulation and intellectual challenges, but they must be actively involved in their learning, not responding passively while another brain -- their teacher's or Parent's -- laboriously develops new synapses in their behalf!

Any activity which engages a student's interest and imagination, which sparks the desire to seek out an answer, or ponder a question, or create a response, can be good potential brain food. Particularly in an age when we need "enriched" minds to grapple with increasingly complex problems, we should not encourage, or even condone, large doses of passive observing or absorbing for growing brains. Yet it is happening -- not only in front of the TV, but in too many day-care centers, schools, after-school activities, and even in homes. How much does this learner passivity contribute to lagging academic skills? A great deal!

In the only human "enrichment" study she has done, Dr. Diamond compared sections from the brain of Albert Einstein with similar sections from average males. She found cellular enhancement of the same types that she had seen in her enriched rats. [8] In one particular area that makes higher-level associations between sensory systems, there were actually twice as many glial cells! She speculates that this unusual profusion could have resulted not only from inherited potential, but also from unusually active use of those particular cell groups.


What happens if the "right" stimulation is not available when the brain is ready for it? Are there certain times when the brain is more open to certain kinds of experience? When, if ever, is it too late to learn specific skills? Some of the most eye-opening research on neural plasticity shows that there are "critical," "sensitive," or "optimal" periods for some types of mental development. But if the right stimulus isn't available ... too bad.

"In development it is now well known that there are certain times when an organism is ready to deal with certain stimuli," states Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein. "And when those stimuli do not appear at the critical time, then it is likely that the brain structures that would have mediated them will not function and will die." [9]

Both animal and human data support this real-life phenomenon of use it or lose it. In order to understand its implications, we should first delve more deeply into the way by which the brain naturally hones itself into an efficient processing system.

Synaptic Pruning: What Gets Shaved and What Gets Saved?

Since an infant enters the world with more neurons than will ever be needed, the brain starts life in quite a disorganized state. Baby neurons that have survived the prenatal marathon to reach synaptic sites are already competing to reach out to other neurons by growing new dendrite spines. It will take many years -- perhaps even a lifetime -- for each brain's complement of synapses to form and become strengthened by repeated use. Particularly during the early years, the ones that get used are the ones that will be strengthened and survive. A major task during the years of childhood is to prune this mass of potential into networks of connections that are useful and automatic for the mental skills that this particular child is being encouraged to develop.

You might envision the newborn brain as a large mass of clay that has been formed in a rough template of a final product. On it, the environment acts as a sculptor. The types of stimulation that enter the brain determine to a great extent which material remains and which is shaved off and swept away from the studio door. During sensitive periods, certain areas in the mass are temporarily warmed and softened, thus becoming more amenable to the environmental sculptor's knife.

This process proceeds quite automatically for the most part. Since the child can't possibly process all the available stimuli, he or she selects what is most interesting or personally relevant, thus building connections in the related brain systems. Adults' main task is to make a variety of stimulation available, at the same time considering carefully the choices their children are encouraged to make. Brains of youngsters who spend lots of time in front of a TV set, for example, may be expected to develop differently from those who pursue the physical, interpersonal, and cognitive challenges of active play. Children with plenty of time to "waste" can be encouraged to seek out activities that are appropriate for an individual brain's stage of development. Youngsters who are hurried from one activity to another may get lots of sensory input but be shortchanged on the time-consuming process of forming association networks to understand and organize experience meaningfully.

The pruning of many synapses is necessary to keep the child's mind from resembling a "booming, buzzing, confusion." Neuroanatomist Dr. Arnold Scheibel once described the immature brain as somewhat like a large tree crowded with many little birds, all singing weakly at the same time so that no individual song can clearly be heard. As the brain matures, gradually eliminating some connections and retaining others, the tree contains fewer but larger birds with strong, clear songs, well separated so that each can distinctly be heard. [10]

Although it seems logical to believe that the more neurons the better, this is not the case. The importance of pruning is demonstrated by studies that show some mentally retarded children have fewer synaptic connections than normal, while others have too many.

Researchers speculate that the retardation may be associated with the inefficiency of these overcrowded brains, although they unfortunately do not as yet know what to do about it.

Evidence for Critical Periods: Animal Research

The ground rules for plasticity often blur the line between efficiency and impairment. Evidence from both animals and humans shows that sometimes the brain's pruning mechanisms are carried too far.

What would the world be like if you could see everything -- except vertical lines? You would probably have a lot of trouble getting through doorways, and it would be difficult to avoid bumping into trees and telephone poles. This experience happened to some kittens who were kept in an unusual environment during a short period when particular groups of cells called "vertical feature detectors" in the visual cortex were "ripe." During this time, the kittens never saw vertical lines. Despite a full dose of visual stimulation and otherwise normal vision later on, they never learned to see them. Later examination of their brains showed that the neurons designed to do this job simply failed to develop because they received no stimulation during the critical period of their development. Many different experiments have been conducted with kittens wearing specially designed goggles or blindfolds. The upshot of all of them is that the selective restriction of certain types of stimulation can structurally alter the animals' brains. [11] Naturally, function is also affected. I find two facts particularly interesting:

-- Not only does severe visual deprivation result in changed neurons in the visual cortex, but it can also cause the auditory (hearing) cortex to develop more fully than would otherwise be expected.

-- Structural changes occurring during critical periods result in behavioral changes later on when their "changed brains" cause the animals to pay attention and respond differently to different aspects of the environment. [12]

Other animal studies, even including such species as birds, crickets, and goldfish, have demonstrated many types of sensitive periods. Sexual behavior of monkeys is later impaired if they are isolated during periods of normal sexual play during childhood. If mother cats do not bring live prey into the nest during a specific time frame, their kittens never develop the ability to become proficient hunters. In each of these cases, certain parts of the nervous system did not develop normally, and stimulation before or after the critical period does not have the same effect.

One interesting experiment illustrates the fact that animals will "work" for their stimulation when the critical period strikes. Kittens were reared in a dark room that contained a lever they could push to view a lighted scene especially designed to stimulate certain sets of visual "feature detectors." Before the onset of a critical period for this type of vision at about eight weeks of age, they occasionally depressed the lever but showed little interest in it, although their eyes had already opened. Suddenly, between eight and nine weeks, the relevant cells became "ripe" and action at the lever increased "dramatically." [13] We can assume the number of dendrites and synapses on those particular cells in their brains grew apace.

"Sensitive" Periods for Human Brains

Human brains have much bigger windows of opportunity because they take much longer to develop than do those of animals, so the terms "sensitive" or "optimal" periods are usually used. Studies to date have identified sensitive periods for two general types of abilities: basic sensory skills and higher-level ones, specifically some aspects of language.

Priming the Foundation Systems

Even when a child's ears and eyes are completely intact, visual and auditory processing may be impaired if cells in the parts of the brain that receive signals from these organs fail to fire during a particular time of development. A well-publicized example is the problem called lazy eye, or amblyopia. In this disorder, a young child fails to develop binocularity, the ability to use both eyes together efficiently, because one eye tends to wander, letting the other do all the work. Because the brain cells designed to receive the visual signals from the lazy eye do not get their proper dose of stimulation, they eventually stop firing. Doctors have learned that this condition must be treated before age five, if it is to be corrected, because the sensitive period for this particular ability may end at that time. The treatment, logically, consists of intermittently patching the good eye to force all cells in the system to do their work, develop their synapses, and survive. The same principle explains why cataracts on the eyes of infants must be removed before six months of age to avoid permanent visual impairment.

Still at a basic sensory level, the ability to discriminate fine differences between sounds of a language apparently must develop during early years, as well. An eighth grader I met recently simply could not "hear" the differences between some of the short vowel sounds and thus had trouble saying and writing them accurately. Her classmates thought that her substitutions, such as "osculator" for "escalator," were "cute," but her teachers were not similarly amused by her spelling mistakes. Sure enough, I discovered she, like many students with both spelling and reading problems, had suffered from early ear infections that resulted in sporadic hearing loss during preschool years. Because of this link with later learning problems, experts now recommend that parents watch children carefully for blocked hearing and get prompt medical attention for such problems before cells in the auditory cortex are permanently impaired by lack of exercise. [14]

Circuits for the sounds of different languages must apparently be stimulated during a critical period, as well. Dr. Jennifer Buchwald of the UCLA School of Medicine is interested in the way "the acoustic -- that is, linguistic -- environment during development is responsible for developmental differences in the brain." She is studying such differences in native Japanese and American speakers by measuring a special type of electrical wave, called P300, in their brains. [14]

Her research explains why adults who learn to speak a foreign language with different sound patterns than their own rarely acquire a flawless accent. Their vocal apparatus is not the reason; their brains are. While they may think they hear or mimic the sounds accurately, they really have lost the ability to perceive sound patterns that were not present in the environments during childhood. The distinctive accents of European, Middle Eastern, or Oriental speakers of English, which often reveal their particular national origins, provide living verification of the power of early environments to create lasting differences in some types of human abilities.

Does this justify teaching Japanese to infants -- another current fad among the child-engineering group? At a recent conference Dr. Nico Spinelli responded with an interesting observation. "I think growing up bilingually wastes real estate in the brain. A better plan, in my opinion, would be for children to learn to pronounce perfectly fifty or so words of, say, German, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Later on, one or more of these languages could be learned more easily and with no accent, because the brain would have been primed for it." [15] Before parents rush for their foreign language dictionaries, however, I would like to reiterate the fact that any learning that has to be "pushed" into a child may end up doing more harm than good -- for many reasons. Moreover, there is also evidence that the wrong kinds of foreign language input may tangle up the wires of some children for their native tongue. Caution is advised!

It seems logical that hard-wired sensory skills might have sensitive periods of development. But what about the type of association area brainwork that requires the integration of many different -- and sometimes widely separated -- neural systems? A few studies have been conducted which suggest that to develop active, intelligent responses to the world, a child needs specific types of interaction with caretakers at different times in development. For example, separate studies have shown that in normal children, direct kinesthetic (muscular) stimulation (e.g., parent moves child's arms or legs) is maximally effective during the first six months; maternal prompting ("Look at the bunny," "See the red fire engine") is more effective at some times than at others; and maternal gesturing has been positively related to comprehension in nineteen-month-olds but not in older children. [16] In the next chapter we will look at other ways in which "higher-order" skills such as language and attention may be affected by experience during specific times of development.


Probably the most intriguing idea emerging from all this research is that brains are shaped and maintained by internal competition. The creative drama of neurons' endless battle, first for survival and later for connective power, is still not familiar to most people outside the research laboratories. Even many of those within the labs have trouble grasping implications of a major new theory proposed by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Gerald Edelman of Rockefeller University. His book, Neural Darwinism, outlines in complete detail what might be considered the ultimate argument for the environment's power in shaping the brain. [17]

In his theory and with "Darwin III," a computer that can replicate some aspects of human brain function in surprisingly lifelike ways, Edelman applies the laws of natural selection to the neurons in the human brain -- and finds that they work. He first acknowledges, as we have already seen, that there are overall patterns of brain structure that are modified by genetic and prenatal history; in addition, he proposes a group of "secondary repertoires," formed only by stimuli to which a particular brain responds during its lifetime. In this constantly changing system, groups of neurons are locked in constant competition with each other to "capture" other cells for their group. The groups that get the most action grow stronger synapses, add to their networks, and survive; they are "selected" because they are more likely to be used in future behavior.

As long as significant activation is achieved, the group can continue to consolidate its "hold" on cells. But other groups are constantly competing for the same cells, and any weakening of connections because of decreased activation puts the group at risk either of losing a few cells or, in the extreme case, of being divided and conquered. [18]

Ultimately, through a process that he describes as "reentrant signaling," the cell groups link themselves together in a coordinated system that can talk to itself. These systems communicate back and forth, spurring on their own development as they respond to internal and external stimuli. Thus our brains evolve, individually and collectively, according to what is useful and adaptive for the particular environments in which we find ourselves.

Committing Growing Neurons ... to What?

Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein is intrigued by Edelman's ideas. "It seems," she says, "the stimuli coming in are actually competing to have this brain take notice of them. When you're dealing with this idea of competition within the system, if those stimuli are not there at the right time, then the cells don't fire. The next set of stimuli coming in, competing madly for cortical connections, are likely to preempt what should have been a relationship in the cells."

But surely this doesn't mean that we're just helpless victims of whatever stimuli come along, does it?

Not at all, believes Dr. Bernstein. "It's not simply a matter of the stimuli being there; you have to do something with them." She describes a famous experiment in which identical-twin kittens were put in a large circular container painted with black and white vertical stripes -- their only visual stimulation during a critical period of visual development. One kitten rode in a small basket that was attached to one end of a revolving balance beam. The other kitten was in a second basket attached to the opposite end of the beam; his legs, however, protruded from the basket. As he walked around, the beam revolved and his brother got a free ride. Both, of course, had the same visual stimulation of the vertical stripes. Later, it was discovered that visual receptor cells in their brains had developed differently, even though each had experienced the exact same scenery. The kitten who merely rode along was functionally blind for vertical lines!

"Only the kitten who had his feet on the floor, knowing where he was, aware of his position on the floor relative to the lines, developed those connections!" emphasizes Dr. Bernstein. "Experience shapes brains, but you need to interact with the experience."

Physical play is one of the main ways in which children interact with experience, points out Dr. Bernstein. "The most characteristic thing about the human is that we go looking for problems to solve -- or in other words, playing. In fact, we usually worry about significant emotional issues in youngsters who are unable to look for problems to solve."

Before I left Dr. Bernstein's office I decided to get practical. If the brain responds physically to such environmental differences as whether a kitten walks or rides, what effects might today's environments -- where many children spend more time watching a screen than with their feet on the ground -- be having on mental abilities? What skills could they be gaining -- and which ones might they be losing?

"Well," she replied, "there's nothing wrong with TV or computers per se. However, it may be an issue whether the kids are active or passive when working with the machines. Sesame Street, for example, has brought a great deal of information to children who might not otherwise have got it, but this may have been obtained at a price. I hear many teachers complain that children in kindergarten and first grade don't know how to listen actively! They're used to fast-paced segments of information that are constantly changing. They should be doing something with what they're getting.

"The Sesame Street population is actually at the greatest risk for not understanding that language is communication, a back-and-forth interaction between people. They aren't personally involved in using language to think and solve problems with. Children who have been talked to and had stories read to them are at a real advantage. They've learned how to listen and pay attention -- and had fun doing it. These basic abilities are critical if a youngster is to benefit from education in the classroom!"

How about video games?

"In one very popular game, for example, children must learn to attend to increasingly complex clues. They're systematically encouraged to scan a visual array. But why not put a kid in a real-life problem-solving situation? This isn't being encouraged. We're not giving them the full range of opportunities and it's certainly possible that with such a degree of practice on one skill, the brain might commit too many cells and there would be fewer available for other things.

"Teachers worry about the amount of time children, even very young ones, spend these days encased in stereo headphones, listening to music instead of talking, reading or carrying on a conversation. What do you think that might be doing to their brains?" I asked Dr. Bernstein.

"I hate to think." She rolled her eyes.

"It seems as if we teachers have our work cut out for us," I ventured. "How much can schools change brains?"

Dr. Bernstein did not hesitate. "A great deal!" she replied emphatically.


Genes set the outlines of mental ability, but the way children use their brains determines how their intelligence is expressed. The experiences with which a child chooses to interact determine each brain's synaptic structure as well as the way it functions for different types of learning. If children change the way they use their brains, their synapses are rearranged accordingly. The more they are used in a certain pattern of response, the less flexible they appear to become.

Nature provides a schedule for neural maturation, and increasingly complex modes of thinking emerge from an internal competition for connections at each new phase of mental growth. If a child is glued to an activity for several hours a day, connections for that specific activity will be built up, but something else is going to be diminished. Moreover, if certain kinds of skills remain unused during their appearance on the brain's developmental stage, neural foundations may wither away in the wings of potentiality.

Severe deprivation can have dramatic effects on the young, malleable mind. Less extreme variations in experience have less predictable consequences. The value of excessive stimulation to enhance development is unproven and risky. External pressure designed to produce learning or intelligence violates the fundamental rule: A healthy brain stimulates itself by active interaction with what it finds challenging and interesting in its environment. The environments that we provide for children, the stimuli with which we encourage them to interact, and the ways in which we demonstrate for them the uses of a human mind -- these are the means at our command for shaping both their brains and our cultural future.
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Mon Sep 30, 2013 10:25 pm


CHAPTER 4: Who's Teaching the Children to Talk?

Language is not only a means of generalization; it is at the same time the source of thought. When the child masters language he gains the potentiality to organize anew his perception, his memory; he masters more complex forms of reflection of objects in the external world; he gains the capacity to draw conclusions from his observations, to make deductions, the potentiality of thinking. -- ALEXANDER LURIA [1]

Language is not the garment but the incarnation of our thoughts. -- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

Language is our most powerful tool for organizing experience and, indeed, for constituting our social realities. -- JEROME BRUNER [2]

Sitting facing the television, muttering half thoughts or reactions into black space -- this is the primary linguistic training ground for most of my students. It does not in any way adequately serve the goal of developing and strengthening verbal communication because there is no meaningful interaction. I have before me in my classroom a generation of youngsters whose world encourages linguistic passivity. I must build an awareness of the demands of clear verbal communication on the most rudimentary interpersonal levels. -- A. JANE HAMILTON, [3] MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHER, HILLSBORO, NH

Language shapes culture, language shapes thinking -- and language shapes brains. The verbal bath in which a society soaks its children arranges their synapses and their intellects; it helps them learn to reason, reflect, and respond to the world. The brain is ravenous for language stimulation in early childhood but becomes increasingly resistant to change when the zero hour of puberty arrives. Severe deprivation of language during early years guarantees lasting neural changes that noticeably affect speech and understanding. More subtle forms of language deprivation do not show up in such dramatic ways, but may ultimately affect abilities to think abstractly, plan ahead and defer gratification, control attention, and perform higher-order analysis and problem-solving -- the very skills so much at issue in American schools today.

The brains of today's children are being structured in language patterns antagonistic to the values and goals of formal education. The culprit, which is now invading all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum, is diminished and degraded exposure to the forms of good, meaningful language that enable us to converse with others, with the written word, and with our own minds. The results are inevitable: declining literacy, falling test scores, faltering or circuitous oral expression, ineptitude with the written word that extends from elementary schools into the incoming ranks of professionals. Corporations run writing courses for budding executives, universities remediate basic skills, secondary schools lower standards, and elementary schools add more "learning disability" classes. Meanwhile bureaucrats and educational planners ignore the kernel problem and tout curriculum and methods devised for a previous generation. Bigger doses of "chalk and talk" are the weapons of choice against flagging attention, declines in reading comprehension, and superficial reasoning across the academic spectrum. But old methods are not working because young brains have not been shaped around language as a quintessential tool for analytic thinking.

If we want growing brains to build the foundations for traditional modes of academic excellence, we must confront the habits of our culture that are changing the quality and the quantity of our children's conversation -- both interpersonal and with the written word. Children immersed in what some linguists aptly term "primitive" language should not be criticized for failing to acquire linguistic sophistication.

Much of the blame inevitably falls on television, which is actually only one symptom of the problem. No one has defined long-term effects of stereo headphones versus conversation, of computer games or drills versus active social play, of videotapes versus books. How can children bombarded from birth by noise, frenetic schedules, and the helter-skelter caretaking of a fast-paced adult world learn to analyze, reflect, ponder? How can they use quiet inner conversations to build personal realities, sharpen and extend their visual reasoning? These qualities are embedded in brains by the experiences a society chooses for its children. What are we choosing for ours?


According to many anthropologists, society, language, brain, and the human intellect have been shinnying together up the evolutionary pole since prehistoric times. Language in fact, has been both artifact and architect of our human intellectual habits. The development of speech probably was inevitable because the human brain and vocal apparatus are uniquely suited for it. After the first words emerged, perhaps as a guttural expedient for some primitive man who wanted to summon a comrade when he was clutching a handful of tools, people discovered that talk could be useful. As they developed various uses for language, say some authorities, human evolution could have been pushed along by several notches. In turn, as language was used, the underlying brain structures may have been nudged into increased size and specialization.

The invention of writing also changed thinking: Many scholars believe the precision required to get thought into words on paper refined mental capabilities, logical thought, and the ability of a culture to reason about its complexities. [4] Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that the substitution of immediate, pictorial material for the written word may be destroying our societal ability to reason intelligently. "In a culture dominated by print," he points out, "public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas." It is no accident that the Age of Reason coincided with the development of print. Now, however, the content of much public discourse has become "dangerous nonsense." The Gettysburg address would probably have been largely incomprehensible to an 1985 audience, he suggests, even if the President could have constructed such long, complex sentences! [5]

This "dangerous nonsense" is the introduction for large numbers of our young into the intellectual habits and values of adult society. It is also, for many, their primary linguistic model. From it, children get a window on adults' reasoning. "Language tells what a people thinks about itself and its destiny," maintains columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, but "television's abominable grammar has tarnished the beauty of the English language.'' [6]

Who Is Teaching Language to the Children?

Even if the linguistic quality of television were upgraded, however, the one-way nature of media talk makes it a poor teacher. Good language, like the synapses that make it possible, is gained only from interactive engagement: children need to talk as well as to hear. They need to play with words and reason with them. They need to practice talking about problems to learn to plan and organize their behavior. They need to respond to new words and stories to build a broad personal base of semantic meaning. They need personal adult guides to provide good examples of grammar -- not primarily so they will sound "intelligent," but because word order, or syntax, is the means by which they will learn to analyze ideas and reason about abstract relationships. They need to hear and speak the tiny units of language -- such as ed, ing, ment -- that convey fine-grained differences between what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow, between actions and things, between the shades of meaning that give clarity to mental operations.

Good conversation is a rara avis in homes today. We know that most children do not read, but as we shall see, they also get little conversational training at schools. Moreover, school experiences may come too late or be of the wrong type. Traditional sources of language exposure have ceded much of their neural real estate to television and the peer culture.

Normal human brains will construct the essentials of a language even without much input: categories of word meaning, sounds, basic grammar. Deaf children invent basic symbols and the grammar of a primitive sign language even when they are not taught to sign. The brain dictates that some language will be learned; the form of the language then determines, to some degree, the form of the brain. If the deaf continue to use a visual language, their brains become significantly different from those of hearing children.

For children in more normal language environments, a minimum of exposure during the specific time period when the brain is "sensitive" for each type of development guarantees the unfolding of basic "experience expectant" systems. Refinements of language, such as more complex grammar, vocabulary, and social usage, however, don't arrive so easily; they depend on the quality and quantity of interactions in both preschool and elementary years. The most complex neural systems, which pull together abstract language and visual reasoning, develop only if challenging encounters with reading, writing, and verbal reasoning continue during the teenage years. Failure to stimulate these systems, which enable many of mankind's greatest achievements, threatens not only personal but cultural futures.


Language at Home Helps Children Create "Possible Worlds"

The person who teaches your child to talk also teaches a way of thinking. The ideas, values, and priorities of a culture are borne along on the stream of language that flows between generations.

Teaching children to speak not only helps them organize words in a sentence but also to organize their minds, advises Dr. Jerome Bruner. Bruner feels the type of symbol systems we teach children to use open "possible worlds" for them. The way we talk about the world and think about it in the "coin of that thought," he maintains, imposes a point of view and even creates a social reality. Nations differ in large part because of symbol systems. "Just as the little Frenchman becomes a consumer and user of French modes of thinking and doing, so the little American comes to reflect the ways in which knowledge is gained and reflected on in America."

Verbal interactions in the home are where it all starts. In a simple example, if your child is angry because a friend made off with a favorite toy, the words you use and those you teach the child to use will set lasting patterns of action and attitude:

"Go kick that little monster in the butt! We don't let people get away with things like that!" (Society is violent, and you must be prepared to defend physically against any who transgress on your territory. Don't stop to talk or reason; just act.)

"Let me call John's mother and settle this problem." (The world can be managed by persons in authority. Words are used for solving problems, but it is best to wait for someone else who knows more than you to do the work.)

"Let's go to John's house and you can tell him why you're upset. Hitting isn't going to do any good." (People are expected to take the responsibility for solving their own problems. Verbal negotiation is the accepted means.)

"Please be quiet; this program's almost over ... " (Television problems are more important than real-life ones. Words don't seem to do much good, better try another way to get attention.)

Not all children have parents or caregivers who show them how to use words effectively, but these habits strongly influence the child's "possible worlds" when he gets to school. Dr. Gordon Wells, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has studied variations in the types of language training children get at home. "Everything that happens in a child's daily life is a potential subject for the sort of talk that facilitates attention, interpretation, and evaluation, but parents differ in the use they make of these opportunities," he observes. "In some homes, events are very much taken for granted, each one receiving the same sort of passing comment, whereas in other homes there is a much greater selectivity, some events being discussed in considerable detail and connections made with the wider context in which they occur." [7]

Social as well as thinking skills develop from children's language experiences, believes Dr. Bambi Schieffelin of the Department of Anthropology at New York University. "I think language is the thing that creates one's whole world view," she emphasizes. "I take a strong position that it's the structure of language that is important -- you can use language to create worlds as well as teach how to think." [8, 9]

The Importance of Talk

Dr. Schieffelin, like many others, is concerned that children are not receiving large enough daily doses of talk either at home or at school. With increasing numbers of young children spending time in day-care or school settings, we must pay special attention to their need to talk to adults and to each other, she insists. "I just believe that kids talking and having language experiences of all kinds, in any kind of medium, is just critical. Kids have to talk, they should be encouraged constantly to talk, and older people need to participate with them, guide them, help them develop and expand their abilities."

Many parents today try hard to provide elaborate "stimulating" environments for their children, but not even designer toys substitute for good-quality conversation. Looking specifically at the behavior of the mothers in one typical study, researchers found that "frequent, responsive mother-child language interaction" was the most critical factor in raising mental ability, rather than "overall level of maternal stimulation," i.e., how well the mother physically cared for the child. [10]

A child's early experiences with language have powerful long-term effects on school achievement. Studies of homes of children with Down's syndrome show that parent-child interaction with language can improve the future school abilities even of children viewed as "retarded." By providing parents with training in language-rich "play lessons" beginning when each child was thirty months old, researchers in one study found that ensuing gains in the youngsters' reading comprehension lasted for at least ten years. [11]

Dr. Catherine Snow of Harvard University is conducting a large study to find out which characteristics of family life are particularly related to language development and -- by extension -- to school success. Some language skills, she finds, are much more valuable than others in academic terms: For example, children who can come up with good original definitions for words (as in "What does 'donkey' mean?") tend to do well on standardized achievement tests. But ability to mimic the behavior of a talk-show host interviewing an adult for four minutes showed no relationship to success on the tests.

The quality of the conversation adults have with children is extremely important, says Dr. Snow. In those precious times together at the dinner table, for example, parents who take the time to discuss topics thoughtfully, who talk about events and ideas, are helping their children become much better thinkers than those who focus more on the food or the situation at hand. Telling stories over and over, expanding on characters, events, and ideas, also helps children learn to think carefully and give good explanations.

The Importance of Words Without Pictures

Any activity that helps children use their brains to separate from the "here and now," to get away from pictures and use words to manipulate ideas in their own minds, also helps them with the development of abstract thinking (e.g., "Let's guess what we will see when we go to the park this afternoon." "I wonder what your coach's decision will mean for next year's team."). Many experts believe this kind of "dis-embedded thought" is encouraged by reflective conversations about stories that have been read. Families with the time and patience to talk thoughtfully with their children about the stories they read give them a big advantage in school. Such activities are a difficult chore when parents are rushed or tired, however. Who has the energy after a day full of hassles?

Nevertheless, if parents expect their children to be good students, they had better be prepared to make an effort. If they are too tired to talk, they can at least read aloud from books that engage children's interest and attention. In a large' study in Great Britain following children from preschool into elementary school, Dr. Wells and his colleagues found that the most powerful predictor of their school achievement was the amount of time spent listening to interesting stories. Wells believes that such experiences teach children first about the way stories (and later, other things they read) are structured, as well as the types of language that may be expected in a variety of types of written text. Even more important, however, is understanding words alone as the main source of meaning. Because the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with "the symbolic potential of language" -- its power to represent experience independent of the context of the here and now.

Experiences with pictures attached, even when they involve looking at picture books and learning new words, are not as valuable, says Wells, because the child needs to learn "sooner, rather than later" to go beyond just naming things that can be seen. He concludes:

For this, the experience of stories is probably the ideal preparation .... Gradually, they will lead them to reflect on their experience and, in so doing, to discover the power that language has, through its symbolic potential, to create and explore alternative possible worlds with their own inner coherence and logic. Stories may thus lead to the imaginative, hypothetical stance that is required in a wide range of intellectual activities and for problem-solving of all kinds. . . [emphasis added]. [12]

What is actually happening in today's homes? Teachers of young children are worried that children aren't being read to enough at home today. They say many of their charges now come to school unfamiliar with the narrative staples of our literature: folk and fairy tales, "classic" children's stories, even nursery rhymes. Deficits are showing up especially among middle and upper-middle class children from "the type of families" where these stories were, until quite recently, standard fare. The librarian in one suburban school told me, "It's amazing to me that they come to kindergarten and first grade having no experience with nursery rhymes. It used to be they were all familiar with them and many could recite along with you; now hardly any are familiar. Is there such a thing as 'cultural illiteracy' for five-year-olds?"

Why are nursery rhymes so important? Not only do they get children "hooked" on listening to language, but they also teach valuable skills. "It's the patterns, the rhythms," she explains, "the way language is put together so pleasantly. Patterns are the most important for early reading -- and even for math. Putting letters together in patterns, learning that everything in the world goes together in patterns -- that's so important for the little ones."

"I have to start from scratch with most of these kids," said a kindergarten teacher in another school. I'm supposed to teach rhyming words in the reading readiness program, but half these kids don't know what a rhyme is. And a lot seem to be missing that internal sense of rhythm."

Reading specialists tell us children's ability to discriminate and create rhyming words, as well as their sense of rhythm, are closely related to early reading ability. A child who has absorbed over and over -- through the ears, not the eyes -- such common word parts as "fun, sun, run" or "fiddle, diddle, middle" as well as the melody of their language is statistically destined to have an easier time learning to read.

Language Coaches

Ideally, children have one-on-one language coaches built into their lives from birth, when interactions between parent and infant lay the groundwork for nonverbal communication skills. Some parents mistakenly believe the first year is not important for language stimulation, yet during these months basic synapses of the language system are constructed by such "simple" means as non talking games (pat-a-cake, peekaboo) between infant and caretaker. Turn-taking, even without words, is an important first lesson. During early months the brain also takes in its lasting repertoire of sounds for speaking and listening to the nuances of its native language.

Parents seem to have built-in knowledge of how to act as "language coach" while the child's abilities develop. Studies show that mothers instinctively shape and expand their child's language, tailoring their own responses precisely to each child's developmental need. They seem to know just how to pull the youngster's language up a notch by using forms in their own speech that are just one degree above the child's current level. Simply exposing children to adult language does not automatically make the learning "take," because youngsters can't repeat speech patterns that are much more complicated than those they are already using (another reason, incidentally, why most TV -- even Sesame Street -- is a flop as a language model). [13]

A burning current question asks whether other adults can also do this job. The few studies available suggest that fathers, too, may be quite skilled at tailoring language to a child. [14] Other adults and even older children can also be effective, but only if they have the skill to move on to more complex vocabulary and grammar when children are ready. When parents hire caretakers with different language patterns from their own, they should not be surprised if their child's development is affected.

Overall, being a parent may confer a special advantage. One recent study compared children's interactions with parents and with other well-intentioned adults who were not parents. Parents did a much better job of guiding the children's language, even if the children weren't their own. [15] Perhaps the secret is to be in close enough touch with a growing mind to become sensitized to what is happening inside it.

Development of brain systems beyond the most fundamental layers of language depend on the availability of the right kind of stimulation at the proper time. Anyone who has ever watched a small child pester an adult to get a certain kind of answer, realizes that children will try to elicit the right kind of conversation if adults are interested and available. This ideal scenario is increasingly missing, however, even in homes where parents expect to see their child on top of the academic heap. At this writing, the majority of babies born in the United States are placed in full-time day care within a year, commonly within two or three months, so their mothers can return to work. [16] American preschoolers spend a great deal of time watching television -- missing both personal interaction and language content tailored to each child's developmental schedule. We don't know how many children are being encouraged to be quiet by overburdened caretakers, by parents who are pressed for time, or by hired baby-sitters who have poor mastery of English and would rather watch the soaps.

Are schools taking over the job? A resounding NO is, unfortunately, the answer. In many day-care centers and classrooms, teachers have too many children to see to and may even lack the interest or the skills to participate with them. Neglect of verbal interaction during the apex of the brain's sensitive period for language acquisition is a serious issue, but many so-called "reliable" programs overlook the priority of interactive talk. In one typical study, researchers observed the everyday interactions of children and their teachers in two well-regarded child care centers in the United States. They found:

The children spent most of their time in teacher-directed large-group activities, and ... most of their language behavior was receptive, such as listening to and following teachers' directions. Although teachers provided adequate oral language models, they were not active listeners, did not encourage curiosity about language, and did not spontaneously expand on children's vocabulary or concepts. [17]

In other settings the situation is even worse. Basic concerns for physical needs and safety predominate; even teacher talk is minimized. In some centers children watch video for substantial portions of the day.

For older children, too, schools neglect specific measures to make up for gaps in language development before it's too late. "We have to teach them the three R's and all the other stuff that gets neglected at home -- from sex education to how to climb trees. Don't tell me we also have to teach them how to talk!" complained one school administrator.

"As a society, are we neglecting our children's language development?" I asked Dr. Schieffelin, who has compared language development in many cultures with that in the United States.

"That's what it looks like," she replied. "But I don't want to blame caretakers. Many mothers have to work. The problem is that there has to be some institutional support; someone has to help out, and that's not happening."

Dr. Schieffelin believes that we should rearrange our societal priorities to get children interacting with language. She says schools and day-care centers should encourage children to talk with peers as well as with adults. But classes are often too big. How, she asks, can teachers be expected to encourage language interaction when they must control overly large groups of children in classrooms -- by keeping them quiet?

"We need to look at this ideology of silence; why is it that silence is seen as being in control and talk is seen as being out of control? Children can't be passive learners! I really think they need a lot of opportunity to experiment, talk to each other in ways that are not necessarily appropriate to adults -- word play, sound play, role play -- but teachers have so many kids in the room they can't tolerate the noise level." [18]

Passive "listening" does not build either language or effective listening skills. Our children today spend a great deal of time "listening" (to the TV, to the teacher), but they need to listen better, not just listen more. Real listening is an active mental process that serves understanding and memory. Classrooms where children are passively "listening" to teachers who do most of the talking are a dangerous anachronism. Studies of elementary and secondary school classrooms, where up to 80% of conversation is "teacher talk," even in primary grades, support Dr. Schieffelin's concern. When I visited a number of schools to record samples of children using language in the classrooms, I had trouble finding anything but isolated phrases or short answers to teachers' questions. Much of the "talk" was a one-way street, as the teacher presented material, gave directions, or asked factual questions requiring only brief answers. Only in rare classrooms were children encouraged to formulate complete sentences, expand on answers, or use more complex grammar. Even more rarely were children encouraged to talk to each other, ask each other questions -- or even, in fact, to ask questions at all!

Children with insufficient language skills have difficulty requesting information or analyzing problems because they can't formulate appropriate questions. They register overall confusion ("I don't understand"), but lack the verbal tools to analyze the problem; they often remain silent because they can't get their curiosity into words. Their learning suffers accordingly, particularly in subjects such as math and science, where asking the right question is often as important as getting the right answer. In order to analyze problems and evaluate alternatives, children need active practice asking and attempting to answer their own questions. Too much "teacher talk" gets in the way of such higher-level reasoning because it prevents children from doing their own thinking! Observing in British primary schools, linguist Gordon Wells was struck by

the very high proportion of teacher utterances that are questions, and of these what a very small proportion are questions to which the teachers do not already know the answer. Even when the form of the question seems to invite a variety of answers, there is often only one that is really acceptable to the teacher, and it is not uncommon to see children gazing at the teacher's face in an effort to guess what is in her mind, down to the precise word. [19]

In another era, when children's out-of-school environments provided richer language experiences, schools could, and did, assume that most children would arrive in the elementary or junior high school classroom with verbal skills adequate for their educational purposes. Now, a growing number of educational journals advise teachers not to assume skills of listening, verbal expression, verbal inquiry, and analysis. Children who come from homes where English is not the primary language particularly need special attention, special teaching techniques, and special sensitivity, but all students need an interactive language environment. Reality, however, trails good advice by at least ten years, and many, if not most, classrooms have too many children and insufficient support. Moreover, many also have such rigid "objectives" that even well-intentioned teachers may be forced to push pedagogy at the expense of curiosity.

As a society, we are inviting intellectual mediocrity if we neglect the quality of the language experience of our young. Linguistic passivity for large numbers of children of any age is a recipe for limitation, not only in their individual development but in the cut of our cultural fabric of thought.


Teachers today are variably puzzled, concerned, discouraged, and outraged by declines in native-English-speaking students' ability to use language coherently and analytically. Many are not aware that this problem also accounts for "fuzzy thinking." As I visit classrooms, I see ample reason for concern.

"Well, It's Like ... You Know ... "

In a suburban classroom eight fifth graders sit around a table reading silently from a textbook. Their teacher holds a manual from which he will read questions about the story. As the children finish reading, they look up expectantly.

"Who can tell me what Rebecca's problem was and how she tried to solve it?" asks the teacher. Hands shoot up. "Okay, Hank, give it a try."

"Well, it was like her friend Sam was uh -- you know -- uh -- like there, er, trapped -- uh -- under a tree, you know, one that fell down, and Rebecca tried to use a thing -- you know -- a branch to, like, er . . ." Arms waving, Hank pantomimes a prying motion.

"Pry?" suggests the teacher.

"Yeah, to like pry the tree off him."

"Good, Hank. Susan, will you explain how well Rebecca's plan worked?"

"I'm not really sure," ventures Susan. "I sort of lost it after Rebecca yelled. Like who were those other people that came? I couldn't figure out whether this was before or after she ran into town."

Later, in the faculty room, the teacher appeals for help. "How can I teach these kids to express themselves better? They talk a lot but they have such trouble expressing their ideas clearly. I think it affects what they understand. We used to be able to use harder books in fifth grade, but now even when they can 'read' all the words, they can't seem to put it together. And you should see their writing!" He rolls his eyes. "Yet in so many ways these kids are really smart. Do you think I should be teaching them differently?"

Recently I observed a class of ninth graders in a private school discussing the book Animal Farm. The students were lively and interested, they clearly had some important ideas they wanted to express, and many did a wonderful job of it. But it was sometimes painful to hear others try. One snippet of dialogue that I jotted down occurred as a girl tried to describe the behavior of a tyrant:

"You know how he's like . . . ," she began. Then, abandoning that line of thought, she started again, "When he tried to ... you know" -- gesturing vigorously -- "he did it."

As the conversation progressed, the teacher tried to get the students to compare themes in the book with issues in their own society. She posed the question of what people should do if someone starts acting like a tyrant.

"Oh, yeah," cried one student. "That was on Magnum last night."

"Couldn't you tell them ...," volunteered another, "I forget what it's called -- couldn't you just tell them that they should get out?"

I do not wish to imply that these excerpts characterize all class discussions or that many, many students do not think clearly and express themselves well. Obviously, we cannot expect perfection from ten- and fourteen-year-olds. My concerns, and those expressed by many veteran teachers who have written and spoken to me, are more centered on the suspicion that more and more students are unable to use language -- oral or written -- with the types of precision that might reasonably be expected at any given age or supposed "ability level." This development goes hand in hand with an overwhelming barrage of reports about declining listening skills.

What the Teachers Say

Students have always needed help understanding and expressing themselves -- otherwise they wouldn't be students. And some teachers have always complained. Nevertheless, an increasing number of teachers feel that declining verbal skills are partially responsible for their not being able to achieve the kind of standards in class discussions, reading, and writing that they once took for granted -- with the same type of students. They repeatedly express a core of concerns:

• declining listening skills: inability to maintain attention, to understand, and remember material presented orally
• decreased ability to get facts and ideas into coherent, orderly form in speaking and writing
• tendency to communicate with gestures along with, or instead of, words
• declining vocabulary knowledge above fourth-grade level
• proliferation of "fillers" instead of substantive words ("You know, like, the thing, well, like the thing he did for his, you know, project . . .")
• difficulty hearing differences between sounds in words and getting them in order; this shows up in difficulty pronouncing and reading "long" words and in spelling
• faltering comprehension of more difficult reading material
• trouble understanding longer sentences, embedded clauses, more advanced grammatical structures in upper grades
• difficulty switching from colloquial language to written form

Not surprisingly, different concerns surface at different grade levels. Preschoolers are reported to have more trouble sitting still and listening to stories or short discussion than did children of previous decades, but they are often seen as having larger vocabularies ("Especially for clinical terms concerned with sex, reproduction, and disease," wryly commented one teacher) and a broader store of general information. Many little children appear to be "advanced" because they have adopted a veneer of sophistication from television.

In primary grades, most language demands can be handled by the brain's basic systems, which usually develop with any amount of normal input. Thus, although attention problems are always mentioned, language problems may not be specifically identified until about fourth grade, when the higher-level aspects -- those that depend more on enriched experience -- are called on. At this point, the neural legacy of contemporary culture creates an increasing mismatch between students' language abilities and schools' expectations. Problems with language understanding and usage become increasingly evident as children move into grades that have traditionally demanded higher-level thinking and organizational skills, comprehension of harder books, and increased amounts of writing. Reading test scores start to plummet.

As students move into middle school, teachers express greater concern about listening skills, vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension, and the ability to use language to express ideas effectively. Unless students read a lot on their own, their vocabulary growth slows down somewhere near the fourth-grade level -- approximately the level of media language. Many schools try to remedy the deficit by making kids memorize vocabulary lists, but students rapidly forget words they rarely read, hear, or use in normal conversation. With harder reading selections, comprehension problems also arise as children find the unfamiliar forests of more complicated texts (e.g., essays, poetry, literature with involved plots, plays) very bewildering places indeed.

In high school, language difficulties continue to show up in subtle problems with: planning, sequencing, and organizing ideas; classifying; grasping the fine distinctions between concepts; reasoning about cause and effect (if A, then B; because X, then Y); understanding relationships of ideas in their reading; reasoning in math and science; expressing ideas accurately and directly; reflecting internally on their own thinking, and even managing their own behavior.

Several university professors have recently told me they cannot believe the difficulties students nowadays have with analytic thinking. For example, a well-known psychology teacher at a major university in Florida said, "It's a source of amazement to me how many students can't link ideas together; they can't follow one idea logically with another. I have older adult students and younger undergraduates in my classes, and it's the younger ones I'm having more trouble with. I really think it's because they have such poor verbal skills. If you don't have a good grasp of the language, you have no tools to think with. You haven't formed the appropriate categories verbally to combine ideas. Language changes the way your brain sets up the categories it works with. For these students the whole thought process just isn't there; the linkages between ideas that language provides are missing."

Wide variations in abilities to use language as a tool for thinking are a natural part of the human condition. There will always be students -- even bright and talented ones -- whose brains do not bend easily around analytic and logical uses of language. Children differ genetically in their aptitude for language learning, and it is clearly absurd to expect equal facility from everyone with any particular set of mental tools. The concern I hear expressed over and over is not that a few students are faltering, but that many are. These observations show a startlingly similar pattern at every level of the socioeconomic scale, with some of the most dramatic changes in children's language abilities reported by teachers at the country's most selective private schools.

Voices From Abroad

Is the problem unique to the United States? Apparently not, although it appears to be much worse here. One infant school teacher from Coventry, England, said, "We thought it wouldn't happen in England, but it is happening here, too. Children's language skills are suffering along with their ability to stop and think. The speed of life, what they're getting from T.V. -- that lovely, typically British thing of standing and staring, reflecting, is being eroded."

"It's beginning -- something we were trying to avoid for many a year," lamented a Dublin Montessori consultant. "Children are not speaking properly because they're not hearing words pronounced slowly. T.V. is too fast. Spelling is declining because they don't hear the sounds. If you hear two teenagers speaking, they can understand each other but we can't understand them. It's like a pidgin English -- a shortened version of the real words. Teachers have to slow down far more than they ever did before. We're dealing with a different type of child. Children who are institutionalized from day one don't have the same rich language environment as those at home with only one or two adults."

Said a college professor from London, "It's very scary. I see it in the students at the college -- they don't seem to be able to translate their thoughts from head to paper. We didn't used to see this, and it seems to be getting worse."

Educators in France have similar issues on their minds. The principal of a middle school (college) in southwestern France, said of his students, "Their capacities for listening have declined. Proper language use is poorly known; they don't understand the nuances of language. They write and spell very badly, and their grammar -- it's horrible! They have smaller vocabularies and they chatter instead of reflecting before they talk. It takes them five or six sentences to say what they mean. One finds it even in the best students, deficits in attention and expression. I tell the teachers, we have to accept these children where they are; with all the distractions -- music, television -- society has changed."

As we concluded our interview, my French host remarked, "I have a daughter who is considered a good student now, but twenty years ago -- she would not have been so good."

The Legacy of "McLanguage"

Observers tend to blame the schools for lack of training in the fine points of language and grammar. London columnist Brian Dunning, in a recent article entitled "Doesn't Anybody Here Talk English Any More?" decried a new generation in Britain "which runs a finger under words of more than one syllable," and students who, when shown a noun or a verb, will "blink like rabbits confronted with Wittgenstein." [20]

Unfortunately, when children come to school with a deficient base for higher-order language and reasoning skills, schools cannot simply "cure" the problem by waving a magic grammar or spelling book! One nationally noted learning specialist has some strong feelings about the real causes of the current problem.

"I call the trend in kids' talk today 'McLanguage,''' declares Priscilla Vail, author of Clear and Lively Writing [21] and Smart Kids with School Problems. [22] "It's verbal fast food made up of inflection, gesture, and condensation." Vail's consultations on bright children's learning problems in both public and private schools have convinced her that societal changes are overwhelming the schools with students who need remedial language training. Most learning disabilities are related to underlying language problems, yet increasing numbers of youngsters are permitted to be "linguistically malnourished," she says. The most basic problem is they don't learn to listen analytically.

"For one thing," Vail explains, "children can't spell because they are unaccustomed to separating out sounds and putting them in order -- their listening experience has ill-prepared them to listen for fine differences in sounds or in meaning."

Good spelling, of course, also comes from seeing words in print (i. e., lots of reading). Research shows that a major factor contributing to both poor reading and poor spelling, however, is not lack of visual skill, but rather poor critical listening abilities. One typical study that compared good and poor readers showed that differences in a skill called "phonological awareness" was highly related to reading ability in both elementary school children and adults. "Phonological awareness" is the ability not only to hear the sounds in words but also to analyze their order. For example, the child is asked to: "Say 'smile' without the s"; move different-colored blocks to show the order of sounds in words (e.g., b-a-t, t-a-b); listen to a word and tell whether it is long like "bicycle" or short like "bike." Good readers (and good spellers, as well) are strikingly better at this type of listening than are poor readers, even when both groups have similar IQ scores. [23] Because these skills are accomplished in a special part of the left hemisphere of most people's brains, some researchers speculate that this complex of skills is related to inherited differences in brain structure, but studies have clearly shown that early exposure and practice also have a great deal to do with the way these areas develop. Today's children are exposed to lots of sound, but that is exactly what concerns Vail. "I am particularly worried about the kids who conform to the listening patterns of pop music," she says. "Their brains are being trained to listen uncritically to lyrics that are limited to repetitive syllables or short phrases that hardly sound like English. The beat overrides the melody, and there is no beginning, no middle, and no end. That is a poor training ground for understanding language!"

Interestingly enough, the parts of the brain that respond to this sort of musical immersion are in the right hemisphere, opposite from the areas that make people good at "phonological awareness." When we see young children encase their minds in stereo headphones, we should wonder what synapses are being strengthened -- and at what cost?

Vail agrees, too, that children fail to develop skills they will need in school because conversation is suffering in homes. A veteran working mother of four, now a grandmother, she sympathizes with weary adults, but at the same time she worries about their children. "When you're tired, the last thing you want to do is have a long conversation with someone who's not on your level," she sighs. "Many children today, even in the 'best' homes, never hear rich, elaborated sentences. And when parents do talk with their kids, they do it with short sentences and a lot of gestures. These parents may have good language skills, but this is a culture of immediate gratification. We want instant information through eyes as well as ears, but academic learning requires the thoughtful mediation of language and the delay of working through print. We're giving kids competing messages when we raise them without any models of slow, thoughtful language and then expect them to listen to the teacher and understand what they read."

Whatever Happened to Storytelling?

Many children today are also missing out on a rich "oral tradition," in English or another language, that can enhance written language or stand by itself in a culture where writing is not generally used to communicate ideas. Although writing -- and the kind of talking and thinking that go along with it -- promotes the development of school-like ways of reasoning, the arts of storytelling, oral history, and conversation have their own special niche in developing reflective thought, memory, and attention. We will see in later chapters what an absence of good listening experiences may be doing, not only to attention spans, but to reading comprehension for today's students. For now, let us move on to explore some of the specific ways in which different forms of language usage may affect the modes of thinking -- and the brains -- that children take to school with them.
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Tue Oct 01, 2013 12:06 am

CHAPTER 5: Sagging Syntax, Sloppy Semantics, and Fuzzy Thinking

If your language did not include the words red, pink, and coral, would your mind work the same way as it does now when you look at a geranium? How accurately can you compare democracy, communism, and socialism without using words? Without language, how would you go about planning and communicating the details of a party three months in advance?

No one denies that the way people use language is braided together tightly with the way they think. But exactly how much language actually shapes thought, and vice versa, is an old argument.


Do Different Languages Make People Think Differently?

One unresolved issue concerns whether speaking different types of languages makes people not only think differently about the world but also perceive things differently. [1, 2] Some researchers have suggested, for example, that speakers of a language that includes in its vocabulary only a few color names (corresponding, perhaps, to shades of light and dark rather than hue) would perceive only the color values for which they had words. It is hard to grapple with the notion that in their minds geraniums might look quite different. According to this idea, Arctic Inuits who have several hundred words for different types of snow could be expected to reason more precisely about snow than members of cultures with fewer terms -- and possibly, fewer shades of meaning.

Precision of semantic meaning can apply to verbs, adjectives, and adverbs as well as nouns (e.g., What is the difference between hurl and toss, or between exquisite and beautiful?). Language users who have these types of distinctions available may have mental access to more analytic forms of thinking than those whose lexicon is restricted to more general words (e.g., throw, or pretty).

The main danger of this position is setting up some types of language -- and the accompanying thought -- as arbitrarily "better" than others. Many linguists now view "good" reasoning as that which works best for the needs of the culture in which it takes place, and the best linguistic training as that which readies children's brains for the specific types of thinking valued and needed in their society. A child in a society primarily involved in food gathering, hunting, or navigation, for example, might never be required to write an analytic essay or research paper; one raised in a culture of artisans, where aesthetic beauty is of primary value, might not be encouraged to reason algebraically and therefore would not need the "language" of algebraic equations. [3, 4]

In our Western culture, where we claim to value abstract, analytic reasoning, children are expected to be prepared to think accordingly. These higher-level abilities are not automatically built into the brain. They come only from specific kinds of language and educational experience that prod synapses into patterns we deem "more intelligent."

Many scientists have speculated about how language specifically affects intelligence. Alexander Luria, a renowned neuropsychologist who was fascinated by the workings of growing brains, insisted that language physically builds the brain's higher-reasoning centers. He claimed that, without language, humans would not have developed abstract, categorical thinking: [5]

Language, in the course of social history, became the decisive instrument which helped humans transcend the boundaries of sensory experience, assign symbols, and formulate certain generalizations and categories. When the child names something, pronouncing, for example, "that is a steam engine," he begins to understand that in the movement of the machine named, steam plays a role and that it moves other objects. In mastering words and using them the child analyses and synthesizes the phenomena of the external world, using not only his personal experience but the experience of mankind. He classifies objects, he begins to perceive them differently and with this to remember them differently [italics added]. [6]

David Premack of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, wondering if language could change the reasoning skills of animals, taught a form of language to chimpanzees to see if it would improve their scores on IQ-type tests that were oriented toward verbal meaning. Although chimpanzees cannot speak, Premack taught them to communicate by arranging plastic chips standing for words into simple grammatical statements (e.g., "Give Suzie banana."). He then retested their ability to reason in certain ways and also tested human children on the same types of tasks. We should all be happy to learn that even educated apes are not about to take over the world, since Premack clearly showed that human children, even before they learn language, think more incisively than chimps do. Nevertheless, these experiments showed with equal clarity that language symbols did change the chimps' abilities to reason. Simply teaching them words for the concepts "same" and "different" enabled them for the first time to see this distinction among categories of objects and thus pass more of the tests. [7]

Language is, of course, not the sole route to thought. Chimps -- and people -- can reason nonverbally, and a lively human mental life also uses visual imagery and nonverbal symbols to interpret and remember experience. Painters, sculptors, and architects do not rely heavily on language to develop their artistic ideas. Likewise, highly abstract mathematical reasoning may ultimately call on systems in the brain other than, or in addition to, those used for language processing, even though the learner must master the basic language of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.

Despite the obvious importance of nonverbal forms of intelligence, there is as yet no substitute for language, used in tandem with visual reasoning, to hone precision of expression and analysis. In the schools to which we consign youngsters for so many hours of their lives, written language is the coin of the realm. Allowing children to enter with shallow linguistic resources puts them in intellectual jeopardy and creates dangerous tensions within education.

Syntax: The Grammar of Relationships

The grammar of language is one of the main ways by which people reason about relationships. When I speak of grammar, or "syntax," I am not talking about the rules we learned in school, but rather about the ones we figured out for ourselves, starting before age two. Putting the verb before the object ("Get cookie") and adding s for more than one are simple examples.

This ability to induce rules, for which the human brain is noted, is probably the reason basic syntactic abilities are said to be "experience expectant"; we aren't born with noun and verb rules clinging to synapses but rather with an innate ability to figure out categories and apply principles that let us generalize about the regularities in any domain of experience. [8] If a young child becomes frightened by a dog, for example, he may start to categorize all dogs as mean until he broadens his rule system to include friendly as well as unfriendly ones. When he notices that adding s makes more than one, he will apply this rule to all words ("mouses") until he broadens that system. The basic drive to make this kind of sense out of the world has doubtless helped keep our species alive.

Learning such rules takes many individual experiences before the general principle is finally internalized. Thus, children who are not frequently exposed to "literate language" may never internalize understanding of this kind of discourse, either its vocabulary or its grammatical rules. Children who do not have the sound of more complex language "in their gut" have particular problems understanding the subtle distinctions in meaning that are carried by abstract "little words" (or, if, would, might, did), and word endings ("I think" vs. "I am thinking"). The order of words in a sentence also conveys many important conceptual relationships that become increasingly important for clear thinking, reading and writing after primary grades. [9]

Her father fed her dog the biscuits vs.

Her father fed her the dog biscuits.

Students not attuned to processing fine distinctions in the sequence of words get all mixed up by sentences like this, whether they hear or read them. Another frequent stumbling block is the grammar of time sequence and cause and effect:

Before John ate dinner, he played ball.

Because the last train had left, he stayed all night.

Still other confusing but common constructions are embedded information:

The bill vetoed by the President . . .

and passive voice:

... was not the one that had been recommended by our committee. Understanding tense markers (when did the veto take place: before or after the recommendation?) also requires syntactic ability.

''These fine points of language take the person beyond the threshold of the visual world," says Priscilla Vail. "Without language, we're limited to our visual horizon; language allows children to move beyond that hidden machinery of cause and effect. If parents want their kids to do well in school or get into a good college, they have to start with language. A rich vocabulary is the foundation, but the ability to describe, compare, and categorize with language is what leads to our ability to think in analogy -- that's the highest level, and it's also what is tested on the SATs!"

How the Brain Handles Grammar

In terms of what is happening to children's brains, it is important to understand that the orderly, grammatic, syntactic details of a language, its sounds, and probably the fine-grained distinctions in word meaning, are handled by the left hemisphere of the cortex in most right-handed people. More general understanding of word meaning, gesture, and interpretation of visual communication (e.g., facial expressions) is mainly directed for most of us by the less analytic right hemisphere. [10] In the sentence "The dog was chased by the cat," for example, right hemisphere semantic systems probably connect the words (e.g., cat, dog, and chase) with mental pictures and/or networks of previous associations. In order to understand the details of what happened (Who did the chasing? Is the time now, yesterday, or tomorrow?), we must use the left hemisphere. When I hear students' conversation these days, I often wonder if both sides are getting sufficient exercise!

Even verbal fluency, per se, does not signify full development of left-hemisphere language systems. Sometimes seemingly precocious vocabulary development and pseudosophistication fool adults who believe that a child who chatters a lot must have good language development. Not true! Some of the hardest learning problems to treat are those of kids who talk on and on but have trouble getting to the point. They have a large set of general associations, but they have big trouble synthesizing them and getting the details in order: Their words ride around their thoughts like Indians circling a wagon train, but they never get around to the attack. Many times, because these students also have trouble talking to themselves about what they're thinking, they don't even know what their point -- or their question -- is! "You know. . ." substitutes for verbal -- and mental -- precision; it is up to the listener to fill in the blanks. This problem is clinically classified as a form of "language disability," but it seems to be increasingly evident among "normal" students in today's "McLanguage" environments.

Since it has long been recognized that problems with verbal precision can result from deficits in the left hemisphere, language therapists speculate among themselves about how much the overwhelming visual presence of television and video may be exacerbating the problem by neglecting left-hemisphere language areas. In the next chapter and in our discussion of television, we will look more critically at this possibility.

Slipping syntax leads to fuzzy thought. Difficulties using grammatical language to identify relationships between ideas may account for many of the problems in logical thinking, science, and math that are becoming so evident in our high schools. Many problems with thinking go unrecognized until students must formulate ideas clearly enough to put them down on paper. In observing classrooms, I have commonly seen students "get by" in class discussions with short, superficial answers or a lot of gestures and verbal circling of the topic ("You know" -- and the teacher does, so the kid is off the hook). The teacher is usually unaware that the class is responding at a conversational, not an analytic, level. When he assigns an in-class writing assignment, however, their cover is blown.

"These kids can't think!" wails the teacher.

Writing: The Last Straw

Writing is the road test for language as a vehicle of thought. An alarming number of students coming off our linguistic assembly lines are failing it. "Very few of our students can write well," states Archie E. Lapointe, executive director of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. "Most students, majority and minority alike, are unable to write adequately except in response to the simplest of tasks." [11]

Well-reasoned and well-organized writing proceeds from a mind trained to use words analytically. No matter how good, how creative, or how worthy a student's ideas, their effectiveness is constrained by the language in which they are wrapped.

Teachers are more discouraged by the quality of students' writing than by anything else except their ability to listen well. Why is writing so much more difficult than other language tasks? First of all, it demands a firm base of oral language skill. Students who have not learned to line up words effectively when they speak are not going to be able to do so on paper. Secondly, good written language is quite different from colloquial "talk written down." Awareness of its sound comes only from extensive listening to and/or reading quality prose and poetry. Moreover, expressing an idea on paper demands that the writer remove language from the here and now; gestures and "you know's" just don't work!

Writing allows us to give our ideas a life of their own apart from the immediacy of speech, but this more abstract approach requires use of more complex syntax to link ideas together. Otherwise we get what I call "Dick and Jane" prose ("See Spot. See Spot run."). The most difficult aspect of writing clearly, however, is that it demands the ability to organize thought."

A teacher who was trying to help her second graders learn to write fluently came to me for advice about an otherwise good student who was having terrible trouble producing even a simple story. Her handwriting was good, she could copy anything quite easily, and when answering questions raised by the teacher she used age-appropriate language. When she tried to write anything original, however, she and the paper remained equally blank.

We decided that the teacher would offer to act as "secretary" and ask the little girl simply to tell her a story. Here is a sample from the child's first narrative:

And then she was ... Dan ... she was ... Danny was probably wondering what Tanya was thinking.

'Cause he was wondering like ... Tanya was, um, smiling " ... she was probably thinking and ... "

Danny was thinking what ... was wondering what Tanya was thinking.

No wonder this child can't get ideas down on paper! She has not yet learned to arrange them in her mind.

When students in second grade show such difficulties, we expect to work with them to correct the problem. Now, however, university professors are starting to complain that they must also teach writing and thinking skills they used to take for granted. A Harvard professor recently began sending thank-you letters to the high schools of his students who can write clearly and intelligently.

"As I note the increasing roughness in student prose, I find myself heartened by rare examples such as the one presented by Miss X," he wrote in one. Later, in a telephone interview, he explained, "I think there's a definite decline in the quality of student writing. There's something fuzzy there; it's actually an imprecision of language reaching into a fuzziness of thought. They're beginning to lose the concept of words like better, so they think of good and best, or tall instead of tallest. What is interesting to me is how frequently I cannot get my students to write down what they mean. I spend a lot of time with them on their writing -- far more than I think I should have to at a college like this. They simply can't do many of the things that were fundamental fifteen years ago when I started here."

The Grammar of Mathematics

Most people, even math teachers, are not aware that problems with language can cause difficulties in mathematical reasoning. The verbal tools that clarify relationships in reading and writing do the same job in math, and studies of children with exceptional mathematical talents often reveal similarly high verbal skills. [12] On the flip side, even bright hearing-impaired children are likely to have problems with math beyond computation, possibly because they have not had experience with the necessarily precise, sequential uses of language. Some words important in beginning math are those that tell about the direction in which the numbers and the thinking go: (e.g., before, after, into, above, under, away, over); causation (e.g., if then, because); or actions (e.g., add, multiply). The terms borrowing from, dividing into, or multiplying by are only a few examples that often confuse children who have trouble attaching the sequence of the language meaning to the numerals on the page. Advanced math courses such as algebra demand special skills in logical, sequential reasoning that often come wrapped in a form of syntax.

"Paying attention to words can help students cope with numbers," declares Joan Countryman, a nationally known math teacher who is working on a book called Writing to Learn Mathematics. She has found that having students write about problems helps them with the kind of logical thinking they need to come up with good solutions. Improving their language skills is her first step in improving mathematical reasoning.

Other teachers have hit upon this idea out of desperation. One algebra teacher from Tennessee, who described today's crop of students as "terrible problem solvers," commented, "I think the lack of understanding of English is the problem. I have to go through each problem step by step, underline the subject, the verb; we look for the verb that shows what equals what, then we take the prepositional phrases and analyze them. If we have a problem with a statement like 'It took John two hours longer to go the same distance,' they have to understand the language before they can get a picture in their mind about what is happening. Until then, there is no way they can really understand what kind of an equation is needed."

In her book Twice as Less, Eleanor Wilson Orr describes her own awakening to the ways in which use of prepositions, conjunctions, and relative pronouns can affect students' concepts of quantitative relationships. Working with students who spoke nonstandard English, she became convinced that their "reasoning problems" were, in actuality, reflections of differences in use of the language.

In a chemistry class a student stated that ... the volume of a gas would be half more than it was. When I asked her if she meant that the volume would get larger, she said, "No, smaller." When I then explained that half more than would mean larger, indicating the increase with my hands, she said she meant twice and with her hands indicated a decrease. When I then said, "But twice means larger," ... she said, "I guess I mean half less than. It always confuses me."

By initiating math and science courses that start with words as a basis for understanding, Ms. Orr is helping students improve their learning by using the "power of language as an instrument with which one can reason beyond the observable." [13]

Differences in the way children are taught to talk about numbers may even account for some of the gaps between achievement of Japanese and American children, according to two California researchers. In a new and provocative study they demonstrated that language differences make it easier for Japanese children to understand "place value," a cornerstone of math competency and one of the things teachers have a lot of trouble getting most American children to understand. The reason for the difference, they say, may be that, unlike English, many Asian languages have spoken words for numbers that systematically describe their written relationship to ten. For example, in Japanese, 11, 12, and 20 are spoken as "ten-one," "ten-two," and "two-ten(s)," much less confusing for a child than the terms eleven, twelve, and twenty, which do not easily translate into any linear numerical equivalent. Many American youngsters mix up such numbers as seventeen and seventy; Japanese children can understand them more easily because 17 is spoken as "ten-seven" and 70 as "seven-ten(s)".

In a study of forty-eight high-achieving first-grade students in both countries, these researchers showed dramatic differences in their ability to represent numbers according to place value, giving the Japanese a real leg up on more complex computation and reasoning. Whereas American teachers labor mightily teaching place value for addition and subtraction in second grade, Japanese students at the same level master it handily and move on to multiplication. While one variable clearly cannot account for all differences, additional research on the way language shapes mathematical thinking may show other important variations. [14]

Why Aren't Children Learning Grammar?

The solution to all these problems seems to be simple. The schools should teach grammar. When schools attempt to teach "grammar" as they currently define it, however, they try to paste labels (e.g., "adverb," "clause") and rules ("adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs") on a system that needs to be embedded in the brain in a fundamentally different way. Without the foundations, beating "grammar" rules into brains is difficult; sometimes it seems impossible.

Evidently, little grammar is learned from watching television. Children may gain some vocabulary knowledge, but no one has shown that they pick up syntactic forms. Studies of preschoolers who watched Sesame Street showed that they learned to recognize more words than children who had not viewed the program (the tests merely asked them to point to pictures representing words, not to say anything), but no syntactic gains were noted. In another study, experimenters showed Dutch children TV programs in German in an effort to get them to learn German. They did not.

Several interesting studies have shown that TV was an equally poor language coach for normally hearing children raised by deaf parents. In one example, two normally hearing brothers were cared for at home only by their deaf mother until soon after the eldest was enrolled in nursery school. When the children were first tested at ages five and two, their only language experience had come from television and, for the elder child, brief exposure at school. His language, particularly his grammar, was peculiar and his younger brother had no language at all. Fortunately, both children were still within the sensitive period for language development, so their progress was rapid once they began to interact with other speakers. The investigators commenting on this case point out that, beyond the most basic level, grammatical speech (and its understanding) seem to be the aspects of language acquisition most vulnerable to deprivation and also that children must use language in an interactional setting to discover and learn the rules. "All these interactional aspects of communication are missing when language is heard from an indirect source. Even an indirect source that used simpler language than that used in adult speech (for example, television programs for children) would provide a poor context for language acquisition," they state. [15]

Studies of normally speaking mothers and their children confirm the importance of direct personal experience for learning these refinements of language. Although youngsters pick up basic vocabulary words and meaning quite well despite the speech style of their mothers, they miss out on higher-level grammatical abilities if their mothers fail to use them. It may not matter very much what language is being spoken, as long as the brain learns to process some well-developed system of grammar.

Some interesting recent studies of deaf persons who learned American Sign Language (ASL), which has a complete set of grammatical rules comparable to those of spoken English, have also proven that there are special slots in the developmental schedule for mastery of more complex syntax and for the little words and endings that carry subtle meanings (e.g., the differences between saying "A teacher is in the room." and "The teacher is in the room."). Dr. Elissa Newport tested deaf adults who had first been exposed to ASL, at different ages: at birth, between four and six years, or after age eleven. She became a believer in sensitive periods for the development of syntax when she discovered significant differences in the subjects' proficiency depending on the time of their first exposure to ASL -- even though these people had all come from similar school and environmental backgrounds and were between fifty and seventy years old at the time of the study. After age eleven, it appeared, their brains had lost the ability to master more complex forms of syntax. They made the same types of errors that show up increasingly in the writing of today's schoolchildren. [16]

Clearly, to be well prepared for reading, writing, listening, and speaking, children need to interact with increasingly advanced language during the years of childhood. But consider briefly the current situation:

• Busy schedules or uninterested caretakers militate against oral reading and thoughtful dinner-table conversation. Much of the "talk" that does take place, even in concerned families, may center around the mechanics of the moment (e. g., "Get your hat and mittens." "When does your shift at Burger King end tonight?" "Finish your homework or no TV.").
• The quality of language models in the media is highly variable. Even if the child chooses programs with more complex language, it may be of little use without an adult around to encourage verbal response.
• Most elementary-level children read textbooks that contain a thin, watered-down syntactic gruel.
• Time and motivation for reading are increasingly usurped by television and other nonliterary demands such as extra-curricular activities, computer practice, or drill-type homework.

Is it reasonable to expect that an English teacher can patch up all the holes -- and still do a thorough job of teaching literature, expository writing, spelling, public speaking, poetry writing, reading comprehension, etc.? When kids arrive in middle and high school, we assume they should be able to ask good questions and write a grammatically coherent essay -- but most of them cannot. We also expect them to understand the books that have always been staples of the curriculum -- but whose syntax sounds to them like a foreign language!

Tom could not get away from it. Every reference to the murder sent a shudder to his heart, for his troubled conscience and fears almost persuaded him that these remarks were put forth in his hearing as "feelers"; he did not see how he could be suspected of knowing anything about the murder, but still he could not be comfortable in the midst of this gossip. -- Tom Sawyer

Unless such literature is carefully taught by a skilled teacher who knows how to make the text come alive and who is able to make the huge time commitment to help students with unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar, and voice, I can tell you what many kids do -- they simply don't read it. Instead, they continue to practice -- and to embed in their brains -- language that some linguists refer to quite descriptively as "primitive." Herein lies one of the major sources of tension between students and the curriculum.


Linguists argue over whether calling a language "primitive" is either fair or accurate, but most agree that languages differ in complexity. Consider this sentence which most adult English speakers can easily understand:

The woman who lives next door brought the flowers that are on the table.

Some languages, however, can't get all these thoughts into one sentence because they lack devices to subordinate information. Speakers of such a language are limited to simpler propositions:

A woman brought the flowers.

They are on the table.

She lives next door. [17]

As another example, compare this description of a cause-effect relationship:

The meeting was not productive. The chairman was frustrated. The chairman appointed a new committee.

with this one:

Because the meeting had been unproductive, the frustrated chairman appointed a new committee.

In the first example, the absence of complex syntax forces us to infer why the chairman changed the committee and also obscures the time sequence of the events. Forms of language that contain these more complex grammatical devices are called elaborated codes. Those conveying ideas without such complex grammatical structures are called restricted codes and are the ones viewed as more "primitive." They are most useful when one speaker can see another's gestures and already knows the details of the message. "The expressions used by many peoples standing at a primitive level can be understood only if the concrete situation is known and if their gestures are observed," says Luria. [18] The simple, visual content of many television programs lends itself particularly well to this type of talk.

According to Dr. Paul Kay of the Department of Anthropology at UCLA, elaborated codes can be distinguished by their longer sentences and more varied and explicit vocabulary. They have more expressions for logical connections (e.g., thus, therefore, moreover, because, if, since, nevertheless). Restricted codes, on the other hand, are much more immediate, requiring the listener to fill in the gaps that the speaker has not made explicit (e.g., placing one's own interpretation on devices such as "You know").

Both types of speech obviously have their uses in everyday life. If you had to deliver a lecture at a neighboring university, you would be well advised to stick to elaborated codes; but if you used them when making love to your spouse, they might not be too appropriate. The trick is to be able to "code-switch" and use the best kind of syntax for the situation at hand.

Elaborated and restricted codes also differ in the use of two types of words: content words and function words. Content words are our descriptive palette of verbs, nouns, and adjectives referring to specific things, actions, or attributes (e.g., house, beautiful, running). They are also called "open class" because we keep adding and subtracting new words to these categories all the time. Our new gastronomic lexicon (e.g., quiche, sushi, pesto) or some discarded relics (e.g., buggy whip) are examples of changing open-class words. Such words are used in both types of codes and are primarily handled by the right hemisphere.

On the other hand, function words are used in more elaborated codes. They are harder to understand because they don't stand for real things. These "little" words, word endings and prefixes, conjunctions, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, etc. (e.g., if, but, so, did, might, un-, -ment) develop much later in a child's speech. Also called "closed class," -- their usage changes only slowly over time. Function words require use of the more analytic left hemisphere.

Use of these different types of words enables different degrees of complexity in language. Sentences containing mainly content words

Children like to run.

Children like prizes.

are the type termed "restricted," or "primitive." Adding some function words enables expression of more complexity.

Some of the children in this group might like to run if we offered a prize.

Brain circuits for getting beyond restricted codes and using language analytically ("If you have already spent your allowance on a videotape, you may not be able to go to the movies tomorrow") do not develop automatically. One linguist who recorded mothers' conversations with their preschoolers and then measured the children's language development found that unless mothers used function words themselves, their children did not pick them up. [19]

Languages are always in the process of change. Traditionally, open-class nouns and verbs have been the ones that have changed most rapidly. Among the young, however, it appears that the closed-class and syntactic markers are fast becoming obsolete. These differences may represent the source of many of the declines observed, not only in academic achievement, but also in traditional, formal reasoning.

Who Is "Primitive"?

The words primitive language are loaded ones because they imply some sort of cultural judgment. Researchers who tried several years ago to apply this concept to groups of children got into trouble because they unfairly concluded that lower-class children are socialized to use only primitive, unelaborated, forms of language and are therefore incapable of learning elaborated speech and irrevocably doomed to school failure. Subsequent research has drastically modified this overgeneralization. It is true that families with less educational background are more likely to use language that is not "schoollike," and that children from homes of "lower socioeconomic status" (which is predicated on both educational and occupational levels may have less experience than others with the types of language found in books (although this situation may be changing, as we will see in a later chapter). Few would argue with the reality that the ability to use "elaborated codes" confers a real advantage in our culture both in school and in many occupations, but assuming that all members of "lower classes" lack this tool and that all "upper classes" have it is clearly ridiculous.

Dr. Paul Kay, who is regarded as an expert in the evolution and cultural development of language, believes that issues of class and language are important but should not be overgeneralized. First of all, a more complex society has traditionally impelled all its members toward more abstract speech. In a simple "face-to-face" local community, he explains, everyone shares common experiences and can get by with simple words, short sentences, and a lot of gestures. As people become more separated, they need to develop ways of communicating about problems that are much more abstract and emotionally neutral. The more specialized we become, particularly when we begin to reason in specialized technical fields, the more we need elaborated codes. Having to put new concepts in writing, Kay believes, provides a special impetus to keep us from reaching an intellectual "dead end."

In any society, he says, some people need elaborated codes more than others. "When a society develops writing and differentiates into social classes, literate persons will usually have more occasion to speak explicitly and will tend to develop a speech style more attuned to explicit, technical, context-independent messages." But speech that sounds elaborate does not necessarily signify higher class or intellectual quality.

A businessman recently handed me a letter that he says typifies much language usage in today's business world. It begins: "Reference is made to the above automobile which was purchased at your dealership on November 30, 1988." For two closely typed pages, the author attempts to sound important while he "explains" a simple problem of replacing a fuel pump. Eventually we reach his concluding statement: "I request your explanation in writing that all of the pumps are this way or, however you phrased it, as you again refused replacing this pump saying it was replaced once already." This man seems to believe he knows what he is thinking, but his overelaborate language suggests only confusion.

Look out, warns Kay, for the difference between "speech that is 'better' only in the silly snobbish sense and speech that is in some real sense more effective, which communicates the speaker's message more explicitly and economically." "Bureaucratese," for example, is a "misguided attempt to achieve a high-sounding style" based on someone's confusion about what educated speech really sounds like!

Columnist Russell Baker recently engaged in a bit of elaboration himself when he lambasted some political language: "whiny, oily, sneaky, deceptive words posing as the soul of uptown refinement and civilized polysyllabic politeness." Baker thinks that the public should rise up and protest the meaningless and deadening "cotton wool" that constitutes American political discourse. [20] But how will the upcoming generation know the difference? When teachers tell me that their students seem more inclined to mouth gobbledygook than effective and economical language, I am not terribly surprised. They are, after all, saturated with models of pretension masquerading as precision.

Code-Switching: From "Teenage" to English

To think and express themselves clearly, reason and write well, and understand what middle and high schools expect them to read, children need to learn the codes of formal education. Yet, the communication style of many adolescents, even when they are trying to cope with academic language, is often in the "primitive" category. And because they seem to be less able to "code-switch," they are even more at odds with the adult world than teens of previous eras.

It is nothing new for teenagers to talk differently in English class than when hanging out in the cafeteria. The itchy autonomy of adolescence requires its own lexicon. Yet, in order to adapt to school demands, students must be able to change languages when they cross the border.

Until recently, children growing up could hardly avoid exposure to elaborated codes. In the media, most characters at least tried to talk like grown-ups, and families sat together and discussed what they saw on the news. Time was spent in talking on other occasions, as well. "Kids used to have to be able to code-switch to talk to their grandparents," commented one linguist. "But the grandparents aren't around the house anymore, and if the parents are home, they seem more willing to switch to the kids' form of talk than to try and force the issue."

Now, for a quantity of hours that exceeds that spent in school, even preadolescents are isolated in their own culture. TV and video talk (if they do at all) either in the teens' own language or in the increasingly agrammatical obfuscations of Madison Avenue. With a few notable exceptions, programs rely heavily on picture, gesture, music, and color to get much of the message across. Who needs "talk" containing long clauses, subordinated ideas, and connectives such as "meanwhile," "however," "nevertheless"? Emotionally charged words, not syntax, carry the news. Careful listening becomes irrelevant. Reasoning defers to the surge of immediacy; language use focuses on the literal, the here and now.

Even "literary" models for teenagers are beginning to emphasize the rift with adult culture and its language. In a recent interview, the twenty-five-year-old editor of a new magazine for teenage girls attempted to describe her mission: "Other magazines have, like, a stereotypical or idealized vision of teenagers," she said. "Maybe what parents or teachers would like. Not really what teenagers are about, you know." [21]

School is a foreign country! "It's like, well, you know" does not fly on essay exams. Untrained neural circuits rebel as lectures get longer. Increasingly, students tune out when the teacher talks, avoid literature whenever possible, work silently at their desks or with computer programs, and wait for lunchtime when they can have a "conversation" that makes sense to them.

Should it be any surprise that when they get to the syntax of Mark Twain, the analytic reasoning of math and science textbooks, or the abstract organization needed to write clearly about something not personal or present, they are lost? Their brains have been molded around language, culture, and thought that are alien, even antagonistic, to those of the school.
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Re: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think, And What We

Postby admin » Tue Oct 01, 2013 12:08 am

CHAPTER 6: Language Changes Brains

"For heaven's sakes, don't say that kids are becoming more right-brained," pleaded a well-known neuropsychologist when I initially discussed this book with her. "There's been so much garbage published about the hemispheres."

She is right. Although research about the two sides of the cerebral cortex sheds considerable light on different ways in which people learn, it has frequently been oversimplified -- mainly by the notion that people are either "right-brained" or "left-brained." Yes, the two halves of the brain have different modes of responding to experience. Yes, individual people have different ways of using them. Yes, many of our emotional, intellectual, and social differences are related to their intricate balance. But only major surgery can make anyone "right-" or "left-brained."


When parents come to me to explain that their child isn't getting along well in her (left-brained) school because she is so right-brained, I hasten to remind them that, like all of us, their child has one fully functioning brain with a right and a left half -- unless, of course, she has a large scar in her scalp.

On the other hand, particular aspects of a child's environment may alter the relative power of these two sides -- and the abilities that go along with them. Learning a language appears to cause some of the most significant changes. The issue of which language and/or dialect is learned is probably much less important than the extent to which refinements of syntax and meaning are mastered. The brain seems to change most dramatically in response to the first language acquired; second-language learning may well be handled by somewhat different areas. So far, neuropsychological research on second-language learning has not come up with any clear-cut explanations.

It appears, once a child has one type of grammatical speech under her belt (actually, under her scalp), the brain is primed to master others more easily at any time during the life span. [2] For this reason, teachers of foreign languages should look warily at children with inadequate mastery of their mother tongues and/or dialects, whatever they may be. How much of students' declining attention to foreign-language study can be attributed to brains that have never been primed by an internal feeling for grammatical relationships is anyone's guess. It goes without saying that parents hiring non-native-speaking caregivers should evaluate their overall linguistic proficiency along with other qualities.

In order to understand how language learning affects the hemispheres and to speculate about what may be happening to the brains of today's youngsters, it is necessary to review the functions of the two sides of the cortex.

The Well-Balanced Mind

So-called right- or left-brained thinking actually fluctuates on a continuum between these two extremes:

Linear, Analytic, Sequential (Left)


Holistic, Global, Simultaneous (Right)

The left hemisphere works by splitting up, analyzing, and arranging things in an orderly sequence. Because sounds, words, and the grammar of sentences require this type of arrangement, the left hemisphere is specialized in most people, probably from before birth, for speech and several other aspects of language processing. [3] In contrast, the right hemisphere is used to give us the "big picture" or gestalt of a situation. It cannot deal with sequences and fine details (e.g., grammar, word endings, order of sounds, fine motor movements required for writing) or fine-grained listening, but its holistic, visual abilities make it well adapted for many artistic pursuits. This does not mean that English teachers are "left brained" or that artists are "right brained." It may, however, mean that their brains find certain modes of processing more comfortable, so they tend to approach certain types of information with a preferred "style" for learning -- more holistic or more analytical. Nor does it mean that language, per se, is located within the left hemisphere and artistic ability in the right.

All thinking, even language processing, calls upon both hemispheres at the same time. The trick, in a well-functioning brain, is to mix and match the abilities of the two hemispheres so that the most adaptive processing "style" is brought to bear on any learning situation. Since the hemispheres carry on continual and rapid communication over the bridge of fibers (corpus callosum) that connects them, their ability to interact is probably the ultimate key to higher-level reasoning of all kinds. In general, researchers currently believe:

Right Hemisphere

• responds to novelty
• works with wholes, not parts
• is visual, not auditory
• is associated with intuition and the ability to "size up" social situations
• in music, picks up the melody and disregards the lyrics or the sequential details of notation patterns
• is specialized for understanding the relative position of objects in space and mentally turning around three-dimensional figures (remember those items on IQ tests that showed you a funny-looking shape and then asked, "Which one of these, if upside down, would be the same as the first?"). Many video games probably call heavily on these abilities.
• in language processing, is well adapted for:
o understanding general meaning and some aspects of word meaning (e.g., content words)
o getting the "gist" of the speaker's intent
o picking up the contours and melodic pattern of spoken language (prosody)
o gesturing and "body language"
o thinking metaphorically

Left Hemisphere

• deals with "automatic codes" (quick recall of specific words and letters, accurate spelling, math tables)
• analyzes and arranges details in order, e.g., time concepts, cause-and- effect relationships (first X, then Y), and the sequential patterns of small motor movements (e. g., tying shoes, forming letters with a pencil)
• is auditory rather than visual
• in music, it mediates the notation and lyrics rather than the melodic patterns
• in language processing, it mediates:
o fine distinctions between sounds (phonology)
o the order of sounds in words
o the order of words and their relationships (syntax)
o some types of word meaning (e.g., function words)
o other aspects of language comprehension

As both hemispheres work in tandem, they constantly toss the mental ball back and forth as they deal with different aspects of a problem. Some educators have suggested children today are more "right brained" because they rely too heavily on abilities commonly associated with the right hemisphere to handle academic "balls" that should be fielded by the left. It is true that traditional school-oriented tasks such as reading, spelling, computing accurately, writing logically, and reasoning analytically depend heavily on left-hemisphere systems, but they cannot be accomplished without the help of the right. The critical question, therefore, is really not if children are "right brained," but if their environments are equipping them to use both hemispheres interactively.


Most of us have our own "style" for approaching certain types of problems, depending on the way we mobilize the different systems of the two hemispheres. These strategies may or may not be appropriate for the task at hand. For example, some people are inclined to focus on details and accuracy; this approach works well in accounting. It is not adaptive for creating a picture, designing a building, or repairing an engine, activities that are done best by visualizing the configuration of how the details fit together.

The way children deploy these different "styles" influences their success in school. Good spellers can visualize the whole shape of the word and also remember the sound of the details in order. Many poor spellers try to visualize the general outline of words rather than sequencing the details accurately, and the result is often something that looks more like abstract art than orthography. Poor readers deficient in left-hemisphere analytic/sequential processing skills may also rely too heavily on "wholes." They guess at words by their general configuration and don't analyze the order of the sounds or syllables. Language-disabled children who depend on gestures and short phrases, who have difficulty coming up with the word they want ("The um . . . you know . . . thing"), are also believed to have deficiencies in left-hemisphere language areas.

Why do different people use different strategies? Neuropsychologists believe that these different "styles" for learning come both from inherited differences in the brain and from the way a child's experiences train it to work. During development, neurons in both hemispheres must compete for synaptic sites, so the type of input growing brains receive is undoubtedly important for its final hemispheric balance. Learning that builds both analytic and holistic abilities is doubtless good for the brain, but many schools, unfortunately, focus heavily on stuffing in fragments of knowledge at the expense of more general comprehension, e.g.:

• phonics drills without meaningful reading
• repetitive pages of math "facts" lacking word problems or any connection to real objects
• memorization of lists of isolated facts, dates, names, etc.

Yet contemporary life seems to focus on more holistic and visual skills, often at the expense of language and analysis, e.g.:

• video games with lots of novelty and movement
• fast-changing scenes on TV
• music in which lyrics are secondary to the "feel" of the music
• gestural, telegraphic speech

Not only are these two types of training directly in conflict, but we must also ask if we are providing our children sufficient experience with more interactive uses of these different approaches to information. Are we showing them how to link facts and analysis to understanding by giving them interesting problems to solve inside their own heads? Are we encouraging them to make pictures in their minds as they read or listen, and allowing them plenty of time and attention for discussing what they are doing, feeling, or seeing on TV? Are today's environments encouraging the most useful hemispheric development for our society's future needs?

There is virtually no research on normal children to determine how much environments can alter hemispheric balance. Studies of several extreme cases suggest that it can be shifted rather dramatically by early experience. They also show that higher-level language systems of the left hemisphere are particularly vulnerable; with more evidence, we may discover that more complex functioning in both hemispheres and the important connections between them are also experience sensitive.


Altered Brains

The growing cortex is so plastic and so intent on being "whole brained" that it tries to reorganize itself even in the face of highly abnormal challenges. One such situation involves drastic surgery in infancy. It is hard to believe that several competent adults, leading normal lives today, are missing one entire half of the cortex because, as infants, they underwent a rare operation in which one hemisphere was removed because of serious disease. Naturally, physicians feared that their patients would have drastic learning problems, but to everyone's astonishment they grew up with what appeared to be quite normal learning skills. Children without a right hemisphere learned to solve visual problems; children without a left hemisphere mastered language, reading, and spelling. Extensive testing has shown that in each case the remaining hemisphere managed to take over many of the functions of the missing one. For a while it appeared as if the brain were almost totally plastic for learning abilities -- as long as the injury occurred early enough, preferably in infancy, and as long as the injury was sufficiently large to impel the brain to reorganize radically.

Later studies have modified this unqualified optimism. In three individuals who have been studied most extensively, all of whom were operated on before the age of five months, it appears that total IQs are not quite as high as would otherwise be expected. Moreover, sensitive tests of language development show that the right hemisphere can compensate for injury to the left only up to a point -- because it simply cannot manage complex syntax. For example, the adults missing their left hemispheres could not use and understand constructions such as passive voice, and they had difficulty judging whether complex sentences were grammatical, partially because of difficulty with function words, one of the left hemisphere's specialties. [4]

"Wild" Children

Three cases of so-called wild children, who grew up without normal human interaction, also show evidence that the ability to use and understand certain aspects of grammar develops fully only if specific parts of the brain are stimulated at the right time. In one famous case, a little girl named Genie was kept in a closet by her psychotic father until she was found at age thirteen, after the critical period for language acquisition had passed. Genie had heard almost no language, understood only a few individual words, and did not speak. Although she showed considerable right-hemisphere development, her left hemisphere seemed to be almost "dead" for some of its usual functions. Genie learned quickly, particularly skills associated with the right hemisphere (e.g., puzzles, mazes, and other signs of nonverbal intelligence). Her brain was also still adaptable enough to master some language, although this kind of learning was much more difficult for her. She developed a vocabulary of content words, but the refinements of speech, function words, and standard grammar continued to elude her. Even after eight years of extensive language therapy her sentences remained "largely agrammatic," according to her devoted therapist, Dr. Susan Curtiss. For example:

"I like hear music ice cream truck."

"Like kick tire Curtiss car."

"Genie have Mama have baby grow up."

Because the neural connections for more advanced syntax were not stimulated before puberty, they appeared to have withered permanently.

In another bizarre case, which occurred in the 1880s, a boy named Kaspar was isolated in a small room from about age three until age sixteen. Although Kaspar only lived for five years after he was found, he showed every evidence of being extremely bright, making striking progress in drawing, reasoning, memory, and even gaining some competence in mathematics. He mastered enough vocabulary in German (his native language) to converse about philosophical issues, but had difficulties with syntax. Function words (e.g., conjunctions, pronouns) were a continuing problem.

A third case, also described by Dr. Curtiss, involves a thirty-year-old hearing-impaired woman named Chelsea, who is now trying to learn language for the first time. Like Genie and Kaspar, Chelsea is having a particularly hard time understanding and speaking grammatically. [5]

It is clearly impossible to compare children in such strange situations to children in more normal settings. Yet this evidence strongly suggests that the acquisition of function words and of syntax -- particularly higher-level forms -- depends on input to the left hemisphere during a certain time in development. Although the brain can probably master new vocabulary at almost any time of life, full development of language is, as Dr. Curtiss says, a "special talent" that we should not take for granted, even in normal children. How much stimulation is needed to keep these circuits alive? No one knows.

Plastic Hemispheres: Evidence From the Hearing Impaired

The severe deprivation of oral language input that is inevitable for hearing-impaired children drastically changes the way their hemispheres mature. The left hemisphere arrives in the world specialized to receive and respond to oral language, but the brains of hearing-impaired children who grow up without this kind of stimulation readapt themselves both structurally and functionally until their hemispheres are quite different from those of children with normal hearing. [6] Moreover, the importance of different types of input at different ages is once again shown by the fact that children who are deaf from birth use their brains quite differently than do those who lose their hearing later on. [7]

Dr. Helen Neville of the Salk Institute in San Diego is one of the foremost researchers studying brain responses of both deaf and hearing children. In several studies she has demonstrated that the auditory areas of deaf brains show characteristic changes. [8] More surprising to the scientists, these children's visual systems are altered as well. "If you're deaf from birth, with no auditory input at all, then the visual system seems to expand and take over regions of the brain that would normally process auditory information. This is another indication of the extreme plasticity in the human brain, and this occurs in a limited time period, probably the first four years," she reports.

Dr. Neville believes her research will eventually have important implications for normal children. "At the moment we can say with certainty that early language and sensory experience can dramatically alter brain development and that different inputs have the ability to make these changes only at certain times in development," she told me. "It will be really important to document precisely what these times are for specific types of input." [9]

For all children, development of language skills is tied up with social, emotional, and motivational factors, scientists emphasize. They theorize that brain responsiveness and variability during critical periods may be related to such aspects of home environment as adult models of language and hours spent watching TV.

Is Eleven Years Old Too Late?

This research also suggests real limits to our window of opportunity for helping children develop good language usage and understanding. There is, of course, a great deal of discussion among researchers about the exact parameters of sensitive periods for language development. It is obviously difficult to conduct such studies with children from "normal" environments. Recently, Dr. Roderick Simonds and Dr. Arnold Scheibel completed a study of the motor-speech area in seventeen normal brains of children aged three months to six years. They acknowledge that their limited number of subjects provide only tentative evidence but are convinced they have found evidence for a "critical window" in language development. Patterns of dendrite branching in these brains appear to have an age-related order of development which is responsive to environmental enrichment. Later-branching systems appear to be most susceptible to environmental input. [10]

Dr. Scheibel is personally convinced that interaction with adults, including language stimulation, is one of the growing brain's most important assets. "Without being melodramatic," he told me, "I think it would be very important to tell parents they are participating with the physical development of their youngsters' brains to the exact degree that they interact with them, communicate with them. Language interaction is actually building tissue in their brains -- so it's also helping build youngsters' futures." [11]

It has been recognized for years that normal children who sustain brain injury, especially before age two, have a good chance of recovering most aspects of language functioning, but rehabilitation becomes much more difficult after adolescence. [12] There are probably many different sensitive periods in language development, which calls on functions of many different brain regions that mature at different times. The same experiences, before, during, or after the sensitive period, may have different effects.

Little experimental data relates to the type of degraded language exposure in a natural environment that today's children may be experiencing. Since one of my favorite jobs is teaching writing to young adolescents, I personally refuse to believe that all hope is lost when we enter the gates of puberty. It does, indeed, take a great deal of time and practice to implant "because" or "although" clauses in unfamiliar neural territory, but it can be done. Often, however, I wish that the syntactic scaffolding were a bit sturdier so that I could spend my precious instructional time in ways other than repairing participles and mending tenses.

I take considerably less pleasure in trying to teach remedial grammar to mainstream university juniors who will be language-arts teachers within two years. Evaluating the written and oral expression of some teachers currently working in the schools can be depressing, too. Who will be available to teach good oral and written expression to the next generation? Could we be witnessing the beginning of a major change in the way the human brain processes information?


Perceptive professionals report that children in classrooms seem to be thinking and learning in increasingly more nonsequential and visual ways. Are shifting environments creating shifts in hemispheric habits? Since research offers interesting clues but no conclusions, we can only speculate on the basis of what is known:

1. Most researchers agree that the hemispheres are specialized differently at birth. What develops is the ability to recruit the most efficient and appropriate strategies for solving the problems the environment sets.

2. High-level thinking in any domain requires using the most appropriate hemispheric strategies and shifting flexibly between strategies when needed.

3. Inability to achieve coordination between hemispheres may jeopardize academic success.

4. The development of each hemisphere as well as their balance of power and their ability to communicate effectively with each other are affected by the growing child's experiences at certain times during development.

5. Higher-level language skills, particularly syntax, use of function words, and the ability to use language analytically, can be accomplished only by the left hemisphere and depend on specific types of input during development. These skills are integral to the elaborated codes used in traditional academic learning.

6. Language that always comes with pictures attached will produce different brain organization than that which must be processed only through the ears.

7. The experiences of children today may be predisposing them to deficits both in effective coordination between hemispheres and in higher-level linguistic and organizational skills of the left hemisphere. They may particularly lack practice in the use of left-hemisphere systems of auditory analysis and in the skills of logical, sequential reasoning.

8. The language of a culture inevitably changes, but current change is accelerated by widespread media communication. The trend toward use of less elaborated codes appears to be creating a severe mismatch between students and their schools. How successfully these skills can be taught to brains that may have passed a "sensitive period" for syntactic development is unknown, but it is presumed to take longer than if input is received during more appropriate times in development.

Even the foremost researchers in the field, such as Dr. Sandra Witelson of the Department of Psychiatry at McMaster University, admit they can only speculate about what is actually happening to growing brains. "From my review of the literature, I don't think one can completely change what the left hemisphere is predisposed to do -- that is, language," Dr. Witelson told me in a telephone interview. "On the other hand, what teachers could be seeing is that children come in with some undeveloped cognitive skills because those cognitive skills, or similar ones, were not introduced or reinforced. It's possible that when a child is given a certain kind of task, he may choose to do it in an analytic or in a holistic, configurational way. They can read in a configurational way, or try to write on the basis of a visual image if they don't have the phonetic code. Then the child could experience difficulty because he's doing things in a different way, not the way the teacher may expect, and possibly not the best way to deal with English." [13]

In summary, it seems clear that a brain's organization, its proficiency with language use and understanding, and its very patterns of thinking may be physically changed to a significant degree by early language environments. By the time we have research to clarify exactly what may be happening to today's children, they will have grown up and become teachers and parents of the next generation. Will they be equipped with brains influenced more by sound and sense or by nonsense?

As we move into our next focus of concern -- how children learn or don't learn to pay attention -- we will see other reasons for the importance of efficient interaction between the hemispheres. It will also become apparent that the left-right distinction represents only part of the story. Other, less popularized dimensions of growing brains are equally critical to learning -- and may be equally at risk.
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