BRAIN AND MIND EFFECTS IN SCHOOLING
by Dr. Herman T. Epstein
Current literature and books about and discussions of consequences for education of brain and mind structure and development are mainly irrelevant to education because (1)they do not actually involve brain and mind properties and (2)they do not lead to prescriptions for what to do in schools. However, in the literature there are data from two generally ignored ancient studies of brain and mind that are directly relevant for education. These are presented along with discussions of the connections to education.
In addition, more recent data on brain growth and mental development are shown to have significant consequences for education strategies and tactics.
Although much has been written about the use of brain and mind data in schooling (e.g.[Caine and Caine, 1991]), reading most of the brain-based educational writings reveals that it is unfortunately still the case that little of direct use has been produced.
For that reason, it is timely to present data on two ancient but ignored studies which actually have direct bearing on educational strategies and tactics and that lead to insights into connection with brain and mind. One is a study of mental age of children and its variation with biological age [Shuttleworth, 1939]; it leads to a thorough rethinking of junior high school instruction. The other is an even more ancient German study [Muller and Pilzecker, 1900] of memory consolidation in humans whose results lead to a novel insight into teaching tactics.
I. The junior high school
Shuttleworths 1939 study measured the mental ages of more than 500 Boston school children between ages 6 and 19 years. Although mental age is defined as the average performance of children at each age on some test, the result is markedly at variance with that definition. The resolution of this apparent contradiction will not be presented here.
During the 2 years between ages 10 and 12 the average mental age increased by about 3 years (Epstein, 1974b). And, between ages 14 and 16, the average mental age again increased by close to 3 years. What is even more remarkable is that, during the two years between ages 12 and 14 years, the average mental age increased only about 3/4 of a year.
It is likely that awareness of the slowed mental development was behind the creation of the junior high school, even though the data just cited were not known to, let alone appreciated by, those who created the junior high school [Cuban, 1992]. What they had sensed was that children of that age span seemed to be going through significant changes in their mental performances which were generally ascribed to the emerging sexual changes.
What was also not known at that time was that the human brain grows in a series of spurts [Epstein, 1974a, 1986], with rapid brain growth during the age spans of 2-4, 6-8, 10-12, and 14-16 years. During the rapid brain growth periods there is significant elongation and branching of axons and dendrites, creating more complex networks that should allow acquisition of more complex reasoning functions. Correspondingly there is slow brain growth during the age spans of 4-6, 8-10, and 12-14 years. Thus, if brain growth (not brain size) is at all a source of mental growth, that 12 to 14 year span of slow brain growth would add to the sexual maturation in perturbing the mental development of children. Therefore, it seems to follow that the junior high school should employ very different strategies and tactics from those used up to that point in schooling.
A clue to the needed change can be gotten from surveying the schooling strategies of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews [Marrou, 1964; Morris, 1937]. The Greeks interposed a period of experiential activity between what was called the grammaticus and the school of rhetoric. The former lasted until about age 12 years and the latter began about age 14 or 15 years. In the case of the Hebrews, the Bar Mitzvah at age 13 years was interposed between the study of the Bible (mainly as story and history) and the study of the Gemarrah which discussed interpretations of the writings of the sages. During the Bar Mitzvah period, the maturing Hebrew was expected to learn about and practice the 613 precepts which describe the proper functioning of the adult Hebrew.
Thus, for both ancient peoples, experience had shown the need for a period of experiential learning during that age 12-14 year period. Such a strategy once existed in our schooling when manual training was given to boys and sewing and cooking and sewing taught to girls. That change from standard schooling was probably dictated initially mainly by awareness of the need for preparing children of that age period for their eventual roles in adult society - much as had been developed for those two ancient peoples.
Thus, awareness of the connection to the slow brain growth at that period should reinforce the creation of experiential schooling for children of junior high school ages without diluting the practice with additions deriving from sociologically-based analyses that led to changes in the age span to that of what became called middle school.
II. Memory consolidation
Muller and Pilzecker (cited in Lechner  and in McGaugh ) published the results of a decade of study of how long it took for humans to solidify information in the sense that later additional information did not weaken the memory of what had first been taught. In essence, they divided memory into two periods: learning and consolidation of what was learned.
Memory consolidation clearly depends on species, the complexity of the information, how often it was presented, and on the way in which it was tested. In these studies, it was found that the simplest inputs took between 6 and 10 minutes to be consolidated in the sense that later input of other information did not affect retention of what was taught. To quote from the translation [McGaugh, 2000] of their publication, any additional information presented [before) that period] significantly weakened their recall of the material being studied.
Such an insight is crucial to educational strategies because it means that teachers should be made aware of the potential interference and arrange their teaching tactics accordingly. It will be necessary for education researchers to find out how to handle this problem.
III. Additional information
When we became aware of the slow brain growth periods, the data on the Greeks and Hebrews, and the Shuttleworth study, it seemed advisable to create an experiment based on those findings.
Such thoughts led to proposing an experiment based on the idea that, if children of junior high school age have trouble advancing mentally by traditional schooling methods, we should try something non-traditional. So, it was proposed to take the children out of school two days each week and put them to work in socially useful activities. Through a colleague professor of education, we found a junior high school in New York state whose principal was interested in trying out such a proposal because of the problems he was having with some of the students. He gave us one class of such problem students. The program was given the name BRITE (Brain Research in Transescent Education).
During the school day each Tuesday and Thursday, those students were bused to work in a day care center or a home for the aged. The results were extremely impressive. As the data below show, the students had been receiving performance grades in the 50s and 60s; their grades rose to the 70s and 80s. And, absences dropped in the second term whereas they increased for the control students. CTBS is the California Test of Basic Skills.
Interviews with the parents revealed that they had seen very significant changes in their children. It was typical to hear that My Susie used to be interested only in clothes and jewelry and going to parties. Now she is eager to go to school on work days and she says she thinks now she will try to prepare herself to be a teacher of very young children. Equally impressive was a statement coming from both some parents and students to the effect that they didnt use any drugs on work days because they enjoyed the work so much.
The role of motivation was clearly demonstrated by a happening with those working with the elderly. A league was formed to go bowling every Tuesday morning. A unit was a student and an oldster. The students had to keep score and individual and league averages. That required mastery of decimals and fractions - subjects then being studied in the standard school days and with which they were having many troubles. They mastered these arithmetic skills in just a few days because they needed to use them in their work.
A remarkable additional lesson learned from this experiment is that the students academic performances improved dramatically even though they were in school only 3 days each week! That raises the question of how much time needs to be spent in currently standard schooling situations at that age. It suggests that we try running junior high school classes half of the week, with the students working during the rest of the week. Such a regime could indicate that we need only half as many teachers as currently employed to handle all the students all the time. And it would provide some very low cost daycare for parents needing such help.
Note that this approach is aimed at 12-14 year old children; community service programs in general use today aim at senior high school students because proponents are ignorant of the brain data which refer to the younger students needs.
The principal who had helped us install this program was rewarded for this and other successful activities by being promoted in the hierarchy and his successor was not interested in continuing the program. So, BRITE was ended after that year.
Cognitive Level Effects
Piaget and associates  had studied childrens reasoning and discovered that, starting about age 6 years, children first became able to give logic-based explanations of their answers to questions about directly experienced concepts and observations. This ability was called the concrete reasoning level. Starting about age 10 years, some children became able to reason about concepts and experiences not directly experienced such as how a scene might look to another person or the meaning of probability. This was called the formal reasoning level. Further study showed that each of these levels was subdivided into more elementary reasoning schemes. For example, concrete reasoning included the ability to classify objects into discrete categories such as color or size.
Based on those data, they created what they called the clinical interview as a test for cognitive levels of children. During this test, a trained interviewer asked the subject to answer selected questions and then probed to find the reasons for the answers. The reasons were classified into one or another of the dozen or so elementary reasoning schemes which made up each of the concrete and formal (abstract) reasoning levels into which reasoning had been divided. In this way the cognitive levels of the children could be ascertained.
The long time needed for such one-on-one testing led to quite a few attempts to create an equivalent pencil and paper test that could be administered to hundreds or thousands of children at the same time. The most accurate of these was created by Shayer and Adey . They proceeded to test 2,000 children et each age from 10 through 16 and another 1,000 about ages 17 and 18. To get an idea of the cognitive level data at earlier ages, the literature was searched for experiments which could be interpreted as giving reasonable estimates of the cognitive levels at those earlier ages. These estimates have been incorporated into the cognitive level table below. The data for adults were taken from a study by Renner et al .
PERCENTAGES OF PERSONS AT EACH COGNITIVE LEVEL AT EACH AGE
To relate the table data to the information given earlier, note that between ages 5 and 7 the percentage of children reaching the concrete operations level increased from 15 to 65 percent; this is a manifestation of the results of Piaget presented above. In the 10-12 year period, the percentage at the concrete level decreased while 12% of the children began to manifest abstract reasoning abilities. Thus, during brain growth spurts, there were correlated spurts in cognitive levels.
The absolute percentages need analysis and comments. On entry into regular school around age 6 years, only about one-third of the children had acquired the concrete logical reasoning abilities usually taken as evidence for readiness for schooling. Accordingly, kindergarten and first grade teachers need to be made aware of the lack of readiness of most of their pupils. Schooling curricula and strategies need to be modified so as not to leave behind those who had not yet attained the needed concrete reasoning abilities. It is not that they are necessarily dull, but their development has been slower.
At age 12 years, on entry into junior high school, only 12% of the children have acquired formal reasoning. Teachers and principals have estimated for me that about 1/3 of the schooling in those grades needs formal reasoning. That means that the vast majority of students dont understand the most significant 1/3 of the junior high schooling.
Such a situation is equivalent to being instructed in a foreign language. If the teacher is speaking Latin, most of the students will not understand what is being aimed at them. To protect their egos, the students will begin to say that school is boring and not worthwhile; an inclination to drop-out will obviously begin to be developed.
It follows from the discussion thus far that there are two especially sensitive periods for enhancing child mental development: pre-school and during the junior high school years. It is well-known that interventions during the Head Start ages of around 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 years produce significant socialization but no significant enhancement of school performance on academic aspects. The fact that Head Start programs cover roughly the slow brain growth period of 4-6 years seems like a plausible explanation of that academic weakness. What is suggested by the brain data is that the intervention should be concentrated on the 2-4 year stage of rapid brain growth. This is not Zero-to-Three as suggested currently by social scientists but, rather, Two-to-Four.
One of the most striking percentages in the table is that for the fraction of young persons finishing high school who reach formal reasoning level: about 1/3. That means that some 2/3 of the students cannot understand the parts of the school subjects requiring formal reasoning. Teachers and principals have estimated for me that more than half of the subject matter in senior high school requires that level of cognition. What that means again is that some 2/3 of the students cannot understand most of the significant parts of senior high school.
In this case, unlike that of the lack of readiness in kindergarten and first grade, simply waiting for the students to mature enough to acquire the needed cognitive level will not work. This is because the data for adults show that still only 1/3 of them can handle abstract reasoning.
This finding is of enormous significance for a democracy for it means that 2/3 of the electorate cannot understand the important issues on which to base their voting choices. If we are to have a competent populace, attention must be paid to the problem of increasing the percentage of adults attaining formal reasoning unless issues can be formulated well enough in concrete terms to permit informed choices.
A most important aspect of public policy is then that of determining if the percentage of formal reasoners can be increased. It does no good to project, as done by President Clinton, that our aim should be to have 100% of high school graduates go on to college or university studies when most of them cannot handle the reasoning required for such studies. Indeed, for some years now the fraction of students graduating from colleges and universities has remained about one-third, as expected from the percentage of formal reasoners. For that reason, some more recent work by Adey and Shayer  becomes of immense importance, for they have created a program for pre-junior high school pupils that seems to be able to roughly double the percentage acquiring formal reasoning.
If installed everywhere, such a program would reduce much of democracys problem while at the same time providing the much needed increase in the number of persons capable of handling the demands of our current hi-tech world.
It is important to realize that parallels between evolutionary stages and ontogenic stages in present humans indicate stages in functional capacities that, in turn, can be related to the Piaget stages of concrete and formal reasoning. Since the new brain growth is mainly in arborization that appears without being programmed for any functions, we depend on instruction and experience for acquiring both those two reasoning stages. Their teachability probably means that they cannot be selected for in evolution, any more than dogs can be selected for retrieving newspapers without training. So humans will remain dependent on instruction and experience for acquiring those reasoning capacities. This means that childrens mental development depends on adequate and timely inputs from family and society, so disadvantaged children are not likely ever to attain their inborn potentials. Social policy must take such information into account.
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