What Kids Should Know About Their Own Brains

Posted in SSZ Briefings  ·  July 5th 2016

What Kids Should Know About Their Own Brains

In a study published in the journal Early Education and Development, (1) psychologists Peter Marshall and Christina Comalli began by surveying children aged four to 13 to discover what they already knew about the brain. Previous research had found that elementary school pupils typically have a limited understanding of the brain and how it functions, believing it to be something like “a container for storing memories and facts”.

Kids Can’t Observe Their Own Brains
Marshall and Comalli’s questionnaire turned up the same uncertain grasp of the topic, which the researchers attributed to several factors. First, while parents and teachers talk often with young children about parts of the body and how they work, they rarely mention this most important organ.  A 2005 study by another group of scientists found that young children hear very few instances of the word brain in everyday conversation.  Secondly, children can’t observe their own brains, and so are left to guess about what’s going on inside their heads—not unlike the state of adult ignorance for many centuries, before the founding of neuroscience as a scientific discipline. And finally, most students aren’t formally taught much about the brain until at least middle school. Marshall and Comalli believe such instruction can and should begin much sooner

Just 20 Minutes
A 20-minute lesson about the brain was enough to improve knowledge of brain functioning.
To that end, they designed a 20-minute lesson about the brain and delivered it to a group of first-grade (Year 2) students. Even this brief intervention, the psychologists report, “was enough to improve their knowledge of brain functioning as assessed three weeks later”.  A control group of first graders, taught for 20 minutes about honeybees, showed no such improvement. Marshall and Comalli’s neuroscience lesson was especially focused on teaching children about the role of the brain in sensory activities—that the brain is not just “for thinking”, as many kids assume, but also for seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling.

Kids Grow Their Brains!
But the success of their effort opens another possibility. In a well-known body of research, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has demonstrated that teaching students about how their brains work – in particular, that the brain is plastic and can develop new capacities with effort and practice – makes a big difference to how constructively kids deal with mistakes and setbacks, and how motivated they are to persist until they achieve mastery.
Dweck’s landmark studies were carried out with fifth-graders (Year 6) and her computerised tutorial on brain function is designed for students in fifth through ninth grades. But why wait to introduce these crucial concepts? Dweck’s own research has found that children’s attitudes and behaviours regarding achievement and failure are already in place by preschool. Parents’ and educators’ messages about the malleability of the brain and the importance of effort must begin even earlier.  So perhaps talk of “head, shoulders, knees and toes” and “this little piggy went to market” should also make room for mention of growing brains!

Summer School Growth Mindset
Once again this summer, Study Skills Zone have had first-hand experience of the benefits of this approach.  In one of our summer schools for Year 6 students at Holly Lodge School in Smethwick, Birmingham, we ran a short 30-minute lesson on the brain each morning during the two-week school.  We linked this elementary neuroscience with Dweck’s growth mindset principles.  The result was that students went away from the summer school reciting the mantra: I have an amazing brain that can learn anything I want it to!

It would be interesting to study how far these convictions influence these students’ learning predispositions and achievement levels in years to come.

1. Early Education and Development, Volume 23, Issue 1, 2012, Special Issue: Neuroscience Perspectives on Early Development and Education,  “Young Children’s Changing Conceptualizations of Brain Function: Implications for Teaching Neuroscience in Early Elementary Settings”, Peter J. Marshall & Christina E. Comalli, pages 4-23

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