Monday, May 16, 2016

Nature or Nurture?

Back in the “old days” when I still taught, I often felt dismayed that the last week of school was, for some teachers, a time for extra recess and a daily movie.  Occasionally, one of my students would challenge me with something like, “Mr. Howell, the other fourth graders get to watch movies this week.”  My response was always the same:  “I’m paid to give you 180 days of education, and I’m going to do my best to do just that.

We’re born with something like 100 billion brain cells, “neurons,” they’re called.  From shortly before birth until about age 2, we form an incredible number of connections between those neurons, perhaps 150 trillion connections, called “synapses.”  From age 2 until about 16, we “educate” those neurons and synapses.  At about age 16, the brain pares off about a third of its neurons.  While it’s not firmly established what determines which neurons stay and which go, many believe that the brain simply gets rid of the neurons and related synapses that are unused.  It appears that the initial structure of our neural network is the work of “nature,” and that the adult version of that brain reflects the effects of “nurture” on that initial structure.

As I’ve reported frequently, our adult brain relies heavily on the background knowledge and skills that we acquire between age 2 and 16 to continue to grow and learn.  This makes elementary education particularly valuable to the adult success of our students.  Within the 180 days that we’re given with our students, we bear a huge responsibility to put them in the position to learn the skills and knowledge that will take them through life.  Should we really trust that to Disney?

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