01 June 2023
Inside a child’s brain, or why is early school education so important for human development?
Most do not doubt education is the key to raising sensible and responsible people. Fewer realize this view has a strong neurobiological basis: the human brain develops most strongly in early childhood. This is when it learns the fastest, and the attitudes, values, and abilities that are developed in childhood tend to stay with us for the rest of our lives.
By the time you read this article, your brain will no longer be the same. Everything we learn, every stimulus that reaches us, and every occurring thought leave a footprint in our brain: new neuronal pathways. This feature is called brain plasticity. Our brain changes and develops throughout life, but the rate of these changes is the fastest in children at the early school stage.
King of body and mind
The human body is a collection of interdependent, complementary systems and organs, each of which plays a crucial, irreplaceable role. However, if we were to look for the organ that most significantly determines our humanity – what we are like, how we behave, what we are capable of – then we should direct our attention toward the undulating, gray-brown, weighing just over a kilogram of the contents of our skulls: the brain. It is this organ that governs not only almost all the processes in our bodies but also – and perhaps most importantly – our actions, emotions, fundamentals, and memory.
The highest neuroplasticity – that is, the brain’s ability to change and reorganize in response to new experiences, context, or learning – is found among children. While it is the latest to reach maturity, the brain is the organ that reaches its full potential relatively quickly. A newborn’s brain weighs a few hundred grams, but after just one year, it reaches the same size as an adult’s. Hence the proportionally large heads among young children.
Use it, or loose it
The brain accounts for only 1/40th of an adult’s body weight, in this category giving the lead to the liver, for example. Nevertheless, it consumes as much as 1/4 of the energy we produce. That’s a lot. And as Prof. Jerzy Vetulani, a Polish neuroscientist and popularizer of science (died a few years ago), used to say: The human body does not grant unemployment benefits. Unused neurons and the synapses – nerve connections created between them – are disposed of, according to the principle use it, or loose it.
This is why neurons decrease as the years of life go by, and the brain becomes less plastic. Children starting school have the largest number of nerve cells – about 100 billion (for reference: that’s 133 times the population of Europe). By the time the child goes to high school, there will be much fewer of them.
Therefore, what children learn in early childhood, what experiences they gain, and what values they encounter – will be crucial for their adult lives.
Let’s give the floor again to Prof. Vetulani, who, in 2015, in an interview with Gazeta Krakowska, explained it this way: A child’s brain absorbs, is creative, and is constantly learning. And if we neglect to learn certain things in early childhood, later on, it may be too late. From the age of seven, the process of neuronal extinction in our brain begins. Between ages 7 and 14, we lose 30 percent of our nerve cells! This process is called neuronal Darwinism: our brain gets rid of rarely used nerve cells. Therefore, what we learn and don’t learn is crucial during this period. (…) If some neurons are useless, they are not well nourished and die. You could say – of starvation. Take drawing. Most children draw something with markers, crayons, and paints. These are, of course, technically immature compositions but very creative. But it’s already rare for anyone over 14 to have such abilities and derive pleasure from them. Why? Because for most kids, other skills turn out to be more important than drawing. For example, beating themselves up.
Make it interesting, not scary
Universal education has its roots in early 19th century Prussia. And although two centuries have passed since then, and the world around us has changed beyond recognition, most schools around the world still follow the Prussian model, which was designed to educate primarily obedient and disciplined citizens. The main attributes of traditional schools are bells, frequent tests, quizzing at the blackboard, and grades. Such education usually takes place in an atmosphere of fear.
Meanwhile, we have known since the last decades of the 20th century that stress – which many students permanently experience – affects not only the psychosocial development of young people but also: the structure of their brains. Bruce Sherman McEwen, an American neuroscientist and head of the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, discovered that stress damages the brain, among other things, by causing shrinkage of the hippocampus region, the element of the brain responsible for spatial orientation, but also the “transfer” (consolidation) of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Translating the results of his research into everyday educational reality: people who learn material under stress will remember it for a shorter time.
The negative effects of stress on cognitive function are also discussed in a study published in 2018 in the journal Neurology, which was conducted on a sample of more than two thousand participants by researchers from several prestigious universities, including Harvard and the University of California, Sacramento. They show that the brains of people with high cortisol levels (i.e., the stress hormone) have a statistically smaller volume. What’s more, this is associated not only with poorer memory and reduced cognitive function, but also with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia disorders.
It is also not a new thing in pedagogical science to know that motivation is the ally of acquiring new skills and engaging children in the educational process. Meanwhile, the survey conducted by Mariola Trzcińska clearly indicates that motivation is taken away from students mainly by unfair grades, boring lessons, and too difficult material. One in five students admitted in the survey that they are not motivated to learn because they feel fear of being graded. Even more students point out that lessons simply don’t interest them. And yet – this is again information confirmed by scientific research (this time conducted at the University of California ) – curiosity “prepares the brain” to better remember knowledge and significantly improves the educational process.
The conclusion of the research – and not only the most recent but also those conducted in previous decades – is simple: education based on fear, hierarchy, and forcing students to memorize material unreflectively simply does not work. With the old methods, we can convince children to memorize material for a test or exam, but it is naive to expect this knowledge to stay with them longer and enrich their minds. Instead, we know with certainty that effective education should be based on nurturing curiosity about the world and motivation.
Neurodidactics – a field of didactics that, based on research in neuroscience and neurology, promotes education tailored to the way the brain works – emerged in the late 1980s in Germany. Professionals have an ongoing dispute about whether it is just an art of teaching or a distinct scientific field. Even if it is the former – it draws handfuls from the discoveries of neuroscientists and psychologists.
Almost all our knowledge about how the brain works has been gathered over the past four decades (since the creation of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which opened the gateway to the profound study of living people’s brains). During this time, we have discovered a lot about how we learn, how we remember, and how stress affects memory.
Schools teach according to a model much older than those four decades.
Jerzy Vetulani, Maria Mazurek, Marcin Wierzchowski „Sen Alicji, czyli jak działa mózg”, wyd. Mando, 2017
https://www.smart-up.pl/blog/motywacja-do-nauki/  https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(14)00804-6