Although I had already listened online to a similar version of Dr. Hughes first talk, “Enriched Environments, Activity-Based Learning, and Higher Order Cognitive Functions”, I was struck by the societal aspects he brought up.
He began by illustrating the large amount of brain geography that is dedicated to the hands, and contrasting this with how our current system of education is structured. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his humorous TED talk, it seems that the end goal of our educational model is to produce university professors. However, while not every child is destined to become an academic, every child has an ability they are spectacularly good at. Unfortunately, children whose talent does not align with our society’s current interpretation of intelligence will be denied access to privileged educational opportunities; these are only available to those who can successfully acquire and demonstrate knowledge in one particular way (through rote memorization and test-taking).
Dr. Hughes presented a study that compared the cognitive development of monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (fraternal) twins. While the former developed at more or less the same pace, the mental growth spurts of the latter were completely unrelated. We can therefore conclude that simultaneously educating groups of very different children using a single curriculum and pace DOES NOT WORK.
The most interesting part of the talk had to do with executive functions, which are the skills developed in the pre-frontal cortex that allow us to orchestrate our thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. In other words, these are the brain functions that allow you to plan, make decisions, trouble-shoot, overcome strong habitual responses and resist temptations. They help you be “good at doing things” – they make you effective in this world.
Executive functions develop through self-guided learning, self-structured play experiences, and self-regulated language (all three of which children get very little of at traditional schools). Sadly, executive functions cannot grow in an unhealthy physical and emotional environment, where exposure to hands-on and self-guided developmental opportunities is lacking.
Dr. Hughes then showed us a slide of a stunningly beautiful Montessori classroom. He pointed out the qualities in our classrooms – beauty, peace, respect – and argued that these should be essential components of any environment. He then told us that the lovely classroom we had seen was from a school that catered to children of low-income, at-risk families. “What would the world look like if every child was educated in that environment,” Dr. Hughes asked.