Learning Environment: Our Approach
Dr Meghna Manocha
In the last article, we learnt about Neuroplasticity and how our brain is a malleable (changeable) structure. Any day to day activity in response to an external stimulus, whether it is seeing objects through our eyes, hearing sounds through our ears, feeling the sensations through our skin, smelling aromas through our nose or even thinking using our mind, makes a group of neurons to “fire” together; this results in those set of neurons “wire “together, creating new neural pathways. Neuroplasticity occurs throughout life but studies have shown that it is maximum between 0-2 years of life. When a baby is born, it has billions of neurons which are waiting to network and form pathways according to the types of stimuli, it receives. From 2 to 25 years, the pathways that do not get used due to lack of adequate stimuli, will get pruned (lost); our personalities are accordingly molded in proportion to the neuronal pathways that are created in our brains. From 25 years of life onwards, by repeated use these pathways get stronger and stronger making us who we are. So in a way, we are what we are not because of what we learn, but what we unlearn or gets pruned. Hence the science of learning is based on two principles of Neuroplasticity:
1. Neurons that fire together wire together
2. If you don’t use it, you lose it
So what decides what stays or what gets pruned in a growing child’s brain? Current evidence says it is the environment that one is exposed to. In his book ‘Biology of belief’, Dr. Bruce Lipton explains scientifically how it is not just the genes in our cells that regulate cell growth and eventually our development; a vital role is played by the external environment as well. And also how an enriched environment is highly important for the health and vitality of the cell. Taking the same argument forward in relation to our brain, which is made up of a group of cells, we can confidently say that the shaping of our brain depends on two things:
1. Genetic imprints inherited from parents
2. External Environment
Another Neuroscientist, David Eagleman questions what is reality? Reality is not what we see through our eyes, but what our brain perceives as real. Perception refers to how the world looks, sounds, feels, tastes or smells to a person. And our perception depends upon the inputs from the environment or the experiences of our brain throughout our life time. He calls this surrounding reality as ‘UMWELT’ (German word) i.e. anything that is experienced by a person. Children perceive the environment around them not only with respect to social space and physiographic space (their activity), but also with regards to their inner space, which is subjective in nature. In other words, they perceive not just what is outside them but also what they feel inside. Learning emerges through these perceptual interactions of the child with him/herself, others, and his/her environment. Children predominantly perceive the world through interactions, be it with elders, siblings, friends or even pets. They have a natural ability to learn, and learning something new is a matter of great joy. As teachers, parents and caregivers how do we create an environment conducive to the child’s learning?
A key component of the Brighter Minds’ philosophy is influenced by the Education theories of a Japanese educator Professor Makoto Shichida. Dr. Shichida uses the term “right brain education, to distinguish it from the traditional education which utilizes the more linear left-brain approach to learning. Some of the tenets guiding his philosophy are as follows:
- Most people utilize only a fraction of their brain potential. Several hidden capabilities are controlled by the right brain.
- The purpose of education is to draw out one’s innate and higher abilities.
- Education should foster human evolution and awaken the Mind, creating “open-mindedness” (left to right brain shift).
- The focus should not just be academic achievement but holistic development of the child. This approach can have excellent results in creating a gentle and harmonious mind where children will exhibit richly nourished sensitivity, humanity, imagination, and creativity.
According to Shichida, Love, when expressed through positive suggestions, attitude, thinking and praise, stimulates and “opens” the inter-brain area (a region between the left and right hemispheres which includes the limbic system responsible for control of emotions), which in turn sends positive signals to open and relax the mind. This leads to optimum and balanced brain function.
Hence, we find that Love is the key element in the transformation of human being, be it young or old.
So, why is a loving environment necessary for learning? Studies have shown that without an environment of emotional care and cognitive stimulation the human brain cannot develop normally. This was shown by Charles Nelson, Professor in Pediatrics, Boston Children’s hospital by his study at the orphanages in Romania in 1999. The study found out that the institutionalized children were severely impaired in IQ (intelligence quotient) and manifested a variety of social and emotional disorders, as well as changes in brain development. However, the earlier an institutionalized child was placed into foster care; the better was found to be the recovery as observed in the children under 2 years of age. This study highlights the critical role of a loving and nurturing environment for a developing child’s brain especially in their formative years.
Another landmark study published in 2012 Pediatrics Journal, examined the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress (discrimination, maltreatment, physical, mental, emotional abuse). This study illustrated how early experiences and environmental influences can leave a lasting signature on the genetic predispositions that affected emerging brain architecture and long-term health. The report also examines extensive evidence of the disruptive impact of toxic stress, offering intriguing insights into causal mechanisms that link early adversity to later impairments in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental well-being. The implications of this framework for the practice of medicine are potentially transformational. They suggest that many adult diseases should be viewed as developmental disorders that begin early in life and that persistent health disparities associated with poverty, discrimination, or maltreatment could be reduced by the alleviation of toxic stress in childhood.
In the book, ‘You are the placebo, Making Your Mind Matter’, Dr. Joe Dispenza provides evidence that our environment (or surrounding reality) is also responsible for the way we think. “Self-directed Neuroplasticity” is a well-known concept in neuroscience which means that our thoughts influence our actions which in-turn influences our habits; our habits strengthen our beliefs that eventually influence how we perceive. Hence, just by changing the way we think, we can change our beliefs and perceptions, in other words our state of being. And this is very the idea behind the power of positive thinking and the placebo effect. A placebo works simply because one believes that the drug will cure one of the illnesses. He quotes many anecdotes wherein people have been cured of illnesses such as Cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Arthritis, etc. with the help of a placebo. Research is reinforcing further that the positive thinking changes our state of being, which in turn alters our genetic structure and brings about physical changes in the body.
So, now that we have ample evidence of how a positive and loving environment is the key to enhance positive learning and development of a child, how do we provide this environment to our children? Here below, we provide few recommendations based on some of the emerging evidence and the philosophies of well-known educationists.
First and foremost, it would be by creating an atmosphere of joy and harmony around the child, where the child feels no artificial barriers to learning. Thus, the child places increasing trust and positivity in the world and on humanity. It is important to remember that every child learns at his own pace that is natural to its state of development. Off late, many schools are moving toward focusing on holistic development of the child rather than emphasizing purely on the academics alone, which is good news.
The next step towards encouraging a child’s learning would be to channelize their interest in the growth-oriented direction. According to well-known psychologist Harvard Gardner “We should spend less time ranking children and spend more time helping them to identify their natural competencies and gifts, and cultivate those. There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed, and many different abilities that will get you there.”
Another important thing is to help children develop their EQ and not just their IQ. Self-awareness, recognizing a feeling as it happens is the keystone of EQ. We need to teach children how to know one’s emotions, how to manage them, motivate oneself, recognize emotions in others(empathy). All of this are well discussed by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: why it matters more than IQ.
Hence, let us expose children to an environment conducive to learning by providing various activities where learning meets fun; in the spirit of ‘Do and learn, Read and enjoy’.
1. David Eagleman: The Brain, the story of you.
2. Dr. Bruce Lipton: Biology of Belief
3. Makoto Schichida: Children can change through right brain education.
4. Dr Joe Dispenza: You are the placebo, making your mind matter
5. Daniel Siegel: Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ
7. The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress ,Pediatrics 2012