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"Our brains can be likened to an immense city made up of billions of interconnecting streets," Morley writes.
Palm Coast Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011 9 years ago

Parenting Brainstorm: Building students' brains

by: Dr. Tom Morley

July editions of the Palm Coast Observer have published letters and opinions discussing the worth of our Flagler teachers and whether their salaries are appropriate.

Rather than take sides, I’d like to describe elements of the ideal teacher according to neuroscience and then let readers evaluate for themselves.

(For past editions of Morley's Parenting Brainstorm column, click here.)

In my last blog, I explained how effective teachers create interest in their subject matter and thereby increase a student’s IQ for that specific lesson. I even suggested that “native intelligence” might have more to do with “native curiosity” than the strongly held belief that we are born with varying degrees of smartness. Great teachers motivate learners to turn on their brains.

This week, I’d like to touch on a second factor that plays an enormous role in stimulating IQ and why some teachers are worth their weight in gold.

Let’s use a very smart man, Albert Einstein, to illustrate this factor’s critical importance. If a colleague in physics shared a new theory from this field of science, it is likely that Einstein would demonstrate his brainpower by easily digesting this new information. He might even show his brilliance by quickly explaining in detail why he agrees or disagrees with the theory.

Now, if the offensive coordinator of Princeton’s 1941 football team (where Einstein taught) asked his opinion on a new passing/running scheme, chances are the coach would be disappointed in Einstein’s response. So why is Einstein smart in physics, but not so smart in football? He’s still using the same brain.

The answer lies in neuroscience.

Our brains can be likened to an immense city made up of billions of interconnecting streets. Some streets (axons) are short, others long, some winding, others straight. Ultimately, everything we place in our memory (neural circuits) is housed within the intersections (synapses) that connect these roads.

Remember, your brain is huge, with nearly one quadrillion intersections. Now every memory we wish to retrieve must be located by retracing the roads we traveled in first placing it in our brains.

However, there’s a trick to this process. Those who have already stored lots of information on a particular subject (like physics) have an easy time with new physics material because they have huge physics neighborhoods where they are familiar with the streets and what they contain.

Hence, a person like Einstein can make sense of his colleague’s new material because he can quickly compare it to everything he already knows about physics by simply taking a whirlwind mental tour of the streets in his physics neighborhood.

Now once he makes sense of the new information, he places it carefully in the neighborhood where he can easily find the new stuff when he needs it. However, I’m guessing Einstein’s offensive football neighborhood is either meager or non-existent. This doesn’t mean Einstein is suddenly stupid; he just has little already existing in his brain to work with when it comes to football.

We neither understand nor easily store new information unless we first have a welcoming neighborhood to nurture the process. Many young people have barren, destitute neighborhoods for their school subjects and lack the streets and intersections required for them to learn easily.

Great teachers understand this phenomenon and continually build their students’ neighborhoods before introducing new, difficult subject matter. So apply this to your children’s teachers. How are they doing?

For past editions of Morley's Parenting Brainstorm column, click here.


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