The Neurons that Schools Forgot

By Kathleen McCurdy

Introduction—A crisis of world proportions

In 1992 famed New York Teacher-of-the-Year, John Taylor Gatto, said: “I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teachingthat schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.”[1]

But few want to admit that schools don’t work and the educational system has failed. The crisis is not just regional or national, it is global. And the only ones who are not worried are parents who have removed their children from school and are providing their education themselves, at home. At first everyone doubted that homeschooling would last, and many refused to believe that a mother with only a high school education could do a better job than a trained teacher. But there is no longer room for doubt: Children educated at home achieve better results than their schooled peers. The question that remains is, why?

I: A lesson in physiology—mirror neurons

In 1978 I became a mother for the fifth time, and I took advantage of the opportunity to try something I had read about. When my newborn child was only 2 or 3 hours old, I held his face up to mine and stuck out my tongue. He looked at me intently and slowly began to move his little tongue until it protruded from between his lips. I was enthralled! A few days later he could also wiggle his nose in response to my gesture, and by two weeks of age he was obviously smiling. But were these just imitations? What did it mean?

About 18 years later, in 1996, a flurry of scientific papers began to appear about a significant new discovery. Scientists in Italy, named  Rizzolatti, Fogassi and Gallese, were studying the brain and trying to map it. They connected wires to the brains of some Macaque monkeys and rigged a computer in such a way that it made a sound whenever certain parts of the brain fired up. That way they were able to observe that when the monkey saw a piece of fruit or a peanut, one part of its brain reacted, while if the animal reached for the fruit, the same plus another part fired up. Thus they were able to detect differences in how the monkey used its brain.

One of the scientists walked into the lab one day and absently picked up a raisin that was lying on the table in front of the monkey. He was surprised to hear the computer sound off, so he repeated his action and sure enough, the monkey’s brain was reacting just as if the monkey had performed the action, even though he was only watching someone else do it. “‘It took us several years to believe what we were seeing,’ Rizzolatti commented in a recent interview. A monkey’s brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons, that are activated when the animal sees or hears an action and also when the animal carries out the same action.”[2]

Later they proved that “The human mind has multiple systems of mirror neurons that specialize not only in carrying out and understanding the actions of others, but also their intentions, the social significance of their conduct, and their emotions.”[3]

Recent experiments in California demonstrated something very significant: “It was discovered that actions carried out within context, compared to those realized out of it, augmented the blood flow” to that part of the brain. “This fact implies that mirror neurons are more strongly activated when the motor actions we see are not isolated, but remain in a context that is specifically meaningful to us.”[4]

Other experiments have shown that when people have the opportunity to utilize their mirror neurons, they learn much faster. Piano students, for example, or dancers were observed to learn faster and better if they could watch an expert performance of the same piece, compared to those who learned by themselves. Another example of the effect of mirror neurons is how hard it is to keep from yawning or sampling food when we see someone else doing it. These neurons are activated even when we only hear the familiar sounds of actions we cannot see, such as the sound of dishes when someone is having tea in another room.[5]

II: How does this relate to the educational crisis?

Returning now to our original topic, let us review a bit of history. To begin with, children learned everything at home. If a parent was accustomed to reading, the child learned to read. If parents hitched up horse and buggy for a trip to town, the child learned to get around that way too. In colonial times, one household servant was the governess who looked after the care and education of the children. Charitable organizations soon formed schools so that the children of less fortunate members of society could learn to read and write. But in times of war fathers became scarce, so more and more mothers worked out of the home. The family unit began to crumble.

Then too, schools, which at first only functioned three or four hours a day and only four or five months out of the year, became more important in society. Now they had to provide childcare as well as education. To begin with, parents were still involved in the upbringing of their children. They took an active part in supporting the school, and when there were important activities at home (such as the harvest) or there was an opportunity to travel, no one worried if the children simply didn’t attend for awhile. Learning happened anyway. And there was still summertime, weekends, holidays, and afternoons (with little homework) in which to participate in activities of the home and community, and to continue learning and activating their neurons in those meaningful contexts.

But then came compulsory attendance, homework, longer hours and more school days, and lately year-round school. Schools began offering kindergarten, then preschool. It seems unbelievable, but many parents now place their children in institutions when they are only a few months old! And one asks, when do they have the opportunity to use their mirror neurons? If children are always in the company of other children their same age, how can they learn to become adults in a familiar context the way their brains are designed to learn? One could say that our educational crisis is derived from the lack of familiar context and the stimulus of mirror neurons.

III: The real secret behind homeschool’s success

In truth, educating families have always existed. Many world leaders and geniuses whose influence has left its mark, were autodidacts or self-educated. Their learning began at home, and they continued throughout all their lives to draw lessons from their environment, observing cause and effect, absorbing the wisdom of ordinary folks. Examples are many: At least ten US presidents, as well as Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Pierre Curie, Claude Monet, Leo Tolstoy, W.A. Mozart, Irving Berlin, C.S. Lewis, Charles Chaplin, Agatha Christi, Whoopi Goldberg, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and many more. Their parents or their circumstances permitted them to learn the natural way.

Children learn to walk without anyone teaching them. How? By watching the adults around them. A child learns to be merciful by watching his mother helping a neighbor. Parents who show courtesy at home and on the highway will see those traits mirrored in their children. And parents who assume the responsibility for their children’s upbringing will find that having them around motivates them to exhibit temperament and habits they want their children to develop.

The child who goes shopping or to the grocery store with mother, or who accompanies father to the bank or the hardware store, will be learning and understanding math better than could be hoped for in school. Children whose parents read the newspaper, subscribe to magazines, purchase books, give talks or recite poetry, those children develop vocabulary and linguistic abilities far ahead of their schooled peers. Kids who can accompany their parents to vote and who participate in family discussions around election time will have a greater comprehension of politics and government than school will ever provide.

If the money spent on textbooks and school clothes were used for travel to interesting places, if grandparents would share their memories of the past with their grandchildren, if the whole family took the time to learn a new language together, what an advantage it would be for the children’s education! Their knowledge about geography, history, and many other subjects would be expanded. But what is more important, their understanding of those subjects and their relevance to everyday life would be much greater. It is no less than physiological for children to learn better at home. What happens in school doesn’t relate to real life, so their neurons are switched off to the point where they cannot understand what is taught.

IV: The only reform that will succeed

We need a great revolution: A revolution of students who refuse to go to school just to pass the time instead of really learning; A revolution of parents who take back their responsibility to manage their families and spend the time with their children that will lead to a better society; A revolution of teachers who are willing to encourage natural learning in the classroom, and who will encourage parents in their responsibility to help their children; A revolution in government to—instead of reducing children to the lowest common denominator —will instead create space for diversity and freedom to learn, recognizing that we are all different and what works for one may not work for another. This means encouraging a variety of schools and educational institutions, as well as permitting and supporting homeschooling.

Thinking again about those mirror neurons, it is no wonder there is an educational crisis. If the teachers who get results were paid well and all the rest were fired, hiring experienced mothers and grandmothers in their place, we would see better results than the present “reforms” are producing. Taking the kids to the workplace, bringing work home, taking the class to a business or implementing activities from real life (such as habitat for humanity building projects) are methods that produce guaranteed results. Schools ought to become cafeterias of knowledge, where people of any age can go and learn whatever they want; where teachers are “vendors” of their special subject as if they were selling quality cars or rugs; and where students attend because they have questions and things they want to know. When education becomes a privilege, everyone will want to learn.

[1]  See “Why Schools Don’t Educate”
[2]  See 5/2/2006: “Las células que leen la mente” (translated)
[3] — Idem.
[4] See “El cerebro conoce las intenciones…” (translated)
[5]  See in April/May, 2006 issue: “A Revealing Reflection”