Years of research prompt a group of scientists to ask whether we should rethink the way we do school.
New research sheds light on the effects that childhood experiences—both good and bad—have on the developing brain. But are schools keeping up?
“The 20th-century education system was never designed with the knowledge of the developing brain,” says Pamela Cantor, MD, who is part of a cross-disciplinary team of experts studying the science of learning and development. “So when we think about the fact that learning is a brain function and we have an education system that didn’t have access to this critical knowledge, the question becomes: Do we have the will to create an education system that’s informed by it?”
Contrary to the long-held belief that brain maturation is largely complete by the age of 6, we now know that our brains are malleable and continue to change dramatically well into our 20s. This has profound implications for learning throughout the school-age years.
Because our neural tissues change in response to our environment, our experiences, and our relationships, a young child who faces persistent adversity at home, for example, will frequently retreat into “fight or flight” mode to protect themselves from violence or abuse. Over time, the brain’s circuitry rewires, favoring aggressive or anxious tendencies at the cost of cognition, reasoning, and memory. These children are also more likely to be placed in special education programs, be held back a grade, and have behavioral issues at school, according to recent research.
The good news is that while toxic stress and abusive relationships can inhibit learning, positive and supportive learning environments can stem the tide. A trusting relationship with an adult—a teacher or guidance counselor, for example—can be a protective buffer against the negative effects of stress.
And because the brain is malleable and continually developing well into adulthood, a student can still meet his or her full potential, despite initial—or even ongoing—negative experiences. According to a 2015 Harvard report, having at least one adult in a child’s life who provides a stable, caring, and supportive relationship is one of the strongest ways to build resilience and help stack the scale against adversity.
Another key takeaway for teachers is that the science confirms that variability in a developing brain is actually the norm, not the exception. A room full of 5-year-olds spans the gamut of skills, developmentally speaking, and that continues to hold true for 10- and 16-year-olds. But while we are all highly variable, we are all on similar paths—eventually acquiring the same sets of skills in roughly the same order.