Brain Research Offers Teaching Insights, Principals Told
Atlanta--Recent developments in the study of brain growth will allow educators within the next five years to look at the reasons youngsters do and do not learn and to be much more responsive to their needs than ever before, according to an educator who worked with biophysics researchers in the area of brain growth and education--a relatively new and still controversial field.
Conrad E. Toepfer Jr., an associate director of the Center of Curriculum Planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo, made his comments at the annual meeting of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, held here last week. For the last six years, he has collaborated with Herman T. Epstein, a professor of biophysics at Brandeis University and an acknowledged leader in brain research.
Research on brain growth, Mr. Toepfer suggested, may help to explain the apparent shifts and spurts in children's ability to assimilate and remember new information and retain new skills.
"We need to explain to the public that just because a child is not ready to read doesn't mean he's not ready to learn," he said.
Mr. Toepfer said the "essence" of the new findings will be to see if we can come closer to offering the "challenge of learning when it can really be perceived by an individual."
Research findings so far, Mr. Toepfer said, indicate that between birth and age 16, youngsters experience predictable, alternating spurts of brain growth, which are followed by periods when brain growth levels off and reaches a plateau.
"The brain does not grow physically on a continuum from conception to maturity," he said. "The vast majority of people experience dramatic spurts of growth of the brain at certain ages, and at other ages have virtual plateaus at which there is almost no growth at all."
Yet school curricula are now set up, he maintained, in ways that do not take into account the new discoveries about brain growth; children are given virtually the same amount of new information and new skills to master each year, regardless of the level of brain growth they are experiencing.
Periods of Brain Growth
Educators expect students to learn at the same rate during the periods of brain growth--when learning is easier--and during the plateau periods, when some types of learning are not as easy, Mr. Toepfer added.
The lowest period of brain growth is between the ages of 12 and 14, Mr. Toepfer noted, but the brain has other periods in which development reaches a plateau--from the ages of 10 months to 2 years and the ages of 4-6, and 8-10.
Research findings indicate that the great bursts of brain development occur when a child is between 3 and 10 months old and between 2 and 4, 6 and 8, 10 and 12, and 14 and 16 years old, he said, and that these brain-growth trends are similar for 85-to-90 percent of the population.
During each spurt of growth, the brain grows between 5 percent and 10 percent, according to Mr. Toepfer. During periods of brain growth, students can learn new and high-level thinking skills more easily than they can during the plateau periods, Mr. Toepfer said.
Teachers can use testing methods currently available to determine when a student is ready for a particular type of learning, Mr. Toepfer pointed out.
For example, he said, it "doesn't make any sense" to put students into "catch up" or "intervention" programs during a period of slow brain growth, because gains made by students during these periodsare not retained.
However, when special help is given to the students before the brain-growth plateau of ages 4-6 or during the brain growth period of ages 6-8, the knowledge stays with youngsters, Mr. Toepfer said.
The new research also suggests, according to Mr. Toepfer, that putting a child into a reading program before he is ready "can be disastrous." A 1980 national poll of high schools shows that boys outnumber girls 6 to 1 in remedial reading programs, and at least part of the disparity can be blamed on the fact that "we push too many boys into reading too soon who simply aren't ready," Mr. Toepfer said.