AmblesideOnline: Review of Endangered Minds

Endangered Minds by Jane Healy
1990, Touchstone (Simon and Schuster)
For sale from by clicking here

This is a must-read for any parent! CM homeschoolers in particular will gain some understanding into neurological reasons why a CM education is so effective, and will see why rushing into formal lessons too early isn't a good idea.

Chapter 1

Using quotes from school teachers and various test results, Jane Healy shows how school test scores are dropping, yet IQ scores are slightly higher than ever before! We are becoming an illiterate and aliterate society--many people can't read, and most who have the skill don't care to read anything beyond restaurant menus and the TV guide. Teachers across the board, even in better schools, say that within the last ten years, they have had to dumb down their materials because students can't handle the task of reading a textbook - it's boring, so they just won't do it.

Why? Jane Healy theorizes that changes have taken place in their brains due to various factors - mostly lack of parental involvement. Children have no one available to do things with them, or to show them skills such as woodshop and clay modelling, so they fill their time with TV and video games, and that affects their brain.

Chapter 2

Neural plasticity is explained. Rats raised in enriched environments show heavier and larger sized brains than rats raised in impoversihed environments (not sure how you enrich a rat's environment - maybe pipe in classical music, leave little books around the floor of the cage and hang postage stamp-sized art on the cage walls? LOL!) This proves that the brain is affected by environment in physical and measurable ways, and proves that providing an enriched environment does have real benefits.

The brain undergoes change before and after birth. Brain cells have multiple pointed ends, like a star, to make connections with other brain cells. Since all the cells have these multiple connectors, there is an unlimited number of ways the cells can make connections - many various possible paths. These paths become more fixed as they are used more often, like a path in the woods - the ones used more often become worn and more visible, while the ones unused get lost.

For us as parents and teachers, that's good news, because it means that our efforts are not wasted. Providing healthy stimulation actually changes the shape, size and paths in the brain and will impact our child's intelligence and abilities.

Chapter 3

Different areas of the brain mature at different stages of age because the myelin that coats the outer part of the neurons matures on specific parts of the brain - children develop large motor coordination before fine motor coordination because the myelin for large motor muscles develops first. Myelin for abstract thought is one of the last to develop, and is why it's useless to try to teach abstract math to children who are too young - they have no capacity to understand it.

If children are forced to learn something that their brains aren't mature enough to handle, the brain is forced to re-route synapses to compensate, and a part of the brain not suited for a task has to do it anyway, forming connections that become well-worn paths that are difficult to change even when the part of the brain suited for the task is mature.

I wondered earlier how to "enrich" a rat's environment. The answer is in this chapter! But, for stimulation to actually enrich the brain, the rats can't just be exposed to the stimulation, they have to actively be involved and interested. Rats who could view other rats interacting grew no more brain mass than rats who lived alone in impoverished cages. The mind has to participate in the incoming stimulation, passive stimulation doesn't count. That is why being talked at is of little benefit to a child's education - lively discussion is what's needed. And TV, where images are bombarded into the mind with no demand for feedback, has little benefit, if any.

There is a window of opportunity for gaining new skills - there are certain times that the brain is primed to learn specific things. I think imprinting in birds is a good illustration of this - at the critical time when a bird is newly hatched, the first thing he sees, he will follow. But the thing must be seen at that specific time, otherwise the opportunity is lost. This is why it's not helpful to rush young children into formal academics too early - not only are their brains not equipped for that yet, but the part of their brain that is ready for certain experiences suffers from the lack of proper activities that had to be sacrificed to make time for the formal academics.

A brain that's at a certain point in development will automatically take in the kind of information it needs to develop the correct connections if the proper stimulation is available. This makes a strong case for Charlotte Mason's idea of offering children a banquet of ideas - because you don't know what stage of brain life any given child will be at, and what his brain is primed for at any given moment.

My own conclusion is that the brain is divinely pre-wired to learn certain things on its own time-table, and God, who designed the brain, intended for it to grow to its full potential in a normal environment. The prime time for learning language is coincidentally the same time that mothers naturally are always talking with the child. The prime time for learning gross motor functions is normally the age when children are running around and playing. Attempting to circumvent this by putting children into artificial school situations too early, or sitting them in front of TVs, greatly hampers the brain's development by denying it of the activity it needs and replacing it with activities that will force it to grow in a less efficient way. Charlotte Mason's instructions to let young children hear stories and run and play and observe the world around them instead of sitting at a desk appears to be exactly what scientific evidence shows is best.

Chapter 4

When I was pregnant and reading everything I could get my hands on about how to raise babies and children, I remember reading that language is a crucial part of knowledge. It provides pegs in the mind on which to hang experiences. Toddlers will grab at things trying to connect with them until they know the word to put on it. Even memories seem to be linked with words to express them - children who can clearly remember early incidents are, many times, the ones who were able at the time to connect those experiences with words. The ability to communicate with language is one of the things that separates men from beasts. The ideas of cultures and societies are expressed and recorded in words, and our ability to understand and relate to people who lived before us is proportionate to what we know of their ideas - how much written history they left and how much of it we can understand. The pen is mightier than the sword because words are powerful. "...Language is the thing that creates one's world view."

Going back to the concept of the window of opportunity, there is an optimum time for language development.

Language is only learned from active participation in learning - children must talk as well as listen. "Frequent, responsive mother-child language interaction" was found in one study to be the single most influential factor in a child's later intelligence. What is the best thing that can be done to help children develop language skills? Thoughtful discussions about events and ideas, telling stories, encouraging children to think ahead so as to put words to future events, all help children to think, give explanations, and develop abstract thinking. This goes right along with Charlotte Mason's use of narration, which makes the child organize the events of the stories and attach words to express them.

Chapter 5

We use language to compare, describe and plan. Without names for different shades of color, it is possible that we wouldn't notice the differences in them. Language is a vital part of the way we think. In our western culture that prizes abstract, analytical reasoning, we need the skill of abstract, analytical language. In one experiment with chimps, teaching them a few words improved their ability to reason - only when they learned the words "same" and "different" were they able to perceive those concepts.

Even math depends on grammatical syntax. Understanding the concepts of equal, more than, borrow, divide is crucial to grasping higher math.

Yet complex grammatical syntax is the most likely part of language to be left out. The ability to grasp syntax seems to be limited to the first 11 years of life, and requires the child to have an adult to model it and give the child a chance to talk themselves. It can't be picked up passively from TV.

The result of less time with parents and more time with TV and same-age peers has been a new generation of students who can't effectively put their thoughts into words, can't understand literature in the classroom, and have trouble with higher level math. The most noticable problem is that students are losing the ability to write because writing well depends first of all on speaking well - a child can hardly put words on paper that he can't put together in his head. Clear writing demands the ability to organize thought. Charlotte Mason's use of narration is an excellent way to build this ability.

Chapter 6

Although there is some truth to the theory about being left or right brained, it isn't that simple. Both halves of the brain work together on many tasks.

In the past, schools tended to over-emphasize predominantly left-hemisphere activities such as rote memorization, phonics drills and repetitive math facts while neglecting right-hemisphere activities. But today's trend is for TV images, lyrically-weak music and gestures instead of real langage to emphasize the right hemisphere of the brain. If use builds the brain, then the implication is that we're raising a generation of children who are predominantly right-hemisphere oriented. What that bodes for society is not yet known.

Chapter 7

Between 30 and 50 percent of children are labelled as learning disabled. In brain studies, dyslexic brains were found to have physical differences - they lacked some connections in one hemisphere, but made up for them by being larger in other areas. Many children are learning disabled only because their minds do not function best in a classroom setting - they have a difference in learning styles rather than a disability. Dyslexic adults typically go on to excel at skills that are specialized in the right hemisphere, such as art or music. Since everybody's brain develops differently, Jane Healy makes a case that all of us are disabled in some area or other, but only those whose weaknesses show up in the classroom get the label.

TV, with its constant stream of visual images, may make a child with a left-hemisphere weakness tend to become stronger in the right hemisphere where pictures are processed. In other words, lack of conversation and too much TV may create a problem where before there was just a tendency.

Chapter 8

The single complaint of teachers today is that students can no longer pay attention. This is due to a few factors - too much stimulus that overloads the brain and also trains the mind to tune things out, the restlessness created when the mind is used to being entertained, and a lack of control in choosing what stimui to focus on and what to filter out.

Attention synapses (a child's ability to focus) grow in a set pattern starting at ages 3-6 during which children learn what distractions to screen out. The whole network of attention synapses isn't fully mature until adulthood. Helping children learn to "put thought ahead of action, delay gratification and use of language as a tool for thinking and planning help provide the fundamental training ground" for the maturing mind.

Physical movement is necessary for children because use of muscles build synapses that are near the same synapses that manage mental activity. Apparently, children need to move to develop their brains. Physical movement also teaches children their own internal rhythym - a beat that seems to correlate with later learning of reading and math. Listening to music does not teach this beat  - the child has to experience the beat internally. This is done naturally when children are rocked, patted, stroked, and when they dance.

Chapter 9

Many children who appear to have ADHD just haven't learned habits of organization, reflection and internal control. Parents are too busy and preoccupied to keep a routine and children even in wealthy families are often left to fend for themselves. Daily tasks done together with parent and child doing routine chores such as laundry, grocery shopping and homework are the times when the parent instinctively models organized thought and discusses with the child. Without this type of learning, children don't ever figure out how to organize their thoughts to get tasks that require more than one step done.

When parents interact with children, they should use language. Patient use of words with the child helps them learn "to plan ahead, express needs, ask questions, understand and organize their world, think and reason about situations far from the one at hand."

Chapter 10

TV tends to lull the brain into a passive alpha state, where the mind spaces out. There is concern among some that TV over-stimulates the right hemisphere, but it's closer to the truth that TV doesn't encourage transfer of activity between hemispheres.

Video games may be even worse than TV. Because of its colors and immediate reward system, it can be more addictive, gluing even attention-deficit children to the game for hours. Those who claim that video games are beneficial will cite eye exercises, and hand-eye coordination that improves other tasks such as reading. But research shows that the eye involvement with TV and video games has no effect on later reading and hand-eye coordination has no effect on writing skills - the benefit doesn't seem to transfer from one part of the brain to another.

Chapter 11

Jane Healy holds such a strong opinion against Sesame Street that she gives it a chapter of its own. Sesame Street's goal is to teach kids to read - the belief being that going into school knowing the ABC's is a guarantee of success at reading. But simply knowing the ABC's isn't what it takes to read. Reading takes language, active reflection, persistance, and internal control.

Sesame Street works against the skills needed to read in various ways. Here are just a few she mentions: It trains kids to expect learning to be fun rather than a challenge; it flashes information on the screen too quickly for a child to process; children who watch play less creatively - instead, they imitate TV scenes.

After 20 years, children who have grown up on Sesame Street are not becoming good readers - they have difficulty making the transition from phonics sounds to meaningful comprehension and end up finding reading boring. Sesame Street  is acceptable for light entertainment as long as you don't fool yourself into thinking your child is receiving any kind of education from it.

Chapter 12

Disadvantaged children may be affected by poor nutrition or hunger, drug abuse and neglect. Poor children may live in environments with lead poisoning, physical abuse, no area to play and develop muscles, and stress that deprives them of sleep. They are likely to watch TV all day. These will all hinder brain development.

But recently, even priviledged children are increasingly showing similar signs of brain mal-development - because they are shuffled between caretakers who may neglect them. Their parents are often too busy at careers to spend any time with them at all. These children may be no better off intellectually than disadvantaged kids.

Early schools can help prepare children for learning, but results show that, unless the child is receiving enrichment at home, the benefit isn't all that great. Even a child raised in poverty can have a fair chance if the parents talk to the child, help them work through the decision-making process verbally, and read them books. (A local friend once told me about a brilliant doctor she knows who was raised in a coal-mining Appalachian town where children had no hope of escaping a lifetime of abject poverty. The mother made the effort to read literature to her children, and they all went on to go to college and escaped poverty!)

Chapter 13

Schools are doing an ineffective job with the students they have. Adding more hours or more days to what doesn't work will not help. What will help? Jane Healy offers some ideas that educators have discussed about education reform. This chapter outlines them.

Chapter 14

The current trend in schools is teaching "thinking skills" with the use of curriculum worksheets. But thinking skills aren't learned that way; they are picked up in the process of working through problems in other areas. At home, parents should engage children in decision-making and ask open-ended questions, like how things are similar or different to encourage children to use verbal skills to work through problems. Parents of young children should model play by showing children how to use toys rather than leaving toys laying about with no instruction about what to do with them.

Very young children gain nothing from toddler educational software - the matching games and letter recognition are not high-level skills and do not build many neural connections. What they need is first-hand sensory experience touching and manipulating real things. A child gains more thinking skills figuring out how to nail two boards together or making a dollhouse out of a shoebox than can ever be learned from computer educational software.

Chapter 15

Jane Healy spends the last chapter speculating on what the changes in the brain's plasticity will mean for the evolution of the human species, and wondering whether it's such a tragedy if we lose much of our language if it's found to be not needed in the new information age.

Yet, even in our computer age, creative minds will be needed to problem-solve and write better programs. In the end, only those whose minds have been trained in good thinking habits will lead the next generation. "Human brains are not only capable of acquiring knowledge; they also hold the potential for wisdom. But wisdom has its own curriculum: conversation, thought, imagination, empathy, reflection. Youths who lack those 'basics,' who cannot ponder what they have learned, are poorly equipped to become managers of the human enterprise in any era." It's up to adults to take on the responsibility for providing the kind of environment that will allow each child to reach his full potential.

To illustrate Jane Healy's premise, CM writes on page 9 of volume 6, "While still a young woman I saw a great deal of a family of Anglo-Indian children who had come 'home' to their grandfather's house and were being brought up by an aunt who was my intimate friend. The children were astonishing to me; they were persons of generous impulses and sound judgment, of great intellectual aptitude, of imagination and moral insight."

Wendi Capehart responds, "Just recently I was reading of a study, fairly recent, following children (lower income children) both at home and in school. The researchers were astonished at the difference between the two. The children at home engaged in complex conversations, were doing more interesting things, and used vocabulary much richer than when they were at school. This was primarily, the researchers thought, because the parents didn't talk down to the children as much as teachers did."

What children need is time with adults engaging in real conversation!

"Your child's brain wasn't built for all that TV." LimiTV.Inc (gone, but you can view an archived copy of the page here) has an outline of the reasons why limiting TV is good preparation for learning. (gone, but you can view an archived copy of the pahe here) has plenty of reasons and research for curtailing children's screen time, as well as suggestions such as "Mommy, Don't Touch that Dial!" (archived) 16 tips to manage toddlers--without resorting to television.