This is more a progress report than a full-fledged update. I hit a speed bump about 36 hours ago. I started Chapter 3 but no matter what I wrote it was dull, dull, dull. I realized last night what the problem was. I didn’t know enough. I remembered something I learned a long time ago as a teacher. In order to explain even a small point clearly I need a mountain of information. Albert Einstein said it better: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.
So, it’s back to the books (or Internet) for me. I know more this morning than I did last night but the journey continues. This exercise reminds me that there is no shortcut to a responsible, well-written book. And, even if no one ever reads my book, I don’t want anything less.
Just about everyone agrees that writing is an essential skill. Even the most frugal educators include at least some writing instruction in their curriculum. What modern science is teaching us is that writing is not only a skill; it is also important in brain development.
Neurologists, with the aid of imaging technology, have been able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are activated during specific creative activity. This applies not only to writing, but also to music, drawing and even “brainstorming”, which is preparatory to creative work.
During creative writing activity, the right and left hemispheres of the brain interact with each other. Although creativity is considered to be ‘right brain’ centered, it seems that to complete the creative act, the left brain has to kick in. This phenomenon was observed not only during the writing phase, but also during the period preparatory to writing, when ‘brainstorming’ takes place. Visualizing, imagining material to be written, precipitates coordination of different parts of the brain.
A study from the University of Greifswald, Germany looked at brain function in experienced writers. The individuals in this group had highly developed writing skills. The brain images of the writers showed increased prefrontal and basal ganglia activation. Also noted in the images was an increased development in the right cuneus, which is involved in reading processes.
Another study at the University of Greifswald looked at the creative writing processes during various stages of the work. The authors of the study noted changes in brain activity as the work progressed. In the planning, or brainstorming phase, “cognitive, linguistic, and creative brain functions mainly represented in a parieto-frontal-temporal network” were activated. During the actual writing phase, “motor and visual brain areas for handwriting and additionally, cognitive and linguistic areas” were activated. The authors of the second Greifswald study were careful to distinguish between groups that engaged in creative writing and those that merely copied material. The verbal association and integration patterns evident in the creative writing group were not evident in the brain images of the copiers.
Traditionally, creative writing has been part of many school programs because basic writing skills are important and creative writing is considered to be a nice extra curricular activity. Perhaps it is time to reexamine the importance placed on writing and other creative activities. Science seems to show that brain development is enhanced by exposure to creative exercise, whether that exercise is in writing, music or art. Each of these areas seems to activate different parts of the brain. Educators–and that certainly includes parents–should consider the evidence and think about considering creative activity to be as essential as the established pillars of education: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.
There is no dearth of theories on how to educate children. Arguments about technique would be less fraught if everyone could agree on what constitutes a well-educated child. With a common goal in mind, people might willingly travel a common path. But paths diverge early in the education conversation, and the divergence generally centers around values.
Whenever the term ‘values’ is brought up people tend to become defensive, as though the values issue is a construct of the current contentious political scene. It is not. Values have always influenced curriculum.
There was a time, for example, when studying classics was the core curriculum in elementary school. This was a value-determined choice. The moral content of classics was considered to have a salubrious effect on children’s developing psyches.
Values are, and always have been, an intrinsic part of education. That doesn’t mean religion has always been associated with schools; in some cases a determination to offer secular, or religion-free education has been a driving motivation. This choice is still an expression of values, the values of diversity, free expression and free association.
Today, as parents, educators and citizens in general try to sort the different educational theories, they must be clear that the discussion is not merely about methodology. Method, the path traveled to achieve a ‘good’ education, is shaped in part by the desired destination.
Do people want open-minded, adventurous citizens who question authority? Do they want obedient citizens who respect tradition and accept the wisdom of their leaders? Do they want technocrats and scientists who forge ahead without complicating work with consideration of consequences and moral content? Or, do people want schools to turn out cosmologists, visionaries who wonder about the unexplained, who ponder the boundaries of knowledge without foreseeing a specific utilitarian outcome?
These are value questions and they are not simple. When parents hand their children over to a school, they hope the school will impart values with which they are in agreement. When taxpayers turn over their money to support education, they want education to produce citizens that are acceptable to their values.
The US is a heterogeneous culture. Not only is the country ethnically diverse, but religious and social values are all over the map. It’s no wonder a tempest surrounds the introduction of the Common Core curriculum. Common Core is an attempt to homogenize education. In a land founded by rebels, this is a hard sell.