What Kids Should Know About Their Own Brains

| April 5, 2012 | 50 Comments
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Neuroscience may seem like an advanced subject of study, perhaps best reserved for college or even graduate school. Two researchers from Temple University in Philadelphia propose that it be taught earlier, however—much earlier. As in first grade.

In a study published in this month’s issue of the journal Early Education and Development, psychologists Peter Marshall and Christina Comalli began by surveying children aged four to 13 to discover what they already knew about the brain. Previous research had found that elementary school pupils typically have a limited understanding of the brain and how it functions, believing it to be something like “a container for storing memories and facts.”

Marshall and Comalli’s questionnaire turned up the same uncertain grasp of the topic, which the researchers attributed to several factors. First, while parents and teachers talk often with young children about parts of the body and how they work, they rarely mention this most important organ. (A 2005 study by another group of scientists found that young children hear very few instances of the word brain in everyday conversation.) Secondly, children can’t observe their own brains, and so are left to guess about what’s going on inside their heads—not unlike the state of ignorance in which adults dwelled for many centuries before the founding of neuroscience as a scientific discipline. And finally, most students aren’t formally taught much about the brain until at least middle school. Marshall and Comalli believe such instruction can and should begin much sooner.

A 20-minute lesson about the brain was enough to improve knowledge of brain functioning.

To that end, they designed a 20-minute lesson about the brain and delivered it to a group of first-grade students. Even this brief intervention, the psychologists report, “was enough to improve their knowledge of brain functioning as assessed three weeks later”; a control group of first graders, taught for 20 minutes about honeybees, showed no such improvement. Marshall and Comalli’s neuroscience lesson was especially focused on teaching children about the role of the brain in sensory activities—that the brain is not just “for thinking,” as many kids assume, but also for seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling.

But the success of their effort opens another possibility. In a well-known body of research, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has demonstrated that teaching students about how their brains work—in particular, that the brain is plastic and can develop new capacities with effort and practice—makes a big difference in how constructively kids deal with mistakes and setbacks, and how motivated they are to persist until they achieve mastery.

Dweck’s landmark studies were carried out with fifth-graders, and her program Brainology, a computerized tutorial on brain function, is designed for students in fifth through ninth grades. But why wait to introduce these crucial concepts? Dweck’s own research has found that children’s attitudes and behaviors regarding achievement and failure are already in place by preschool. Parents’ and educators’ messages about the malleability of the brain and the importance of effort must begin even earlier: talk of “head, shoulders, knees and toes” and “this little piggy went to market” should also make room for mentions of growing brains.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kay-Merkel-Boruff/1357563646 Kay Merkel Boruff

    Annie Murphy Paul, enjoyed the article. Retired from 43 yrs teaching in a private girls’ school in Dallas, I routinely told my students that “X” or “Y” [reading, writing, dreaming, dancing, playing music, doodling] “wrinkled their brains” or “grew their brain synapses” or made them smarter. A visiting teacher from the school in NYC near Ground Zero said she told her 8th grade students the point of being in her class: to be smarter when they left each day. Great new brain research in the last 5 years, thus exciting for educators and parents.

  • TimeOutDad

    My five-year-old and I have been trying out Brainology together, and it is quite amazing what can happen when you learn about the brain with your child.  Makes us BOTH a little wiser.  I tweeted about it on my blog…  http://timeoutdad.com/?p=1359

  • Mr. Diltz

    I sure would love a link to the 20 minute lesson so I could use it with my own students. Interesting article.

    • Peter Marshall

      Thanks for your interest – I’ve posted some details of the “brain lesson” in a PDF at  http://tiny.cc/zh0ncw  .The file is attached to that page, and the details are on the last three pages. 

    • Christine Losq

      There are some great children’s books that do this.We searched Amazon and found choices for many levels of readers.
      Take a look at our blog at http://mathcoachinteractive.com/blog/?p=308 for some suggestions by grade level.

      In addition to the STEM value of learning about the brain, the basic message of brainology is that learning takes work and dedication.

      Also be sure to check out Peter Marshall’s link, PDF at  http://tiny.cc/zh0ncw

  • Christine Losq

    Mr Diltz, Go to http://www.mindsetworks.com. There you can see videos of the strategy at work.

    • http://de.wetours.com Thailand Reisen

      Thanks for posting the link. I found mostly videos of people talking about how the experience was, but not the actual lesson. Did I miss that?

      • Peter Marshall

        Thanks for your interest – I’ve posted some details of the “brain lesson” in a PDF at  http://tiny.cc/zh0ncw

        • http://de.wetours.com Thailand Reisen

          Peter, thank you very much for your kindness! This was exactly what I was looking for :-)

  • KSelwood

    I would also like a link to the 20 minute lesson.  Any chance of getting that?

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  • http://parentandchildreading.com/ Michelle Breum

    Brainology looks great, but I think the price should be lowered. It’s pretty expensive, and there is a time limit on the expensive license purchased.

  • http://twitter.com/LindaACadose Linda A. Cadose

    Very interesting. I wonder if reading about the brain in an entertaining format would be as the interactive lesson.

  • http://twitter.com/sketchupurspace Sketchup ur Space

    fantastic post. thanks…

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dannielle.dyson.1 Dannielle Dyson

    Using Your Brain by kids for kids, for Brain Awareness week with the Society for Neuroscience http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBg3XWEJnxE&feature=youtu.be

  • Sarah at Easyread

    This is a great read. Will definitely be sharing with the kids on our program! Especially when a child has something ‘gone wrong’ – perhaps struggling with dyslexia – I think it’s so important to demystify that in a way they can understand.

  • fleurpurple

    Brain function study ties in really well with thinking skills…My lot were most interested in the actions of the amygdala which grows larger in people who have difficulty in controlling their anger…

  • Alex Lorejan

    it strikes my mind how big of an improvemnt we can make by teaching children how the brain works. I do agree with the fact that knowing about the peculiarities of brain activity is important. Nevertheless, I could not help but notice that the control group was taugh about bees meanwhile. I do not think it makes the research reliable, perhaps they should have been taugh about a common topic of interess, which to my mind, could be how to build a toy,or something. I think it could make this research more reliable, and therefore contributing largely to revamping the way we teach our kids.

  • KatieG

    Fascinating. I would love to see the country as a whole learn more about brain development. As a former middle school teacher, I feel that a lot of the frustration that comes from working with adolescents happens as a result of our misunderstanding of the brain’s capabilities at that age. Their frontal lobe is simply NOT set up for analysis of long-term consequences, planning ahead, etc. If we all knew more about brain development, it would enable us to have more reasonable expectations.

    • Adrian Stokes

      There is evidence to show that at adolescence, chemical changes in the brain bringing along ‘maturity’ disrupts the teenagers ability to think rationally. In research between say 10 year old and 13 year olds, it was the 10 year olds who were better able to read and understand/respond to emotions in others – quite amazing. Perhaps if teenagers were able to understand what is happening to them, they might be able to at least ‘try’ harder to stop and think rationally, instead of letting their emotions run away….

  • Berta Hargrove

    Your way to enlighten everything on this blog is actually pleasant, everyone manage to efficiently be familiar with it, Thanks a great deal.

  • Georgene Troseth

    I absolutely agree with this early teaching–not one lesson, but continuing through grade school. Knowing how the brain functions, and how that delicate process can be disrupted, might give children second thoughts about ingesting substances that can permanently alter brain function when they are older. Also, we’re learning that behavior (such as the self-discipline needed to master a musical instrument or sport) can enhance future brain function.

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  • Marissa

    Great article. Hits home exactly what we have been exploring at Florida Virtual School regarding growth mindset: http://blog.flvs.net/where-can-i-get-some-grit/

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  • Kelli Sandman-Hurley

    Yes!!! We show all of our dyslexic students the reason they have difficulties by showing them fMRI pictures. They not only understand it, but LOVE it!

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  • Dolph ziggler

    Waooow!!! Magnificent blogs, this is what I wanted to search. Thanks buddybubblegum casting

  • marco

    “With effort and practice” yet so much of popular culture eschews these traits glamorizing instead the superficial and immediate, results over method …

  • kimbereliz

    Another great resource is Daniel T. Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School. It seems like a super cheesy title, but it’s written by a cognitive scientist. I haven’t really looked into the author, but the material presented is easily adaptable for a student audience. There are also a lot of examples and images throughout the 9 chapters. I highly recommend it!

  • julie valverde

    I teach music (5th grade beginning band) and often talk about the brain and music connection
    in their lessons

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  • Michele Olson

    My middle school and high school boys love the show Brain Games it’s on the National Geographic Ch. It really helps them understand how we think, and use our brains. It’s fun and engaging.

    • Bene

      Thanks for that. I’ll be watching the shows with my boys. Cheers.

  • Dee Gee

    Where is the 20-minute first grade lesson?

  • Peter Marshall

    Here is a link to the journal article, which includes details of the lesson used with first graders (see pages 22-23): https://sites.temple.edu/peterjmarshall/files/2014/08/Marshall-Comalli-2012.pdf

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  • http://www.ifps.net Diane Wagenhals

    Six years ago I developed a seven-session mini-curriculum to teach to kindergarteners in my granddaughter’s class that students now entering 6th grade still recall. That same year Dr. Bruce Perry and I did a presentation at Arcadia University to 300 kindergarten teachers and we had a small group of the kindergarteners I had taught do a short presentation on what they had learned about the brain to inspire the teachers to be open to learning. It was a very cool event for all concerned and really backs up what your research is saying.

    • Pablo Mazariegos

      Would love to see your curriculum. I’m currently spending time with urban children (low economic; multiethnic) and am trying to see how I can enhance their emotional awareness. Currently reading “The Whole Brain Child” by Siegel.

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  • baco

    Hi, I’ve been a lurker around your blog for a few months. I love this article and your entire site!


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  • apfmfatal

    Duh, right? Not even available with an online Google search.

  • http://4ubrand.blogspot.com/ Frank Gainaford

    Great article appreciated.