Saturday, October 20, 2007

Charlotte Mason and Brain Based Research

So my original project had to be abandoned, but I ended up doing the research paper that follows.

Education is very important in America, but there is an educationalist of great value that is often overlooked in the academic discussions. Her name was Charlotte Mason and she collected the knowledge of how to educate children from the past. She also observed children in the educational field and then applied with great success her observations. Because the field of psychology was so new at the time little of what she did was backed up by formal research, but the research exists today and much of it gives us reason to take another look at her ideas in the hope of improving the education of our children. This paper will look at three of the principles that Charlotte Mason put forth as important to the education of every child, namely; narration, the use of living books, and scheduling of schoolwork. This discussion will follow a look at the peer reviewed psychology literature that provides us with the studies and the understanding of the need for these specific principles. It is hoped that this discussion will show that Charlotte Mason’s principles are sound and need to be further studied and utilized in the educational fields.
Statement of Problem
Recently an article ran in Education Daily that reported “America's lackluster performance on international tests have raised red flags at the United Nations group charged with gauging the nation's economic health. The UN Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found Americans performed at or below the international average across the board” (Sparks, 2007, pg. 1). To most who work in the educational field this is not news. The schools are doing poorly. They are not doing well on tests nor are they doing well in developing students known for their speaking, or leadership skills. Many of the ideas presented by Charlotte Mason will help students to improve drastically in their ability to think, discuss, relate ideas from one subject to another, and to lead.
This literature review and correlation to Charlotte Mason’s ideas is also important, because of the growing numbers of individuals who have begun to implement them in the nontraditional schooling sphere. Just one Charlotte Mason curriculum provider, Ambleside Online, has over four thousand families on their discussion list, trying to learn the specifics of teaching with this method. According to the Economist (2004), 1 in every 25 school aged children in America is home schooled. The Charlotte Mason philosophy is a primary method of teaching in this population. While the exact number of private schools teaching with the method is unknown there are at least twelve in the eastern United States. It is important that these principles of education are looked at from the perspective of current brain research and scientific study, so that those who are using them will be able to implement them in the best possible way. That is what this paper will begin to do, limiting itself to only three principles, which are offered as a starting place.
Literature Review
The literature reviewed in connection with the subject matter under consideration was obtained primarily from scholarly journals found in Pro-Quest and Academic Search Premiere data bases. Also a book, which has gathered and correlated much of the brain based research with the field of education will be discussed. This is in no way a comprehensive view of the subject matter as it is very vast, but it will serve as an overview.
The first article is one of many linking emotions to long-term memory. It is titled Memories of an Emotional and a Nonemotional Event: Effects of Aging and Delay Interval. In this article the authors conducted a study to see how well people would remember information that was more and less emotional in nature. They also correlated their results by age. In 2003 surveys were sent within two weeks of both the Super bowl and the Columbia shuttle explosion. They were sent again seven months later. It was found that both groups rated the shuttle explosion as a lot more emotional and both groups remembered more details about it in both surveys. The younger individuals remembered both events more accurately, but the difference was less great for the Columbia explosion.
The second article is The relationship between type of teacher talk and student attentiveness. A study was done in junior high, high school and university music classes. Classes were observed during productive rehearsal time with their normal teacher and scored based on how often and for how long the teacher stopped the music playing to talk. The type of talk was categorized. The students were observed to see how attentive they were to this teacher talk. It was found that The more a teacher talked in all levels the more off tasks the students became. They were most attentive to the talk when it was academic in nature.
The third article is not a report of a study, but a summary of some of the information we need to discuss the topic of this report. It is titled Brain-based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning and Test-taking Success. In this correlational article Willis discusses what we have learned from the studies so far about the brain. She describes what we have found from experiments on lab rats in enriched versus non-enriched environments and says, “Dendrites increase in size and number in response to learned skills, experience, and information. New dendrites grow as branches from frequently activated neurons. Once these dendrites are formed, it is the brain's plasticity that allows it to reshape and reorganize the networks of dendrite-neuron connections in response to increased or decreased use of these pathways” (2007, pg. 10).
It has been found, mostly through studies done on rats, that when an idea or part of the brain is used often the mylination around the dendrites thicken and this speeds up the recall of the information. In essence, the more often you use information you learn the easier it is to remember. When you do not use information it is pruned. “Pruning occurs when some brain pathways and connections are selectively maintained and "hard-wired," while others are selectively eliminated, or "pruned." Since active cells require blood to bring nourishment and clear away waste, cells that are inactive don't send messages to the circulatory system to send blood” (2007, pg. 11).
Willis further cites the research that shows how learning something in multiple ways creates multiple pathways to access the information and helps the information to remain accessible. She then goes on to describe the different types of memory. “From the most basic awareness of our environment, our memory skills progress from rote memory, working (short-term) memory, patterning and connections to relational memory, and, ultimately, long-term memory storage” (2007, pg. 12). In order to get something from working memory to short term memory or long-term memory the student must pay attention to it. There are many ways to do this. By being emotional involved with a subject it is much more likely to go to your long-term memory. Also one can recall the information often and this too will move it over to long-term memory and then further thicken the dendrites to make future recall even easier. Another way to move ideas into long-term memory is to allow students to experience an ah-ha moments, a moment when they connect new information with old and both the new and the old are seen in a new way.
In Learning about Learning: from theories to trends Gail Bush discusses some of the changes that have taken place in the field of education. The author discusses the changes of the field of psychology as it relates to education. “There was a strong sentiment among leading scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and elsewhere that if psychology was going to continue as a science of the mind, it would have to shift focus from observing behavior to studying mentalistic processes and concepts” (2006, pg. 14). As American educational psychology began to grow changes were taking place in other fields, which opened up new research possibilities. New demands were also soon made. “The education community was taking a hit from the space race, and along came cognitive science with much to offer education as a burgeoning body of knowledge ready for practical application” (2006, pg. 16).
Another article that is pertinent to our discussion of brain research and education is by Marcia D’Arcangelo. She interviewed some of the top scientists and researchers on the brain as it relates to education. Marion Diamond is a leading scientist in the area of how enriched environments affect brain functioning and physiology in rats. Eric Jensen is a leading researcher in the fields of both brain research and education. For the purposes of this paper I will focus mainly on these two individuals’ responses. Diamond was asked about the enriched environments of the rats she works with in her studies. She replied that enriched environments are environments where the rats have plenty of room, other rats with which to socialize and a variety of toys that are often changed for the rats to explore. The experiments are done with control rats that are isolated and only have bedding material and food, but no toys. “We found that the rats living in the enriched environment had developed a thicker cortex than those rats living in the impoverished environment. Their cortex had grown as a result of interacting with other rats and with objects to explore and climb upon” (1998, pg. 21). When asked to apply this to humans Diamond states, “No two human brains are alike. An enriched environment for one is not necessarily enriched for another. No two children learn in the identical way. In the classroom, we should teach children how to think for themselves” (1998, pg. 21). It is further hypothesized that a students individiual reactions with the environment is what will turn an educational environment into an enriched one. Diamond further explains, “There are some principles that drive learning. Every human being is driven to search for meaning. We all try to create patterns from our environment, and we all learn to some extent through interaction with others. Because ours is a social brain, it's important to build authentic relationships in the classroom and beyond. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. We want to deeply engage learners with their purposes, values, and interests. Thinking and feeling are connected because our patterning is emotional. That means that we need to help learners create a felt meaning, a sense of relationship with a subject, in addition to an intellectual understanding” (1998, pg. 23).
Eric Jensen adds several important points about education that are relevant to our topic. His research has shown that students must pay attention to something to learn it, but attention of young children is not anywhere the half hour to hour long classes that we want them to pay attention to. “The normal human brain works in periods of high levels of attention, followed by periods of low levels of attention. The brain needs downtime” (1998, Pg. 24).
The next important work I would like to discuss is not a peer reviewed article, but a book by Eric Jensen who was interviewed in the previous article. He has collected data on how the brain learns and written a book entitled Brain-Based Learning. This book discusses in more depth how the brain moves things from working memory to short-term memory to long-term memory. It further discusses the need for an enriched environment with a variety of things to study so that students can get out of it what they need in their own situations. There are many helpful ways to prepare the learner to receive new information. In essence a learner needs a hook to place new learning onto and it has been found that the hook should be given to the students well before the teaching of new information, but this is not as difficult as it seems as everything is connected or related. The student be allowed to develop these relationships in their mind to make the learning more meaningful. Jensen sites many studies about the need for downtime and for physical activity breaks in between focused studies.
These articles and studies give a good overview of the current understanding of the current brain research and how it relates to education. The next section will show that all of this backs up three of the principles of education that Charlotte Mason observed and set forth as the best methods for education. It is not within the scope of this paper to demonstrate proof for all of her educational principles only to show an example of their timelessness when the ideas of behaviorism are falling by the way side because they have failed to stand up to current brain research. The author will first discuss the principle of narration, then living books and last scheduling.
Discussion Narration
Narration is the individual process of taking what you have learned and putting it into words. This is of greatest importance in the Charlotte Mason philosophy. It sounds simply and when someone is trained in it, it is. When a child is six lessons begin. The child is read some interesting story or part of a story and then asked to tell what happened. The child then has to ask him or herself how it began and what happened next and so forth until the entire episode is recalled. A small discussion may follow, but never precede the narrations.
Attention is the cornerstone of education. Jensen says, “For years, many teachers have found that their Holy Grail has been attention” (D’arcangelo, 1998, p. 25). We have learned a lot about acquiring attention and we now know why narration works so well. “All learning is state-dependent. The physiological, emotional, postural and psychological state that your learners are in will mediate content” (Jensen, p. 125). Narration sets up the needed state required for attention, because the students know they will have to tell back what they are learning. This way the attention is not able to drift to other things and it is held to the topic at hand. The lessons are age appropriate in length so this exercise is not too taxing on the children, but it does stretch them so that their attention will increase as they get older and the subject matter gets more complex.
Narration is also a form of repetition. Daimond explains, “The important thing that we’ve learned is that repetition helps memory” (D’arcangelo, 1998, p. 24). Wolfe further explains, “the second time two neurons fire together, they become more efficient and fire more readily. That develops what we call long-term memory” (D’arcangelo, 1998, p. 24). The more often something is recalled the more often the neural pathways are accessed and when this happens they become stronger and more protected from pruning. When a child hears a lesson that may be the first time the content is heard, but he or she immediately narrates either verbally or in written form, this accesses those neurons again, and then when the subject is picked up again the next day or next week a short recap of where the students are is done, which accesses the neural pathway another time. Then as the lesson is continued new material is being built onto what has previously been learned and as these connections are being made the neural pathway is again accessed. This repetition works together to increase the long-term memory of the information.
Memory can be classified into working memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Certain things need to happen for the information to move from one category to another. Anything we notice may be held in working memory. “The challenge students face is to move information from working memory to their long-term memories. If they don’t do this in about 20 minutes, that information can be lost” (Willis, 2007, p.311). Repetition and relating new content to old content are two things that make this much more likely.
“Often (the facts presented to students) don’t have obvious or engaging patterns or connections that give them context or relationship to each other or the students’ lives” (Willis, 2007, p.311). In narration the child is allowed to build these relationships and find the patterns. When a child narrates he is telling the parts of the lesson that meant something to him. For instance, when we read Paul Revere’s ride by Henry Longfellow it is very likely that one child may give much more detail of the historical aspects, while another connects more with the horse. For both future lessons on the material will give them something real that he or she can connect with. The behaviorist idea that we can set up an environment, or a lesson, and every brain will react to it the same way has been found in education to be inaccurate. “Remember how the behaviorists thought that we all share the same understanding after learning new content? We beg to differ, say the constructivists. Learning is viewed as a search for meaning; we construct our own understanding of the world. Constructivism is a cognitive perspective to learning that at its core holds that knowledge is constructed by the learner and developed through experience. Information that is registered as input (we are bridging the information processing model here) is matched with previously stored knowledge. The new understanding is again stored for future use and now has more connections. The crux of constructivism is in the active construction of meaning through interactions with the social and the physical environment” (Bush 2005, p.15). This is also why we revisit material as educators. As we call on previous knowledge we add to it and the previous knowledge is further clarified according to the students new learning. As we are studying we are constantly personally relating to the material and connecting with the new and old material in our own way.
Narration is also beneficial as it relates to other subjects and gives many opportunities to learn. “Good language, like the synapses that make it possible, is gained only from interactive engagement: children need to talk as well as to hear” (Healy, 1999, p.88). Jane Healy author of Endangered Minds points out that most students are not given enough time to put their thoughts into words and are not proficient in doing this. Narration offers the child the opportunity to do this. The content is provided, but the child gets to develop the skill of taking that content and selecting what he or she feels is important and verbally putting it into words that are easily comprehended by others. This is also true of writing. As the child’s ability to narrate verbally increase he or she is then asked to narrate in written form. This is especially important in traditional schools where it is hard to give everyone an opportunity to narrate verbally, everyone can still narrate in writing. The same mental questions have to be asked of the student, by the student.
Narration is a highly valuable principle that is an effective method of meeting what we now through modern research to be what the brain needs to learn. It can be used in all subjects. Imagine how beneficial it would be if the students were consistently asked to tell how to do math, rather than just answer problems. The former would bring comprehension up to a much higher standard. That is what narrating does, it holds attention, develops easier recall of the information, helps to move the information to long-term memory, provides an opportunity to relate to information in an individual way and it can be used embedded in the other content areas.
Living Books
The second Charlotte Mason principle I would like to discuss is the use of living books. Living books are whole books that are written by an author who is passionate about the subject and clothes their story in literary language. Textbooks on the other hand, our current traditional schools, are often written by large committees of people in language deemed exactly suited to the particular grade the book is designed for.
Jane Healy gave an example of the difference. She visited a school to observe its language arts teaching. The school was under a great deal of pressure to meet state standards and the district had handed out grade level literature books with scripted lesson plans. In the first class the students were reading a carefully worded story that was considered developmentally appropriate. The students were bored. They expressed irritation through comments such as, “this is stupid,” and “who’s this creep anyway?” There daily readings were not connected to any others day readings and so there was a feeling of relief when the story was over. Little was comprehended and little was remembered. In another classroom the teacher had quietly scrapped the readers and bought some interesting unabridged novels. She only had enough for every three students to share, but the students eagerly sat around their copies and, though story was more difficult than the one in the other class, the obviously understood and eagerly discussed it. The story continued from day to day and so they remembered it and were eager to get back to it.
Living books have personality and enthusiasm. With it they engage the readers much more than textbook descriptions of an event or fact. Diamond says, “Every human being is driven to search for meaning. We all try to create patterns from our environment, and we all learn to some extent through interaction with others. Because ours is a social brain, it's important to build authentic relationships in the classroom and beyond. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. We want to deeply engage learners with their purposes, values, and interests. Thinking and feeling are connected because our patterning is emotional. That means that we need to help learners create a felt meaning, a sense of relationship with a subject, in addition to an intellectual understanding.” (D’Arcangelo, 1998, p. 25). Living books do just that. They allow a relationship with the subject matter to develop. They engage learners on an emotional level like a text book can not do. “Anything that is emotionally laden will get our attention quickly” (D’Arcangelo, 1998, p. 25). Sylwester adds, “And yet, our emotional system drives our attentional system, which drives learning and memory and everything else that we do. It is biologically impossible to learn and remember anything that we don't pay attention to. The emotional system tells us whether a thing is important-whether we ought to put any energy into it. We've basically ignored emotion for years. We didn't know how to regulate it, to evaluate it, or to measure it” (D’Arcangelo, 1998, p. 25). Yet in many educational environments we are still using books that have little or no emotion in them. Texts that only present facts rarely inspire interest, build comprehension and create long-term memory for students. Living books can do this. When a father who went through it and lost their child in it tells a history of World War I, then the reasons for it and the realities of it are going to be remembered by the reader much better than when a section in a text tells the date it took place along with other pertinent facts.
From what we understand of the brain living books are the most appropriate material to use to help students develop understanding and long-term memory, as they provide context, emotion and real ideas.
The last of Charlotte Masons may ideas that this paper will address is that of scheduling. Charlotte Mason used shorter lessons and a variety of subjects. Lessons were continued over many days. For instance, a 10-year-old child reads a history biography once a week for twenty minutes. This may spread the book out over about six months. Students read up to twenty books at one time. Spreading books out this way gives more opportunities to recall the information. “The more times one repeats an action (e.g., practice) or recalls the information, the more dendrites sprout to connect new memories to old, and the more efficient the brain becomes in its ability to retrieve that memory or repeat that action. Eventually, just triggering the beginning of the sequence results in the remaining pieces falling into place” (Willis, 2007, p.311).
Jensen summarizes, “The normal human brain works in periods of high levels of attention, followed by periods of low levels of attention. The brain needs downtime” (D’Arcangelo, 1998, p. 26). Charlotte Mason was very aware of the need for what is now called downtime in the schedule. This is the time that allows the brain to process the new material that has been covered. She suggested that lesson be kept short, no more than fifteen minutes in the primary grades and that they alternated between mental tasks such as a new grammar lesson and less mentally demanding tasks, such as handwriting practice. This going back and forth would give the child the processing time needed to secure the knowledge in the mind.
Schedules done this way are full of many subjects such as poetry, music, artists study, art expression etc. While our schools go through cycles of cutting back to “the basics” and attempting a richer curriculum there is evidence that a broader curriculum is more brain friendly especially during the younger grades. Sylwester puts it this way, “Part of our brain is set up to deal with music and art. It wouldn't be there if it weren't important. If you don't stimulate the language centers of your brain to master language, you are in a deficit for the rest of your life. What about the music centers of your brain? A human brain isn't just about staying alive, for goodness' sake. A human brain is about the quality of one's life. The arts are very central to the spirit and the quality of our lives” (D’Arcangelo, 1998, p. 26). It is just as important for the child who is not gifted in art to still study drawing as it is for the child not gifted in math to study arithmetic. The more opportunities in the curriculum for each child to connect to several subject areas the better. This variety provides an enriched environment, which maximizes the connections of the dendrites in the brain.
This paper has described the three principles of narration, living books and scheduling that Charlotte Mason suggested as valuable to education. It looked at the research on the brain and described how this research backs up these three principles. The works of Charlotte Mason have many other valuable principles that ought to be discussed and applied in our educational environments so that we can meet the needs of our many individual students. In many aspects our schools are failing and the application of this approach, it is believed, would help America to achieve its goal of again becoming a world leader in kindergarten through twelfth grade education. As educationalists search for how to do this the philosophies of Charlotte Mason should be part of this discussion.

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D’Arcangelo, M. (1998). The brains behind the brain. Educational Leadership. 56(3), 20-26. Retrieved September 26, 2007, from Pro-Quest Direct database.
Fogarty, R. (1999). Architects of the intellect. Educational Leadership. 57 (3) 76-79. Retrieved September 26, 2007, from Pro-Quest Direct database.
Healy, J. (1999). Endangered Minds. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Jensen, E. (2000). Brain-based learning. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, California.
Kensinger, E., Krendl, A. & Corkin, S. (2006). Memories of an emotional and a nonemotional event: effects of aging and delay interval. Experimental Aging Research. 32(1), 23-45. Retrieved October 10, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database.
Mason, C. (1989). The Original Home Schooling Series, Six volume edition. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Napoles, J. (2006). The relationship between type of teacher talk and student attentiveness. Journal of Music Teacher Education.16(1), 7-20. Retrieved October 10, 2007 from Academic Search Premier database.
Sparks, S., (2007). International group faults U.S. schools. Education Daily. 40 (101). 1. Retrieved September 23, 2007, from Pro-Quest Direct database.
Willis, J. (2007). Brain-based teaching strategies for improving students’ memory, learning and test-taking success. Childhood Education 83(5) 310-316. Retrieved September 26, 2007, from Pro-Quest Direct database.

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