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Educating Character and Other Lessons from Scientific American MIND

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I am happy to be breaking my silence of recent weeks with a preview of the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind. As the summer begins its slow resignation and people anticipate the start of school, our pages revive the ongoing societal debate about the best way to teach our kids. This issue of Mind includes three features that unveil a potential new focus for classroom teachers—a goal to fundamentally reshape children’s minds—one that many say, could also make teachers’ lives easier and more fun. I will start this blog by giving you a window into this special section.

Changing A Child’s Mind

Last February, I traveled to Vancouver to explore several interesting experiments in education. At a private school called Eaton Arrowsmith, students with learning disabilities are exposed to a radically reconfigured curriculum. Instead of the usual content of school, students spend 80 percent of their day working individually on memory, motor, visual and problem-solving exercises, many of them computerized, designed to rewire their brain. The idea is not to teach content, but to ameliorate their disability so the kids can go back to regular school after two or three years. This is an extreme example of an interesting concept: Should school be exclusively about teaching knowledge and skills or should at least some part of the day be dedicated to a more fundamental molding these developing, flexible minds?

Teacher and children breathing

Marianne Prins and her third graders engage in mindful breathing to calm and focus their minds. Photo by Ingrid Wickelgren.

Broadly speaking, this notion might be productively brought into regular classrooms, although attempts to direct brain development can differ greatly. A program called MindUP pioneered by actor Goldie Hawn focuses on social and emotional learning in children. The idea is to cultivate certain fundamental skills such as self-control, focus and perseverance that psychologists have shown to be critical to success in both school and later life. Such characteristics, as well as intelligence, grow out of set of core mental skills called executive functions. These include the ability to hold information in mind for short periods of time, to switch mental gears and—the key to social and emotional aptitude—stop ourselves from behaving badly, a mental knob that, to me, can serve to calibrate key aspects of character.

Although we have long assumed that such traits are fixed, hints are emerging that they are not. Like math or history, concentration, grit and keeping your cool can be taught. And these are critical traits, more critical than intelligence or how much you know, experts say, when it comes to grades and other markers of success. Meditative breathing is one way to help kids develop a sense of calm and help them hone their attention, making them ready to learn. Another tactic used in MindUp involves lessons in brain anatomy, which kids seem to love and also give them a sense of control over their own minds.

Hawn’s program has been wildly successful on a number of fronts. Developed in conjunction with psychologists, educators and neuroscientists, it has been sanctioned by the Vancouver School Board and is spreading throughout the U.S. Similar efforts to train social and emotional skills have also shown promise. I take readers inside classrooms to show them exactly how these programs work. (See “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control,” by Ingrid Wickelgren. Listen to me talk about this article on National Public Radio’s OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook.)

Using Goldie Hawn's MindUP program, teachers weave brain anatomy into their lesson plan. Photo by Ingrid Wickelgren.

A second feature describes a brain-training exercise that researchers have discovered can raise a child’s IQ (see “Scientists Design Exercises that Make You Smarter,” by John Jonides, Priti Shah, Martin Buschkuehl and Susanne M. Jaeggi). It is the sort of exercise that might fit inside a school like Eaton Arrowsmith, but it is designed for the general population, children as well as adults. (Eaton Arrowsmith and similar brain training efforts designed for schoolchildren will be the topic of a later article.)

The third story in this section explores the dangers of stress to a child’s ability to learn. From test anxiety to family issues, stress affects all children from time to time—but children in poverty experience a particularly chronic and potent form of it. Stress may, in fact, be largely responsible for their academic troubles. Creating calm in the classroom would essentially improve kids’ brain function and enable all students to get much more out of school (see “Stress Relief Can Be the Key to Success in School,” by Clancy Blair).

Pink flowering plant with Mindful Smelling sign

In MindUP classes, children learn to be mindful through heightened sensory awareness--for instance, sniffing this plant and paying close attention to its scent. Photo by Ingrid Wickelgren.

Many people feel that school should be much more than stuffing a young mind with facts and instructions. It should help build brains that are ready and able to learn, and to cope with life. And to help our kids become the kind of grown-ups we want them to be. Educators and psychologists are only now realizing that this is possible.

Digital Dating

Online dating was not around when I was single, but the concept always seemed brilliant to me. Looking for dates systematically on your computer, after all, provides lots of options you can evaluate quickly without the hassle of dressing up and going out, dealing with social anxiety and spending a lot of time investigating dead ends (the unavailable or dramatically unsuitable). In theory, online dating seems like the match-making superhighway compared to the dirt road of romance we all used to travel. It’s no wonder that it has developed into a $1-billion industry—and will likely launch about a quarter of new romantic relationships this year, as we report in our cover story.

That said, “dating” in your PJs isn’t quite the paradise of efficiency that I had originally envisioned. Indeed, the psychology of online dating suggests this method is in some ways, less suited to finding a perfect partner. Among its inadequacies from a psychological standpoint: too many choices, an emphasis on side-by-side comparisons rather than evaluating individuals in depth, and a reliance, at least initially, on personal statistics or specific features such as hair color, rather than the chemistry of the connection. Through the lens of online dating, this article teaches us about the human mind as well as what really matters in a relationship. And for those who date online, or who want to do so, the article tells you how to do it right (see “Dating in a Digital World,” by Eli J. Finkel, Paul W. Eastwick, Benjamin R. Karney, Harry T. Reis and Susan Sprecher).

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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