Brains Are Changed Through Early Use of the Hands

An interesting snippet was published in the New Scientist January 19-25, 2013 concerning how early training of musicians changes the wiring of their brains. The point of the article is that the early training (beginning before the age of 7) thickens the corpus callosum, the bridge between the halves of the brain. This early time period is crucial for this effect, and those musicians starting later showed little or no difference in the size of their corpus callosum from that of any non-musician controls.

The obvious conclusion is that the musicians who started earlier had a clear advantage over their later blooming competition for greatness. Of course musical genius comes from more than just a thickened bridge in the brain, but MRI scans showed conclusively that there was a substantial increase in the wiring and connectivity between the two halves of the brain for those who started their musical training early. This I believe is the smoking gun we need to help us understand how to go about radically improving the public schools for our students.

The article went on to say that the corpus callosum is more receptive to alterations in its connective pattern at this crucial early age, and that any coordinated hand activity involving speed and synchronization of both hands should be similarly effective in increasing the brain’s connections between its two halves.

This fits rather nicely within my feeling that the early introduction of string figures in the public school system should radically improve the learning ability of all students who are exposed to their in-depth study. And I believe this training (exposure) should be begun even earlier than the first grade at age 6.
I have begun to produce educational materials as ebooks for the ipad. With their videos and detailed graphics anyone can learn string figures. The following are now available in itunes with more to follow shortly.

why string figures

the diamond system of figures

the ten men system of figures

Via <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-r-murphy/brains-are-changed-throug_b_2559641.html”>Huffington Post Education – Brains Are Changed Through Early Use of the Hands</a>

The Cooperation of Children While Learning

So how do we motivate the young to learn? One way is by giving them presents, ones they have to figure out how to use. A recent article in the African Globe tells of Ethiopian children who are starved of many things. And one of them is education and a sense of a larger world than their village.

What I get out of this experience is that children will cooperate to learn something they really want to know, and that for all their best learning, it takes all of them to help each other figure things out.

Cooperative learning activities should be made available.

  • Origami
  • String figures
  • Games of thought: go, wari, chess
  • Simple musical instruments (keyboard especially)

Each activity should be introduced to the entire class by the teacher, or visiting expert, who can demonstrate what can be accomplished, with a special attention paid to the hand’s dance necessary. The children learn best by exploring with their hands

The strategy games are for learning to play and compete, helping each other learn to get better.

I feel that string figures are essential within the mix, but I don’t think the true worth of string figures is the complex beauty one can discover within them. I think it is the sheer playfulness of the activity which attracts young people, and their parents if truth were told. It is like magic.

I think it is also the ease it brings to social interaction. The first class of the day should serve as sort of a homeroom time when things are taken care of and everyone practices quietly with each other, games or string figures or origami. Some time should be set aside for music, learning to perform, and learning how to be an audience.

A quiet learning interaction should prevail, with quiet voices allowed.

There should also be group lessons, which are teacher driven, and students should be taught how to sit quietly and listen.

There should be deliberate practicing of how to discuss things while in a group.

There should be deliberate practicing of presenting reports to the group, in twos and threes in the beginning.

There should be string figure teams, each given different systems to learn (diamonds, ten men, Native American nets)

These teams should report periodically on their progress as a group to learn the system and drmonstrate what they mean.

The idea is to reinforce curiosity with the drive necessary to learn anything, and to remove the barrier of self doubt in the young learner’s mind.

A teacher should have this class for the entire time the students remain in the school. This continuity is crucial. A steady adult presence in the beginning will soon bring the hum of activity all teachers love to hear.

And the mastery of making complex string figures, forming origami figures, and developing strategies in games enables the students. It invests them with an ability to focus, to practice, to remember. The ability of the young human animal to learn is astounding. It is a crime to keep imaginations in lockstep.

My concentration would be on string figures in the beginning. The students can help each other, and practice together, while learning well the first figure of the diamond system. The most difficult part of string figures is learning the first figures, and there are only three of them. And fairly soon everyone will helping everyone else, often sharing performance shortcuts for making the various hand movements.

It is very hard indeed not to be able to explain concepts using visual and tactile string figures — despite each individual’s minute but substantive difference in mental wiring. Individual study within an established, open-ended framework — latticework — is a workable solution to the one-size-fits-all nature of universal education. Instead of slotting each square to the square hole and then worrying about the circles, establish a goal and let the students slot themselves accordingly.

That is the model of my string figure introduction to the school experience, say kindergarten or the first grade. The main objective in the beginning should be to have the children tackle a general problem that they all want to do, and that they will persist in working on until they succeed in their endeavors.

I have spoken before about the manner in which all human children learn, and that the intelligent help we as a nation could expect from all the young being well educated is crucial if this nation is to keep its place in the world.

And I believe that the problem of teaching all children worldwide is a problem that can be attacked successfully with a relatively small expenditure; especially when compared to the cost of the entire world’s ugly wars.

All children want to know.

A Different Kind of String Theory

We have a crisis in our education system. Sure, we’ve heard it before, but it needs to be stated again, particularly at a time when the United States is finding it difficult to compete in the very fields — math, science, technology — that are shaping the global economy. Consider that American high school students graduate with just a 32 percent proficiency rate in math, according to a Harvard study — a figure that puts America behind 31 other countries, including Japan, Korea, Switzerland and Canada.

I propose a solution: Let’s revolutionize our schools by teaching our children how to do string figures.

I came upon the idea of using string figures — not just Cat’s Cradle or Jacob’s Ladder, but thousands of figures from many sources and cultures — as an educational tool while teaching math for more than 20 years at New York’s LaGuardia High School (yes, the Fame school devoted to the arts, but an outstanding academic institution in its own right). Eventually, I was given the option of devoting one entire class to strings and was constantly amazed at how much the students benefited from learning this folk-art tradition (I’m a Native American myself) that can bedazzle the eye and challenge the mind. I became interested in replicating this educational approach with younger students and am convinced that the elementary school level is the proper one for introducing string figures — the younger the mind, the more open-minded the student is.

Why string figures? Because man is a hand animal. Humans became smart because our hands allowed us to develop and employ our intelligence. Therefore, the hands should lead the young modern human to learn how best to develop their unique capabilities to prepare for a full and rich life. It’s all about forging a connection between brain and hand — you create and discern pattern from your handiwork, so to speak. And you can take that understanding of pattern and apply it in any number of ways, especially in the technical realm. To know how to manipulate string is to know how to solve a complex mathematical equation. Or create a computer program. Or build a bridge.

But what do strings specifically teach in terms of school-age math? It’s actually rather obvious: The figures allow students to wrap their minds around the sort of formulas that legions of mediocre math teachers have struggled to explain. Algebra isn’t about “A squared plus B squared equals C squared.” It’s about representation of pattern. With string figures, patterns are made real: One movement of one hand — or even one finger — creates a change in the pattern. Children see the logic because they literally see it — in the interwoven strings that become works of art unto themselves (I always make sure to provide strings of many different colors to students, so as to add to the visual impact).

Moreover, children don’t just see — they feel pride in what they’ve created. It’s a sense of accomplishment that can never be derived from simply telling students they’ve done a good job — or, even worse, by relying on a testing system that has only fostered bitterness and cynicism from students and teachers alike. Children must internalize a respect of self.

How do I know all this is true? Not one of my students failed to perform far above their expectations in all my teaching of string figures. Moreover, there is a joy of discovery that each of my students has talked to me about. It is they who constantly surprised me with new methods of imagining figures. This curriculum represents a unique opportunity to shape a young person’s feelings about their intellectual abilities and about their capacity to learn.

And it’s a curriculum that is surprisingly simple in scope, based on only five figures. The students begin by learning the basic patterns thoroughly. From there, they investigate introducing differences into the figures — the subtle manipulations of fingers and hands that can lead to complex and daringly different results. Over time, they also learn by teaching — not just teaching those within the classroom about a variation they’ve stumbled upon, but also teaching those outside the classroom about this brave new vocabulary they now speak. By winning “converts,” they reinforce the lessons they’ve learned.

In the end, every student comes to realize that nothing is too hard to master. I have seen the results as the years have passed: Most of my students — a group that, by the way, included a large number from low-income families — went on to college. Today, their ranks include architects, actors, musicians and even math teachers. I’m proudest when I see them with a string still wrapped around their wrist, waiting to be manipulated into a new figure.