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.

The Importance of Precision Hands

My main concern is the crucial time period when young children learn best how to think. The window of opportunity for preparing them for a lifetime of learning is early on, and the experience of learning must be designed to bolster the mind’s ability to learn and remember.

My guess is that the easiest way to deepen neural connections in a young person is to help them become actively involved in what they are learning, to help them develop precision hands as they practice thinking. To accomplish this we must show them how they can knowingly affect real time change by manipulating strings or instruments. Tactile manipulation insures the attention necessary for the student to be actively engaged in the learning.

But the activity should be a successful learning. The student should be most changed by a growing self confidence in their ability to learn hard things. The finer the appreciation of dextrous finger dances the more neural pathways are affected. Instrumental music and string figures are two immediate and crucially necessary early-on-learnings for all human children. The children will eventually persevere to succeed and often beyond their fondest dreams of success.

If however, you take away the ability to affect change, i.e. if there is no immediate visual update, no auditory or visual readout of success, the child is less engaged and will lose interest. And I believe the finer the motor control accomplished here the more engaged the child is, and the more neural pathways are positively affected.

It will be interesting to see if having more voice control on computers will eliminate the experience of tactile feedback. Once real-time dictation is perfected, will people still type? And who now writes by hand? Once voice commands are perfected, will people still want to touch the screen to manipulate their data? Never mind, I just answered my own question. Real-time dictation will probably be a big win.

And here is the crux. I believe we are a hand animal before we are a talking animal — I mean in the way we evolved this marvelous jelly in our crania. The issue is not so much how we manipulate our gadgets but ultimately how we learn to think and make sense of the world as we mature. If we are to educate and train the young effectively, we must interface with the parts which matter the most in best putting the thinking apparatus together.

I think the hands are denigrated in our children’s maturation process to our detriment. My father told me that the way to success was to have a job where one washed one’s hands before one set to work (as in a surgeon) rather than after (as in a mason). What I found as I taught string figures to those falling behind in their academics was that they blossomed when they found their precision hands. That is what I said to myself when I tried to characterize the imaginative and learning processes they had developed in my class. The complex beginnings of string figures had given them precision hands.

I went to investigate and taught sixth graders and dealt with those who were having trouble there, and found again that they blossomed when they found their precision hands. My children and grandchildren are off the charts in their abilities and their academics, not because of genetics so much (I believe) but because they learned string figures and the violin early on.

In Italy I have a granddaughter, now nearly three, and I hope to help develop her precision digits. I plan to teach her how to manipulate a circle of string. I will pay most attention to how she is organizing her thoughts. I believe she will be laying down a circuitry of some magnificence in her cranium. And I plan to report on the our progress.

Kids Doubt They Can Learn the Hard Stuff

Kids doubt they can learn the hard stuff. I remember being afraid I couldn’t learn how to read. I was pretty young and you didn’t have to learn to read until you went to school, but the older kids were saying how hard it was and I became afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it. I was in my threes.

So my father let me read the paper with him. He spoke the words while pointing to them on the page and let me recite his phrase or sentence as he slowly moved his fingers along the words. And I quickly learned. Feed a curiosity or asking to know and wonders can occur at any age, but the beginning is best done early on.

So you can learn by doing, saying, while making your finger go over the page. I was awkward and stumbling at first, but with concentration and a bit of effort, even false enthusiasm, I worked to get to a mastery of the physical activity of reading.

String figures are a physically based learning of sequential information. It is somewhat intimidating and difficult in the beginning; but afterwards, when your hands are swift and sure at the forming of the figure, one is often asked by a friend to teach them how to make a figure.

All my students became teachers of their families and friends. I had to work to keep up with strings enough for the students. I crocheted strings at first because I knew of no other way ro provide thedm. Then I found weldable plastic braids of string which came in large spools so I could just measure and cut, then weld with a candle.

So what is the lesson I learned from figuring out how to teach string figures to young people in the public education system?

Success is contagious once one breaks the mode of thought that something is difficult to the point of impossible. Nothing is impossible to a young, eager, confident learner. What this means is that the most fragile part of development occurs at the threshold. Hence a creche-like atmosphere is most important. Collusion, not competition is necessary. The teacher learns along with the student. String figures allow students to show their teachers new ideas and inventions. Do not underestimate the inventive inquisitiveness of a 7-year-old.

To Raise a Generation of Competence

So now Obama has another chance and so do we. He must look far into the future to do what is right and so do we. And that future is another generation of students in our public schools better prepared to project our nation’s strength. Let’s face it. If we do not begin to raise a generation of competence we will be buried in the marketplace of the world. We have the raw material at our disposal to create a generation of genius. We merely have to make sure we understand that what we are doing will insure our achieving such a goal. It begins in the first grade all through the country. It has to be economically feasible and simple to understand in its implementation. Strings don’t cost much. Videos of string figures are easy to bring to the class room. Teachers will be ecstatic at the tractable nature of their classrooms after students learn to interact while learning string figures. They will be able to relax in their anxieties as students come to them eager to be helped in their learning which they are confident they can achieve. I know this sounds like a fantasy, but I come to this discussion after a long period of teaching and watching students prosper while learning string figures. I began in high school and worked my way down to three- and four-year-olds. They all learned string figures and they all became efficient learners of whatever else they turned their minds to. They all blossomed before my eyes as they began to trust their abilities to explore their worlds. I know some of my colleagues have said that Montessori did this long before, but not in the entrenched system of public education. So here it is. Start every first grade class with a regular time period for learning string figures and talking about what school is all about. Talking about how each person can learn the hardest things by practicing simple beginnings and helping each other over the rough spots. Talking about how good it feels to learn how to do something which seems tricky and hard to do. Talking about the road ahead for the rest of their lives. I adduce a crude, simple graphic to show what I feel is the result of such an experience compared to the stunted aspirations of so many of our young people in our education system of today.

The Hands of Children Playing With String Will Lead Us Into the Future

Man is a hand animal. The hands led the proto-human in becoming human. The hands should lead the young modern human to learn how best to develop his/her unique capabilities to prepare for a full and rich life. The modern person must be capable of constantly learning in order to meet the bewildering rate of change in the digital age. The hands can lead every individual down a fruitful path.

The public education system is in need of a revolution. In my old age looking back at my career as an educator my dream for the future is that young people will focus on maximizing their potential and thus have a better life for themselves and their children. Education is the vehicle for their betterment (according to a study by Georgetown University). Between late 2007 and early 2012 there was a net loss of 5,800,000 jobs for people with a high school education or less, basically the same number of jobs for people who had some college, and there was a gain of 2,200,000 for people who had graduated college or had higher degrees. The lesson is plain: become well educated or be condemned to penury and struggle.

There is a disconnect, however, between today’s educational system and the students. I worked in public education for many years and have seen this tragic reality up close and personal. Children have succeeded in slowing down their collective learning, with the quiet collusion of the staff. The system is by and large dysfunctional. I believe strongly that it is too Herculean an effort to modify the educational delivery system in any timely fashion, and I am constantly reinforced in this opinion by the flow of news surrounding the failures of the system. It will require a revolutionary approach to the problem to break through the protected interests and enable the children themselves to take advantage of whatever learning system they find in front of them.

My vehicle for accomplishing this miracle is the early study of string figures in an institutional setting beginning in the first grade. I taught a math class comprised exclusively of studying string figures in La Guardia High School for 20 years and was constantly amazed at how much the students benefited from this learning. I became interested in replicating this successful learning at earlier and earlier ages and have become convinced that the elementary school level is the proper introduction to their study.

The basis for all high-order, cognitive thinking in humans is founded upon two unique attributes in our physiology: A brain large and complex enough for symbolic abstraction in language and a hand capable enough for fine manipulation.

In short, the development of the human mind — increased size in grey matter, wired in a manner such for a predisposition towards logical, adaptive thinking — is not merely correlated with the development of man’s most intricate manipulator, but is in fact caused by it. We became smart because our hands allowed us to be so. The hand, capable of so much, taught the mind to think of the world as something that could be manipulated, and thus to care about the world and learn of it. Because we have the ability to change our environment, we pay attention to it in ways we wouldn’t otherwise do.

A child has to feel and understand he or she has grown into a competency that works. Telling them they’ve done it doesn’t work. Having them take tests to satisfy a management concern over the efficacy of the teachers doesn’t work. They must internalize a respect of self for becoming able to show their talents, talents they then will expect from themselves.

The intense interest level of all the young people I have introduced to string figures insures a successful learning. What is most important is the seeming difficulty of forming complex figures. Not one of my students failed to perform far above their expectations in all my teaching of string figures. This is a unique opportunity to shape a young person’s feelings about their intellectual abilities and about their capacity to learn. This opportunity should not be wasted nor underestimated.

There is a joy of discovery that each of my students has talked to me about. They are the ones I’ve relied upon to expand the sense of making string figures so it is as rich a system as I can make it. It is they who constantly surprised me with new methods of imagining figures, and it is for them that I am telling you what we jointly developed as a self-learning tool.

This tool teaches you how to learn and develop that focused, recording sense of mind that the pre-literate existence demanded as a discipline in order to survive. These societies had tools of training the mind to remember, and training it to order and develop the sense of these memories. They emphasized that one should become a repository of knowledge, an elder who remembers.

The systematic learning I and my students developed is based on only five figures to be learned thoroughly. Then a step by step investigation into introducing differences in the figures’ manufacture delight and convince the young person that they can indeed accomplish learning difficult and complex things. This experience of success was total in all my classes. I never had a student who failed to develop a sense of pride and accomplishment, and a growing realization that they could learn anything, that nothing was too hard to master.

The hands of children playing with string will lead us into the future. I witnessed for far too long the waste of human potential in this great country of ours. We must harness the potential of our children now or we shall become a has-been, a mere shell of what we were, and sometimes still are. We must invest our best efforts in our children.

String Figures and Early Higher Cognitive Learning

A recent article in Science magazine discussed the windows of learning which every person experiences early in their life. Development of the senses begins before birth and the language window begins in infancy and closes early in childhood. That is why a second language is so hard to learn if one begins much past nine or 10 years of age. My special interest as a teacher is the window of higher cognition which begins early in childhood and gradually diminishes by adolescence.

It is surprising that so much of the plasticity and ease of learning occurs during childhood, and I think that a major mistake is made by the educational establishment in NOT taking advantage of this opportunity to develop and enrich one’s learning skills early on. It is much harder to develop these skills as one nears puberty and beyond. It is a mistake to underestimate the capacity of a young child to handle complex higher cognition learning.

So how should a school system go about incorporating a strategy to take full advantage of this opportunity. I have a simple plan to jump start this process at minimal cost and disruption of the current schools.

i have been involved with teaching string figures to children and teenagers for more than thirty years and have come to some hard and fast conclusions.

• The hands (especially intricate finger patternings) are a remarkably useful tool for the flowering of the brain’s potential.

• Children and teenagers who participate in learning activities using the hands (playing instruments, learning string figures, etc.) do much better in learning all other subject matters than those who have no such experience. I taught in Music and Art high school in New York City and the instrumentalists tended to be the best all round students.

• It is crucial that this training start early and then continue throughout the time period when the human animal is predilected to learn (say four to 24).

• I believe the brain’s explosive growth in the evolution of humans was first led by the hands and only later by the throat, tongue, larynx speech acquisition.

• It is a sadness that modern society tends to devalue the hands insofar as what an educated person takes pride in as accomplishment. My father put it best, “The man who washes his hands before he works makes more than one who washes his hands after.”

The first five years of formal schooling should be for preparing the basic systemic neuronal capacities. Then comes an extended time for learning.

This period of time is necessary for all the complex modalities of the adult human to become fully developed. It is crucial that a there be a concentrated effort in learning how to learn and learning the richness of man’s cultural heritage. We all like to be smart, but learning new things can look to be too hard unless one has a history of successful learning to give one the courage to persevere into new challenging spheres. So it is crucial that we try to impart a truly understood accomplishment in learning early on. Children should learn instruments and make music. Children should learn string figures.

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.