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.