Tag Archives: Learning

The Nutcracker – or how experiences get under our skin

Walking along the shopping street near us we saw several man-high Nutcracker figures in the shop windows as Christmas decorations. They looked exactly as the Nutcracker costume used in the ballet we attended two years ago at the Budapest Opera House. Which is why my 11-year-old daughter started humming away on Tjajkovskij’s Nutcracker on our way home. She hummed the part when the rodents come out at night and try to steal the Nutcracker from the little girl. I remember that made a big impression on her.

Yet, my daughter neither knew which tune she was singing or where it came from. It was her brain that picked up one of its imprinted associations and had a little run about it.

That’s just how we learn – by association. It is a use it or lose it game in children and the younger they are, the more circuits the brain is capable of building up. Brain research in the past decade has clearly delivered its message: the more circuits the child builds up, the faster and broader its thinking goes, and the smarter the child becomes.

By age five the least advantaged children have been exposed to 30 million less words compared to children in the highest socioeconomic groups in Northern America. Consequently, the development of their language skills will differ. The PISA test results reflect this trend: in Australia a difference, equivalent to two-and-a-half years of schooling, separates the scores of students in the highest and lowest socio-economic groups.

But not only does the environment affect children’s brains and learning – it also gets under their skin. In fact, it modifies their genes in ways that we are only beginning to understand.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi

I still remember a book my father gave me called The Double Helix, describing the discovery of the structure of our DNA. It was the story of Watson and Crick who were awarded the Nobel Prize for that discovery. I was fascinated: everything was coded in our genes and if only humanity got around to brake the code we would know all about human disease and what our futures might entail.

Through the human genome project the code was indeed described almost down to the last gene, just so that we would discover that things are not that simple. Genes can be turned on and off in a number of ways, interacting with each other and the environment – a phenomenon called epigenetics.

Through the chemical process of methylation, our DNA becomes modified as a result of environmental exposure. This means that molecules bind to the DNA, affecting its structure and the way it “acts” within the cell environment. The discovery of epigenetic processes marks a new era of genetics, as significant as the description of the double helix.

An example of what happens is demonstrated in a study of adults with posttraumatic stress disorder where those who have been exposed to childhood maltreatment showed specific epigenetic modifications to their DNA, very dissimilar to persons traumatised later in life. A recent study of twins suggests that not even twins share the same epigenetic programming: some pairs were already different in their methylation patterns at birth, some were similar, but became more different, while some followed the expected pattern of further increasing similarities over time.

Although the pathways through which epigenetic programming happens are not fully understood, if genes required for brain development do not activate as they should, the effects will be visible. MRI scans of the brains of children who have been exposed to poverty show less white and grey matter as well as less hippocampal volumes. The hippocampus is involved in associative memory and is very stress sensitive.

Now here comes the Christmas gift: effects of poverty on the hippocampus were mediated by parental care. Supportiveness decreased the effect, whereas hostility increased it. Thus, caring parents will always make a difference for their children in the face of adversity.

In terms of public policy this means that all children should be exposed to a loving and supportive environment, adequate stimulation, and a little Tjajkovskij to fend off delinquency

All kinds of minds

Do you remember your favourite teacher? Most people do. What made them so exceptional? Although studies trying to find out why some teachers are great based on their personality, subject matter, or disciplinary style have mostly failed, there seems to be one thing that counts.

Your favourite teacher is someone who understood your kind of mind, that is, your needs as a learner, and attended to those needs as well as to you as a person. In other words, a great teacher is a teacher who facilitates student-centred learning.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi 

In his book A mind a time that should be read by all of those even thinking about educating young people, Mel Levine outlines eight different neurodevelopmental systems that affect our learning. It is easy enough to see what the (1) attention control and (2) memory systems entail. The (3) language system includes both the production and understanding of language as well as phonemic awareness – a really important skill for reading, entailing knowing what kind of sounds different letters and letter combinations make.

The (4) spatial ordering system, the one where my particular challenge sits, has to do with left and right, discriminating those 3D-patterns, and finding your way. The (5) sequential ordering system, deals with chains of information, helping us know what comes after what when solving an equation, writing as essay, or cooking. It also has to do with time management: I am sure you know someone who just never gets it right when it comes to estimating what time things will take.

The (6) motor system is not only important for writing, doing sports, and preventing accidents due to clumsiness. Recent psychological research on infants has demonstrated that motor function is directly related to 12-month-olds’ learning. When infants were taught to put balls in a certain bucket they were able to predict what the demonstrator was going to do with the balls to a much higher extent than infants who were only allowed to watch what the researchers did, without possibility for own motor experience. 

The (7) higher thinking system has to do with abstract thinking (what mass, democracy, etc entail), logical problem-solving, as well as critical and creative thinking. Surprise time: this is my favourite!

Finally, the (8) social thinking system helps us get by in managing the unwritten social rules of a classroom, a workplace, and relationships in general. Kids who are weaker in this domain often suffer at school, where “the social spotlights are glaring”, as Mel Levine put it.

Now what school system truly has the capability to attend to students’ needs based on their particular types of minds? Not many, but in his book Disrupting class Clayton Christensen outlines how using IT at schools could actually promote true student-centred teaching. By using computer software that addresses the strengths of that particular student’s kind of mind, all children could actually reach their potential and develop their less apt neurodevelopmental systems.

Because of my spatial ordering system challenge I had a hard time with anatomy at med school. But by using my stern attention, (then!) excellent memory, and well-equipped sequential ordering and higher thinking systems, I created ways to learn. I even used my not so excellent fine motor skills to draw the slices of a human body (sorry – it’s an occupational hazard to think that’s not strange) to get through the exams. I also had the judgement not to become a radiologist – my grandmother put in her 50 odd-years there so we’re still good as a family.

So send a warm thought to your once favourite teacher. And remember to appreciate when your child comes home with something like the individually formulated assignment note I found under a pair of shoes today, when I – I have to admit – cleaned the house: “Brilliant work Fanni (…) I very much liked the beautiful amethyst gemstone whereby you discussed its chemical composition, uses, places to find, and value. Possibly you could have provided detail on the hardness of amethyst (Mohs scale) and what shapes its crystals grow in, too.”

I am reading into this that my daughter needs some encouragement on using her spatial sequencing system. Ouch! Luckily, her dad can see those crystals in his head, no problem.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, photographing her brother who obviously has no problems in his spatial sequencing abilities. Not my genes in work!