Dogs, Neuroscience and STEM Education

In my lifetime I have been the human for six wonderful dogs. I was just six years old when I got my first one. I wanted my pet to be the best, so I enrolled in an obedience class for Coalie, named for his coat color, as well as several of my subsequent companions. One of the most important things I learned in those classes was that the better-trained dogs required the fewest words. Indeed, if you attend sheepherding or agility trials, you will rarely hear a command spoken, and yet such animals display a large repertoire of learned skills. These days when I see someone verbally instructing their pet, I laugh, usually not out loud, because I know that dogs respond to gestures and body language and not so much to words.

As a play advocate, I’ve recently become aware of the breakthroughs happening in the neuroscience and developmental evolution. I’ve studied how intelligence progresses from fish to primates and have learned how the smarts of my dear Coalie are not that far off from humans. Indeed, for the first few years, kids and dogs are relatively closely matched. That means that their learning is primarily through gesture, body language, and movement.

The use of fMRI has given us the ability to see living brains in action and allowed a much more actuate view of learning. For example, it was a cannon of psychology that the role of the cerebellum was the center of motor control. While that is still mostly true, the cerebellum is far more complex and important. Take this fact for example. The cerebellum contains 69 billion neurons while the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that we tend to think of as where all of our smarts resides, only contains 16 billion neurons.

It is also interesting to note that initially, the cerebellum communicates primarily with only the right half of the cerebral cortex. That’s the side that deals mostly with imagination, empathy, and intuition. The left half deals with facts, numbers, and letters are ignored during the early years. What do these findings tell us about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education for young children?

The genius of Gary Larson captured this idea perfectly in this Far Side cartoon. Notice that we laugh at the truth of this when the subject is dogs, but the situation would be much the same if we were talking about children. In a very real way, trying to have kids learn STEM ideas verbally is a fool’s errand. Knowing this the developers of most STEM education focus on hands-on projects — all well and good. But wait, what does neuroscience say about the efficacy of that approach?

First, hands-on is good, but body-on is many times better. Early childhood learning progress best during full body engagement, i.e., play. For it is during play that the feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphin flood the brain and significantly increase the rate of neuron myelination which marks the structural changes in the brain that results in learning.

Second, both dogs and kids already know many of the basic principles of STEM. There are interesting studies that show that babies act surprised when they see something that violates fundamental physics. Or take the fact that if you load one glass with 5 M&M’s and another with eight, kids will invariably select the glass with the most candy showing that they understand the notion of quantity. So, what does this tell us about “teaching” STEM to young children?

To start with they are smarter and know more than we assume. Kids also “understand” intuitively and not intellectually. Maria Montessori understood this, and it is the basis of her educational system. Unfortunately, the teaching methods that embody her insights have become viewed by many as sacrosanct and held to dogmatically rather than being a wellspring of creativity.

The other issue with Montessori and much of STEM education is that there is a single known outcome to the materials presented to children. Whereas, what is far more critical is fostering curiosity, creativity, and experimentation. Kids are very quick to figure out that adults have provided a lesson to be learned and that real play is not on the agenda. Soon kids just look for the embedded lesson rather than being free to explore.

What dogs, kids and the new findings in science teach us is that learning is best when it is full-body, active, fun, and open-ended. Children at very young ages can learn the underlying STEM information best when it is presented in a form that integrates well with those areas of the brain that are in the process of development.

Here’s a taste of the science:

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

The Association Between Childhood Motor and Cognitive Development

From Movement to Thought: The Development of Executive Function

Optimizing Early Brain and Motor Development Through Movement

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