Friday, January 13, 2012

Growing Dendrites!

Amazingly, learning is a coordination of cellular connections.  Instead of commanding "Pick up your pencil!" we could as easily be commanding "Coordinate your axons and dendrites! Pronto!"
To pick up a pencil on command, I must process the language coming into my brain as auditory sensations, usually combined with the visual cues of the speaker's body language.  Hopefully, the words fall into the order they were spoken and the visual input does not compete with the auditory input.  If my visual-auditory processing works smoothly then, my memory must provide an image of myself picking up a pencil, so that I send out the correct motor impulses to coordinate a smooth motor response. Simple? 
What about emotion in the mix? If I am afraid or anxious, chances are, the neurotransmitters bathing my synapses shut down everything not necessary for survival, further complicating my response.   If I have trouble understanding/processing the language (think trying to learn a second  language - and your level of anxiety?), or if the visual information contradicts the auditory, or if my image of the action to take is not correct (hide the pencil, pick up the pen), or if my motor neurons are not coordinating a smooth movement, I experience "resistance" in my wiring. I may complete the task successfully, but may be expending much more energy (more neurons firing out of sync), than if the tasks were accurate and automatic.  

I've been thinking about this lately, as parents contact me with stories of their children's struggles.  With high-stakes testing in fashion, students with learning differences spend hours in the "boot camp" of rote learning tasks, in the hopes of improving their skills---growing and coordinating dendrites.   As classroom teachers, we need so many things to be in place for our students in order to make sense of the experience.  Skills needed to succeed in a classroom environment require an amazing amount of coordinated dendrites!  As students, we need to feel safe enough to learn by making a series of "mistakes," without fear and anxiety blocking the processes.  Tasks must be "interesting" or "challenging" and not overwhelming or frightening.  We all benefit from tasks being engaging or rewarding, but using a child's interests is IMPERATIVE if one is trying to remediate skills.