Abby is six and dressed head to toe in pink with light-up glitter Sketchers, still fresh with shoe store fragrance, on her feet for her first day of first grade. Finally, she is allowed to walk herself to the bathroom and eat lunch with the big kids in the cafeteria. In class, Abby’s teacher hands each student two primary colored folders: either blue, yellow, or red. The primary colors are completely separate and unique; they cannot be blended with anything to make the others. This idea of separation also carries into the materials inside the two folders. The first folder is for math, learning how to handle the combination of numbers, and the second is for English, the first steps towards understanding words, then sentences, and then whole stories and chapter books.
This separation of disciplines from a very young age is not only common but relatively standard in schools across the country. Clearly this system works: children go in, learn one subject, learn another, go home, read, do a few math problems, and repeat the next day. However, this system leaves little room for the messiness of learning, for the neon pinks and lime greens, for the experiences that cannot be neatly cataloged but shape the course of children’s development.
Luckily, our Lower School program at Episcopal celebrates this “messiness of learning.” You need not look too far to see Pre-K tending to their gardens while learning about butterfly migration to Mexico, all while dancing in rain puddles and creating imaginary worlds and vivid stories with their friends. This sort of holistic approach to learning comes naturally to the smallest of learners and should be embraced as they continue to grow and develop.
At home, this messiness manifests when Abby is baking apple pie with her grandmother, throwing a ball with her little sister, practicing the piano, coloring on the walls of her room, or digging for dinosaur bones in her backyard. Abby is learning and her brain is following suit.
These sorts of experiences, at home or at school, show the world functioning in interdisciplinary ways. When you bake you have to keep sight of a long term goal while following sometimes tedious instructions and understanding the chemistry of mixed ingredients. When you throw a ball you have to think about the angle of your arm so it does not fly straight into the ground, and when you play the piano you have to be able to read the music and hit the right notes simultaneously. Just as they are in life, subjects in school are innately connected and these connections between different academic disciplines in everyday life make the idea of interdisciplinary learning in the classroom seem less daunting or radical.
Here at Episcopal, students like Abby practice this interdisciplinary style of thought everyday. Through project based learning, students are exposed to real world situations and are asked to engage with their environments. On the Coach Dupe trail, in the art room, and while programming robots: Episcopal encourages students to explore new ideas that wind like rabbit holes into lands of imagination.
Specifically, music and math are two subjects that, when purposefully connected, fit this philosophy quite nicely. As shown in an experiment by Johannes Sarnthein, listening to music for ten minutes can greatly increase brain activation in the prefrontal cortex, which is located at the very front of the brain. The cortex houses what are called executive functioning skills, which include spatial temporal reasoning, planning, decision making, motivation, and goal setting. Students who excel in math are typically adept in processes like pattern recognition, which not only relies on executive functioning skills, but is also present in music comprehension.
This innate connection is an example of the reinforcement of skills in education. The way the brain works on a basic level is that when we learn something and have it reinforced in some way, it will be processed to form neural pathways within the brain. All of these pathways add up to create a network of constantly growing and changing knowledge.
As stated in "The Optimum Context for Learning; Drawing on Neuroscience to Inform Best Practice in the Classroom" by Bettina Hohnen and Tara Murphy, “an immature brain is not necessarily one with fewer neurons; rather, it is one with fewer connections between neurons.” Even though our brains stop growing after the age of five, according to Daniel Pink, as we grow the number of connections in our brains dwarfs the number of neurons one million times over. Just as everyone eventually stops getting taller without having experienced everything or knowing everything there is to know, our brains stop getting bigger without ceasing to learn and further develop.
For current parents, a dramatic shift in the education system during your child’s time in school is unlikely, but there are ways to nurture the messiness of learning at home to augment the more traditional practices of the classroom. The next time you’re baking a cake together or rearranging the furniture in the living room, help your child see the many different academic disciplines that are intersecting. Encouraging kids to try new activities and experience new things, particularly ones that might be scary or uncomfortable at first, can help impart in kids a drive and love of learning that is applicable all through school and will help them learn and develop necessary skills throughout their lives.
Hallie Sternberg has attended Episcopal since Kindergarten. She will graduate with Honors in May, 2019. In addition to her involvement with the Thesis program, Hallie is an avid participant in the Episcopal theatre and choir programs, a member of National Honors Society, Co-Editor in Chief of Troubadour (Episcopal’s Literary Magazine), a Writing Fellow, Math Tutor, and President of the French Club. Hallie was invited to present on a panel at the Popular Culture Association Conference this spring. After graduation, Hallie hopes to go on to major in Cognitive Science.