Self-directed learning and brain development

via Kottke, from the New Yorker on November 17, 2008, a critique of the “brain plasticity” research published in the nineteen-nineties,” with emphasis added to highlight the relationship between self-directed learning and brain development:

This research said that, while the infant brain is, in part, the product of genes, that endowment is just the clay; after birth, it is “sculpted” by the child’s experience, the amount of stimulation he receives, above all in the first three years of life. That finding prompted many programs aimed at stimulating babies whose mothers, for whatever reason (often poverty), seemed likely to neglect them. Social workers drove off to homes deemed at risk, to play with the new baby.

But upper-middle-class parents—and marketers interested in them—also read about the brain-plasticity findings, and figured that, if some stimulation is good, more is better. (Hence Baby Einstein.) Later research has provided no support for this. The conclusion, in general, is that the average baby’s environment provides all the stimuli he or she needs.

Marano thinks that the infant-stimulation craze was a scandal. She accepts the idea of brain plasticity, but she believes that the sculpting goes on for many years past infancy and that its primary arena should be self-stimulation, as the child ventures out into the world. While Mother was driving the kid nuts with the eight-hundredth iteration of “This Little Piggy,” she should have been letting him play on his own.

Marano assembles her own arsenal of neurological research, guaranteed to scare the pants off any hovering parent. As children explore their environment by themselves—making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration—their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated, Marano says. “Dendrites sprout. Synapses form.” If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”

Such atrophy, Marano claims, may be undetectable in the early years, when overattentive parents are doing for the child what he should be doing on his own, but once he goes off to college the damage becomes obvious. […]

Schooled in obedience to authority, they will be poor custodians of democracy. Finally—and, again, she stresses this—their robotic behavior will threaten “American leadership in the global marketplace.”

I think that the New Yorker’s often lurid article goes overboard with broad simplifications related to the behavior problems of upper-middle class college students.  What I find interesting here is how “trial-and-error learning” is described as critical to childhood brain development.

I am currently exploring the concept of self-directed learning and will be posting more about the concept in the near future.

For now, here is an explanation of the self-directed learning concept, attributed to Hiemstra (1994):

Several things are known about self-directed learning: (a) individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor; (b) self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation; (c) self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others; (d) self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another; (e) self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities; (f) effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking; (g) some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

update: McClatchy reports on November 19, 2008:

Scientists have discovered how stress — in the form of emotional, mental or physical tension — physically reshapes the brain and causes long-lasting harm to humans and animals.

“Stress causes neurons (brain cells) to shrink or grow,” said Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. “The wear and tear on the body from lots of stress changes the nervous system.”

He said that stress is “particularly worrying in the developing brain, which appears to be programmed by early stressful experience.”

the studies included one with this finding (emphasis added):

Lauren Jones of the University of Washington in Seattle, found that rats subjected to 60 minutes of restraint and electric tail shocks lost their ability to decide which path in a maze to take to receive a reward.


Acocella, J. (2008, Nov 17). The Child Trap: The rise of overparenting. The New Yorker. Retrieved on November 16, 2008 from

Boyd, R.S. (2008, Nov 19). Stress warps brains and behavior, researchers say.  McClatchy Newspapers. Retrieved on November 19, 2008 from

Hiemstra, R. (1994). Self-directed learning. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed.), Oxford: Pergamon Press.  Retrieved on November 16, 2008 from

Related Posts:

The Internet can make you “smarter” if you learn how to use it

“adult learning theory” in the Kindergarten classroom

Virtual Unknowns: Poverty, Culture and Class on the Internet


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