What School Could Be, Should Be, And Almost Never Is: Steve Hughes (Transcript)

Steve Hughes at TEDxPragueED

Full text of pediatric neuropsychologist Steve Hughes’ talk: What School Could Be, Should Be, And Almost Never Is at TEDxPragueED conference.


Steve Hughes – Pediatric neuropsychologist

Good evening!

Tonight I’m going to talk about how you build a brain. And I’m also going to talk about the role that education may or may not play in that.

But before I start, I’d like you to please take a moment. Turn to someone next to you and tell them please: what grades you got on your Maturità.

Okay, there has to be enough time, you’d have to have already finished it.

You know you can stop. Now I want you to stop. We’re losing control of the audience, okay.

Now the reason I asked you to do that is I wanted to remind you of how important that was at one point in your life. And of course, you did the work necessary to presumably get good grades on your Maturità. And then you went off to university.

And you realize that all that work that you had done to get those good marks on the Maturità had contributed nothing to your ability to do well at university.

Because doing well at university requires an entirely different set of skills than getting good marks on a test. And in fact, doing well at your career also has nothing to do with that.

And you may have found once you began your career that also had fairly little to do with what you’d studied at University.

In fact, the things that we do in school, in conventional school, typically contribute very little to what we need to do, what we need to know, or the capabilities that we need to be successful at life.

You don’t need good marks to do well in the world!

What you need is simple. What you need is, you need this! You need this. Yeah, that’s what you need. Well thank you!

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Good night. Yeah, thank you for that! Okay no yeah!

This is what you need. You need to have a brain — a brain that works well.

And so you’re probably familiar with this kind of an image of the brain. Maybe you’ve seen an image like this one.

Have you ever seen an image like this? Yeah, these are the connections within the brain, right.

Okay so let me show you another picture of the brain. What you’re looking at here is actually how the brain matures over from early childhood until adulthood! And the part that’s turning blue that’s brain that’s maturing, and it’s becoming functional.

And it is through the process of experiences in the environment, experiences in the real world, that the brain builds itself. In fact, you probably know because you’re a sophisticated audience that brain development is experience-dependent. You understand what I mean by that – experience dependent.

Not all experiences contribute to the development of the brain. To begin to talk about the kinds of experiences that do help build the brain, I have to show you one more brain picture.

Yeah, what is that? This is your brain’s version of your body. Okay how your brain is constructed, the architecture of your brain has a dramatic over-representation of the hands.

The reason that you have a brain is so that your body can interact, it can live in the world. In fact, the reason we evolved the brain was because well frankly anything that moves, that needs to eat, or can be eaten needs to figure out what it’s going to do. In order to survive, it needs to know, ‘Should I move over there to get that food source?’ ‘Should I go over there to avoid being eaten?’ or, ‘Should I do something else?’

In fact, the purpose of the brain is to control behavior. And the brain is controlling the behavior of that guy. That’s how it works.

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And for the brain to build itself that guy needs to engage in a certain kind of activity. That guy needs to engage in a certain kind of activity – this kind of activity.

That guy needs to engage in:

  • Motivated,
  • Effortful,
  • Repeated,
  • Trial-and-error,
  • Experimental,
  • Interactions with the environment.

And that’s how the brain builds itself, and in fact it’s the only way the brain builds itself.

In fact, if you ever wanted to learn a musical instrument, you had to care enough about learning that musical instrument to stay motivated, to apply the effort, to engage in it, yeah, repeat it over and over, trial and error, experimental interactions with the environment.

Because when we do this kind of activity, it’s like barbells for the brain. The brain is a muscle kind of. And like building any muscle, you’ve got to exercise it and you’ve got to push it, as it builds muscle. And that’s how you build a brain.

TEDx audience is a sophisticated group of people. If you have children you’re thinking about the kinds of activities. You have an instinct for it. In fact, you’re thinking about the kinds of activities that you can have your child do, to help them engage in that kind of motivated effort, for repeated trial and error, experimental interaction with the environment.

And so you do things like say. ‘Yeah! It’s a good idea. Participate in the science fair!’ If you do that kind of thing in the Czech Republic. Or get involved in doing independent projects. You know you want them to find things that light them up. And maybe you’ll sample different kinds of experiences and you’ll say, ‘Yeah, you know my kid is into this kind of thing and we’re helping him or her experience that kind of stuff!’

So we like things like science fair. Motivation! Engagement! Working hard at loving problems, you know.

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A lot of countries you have things like robot competitions. You have robot competitions in the Czech Republic? Yeah okay. So some people like to build robots. Some people like to write the software. And so it helps people find out how to do things, like work together, to work collaboratively toward a shared goal, to practice being good winners or being good losers. You have to practice with those real-world applications of problem-solving.

Or maybe we sent our children to summer camp! Because we know that there’s a whole set of activities that they’re going to learn. They’re going to learn social skills by interacting with other children in a semi-structured social environment, right. I mean these are the things they need to learn. And they only learn them when they get to have these experiences. They only build these capabilities as a consequence of practicing them.

And even sport, you know. Some children are drawn to sports, some children are drawn to art. And as sophisticated thoughtful parents thinking developmentally you know that you want to line them up with these kinds of activities.

But here’s an example from a Montessori classroom. Here’s another example of ‘Motivated, effortful, trial-and-error, experimental interactions’ with an object of Montessori called the ‘Pink tower’. He’s learning to differentiate by size. This is a sensorial enrichment activity. He’s three and a half. He doesn’t really distinguish size as well.

But when he’s doing this kind of activity, he’s developing that skill, and he’s drawn to it, he’s driven to do it. And we don’t have time to watch the whole thing here. But if we did see in about two and a half minutes, he figures it out! And then we could watch him do it again and he does it in 30 seconds! Because he’s developed some cognitive capacity as a consequence of practicing this activity.

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