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RATS! One of the Reasons Homeschooling Works So Well

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One of the Reasons

Homeschooling Works So Well

By Linda Dobson
Adapted from The Ultimate Book of Homeschooling Ideas: 500+ Fun and Creative Learning Activities

The good news is that there is now enough research on learning to fill a set of encyclopedias many times over. The bad news is most of it is ignored by those who determine what goes on in public schools. The better news is that you can use it when you bring your child(ren) home for homeschooling.

Brief Background on the Brain

rat homeschooling

This sure gives us something to chew on.

Brains are made up of two kinds of cells: nerve cells (neurons), with branches called dendrites, and glial cells. Basically, the glial cells nourish the billions of neurons that busily create and maintain connections for thinking. This is accomplished when a neuron’s dendrites pick up messages from other neurons and send them to the cell’s body, from which the message travels further still to the axon, the neuron’s out box. When leaving the out box, the message must “jump” across a gap (synapse) to be picked up by another neuron’s dendrites. This feat happens billions of times each day as we participate in mental activity.

Enter new experiences for a child. These new experiences create new connections, changing the structure of dendrites and synapses to create new paths down which messages may travel. A child can learn new skills as the brain becomes more flexible now that alternative paths to the old destinations are developing. Ah, so experience is a key to learning? Let’s find out.

Schooling Rats – and Homeschooling Ones

This has been one of my favorite research results since I discovered it over a decade ago in Dr. Jane Healy’s Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It (Touchstone, 1990). Dr. Healy reports on an experiment in which all rats received the same food and water, but some lived in “impoverished” cages while others enjoyed an “enriched” environment – larger cages, more friends, and lots of toys that kept them curious and active. Researchers found that although the impoverished rats weighed more, their brains were inferior in two aspects significant to learning.

“First,” explains Dr. Healy, “there are many more glial support cells in the enriched brains, and second, the neurons themselves have more dendrite spines and thus, presumably, more synapses.” In addition, the enriched rats “appear to pick up more and different information during exploration as a result of their lively curiosity.”

Although this research does not translate directly to humans, we can still stretch our imaginations and think of the impoverished environment as a bad school where life experience is limited and the enriched environment as a good school offering more opportunity for life experiences.

And then there are the rats that grew up “in the wild” outside the lab, exposed “to the real challenges of living in a free environment,” explains Dr. Healy, “finding food, defending themselves, and moving about when and where they wish.” Rather than being in school, these rats participated in activities that are part of real life in a rat community. These rats are, in comparison, the “homeschooling” rats.

Researchers have found that the “enriched” environment isn’t as stimulating to the rats’ brains as is the natural one, from which come rats that “tend to have larger and heavier cortexes than do those raised in cages.” Corteses, Dr. Healy explains in her book, are “the control panels for processinig information at three levels: receiving sensory stimuli, organizing them into meaningful patterns so that we can make sense out of our world, and associating patterns to develop abstract types of learning and thinking.”

This sure gives us something to chew on.

What Homeschoolers and Those Who Study Rats Know

  • Experience provides young children with the “files” of information they need for learning, thinking, reasoning, and making decisions in the future.
  • Cramming things into children’s heads under even the best artificial circumstances isn’t as efficient as allowing time for natural processes to unfold.
  • Given sufficient time, children quench natural curiosity that results in learning.
  • Rather than wait for the possibility that a child will receive sufficient, stimulating experience, you as parent can provide that experience with activities that become part of your homeschooling lifestyle.

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