Fire Together, Wire Together: Early School Experience

Posted on Feb 11, 2010 in Featured, Learning, Parenting | 3 comments

This is Part V of the series Kindergarten Considerations. In this series I am discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. I promise to share my thoughts on some of our specific options in Part VI. I can’t promise to tell you what we decide because I still have no idea.

I’ve been struggling a lot with some of the ideas that came up in my last post for this series. There’s a part of me that wants not to take the idea of registering Rain for Kindergarten so seriously. There’s a part of me that acknowledges that while public school isn’t the ideal learning environment in my opinion, in most cases it isn’t malevolent either. Many (the majority of?) public school teachers are incredibly dedicated and genuinely interested in their students’ success. I did well in public school myself. It is hard not to sound terribly elitist when claiming that public school isn’t good enough for our family. I can imagine the unspoken retort: “It was good enough for all of us and we all turned out fine. Get over yourself.”

But I have to balance all of this with the undeniable fact that we are indeed shaped by our experiences.

There’s a saying in psychology that neurons that fire together, wire together. Keep in mind that this is a layman’s description (I’m no psychologist) but what this means is that when we do something like painting or math for instance, neurons in certain centres of our brain fire (release neurotransmitters into the synaptic space between neurons) and activate the neurons next to them to fire as well in a sort of chain reaction. Sometimes these are called pathways. Imagine that the more you practice painting or math, the more times you walk down the pathway, you wear in the trail. It gets easier and easier to walk that pathway: you can put down your machete, you’re no longer stumbling and losing your way. Eventually these neurons that fire together, wire together. They create a strong network that fires in unison. This process happens in everything we do, from practicing a skill to overindulging in emotions like anger, and it actually shapes our brains. Unused pathways whither away. Frequently travelled pathways become like super-highways.

Melodie from Breastfeeding Moms Unite left a comment on a recent post in this series that really startled me into thinking about this topic in a new way. I had all of the info to make this leap myself but it wasn’t until I read her comment that it all clicked.

I know that I am a direct product of my education. I am very concrete and literal, and have a need to get things Right. It’s not something I want to pass on to my kids.

I’ve always thought that I did well in school because my brain happens to be organized in the way that the school system is organized. My linear, chronological brain is perfectly in line with a linear, chronological, orderly school system, right? My husband with his right-brain, lateral, spatial thinking is one of the ones who struggles in this set up, right? This is partly true. But wait a minute, according to “neurons that fire together, wire together,” according to Dr. Siegel’s TED talk on how over-emphasis on academics actually changes the architecture of the brain, I am actually a product of our school system.

Yes, I probably had an advantage in the beginning because I do have a preference for linear thinking. But over the years, the school system wore that pathway deeper and deeper into my brain’s structure. I see myself in Melodie’s quote above. I think sheepishly of some of my rigidness, my perfectionism, my inability to go with the flow.

I think back to the enrichment program in grade 4 when we did a unit of art appreciation on Marc Chagall and in the end painted our own autobiographical Chagall impression. I think of the other skills I have that might have been encouraged in school but seem to be sitting on the back burner, unpracticed and whithering: art, creativity, problem solving, lateral thinking. Or if I got really outrageous what about working with my hands: knitting, gardening, cooking?

Marc Chagall Painting

Marc Chagall Painting

Autobiographical Chagall Imitation

Autobiographical Chagall Imitation

They say that to be an expert at something, to be really good, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. You know, you have to really wire those violin-playing, soccer-ball-kicking, figure-drawing neurons together. Think of the hours and hours I put in at school every day, thinking just one way. No wonder my brain works that way.

So when it comes to Rain and I think of his amazing story-telling ability, his abilities to work with his hands building with lego, drawing, cooking, using tools in dad’s workshop, his imagination, his love of making art despite the fact that at 4.5 he still doesn’t draw recognizable shapes, the thought of putting his brain in a little box that only allows him to pace in circles just makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

Imagine a girl who is very tactile, who learns by doing. Imagine this girl learning math by counting and trading coloured buttons with friends or by sorting them in baskets. Now imagine giving her worksheets, sitting her at desk and telling her to do math. This 7 year old child might decide that math is boring and resist learning math for the rest of her life. I don’t mean that she’ll never learn it, but what if she never learns to appreciate it because it was introduced (and likely continually taught) in such a rigid way?

Imagine a boy in grade one learning to read according to the latest educational methods. Imagine though that he is not quite developmentally ready to learn to read. But the curriculum says he must accomplish certain skills and tasks by the end of the year. There are some schools of thought (including Waldorf) that believe that teaching reading should be delayed by a few years to ensure developmental readiness in the child. I have seen this with my own eyes in my sister’s children and some of their homeschooling friends. These kids struggled with reading at 5 and 6 so the subject was dropped for a few years. When they took reading up again at 10, they learned quickly and within months were reading at the same level as their peers. So imagine if you will a boy in school who is struggling with reading. Perhaps he is even made to read aloud in class. He may be embarrassed and humiliated. He may struggle with consistently getting poor marks and with being punished for not finishing his work in the time allotted. He may decide that he is not good at reading and that he shouldn’t try anymore. He may then avoid reading anything as much as he possibly can for the rest of his schools days.

These are major formative experiences.

Yes, young children are resilient and adaptive, but Kindergarten and early primary school are their first introductions to formal learning. Their experience in those early grades is going to be paramount in determining how they approach learning over the course of their lives. As Marilyn and Kendra said in their comments on my Kindergarten Won’t Ruin Them post, why not try to get it right on the first go? Why not make their first experiences fun and exciting and empowering?! Why not put them in an environment that will fire them up?

I’ve started reading John Holt’s book Teach Your Own and I read this sentence about five times because it moved me so much:

Time and youth cannot be regained, so perhaps, ultimately, the real crisis in education may be one of disillusionment among graduates rather than poor performance among current students.

Seriously, read it again. This sentence spoke to the very heart of my feelings about school: my disillusionment with the system and my need to save my children from that disillusionment, the lost time and youth. It isn’t so much that our kids will suffer in school or will perform poorly in school. They will be fine. We were all fine. But why would you want to settle for fine?


  1. For me, it’s not so much about settling for fine as believing that perfect doesn’t exist. I am doing my best for my kids every day, but I also know that I fall short in many ways that I know, and probably more that I don’t even know. My own mother would probably list her parental shortcomings differently than I would list her parental shortcomings, and I bet the same will be true for my daughter and me.

    That’s why I am settling for ‘fine’ – because it’s easier, yes. But also because I don’t think I can craft a totally ideal childhood for my kids, and I believe that even in doing so I would be making trade-offs and compromises that would only be visible later. My kids are fed and clothed and loved and given pretty much every advantage. I am doing my best for them in the best way I know how. Beyond that, I abdicate control to the Universe and my children themselves, and do my best to course correct as needed.

    But I write this with a daughter who is very much ready for school, and very much eager to attend. If that weren’t the case I would likely have a very different opinion for my family.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Catching the Spirit =-.
    Twitter: AmberStrocel

  2. Wow! This series continues to challenge me. Now of course some of the way I am may be pre-wired, but I remember my lowest mark in school was a C in art. I really wanted to be good at art. My friends were, but I just didn’t get it. I had a hard time just letting go and letting the creative juices flow. I excelled in my academic courses, and I was good at music (although music and math are closely related) but anything to do with drawing, shaping, painting, etc, I sucked at. At least I appreciated it though. I just couldn’t produce my own. Now even though my artistic talent is at about a grade 2 level, I do crafts with my kids all the time. We make playdough together, I put out the easel and paints and crayons and felt pens, and I encourage them to get messy. Maybe they are already pre-wired to suck at art too. But if I can get them to feel good about what they produce maybe their art-making neurons that fire together will wire together. It’s a tough call though, determining what is pre-wired and what isn’t. Maybe that’s why making the decision how to school one’s kids is so hard. I really like hearing from the people who went to public school but were also “homeschooled.” I think a lot of parents just hand their kids over to the education system and leave it up to the teachers until they graduate. The kids whose moms and dads are actively involved in educating them alongside the school system are the kids who get the best of both worlds, I think.
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..The Things I Didn’t Expect When I Was Expecting =-.
    Twitter: bfmom

  3. I just found this comic strip on another blog after leaving yours. Had to share it as it is so timely and perfect!
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..The Things I Didn’t Expect When I Was Expecting =-.
    Twitter: bfmom

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