This winter, my family was fortunate enough to join the New Canaan Winter Club and we had our first moments there Thanksgiving week. My daughter Charlotte, who had only skated a few times, stepped on the ice Tuesday. She took three or four steps—no gliding—and asked me how to actually skate. After a 2-minute lesson about angles and edges, she went off and started skating on her own. She and her sister Julia went down to the ice every day of the holiday weekend, and on Saturday they asked me to come with them. After passing a puck with Julia for a while, Charlotte asked me to play tag with her. Suddenly, she was zooming all over the ice as if she had been skating for years rather than days.
As I have reflected on her skating, I made several connections to education at Country School. First is practice. We get better with practice. That is why we have homework and why we revisit concepts we have studied previously. When talking about curriculum, teachers sometimes refer to I-R-M – Introducing a subject, then spending time Reinforcing it, and finally expecting Mastery of it. That process can take days or years depending on the complexity of the concept, and at its root is repetition and practice. Charlotte got better at skating from Tuesday to Saturday by spending hours on the ice Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
The second connection, related to the first, is in the brain. After the first day at the Winter Club, Charlotte lunged around the house pushing off in her socks as if she were skating. All the while, she was talking to me about what she was thinking: push off diagonally, glide on the skate, bring the other leg through. I could see her working and training her brain, and I watched learning take place as she glided around the kitchen. Many studies show how active the brain is while learning a new activity. Several parts of the brain work together to store the information—physical, intellectual, or otherwise— needed to complete the task. As one improves and learns, the brain becomes less active on that task. and is ready for the next one. One of our jobs as a school is to keep students’ brains in the healthiest active state. Too much information and overly complex concepts, and the brain actually shuts down as the body transitions to a more protective state, not dissimilar to ‘fight or flight.’ Not enough new material, and the brain is not as active as it could be. We strive for just the right amount of intellectual challenge for our students so that their brains remain as active as possible. Educators call this the “zone of proximal development.”
Finally, I was reminded how important the childhood years are for learning. Children’s brains are much more able to stretch in new directions than adult brains. Scientifically, children have more neuroplasticity than adults and are able to learn more quickly. I grew up playing pond hockey but never played organized hockey—until this winter when I decided to join the men’s house league at the Winter Club! Like Charlotte, I realized quickly during the first shift of my first game how much I need to improve my skating to play competitively. That Saturday, playing tag with Charlotte and actually having to work to stay away from a kid who had been skating for only four days, the old adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ took on renewed meaning, as did my knowledge about kids’ neuroplasticity. Nevertheless, I will practice, and I will keep my brain active as I work to improve. Of course, if we both practice the same amount, I know it is only a matter of time before I won’t be able to catch Charlotte when I am “it.”