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An interview with Dr. Jane Healy.

For a person committed to Waldorf education, reading Dr. Jane Healy's book Endangered Minds is a refreshing and encouraging experience. You are reading the work of a respected "mainstream" educator and scholar who knows little about Waldorf education and has never visited a Waldorf school. You are encountering, however, ideas that are at the very heart of the Waldorf movement. You read about the need to pace education to the development of the child and the danger of "too much too soon"; the importance of storytelling and creative play, and of the arts and handwork; the need to engage the child in an active hands-on way in learning; the critical place of role models in the child's learning to speak, listen, and think; and the insidious effects of television and video on the child.

Having just had this experience, I recently interviewed Dr. Healy. A native of Cleveland, Dr. Healy received her doctorate in educational psychology from Case Western Reserve University. A teacher, scholar and writer, she has studied child development -- with a special interest in neuropsychology (the development and functioning of the human brain) -- for the past thirty years. Wife of a middle school teacher, mother of three grown sons, she lives in Vail, Colorado where she continues to teach, conduct research and write. Dr. Healy also travels extensively, lecturing to groups of parents and teachers.

In 1988, Dr. Healy published Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Can't Think and What We Can Do About It. The book is a well-documented, insightful, often frightening study of what is happening to children in our culture, why it is happening, and what can be done about it.

Speaking of how she came to write the book, Dr. Healy says:

"In my teaching I was observing that children today are different from children of twenty years ago. It isn't just a matter of fashion or slang. It is something much more basic. On the one hand, they are informed and sophisticated about the world. But on the other, they are less able to concentrate, to listen and pay attention. They have trouble expressing themselves in speech and writing, in turning thoughts into coherent sentences. They are less able to stay focused on a task that does not immediately present itself as easy or interesting. I spoke to many other teachers and they were making the identical observations.

"At the same time I was coming across research about the brain indicating that the brain is an extremely plastic or malleable organ. Especially in the developmental years of infancy and childhood the brain is being formed by the environment and experience. The physical structure of the brain, the development of certain centers, the connections between individual brain cells and different parts of the brain, are being determined by what a child experiences. So I began to study the factors relatively new in our society that could be changing children's brains in this fundamental way."

Not surprisingly, Dr. Healy found that television and video are the main culprits in the decline of children's ability to pay attention, think, and express themselves. "A child watching television may be in a semi-trancelike state dominated by alpha-type brain waves. In this state active thought and active learning are not likely to occur. A habit of neural passivity is being formed," says Dr. Healy.

"At the same time the child is being overstimulated by the hyperfast format, the loud noises, the quick change of scene and zoom-ins, all of which are devices developed by the advertising industry to catch and hold a person's attention--even against his or her will.

Even so-called |educational' programs like Sesame Street use these techniques. Addicted to this overstimulation, the child may become unable to register, to pay attention to, or find interest in lower levels of stimulation. Reading a book, going for a walk, solving a problem become |boring.'"

"The content of many television programs, videos and video games are harmful in themselves," Dr. Healy continues, "but they are also harmful in that they take away from other necessary, constructive activities such as creative play and social interaction with peers and adults."

According to Dr. Healy, role models are extremely important in a child's development. "The child needs role models who speak well, think clearly, who are attentive, and who take a systematic approach to solving problems. Role models for good language use are especially crucial since clear, well-organized speech patterns formed in the early years are the foundation for later oral, thinking, writing and reading abilities."

Decreased contact with good role models then is another factor in the declining abilities of young people. The busy parents who entrust their child to the electronic babysitter, (and hence to cartoon characters and television personalities as role models) or to a caregiver whose own speech is substandard are endangering their child's later ability to speak, think and learn.

Our fast-paced life style is another culprit. Dr. Healy observes: "Today children are always busy, or are at least occupied. They are in school, or watching television, or taking this lesson or that lesson. They don't have time for creative play, for social interaction with their peers. They don't have time to be by themselves, to be quiet, to learn how to reflect, to |speak' to themselves."

Chemical pollutants in the air, water and food also play a role. PCBs, PBBs, pesticides, lead, etc. can affect the developing brain in utero and after birth. Recreational and prescription drugs, such as amphetamines, cocaine, tobacco and alcohol, used by a pregnant mother and/or by the growing child, also can harm neurological development. And Dr. Healy adds, "A major problem recognized for years but little publicized is that of Nutrasweet or aspartame. Some studies have shown that a sizable portion of the population may be sensitive to this artificial sweetener, and have headaches, memory loss, dizziness, and other neurological symptoms. No one knows exactly the effect Nutrasweet is having on the development of children's brains, but it is probably not good. And," she says with a sigh, "it is found in |everything'--soda pop, children's vitamins, chewing gum, you name it!"

Our schools, Dr. Healy maintains, are also playing a role in this crisis. "We are taking these kids who have missed out at home on getting the basic skills necessary to speaking, listening, paying attention, writing and thinking, and we put them in an academic pressure cooker. We try to rush them through, teaching them things that physiologically their brains are not ready for."

"At each stage of a child's growth the brain is ready to develop certain of its capacities and it needs the appropriate stimuli and experiences. If the child doesn't get the necessary stimulation the developing networks may suffer. On the other hand, if the child is exposed to something before the appropriate neural networks are ready, it may be forced to use other pans of the brain not so well suited. Some of the skill deficits we find in children may be the result of their being forced at an early age to learn things they weren't ready for."

"Moreover, we are using materials and methods which do not excite or challenge the children. Math workbooks filled with abstract number problems, phonics drills, history books that are lists of dates and facts do not elicit the enthusiasm and engagement necessary for meaningful learning."

Having described the symptoms of the "illness" and having isolated the causes, Dr. Healy also prescribes some remedies. Her recommendations for raising and educating children, many of which are familiar to Waldorf parents and teachers, include the following:

* Limit television and video watching, especially in the early years.

* Create for the child a slow-paced environment in which there is repetition, routine, and familiarity rather than constant novelty.

* Allow time also for reflection and thought.

* Provide opportunities for active, physical play. The development of physical concepts must precede dealing with abstract concepts. Include games--such as clapping games--which feature rhythm and beat. Children need to experience "beat" coming from within themselves.

* Provide the materials for creative active play, such as clay, painting supplies, blocks, puzzles, crafts materials and musical instruments. Encourage or model their use. But do not push. The child will know what it needs when it needs it and will be drawn to it. The brain centers for small-muscle coordination are close neighbors of those for attentiveness and learning.

* Talk to and with children. Even infants need to hear clear, proper speech. As they begin to talk, help them make the small incremental jumps to the next level of ability. Teach them nursery rhythms. Tell them stories. Discuss daily the events and discoveries of the day. Read to the child. (One study in England indicated that the best predictor of success in school was the amount of time spent listening to stories as a child!) Stories and books without pictures are especially good, since they stimulate the imagination and show that words can have independent reality.

* Work with the child on everyday tasks in the kitchen, workshop, and garden. Show how to organize and plan an activity, how to think through and solve a problem.

* Encourage children to ask questions, to think and reason about situations far from the one at hand. Encourage them to express their needs and feelings.

* Take them into nature. Let them observe and explore natural phenomena.

* Don't push intellectual or other skills if the child isn't ready. (When I mentioned friends who had been told to use word flash cards with their one-year-old, Dr. Healy exclaimed, "Oh heavens, is that still being done!")

When I asked Dr. Healy what kind of school she would create if given the opportunity. she replied:

"I would create a school where the curriculum reflects the real development of the child, where there is personally exciting hands-on learning around intellectually valuable material, which is flexible in meeting the needs of the children, which teaches them to listen attentively and with imagination, and to speak with clarity, structure and accuracy, which encourages them to ask probing questions, to challenge, to reason, and to hypothesize, and where the underlying assumption is that learning is exciting."

When I asked about prospects for this educational vision being accepted in North America she answered:

"Well, the good news is that teachers, parents and administrators are ready to listen. Everyone knows there is a crisis and that what we are doing is not working. Everyone is looking for an answer. The bad news is that there is a lot of entrenchment and resistance to real change. Teachers find it difficult to relinquish control. But change is necessary. The future of our culture depends on it."

As our conversation neared its end, I said, "You know, Dr. Healy, if you didn't exist, the Waldorf movement would have to invent you." "Yes," she replied with a laugh, "and if the Waldorf schools didn't exist, I might have to invent them. "

We were both right.

Excerpts from Endangered Minds by Dr. Jane Healy

Infants need manageable levels of sensory experience, along with good nutrition, freedom to explore the physical world, safety and security. Personal interaction with adults is critical. Programs for toddlers and older preschoolers should include problem-solving, listening skills, and oral language development along with such activities as interpreting pictures, active manipulation of physical materials, music, dance, art, experimenting with nature and the ever important emotional and social needs. (p. 266)

Children need to play in the real world, interacting with real objects and real people, not with electronic images of them. (There are) potential hazards in trying too hard to "make" intelligence or learning happen. Some of the skills deficits of today's children, in fact, may have resulted from academic demands that were wrong, either in content or in mode of presentation, for their level of development. Trying to "make" children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may result in mixed patterns of learning...(The) essence of functional plasticity is that any kind of learning--reading, math, spelling, handwriting, etc. may be accomplished by any of several systems.

Natural y we want children to plug each piece of learning into the best system for that particular job. If the right one isn't yet available or working smoothly, however, forcing may create a functional organization in which less adaptive, lower systems are trained to do the work. (p. 67)

It may be time to rethink priorities that have viewed creativity and imagination as the art (or music) teacher's responsibility. Mature creativity stems from an inquiring mind with solid foundations in the major intellectual, spiritual, artistic, or aesthetic domains of human achievement, not from gimmicky "right-brain" training. (p. 317)

Reprinted with permission from Renewal, A Journal for Waldorf Education, Vol. 1, No. 2. The 44-page journal, Renewal is sent twice annually to members of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Individual membership costs $30 per-year, from AWSNA, 3911 Bannister Rd., Fair Oaks, CA 95628.

Dr. Healy has also authored Your Child's Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence, and Is Your Bed Still There When You Close the Door? And Other Playful Pondering: How to Have Intelligent and Creative Conversations with Your Kids. Both are published by Doubleday.
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Title Annotation:includes excerpt; author of Endangered Minds
Author:Kotzsch, Ronald E.
Publication:Special Delivery
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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