how’s this for a title: prefrontal cortexes, the 4th grade slump and writing

July 1, 2011

I can never resist a web link about creativity. Clicked on this one recently, about a creativity experiment with undergrads based on thinking like a kid. What interested me more than the experiment was this analysis of it:

From The Frontal Cortex:

Why does age make us less mature? Why accounts for the infamous 4th grade slump in creativity? One possibility is that we trade away the ingenuity of our youth for executive function. As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we’re able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination. We’re so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all.

I had an experience during my teaching days that illuminated that 4th grade slump for me. One year, we had a program in which pairs of teachers visited classes throughout our elementary school, facilitating an activity based on a famous artist. Usually I taught third grade, but for two days I got to teach art in every grade, from kindergarten through sixth.

It was the second grade classrooms that stunned me.

There were two of them in our school, and they were filled with artists. The kids jumped into our Matisse project with glee. They made bold lines, they used lots of color. They didn’t ask questions; they just sprawled across their pages and poured themselves on to them. And then they cried for us teachers to come see what each of them had created.

I couldn’t believe that the kids were just a year younger than my third graders. Already, the third grade kids were doubtful when it came to art. They asked lots of questions. They dawdled. They crumpled papers. They hid them. Most of the kids still seemed to enjoy art once they got going, but they didn’t leap in, with joy and without reservation, as the second graders had. It wasn’t just my third grade class; the other third grade at the school was the same way. (The school’s kindergarten and first graders were avid artists as well. But as a third grade teacher, it was those second graders that captivated me. How could so much creative drive get lost in the course of a year?)

If I’d just watched a single second grader work, and a single third grader, I wouldn’t have realized the magnitude of the difference. It was the palpable change in creative energy between the second grade and the third grade classrooms that was impossible not to notice.

And the fourth graders? That was the end of it all. Many of those kids had pretty much given up on art, and simply made half-hearted scrawls on the page. There were still a handful of artists in the room, but it wasn’t a roomful of artists. It was a little heartbreaking.

All of this got me thinking about one of my theories about taking dictation from kids. If you’re newer to this blog, you may have missed my posts about dictation. I’m not talking about dictation in the Charlotte Mason sense, but dictation in the secretarial sense. In other words, writing down what kids want to say. You can read much more in my series of posts, The Dictation Project. Or here it is in a nutshell: Dictation is a fantastic, underused tool for helping kids learn to write. By simply transcribing  for them for a few years, you can help them develop their writing voices while they simultaneously learn the mechanics of writing–slowly, organically and painlessly.

Dictation is especially effective, I think, because it helps kids express themselves on paper while they’re still young and, well, expressive. The creative energy that bubbled in those kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms isn’t limited to art. The kids speak with the same unbounded joy and imagination. All we adults have to do is transcribe those words to see the vivid, original writer already living within the child appear on the page.

Here’s the sad irony: if we wait for kids to become proficient writers to translate their unique voices to the page, it might be too late. Because guess how long it takes to develop from being a beginning writer to becoming a fluent one? One who doesn’t have to think much about letter formation, spelling and grammar, who can focus on the thoughts at hand? I don’t have a scientific, proven answer, but experience tells me that it tends to take three or four years. Might happen faster for homeschoolers who start later, and surely it happens faster and slower for different individuals, but I’d say that three or four years is a pretty good average.

Calculate that. If kids start writing at five or six, when will they become fluent writers who can fairly easily transcribe what they want to say? That’s right. Their writing skills will come together right in time for the 4th grade slump. Right when, quite possibly, their prefrontal cortexes are becoming distracted with new functions, and beginning to censor the imagination.

If you don’t think this is an issue, pick up any book for adults who want to write. There will nearly always be a chapter on voice. A chapter trying to show adult writers how to find their own unique styles. How to put their personalities on the page. Such a chapter is almost always there because voice is so important in writing. It’s a big part of what engages a reader. Yet many of us make it to adulthood without any sense of our voices as writers. It isn’t something cultivated in traditional English classes.

But young kids already have voices! Quirky, expressive voices—each and every one of them! They just don’t yet have the skills to put those words to the page at any length. Dictation helps young writers discover their voices and develop them, long before the 4th grade slump hits. Which makes it much easier to hold on those voices as their brains move on to new skills.

My youngest is nine. If he went to school, he’d be a fourth grader this fall. Which gives me pause. This kid has an endless imagination; the notion that his prefrontal cortex might start getting sidetracked by “impulse control and focused attention” gives me pangs. I’d always thought that dwindling creativity had more to do with peer pressure than anything else, and that homeschooling might help prevent it. I still believe that, to a degree. But I suppose I can no more stop T’s brain from changing than I can stop the sea from sending in waves.

At least his writing voice is intact. The kid is a storyteller, and no future crank of a teacher with a red pen will ever drive that out of him. Phew.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

sheila July 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

Just last night my son exclaimed “I feel like I am going to explode I have so many stories in my head!” and continued to express his worry that he would “lose” some of them because he can’t get them all written down. He is 9 as well and will be starting “4th grade” next year at home. I used to write his stories for him, but I must admit to not doing this as much now that he is writing more. The truth is, though, the he can’t write enough yet. What he does get down is great…I am amazed to see that he has a style and voice developing. As you said, I hate to imagine any of his creativity diminishing next year! Maybe we will spend our quality time together this summer writing his stories together. He has still wanted me to, I am glad for this post to get me back on track with that. I too don’t want to “lose” any of his wonderful words.

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patricia July 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm

How fantastic that your son has so much that he wants to say! And that he’s both willing to try writing them himself and willing to dictate them to you. Once kids are at that point with writing, there’s no stopping them.

I think that once kids start writing for themselves, we can forget that they might enjoy us continuing to write for them, at least sometimes. It doesn’t work that way in schools, so we don’t think about it as an option. I’m on a mission to help people rethink that! After all, once kids learn to read, they still enjoy being read to. And often we read books that are on a higher level than they might tackle on their own. Writing is the same way. Even if kids are learning to write on their own, with our help they can convey thoughts that are much more complicated and lengthy than they may be able to transcribe on their own.

I hope you do find time to write his stories together this summer. My nine-year-old still loves dictating to me, and it’s often the first thing he picks when I offer to do something with him.

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Patrick Broderick July 3, 2011 at 8:55 am

I’m going to try it, there’s still hope for Gr who’s going into the third grade. I have been having my girls read over the summer and write three good sentences about what they’ve read. As a matter of fact, I dictated for O last week when she was struggling to put what she read down on paper and I was surprised how well it went. I did have her re-write it afterwards so she’d get the benefit of writing, spelling and placing the punctuation. Do you recommend them re-writing the same sentences afterwards like that?

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patricia July 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Having them write after they’ve dictated can be helpful, since at that point they’re finished formulating their ideas, so they can put their attention to the mechanics. Better than trying to do that while forming their ideas at the same time.

Then again, I try to avoid forcing kids to write anything that they don’t want to write. I suppose it’s good for them to get practice, but it doesn’t help them enjoy writing. Here’s a fantastic article called How To Create Nonreaders by Alfie Kohn, which talks about both reading and writing, and how schools and parents can take all the joy out of those activities. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/nonreaders.htm

Instead, I’d try to think of ways to encourage writing that kids want to do. Maybe they’d like writing letters or emails to a favorite auntie or cousin this summer. 😉 (I guarantee a response.) Or try making a mailbox at home, in which they write to you, and you respond. Maybe they could ask you questions about your childhood–you have lots of good stories!–and then you can write questions back to them. Or make a family journal which you all write in, whenever you feel like it. Maybe you can take turns writing questions at the top of a page, and responding secretly. Start with questions like What’s one of your favorite places? Or What do you like to do when you’re alone?It can be fun to have a place where a family writes together–but that never gets talked about, so it becomes like a special secret.

Or if you want them to write about what they’ve read, give them a reason for doing it. When they’ve written about a book they’ve read, maybe you write back and tell them about a book you loved as a kid. See if you can get a dialogue going, rather than a “report”.

If you pay attention, other writing opportunities will probably come up too!

And don’t think you can’t take dictation from your older two at times. I did it with H. when he was writing his college application essays! It can be helpful, even for older kids, to walk around and dictate, while someone else does the transcribing.

You’re doing a great job, P-Cake. Keep going!

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Susan July 4, 2011 at 10:37 am

Clementine took a creative writing class this spring and the teacher scolded one of the moms for taking dictation. I keep thinking of forwarding a link to your dictation project to the teacher, but part of me just thinks there is no way she will ever get it. She just believes that writing only counts if it comes through the child’s hand. I don’t have to convert her because I can just walk away. But maybe I should try–it would be so great if all the “creative writing” teachers of the world valued the creativity instead of the physical act of writing.

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patricia July 5, 2011 at 7:40 am

It surprises me that so many teachers seem to take the short view of writing. They don’t seem to step back and consider what, ultimately, it means to write well. They just teach the way they were taught.

I’m guessing that most of those teachers don’t write much themselves. If they did, they’d value the process more.

I agree with you: I’ll bet that teacher wouldn’t be converted by my posts. Teachers–and you know I used to be one of them!–can be hard to re-teach. (I was lucky enough to have my kids as re-teachers.)

Glad you could walk away!

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