Brains Like Sponges? An Old Analogy With New Meaning

A traditionally expressed adage when talking about the young is that their brains are like sponges.” Modern pedagogy, however, chafes at the notion that students are simply vessels to be filled. Furthermore, Warren-Walker School’s faculty is always attentive to designing student-led lessons that “disrupt” the tired, less effective, teacher-centered instruction of the past.

Understandably, most would agree that a comparison of the human brain to the type of sponge that sits at a kitchen sink (even if naturally sourced) is a shallow one. Neuroscience has revealed that our brains are much more complex and undergo important changes throughout a lifetime, adapting and strengthening in response to emotions and experiences (Whitman, G & I. Kelleher, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, 2016). Given these revelations, perhaps the sea sponge would be a more appropriate analogy for the human brain than the common kitchen sponge!

Consider this description of the sea sponge by Sally Leys of the University of Alberta: “(Sea) sponges only get as big as the flow that feeds them...they are able to self-organize and adapt in this way. They develop the environment in which they live and to which they’ve become accustomed to over the millions of years of their evolution. That versatility is the kind of thing that makes them successful.” (Willis, K., Sea sponge study offers clues to how life adapts to harsh environments, 2018). Sea sponges have evolved and thrived in their environments through:

  • Adaptation responding to external factors
  • Filtration transporting nutrients and waste much like the human kidney and bloodstream 
  • Pruning shedding nerves that aren’t being used

The surprising complexity and adaptability of the sea sponge is certainly reminiscent of our own human brains - with evidence for both gleaned from recent research. Beyond adaptation, filtration, and pruning, essential self-regulating skills that humans use every day to accomplish just about everything start in the brain. They help us plan, organize, make decisions, shift between situations or thoughts, control our emotions and impulsivity, and learn from past mistakes. This is called “Executive Function”. Children are not born with these skills but they are developed over time. Executive Function, the foundation upon which academic and social success is built, is broken down into four general skills:

  • Attention focusing it, sustaining it, and shifting it when necessary
  • Impulse Control the ability to not always do or say the first thing that comes to mind
  • Working Memory the ability to hold and use multiple thoughts in your mind
  • Planning being able to plan and carry out a sequence of actions or achieve a goal or solve a problem, and adjusting those plans as necessary

All four stages of Executive Function are planned to be finely tuned and challenging through the interdisciplinary instruction at WWS. Examples include dramatic play to develop Working Memory and Impulse Control at the PK level, project-based learning in 4th Grade (California Mission Project) and 5th Grade (Science/Cells Unit) for Attention and Planning, and Middle School’s Life Skills curriculum (binders, planners, spaced practice) for Working Memory and Planning.

Students “spend more than 13,000 hours of their developing brain’s time in the presence of teachers...their brains will be altered by the experiences they have in school. As educators, we must - ethically, morally, and opportunistically - pay attention to how we ask students to spend (that) time with us” (Eric Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind 2nd Edition, 2005). In the earliest years, a brain produces almost twice as many synapses as it will need. By age two, the number of synapses a toddler has is similar to that of an adult, and by age three, the child has twice as many synapses as an adult. This large number is stable throughout the first ten years, but by adolescence about half of these synapses have been discarded as “pruned”. Warren-Walker School is keenly aware of the magnitude of this responsibility and our mission statement asserts that successful learner outcomes will be achieved by formulating “multifaceted educational experiences that foster a lifetime love of learning, breadth of knowledge, and mastery of skills….” 

Warren-Walker School’s commitment to Brain-Based Learning has spanned decades and continues to drive professional growth, curriculum development, and daily classroom routines. Staying abreast of rapid advances in brain research is no easy feat, but given recent findings, both in neuroscience and marine biology, maybe at least we can encourage the analogy that our young students’ brains are, in fact, like sponges - sea sponges!