Can We Make Our Kids Smarter?

My generation was the last one to learn to use a slide rule in school. Today that skill is totally obsolete. So is the ability to identify the Soviet Socialist Republics on a map, the ability to write an operation in FORTAN, and the ability to drive a car with a standard transmission.

Half the skills that we’re teaching our children right now will be obsolete within their lifetimes. The trouble is that we have no idea which half. In a world of exponential advances in science and technology, we can’t predict what skills they’ll need. The best we can do is teach them to be better learners so that they can leap from one technological wave to the next.

That means that rather than focusing on improving the classroom, we should be devoting resources to improving the brains students bring into the classroom by enhancing each student’s neural capacities and motivation for lifelong learning.

Less than two decades ago this concept would have been inconceivable. We used to think that brain anatomy (and therefore learning capacity) was fixed at birth. But recent breakthroughs in the neuroscience of learning show that the opposite is true.

Our brains are not static but plastic. They are highly modifiable throughout life based on your experiences. Neuroplasticity research shows that the brain changes its very structure with each different activity it performs, perfecting its circuits so it is better suited to the task at hand.

This means that the neural capacities that form the building blocks for learning — attention and focus, memory, prediction and modeling, processing speed, spatial skills, and executive functioning — can be improved throughout life through training. If any of these neural capacities is enhanced, you’d see significant improvements in a person’s ability to understand and master new situations.

Gone are the days when you could equip students with slide rules and a core of knowledge and skills and expect them to achieve greatness. Our children already inhabit a world where new game platforms and killer apps appear and are surpassed in dizzying profusion and speed. They are already adapting to the dynamics of the 21st century. But we can help them adapt more methodically and systematically by focusing our attention on improving their capacity to learn throughout their lives.

Just as new knowledge and understanding are revolutionizing the way we communicate, trade, or practice medicine, so too must it transform the way we learn. For students, that revolution is already well under way, but it’s happening outside their schools. We owe it to them to equip them with all the capabilities they’ll need to thrive in the limitless world beyond the classroom.