The Science of Growing Old: Why Homeschooling is Good for Your Brain

Anna Dusseau | 11th March 2020

What did Helen Mirren say about ageing, again? ‘You only have two options in life: die young or get old. There is nothing else.’ Ouch, Helen! Surely not? Although I suppose what she means is that we are all, inevitably, getting older because – well – there’s actually no alternative, right? Wrong. Or at least, wrong if you’re Yoko Ono who believes that ‘some people are old at 18 and some people are young at 90. Time is a concept that humans created.’ You know what? I can buy that. In fact, that’s a pretty cool philosophy to live by and makes me almost, for a split second, think Yoko might be sort of okay after all, before I remember that she split up the Beatles. Or that’s what people say and Lord knows (or at the very least, Taylor Swift does) that this is what really matters. Old Yoko looks good for 87 though, right? I don’t remember the last time I donned a baker boy cap with denim shorts and heels (never?) but it seems to – dare I say – suit her? She looks better and, certainly, a lot happier than she did back in the ‘Imagine’ video of 1971. Wowza! I’ll have what she’s having, even if it does come with a pinch of crazy.

As it turns out, maybe I already am. William Leith’s review of The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well by Daniel Levitin was juicy enough to have me ordering my copy straight away. I mean, I’m a total sucker for this kind of stuff (yogi mama Hilaria Baldwin had me, for almost a year, wrapped round her little finger as I dutifully stirred pots of turmeric-infused quinoa while standing in tree pose) but this read was, I must admit, far more convincing than my usual make-me-18-again self-help book of choice. And the crux of Leith’s article was this: ‘eat like a scientist, sleep like a baby and make your brain work hard.’ (Standard, 2020) Although it seems like the western world is – reluctantly – moving in the right direction in terms of our diet, I rather suspect we all have some way to go before we can truly be in line with food guru Michael Pollan’s advice to: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ And sleep? Yeeeeeeeah.. But it was the last part, about brain activity, that really caught my attention and here’s where I’m going to get weird on you. Ready? Because since I started homeschooling with my family, I swear DOWN (do the kids still say this? I’m bringing it back..) my skin is brighter, my body feels better, I am laughing more often, listening to more music, reading more books and feeling more alive than I’ve been in a long time. Is this because I’m making my brain work hard, without even noticing it? It must be.

Because classroom teaching isn’t mentally challenging; sorry, it’s not. Or at least, it very rarely is. Occasionally, when preparing notes on a more obscure text for sixth form, I would feel my brain ‘switching on’ and find myself absorbed in a really gripping critical perspective on Woman at Point Zero (Saadawi, 1975) before – glancing at the clock – I would have to yank myself back to the present where an army of post-PE Year 9s were brawling outside my door. No, for me classroom teaching was at least 70% repetition of the same material that I knew like the back of my hand, 20% crowd control and 10% hollow laughter and/or sarcastic comments. Don’t get me wrong; I love a sarcastic comment. But I can’t say that anything about my 10 years of teaching and examining made my brain buzz the way homeschooling does. And there is absolutely nothing special about my children; I am convinced that any caring parent would have the same experience because, in fact, it’s impossible not to. All that quack from unschoolers is actually remarkable true. Children really do ‘learn from anything and everything they see’ (Holt, 1967) which means that every single day in homeschooling is unique, absolutely jam-packed and wonderfully kaleidoscopic in the way that learning takes place. A friend of ours, whose children very recently began homeschooling, told us last weekend that he likes ‘the way it makes [his] brain feel’ and I know exactly what he means. As I sit cross legged, playing with the baby while trying to help my 6 year old write down song lyrics and grappling with my 4 year old’s non-stop questions about how combustion engines work, I too can literally feel the spark plugs in my own brain connecting. And it feels good.

One of Holt’s most controversial points (because it’s so true) is that ‘the biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher’ (How Children Learn, 1975) and it is only now that I find myself on the other side of this process, that I can appreciate the wisdom of these words. It makes me wonder whether the same can be applied to adult life, too. We are all lifelong learners, or at least we should be, yet so many of us operate in jobs where our activities are constantly micro managed by a system of meetings and bureaucracy which not only wastes huge amounts of time, but also means that corporate decisions and ideas are only ever filtered down from the top, making most of us passive recipients of a ‘to do’ list which is, ultimately, someone else’s agenda, just like – unless you were very lucky – we were at school. This doesn’t get your brain firing up. What it does is shuts your brain down. And this can have a knock-on effect in all areas of your life because, of course, the less that is asked of your brain, the less that muscle works for you and gradually, you can find yourself reading less, taking less of an interest in the world around you, and having the same conversations over and over. Sound familiar? Because actually, I think this was me 6 years ago, when I was working full-time while trying to juggle childcare and sleepless nights after the birth of our daughter. It felt so overwhelming just keeping up with the mundane tidal wave of life and work admin, that I suppose my brain was in survival mode and, if I managed to glimpse the headlines on someone else’s newspaper as the District line jerked to a stop at Putney bridge, I felt like I was winning that day. So, what happened? Because I now have 3 homeschooled children, an increasingly popular daily blog to produce material for, contract writing jobs that I have to squeeze in somewhere and a family relocation to France which means our office now resembles a military bunker, with pins and spreadsheets covering floor to ceiling. By rights, I should be on my knees. But I’m not. I feel great.

Back in 2014, the University of Cambridge published a study entitled ‘Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain’ which compellingly argued that ‘our brains are plastic..continually remould[ing] neural connections as we learn, experience and adapt.’ So it must be true. My brain really does feel different since homeschooling, because it really is different. I’m making my brain do somersaults every day before most people even hit the school run and, as a result, I feel younger, happier, and ready to take my kids rollerskating with their homeschool friends once we’ve tackled that tricky long division question. Yoko, you little band-wrecker, you were right after all! Were you a homeschooler? You should have been. And here’s a funny thing. At the end of Leith’s book review, he makes reference to the ‘blue zones’, places like Nicoya, Costa Rica, Japan and Sardinia which seem to just produce lots of people who live beyond 100 years. ‘What happens in these places?’ he ponders. The answer is simple. ‘Old people do lots of healthy things such as walking and gardening, they have many human connections, they eat real food and avoid stress.’ I mean, hold the phone! Can you see what I see here? Because, honestly, if you replace the words ‘old people’ with ‘children’, doesn’t that sound almost identical to a typical day of homeschooling? So high five, scuba dive, all you homeschooling legends! Because – quite inadvertently, it seems – we are boosting our own brain function and well-being whilst giving our children a unique and enriching childhood. Our brains are toned and our hearts are full. No need for hyaluronic face masks in this house, thank you. I have a date with Jaime from Cosmic Yoga. Peace out and keep up the good work, homeschool tribe!

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Published by NotTheSchoolRun

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

3 thoughts on “The Science of Growing Old: Why Homeschooling is Good for Your Brain

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