Education based on neuroscience to realize our potential: interview with Elena Perolfi, head of training projects
In this interview with Elena Perolfi, head of the Foundation’s educational and training projects, we find out how a child’s brain grows amid neurodevelopment, synaptogenesis, and education, and how Fondazione Patrizio Paoletti applies this knowledge in its educational practice with young children.
We now know that neurodevelopmental processes, by which the brain acquires its organization, begin during pregnancy and continue in the early period after birth, and that synaptogenesis, that is, the formation of new connections between neurons, continues throughout life and is influenced by experience. How does the Patrizio Paoletti Foundation apply this knowledge in its educational practice with children?
The pedagogical reach of this knowledge is enormous! We wonder whether it is in our power to influence brain growth and development and the Pedagogy for the Third Millennium (PTM) responds yes: this pedagogical method created through the work of Patrizio Paoletti and his team claim that education is the very process of life, and the unfolding of that process must lead to the full and complete realization of the individual.
The pedagogical “work” of the Foundation is therefore based primarily on the adult: the adult, parent, teacher, educator, is the most valuable tool imaginable for a child’s evolving life; in accordance with Rita Levi Montalcini, we work pedagogically to raise the “awareness” first of adults, and then children, to become “aware of the abilities they possess”.
To experience all of this with young children, we implement structured programs to support parents in increasingly understanding the needs that children and adolescents encounter at different stages of their growth; our Family Training involved hundreds of families from all over the world: a meticulously structured and prepared environment/context, where parents gain practical references of the educational relationship they are living and the most important issues for a child’s education are answered. The Assisi International School is aimed directly at children and young people and is the first bilingual school in Italy to combine Pedagogy for the Third Millennium with the Montessori Method with Cambridge Assessment International Education Curriculum. It is structured, from preschool to secondary school, with an educational itinerary that guides the student to the discovery of their own abilities and talents, leading them to the progressive mastery of the various disciplines, that is, to the conquest of procedural skills and ways of thinking that are then translated into skills. In fall 2023, we will open the Assisi International Nursery School Perugia for children from zero to three: English, outdoor education, the educational integration of the Montessori method and materials and the stimulation of multiple intelligences.
All our projects are implemented on a neuroscientific basis, in every context, even the most challenging ones, because we know that specific structured stimuli can support brain development and protect it, as a prevention!
You mentioned the environment, can you elaborate on the concept from the perspective of Pedagogy for the Third Millennium?
This is a wonderful, vast concept. When the child and the young person are truly at the center of the path of growth, when the right trust is placed in them, when the adult puts themselves on the line and offers the best of themselves, when their educational actions are the result of an intentional organization of thoughts, emotions and actions… we are of course in the presence of an “educational environment”. An environment where the child knows that they are competent because they experience it; they feel free and safe, ready to safely challenge their own limits and fears accompanied by caring adults who support them in their discoveries and curiosity.
But I started from the end … let’s go back to the beginning, to the environment as understood in the most common sense: the external environment, the space. Pedagogue Loris Malaguzzi defined the environment as a “third educator“ , which plays a decisive role in determining the quality of learning. Maria Montessori speaks of the environment as a “teacher of independence and autonomy“, and it is our job to work on its “meticulous preparation,” to say it even more precisely in the words of Patrizio Paoletti: to create the conditions for learning to manifest itself. When PTM talks about the “educating environment,” it is talking about all of this, and by ‘environment’ it also refers to something less visible: in addition to the outer environment, there is the inner environment. If the preparation of a physical place is fundamental, if the intention I bring to it is determinant, then the same and even more will apply to the preparation of the inner rooms: making order, making what we desire visible, establishing our purpose clearly, keeping connected with our aspiration, removing, suspending or curbing everything that is “dangerous” to the child, thus selecting emotions and organizing what we do. By experiencing this theoretically and practically, the adult becomes a witness, and becomes, we all become, able to offer the children entrusted to us, the new generations, the possibility of performing this action themselves: Thus teaching children to harbor thoughts, emotions, habits that are voluntarily selected and, even more so in this case, “meticulously” cared for. We include not only the science of the outside, but also the science “of the inside,” harmoniously uniting and interconnecting the inner environment with the outer environment.
Awareness of the importance of our “inner world” needs to be raised on an individual and societal level.
What’s the latest from the Patrizio Paoletti Foundation’s applied research in education, current projects, and publications to explore further?
The inquiry that guides the work of our Research Institute for Neuroscience, Education and Didactics is focused on identifying practical and theoretical models of knowledge that promote cognitive, physical, psychological and emotional well-being and health from childhood to adulthood. Regarding this goal of ours, referring to research applied to training, I start from some scientific data that is of vital importance to us: the latest Unicef report, which tells us that we are experiencing an unprecedented emergency, and this emergency concerns young people. In Europe, 9 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 live with a mental health-related disorder, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. This figure is shocking, it is a most painful mirror for our society, it is a question to which we must answer. The pandemic, the management of the pandemic, the post-pandemic … have generated isolation, family tensions, loss of income, and children and young people bear the burden of all this. The most recent research, listening to kids themselves, tells us that family, school, friends, weaving and maintaining positive and trusting relationships characterized by gratitude at home, at school, and in their living environments (real and virtual) constitute safe reference points to turn to in situations of distress and danger.
How do we use this in our training?
Over the past two years we have met over thirty thousand parents, educators and teachers with our free training, designed and strongly intended, to support the citizenry in this historical moment characterized by this very strong relational, social and educational crisis. And particularly in the educational relationship and the possibility of being more and more vigilant and supportive toward children and young people; thus in the process of “educating others and oneself” to self-awareness, to the discovery of one’s inner resources that are tools of defence and prevention, and can and should be transferred, known and applied.
The recently concluded training event was, as always, free and open to all and dedicated to the exploration of what goes on in the brains of teenagers, because yes, teenage brains are structurally different. For example, emotions tend to have a fast track over thinking, so emotional impulses outpace reasoning. So how should we orient the educational relationship? What tools can adults of reference deploy? Even in light of the very difficult data on adolescence mentioned earlier, we know how much our teens’ emotions need to be tended to as competently as possible, with oriented actions, and with all the love and care we are capable of.