Dendrite Growth Equals Learning

In an article titled "How important are the first three years of a baby's life?" Dr. David Stein, M.D., says that a child's brain has created 1000 trillion connections by the time she is three years old.  These connections are way more than the child needs.  So then her brain begins to prune the unnecessary connections, which gives the necessary connections room and nourishment to flourish.  In other words, those connections not used disappear while those that are used and stimulated grow, adding dendrites and more connections.  (NYU Child Study Center website.  Research done by Nancy King.)

at birth

3 months

15 months

3 years

These photos, from Tag Toys website at, are images of actual photographs  taken with a microscopic camera of a the dendrite growth in a baby's brain. 

In order to learn something -- anything -- you need two things:  practice and time.  Practice reinforces those correct or useful connections and time adds dendrites.  This fact is true of learning how to get a spoonful of food in your mouth, learning to drive a car, learning the multiplication tables, and learning to write.  The more you practice, the better you get, the more dendrites you have and the more skill.  (And the heavier your brain!)

This process is very similar to how a tree grows leaves from twigs from branches from the trunk.  You can't decide you want to grow dendrites way out there, separate from where you are -- that's like being at the trunk and trying to grow the leaves.  You have to start where you are, the trunk, and make growth -- branches, twigs -- that eventually leads way out there to the leaves.

In order to have you start where you are, I will often ask you to think about, or freewrite about, what you know.  This activates the dendrites in the area of the brain related to that topic.  It gets the neurons primed and ready to grow more dendrites.  It also establishes for you just how much you already know!

So where are you in terms of writing?

There are two ways to identify your skill or knowledge level for any topic.  The charts below identify various "ceiling levels" that can be accomplished based on the amount and quality of practice put in over time.

Your ceiling level is as much as you know and can do as a result of the amount of neural structures (dendrites) you have grown from the quantity and quality of what you have done.  (according to Rita Smilkstein.  See reference below.)

This student's ceiling level, for example, means that when he puts in two or three months of learning, he can be at stage two of this particular skill.  For him to master the skill, he'll need to put in eight or nine months.

This means everyone can master a skill, given enough time and practice.

Below, you see the average karate student's ceiling level.  It takes the average karate student two and half to three years to get his black belt.





Below is MY ceiling level for karate, using the same scale for time.  It took me eight years to get my black belt.  Okay, so I'm slow.  I still got it.  It just took more time and effort.

 In order to learn anything, you go through the stages, from beginning to mastery.  Thousands of people have been asked to think of something that they've learned well, and identify the various stages.  These stages end up being almost always the same (with a little variation from four to six, but the same graduation process).  Interestingly, these stages are very similar to Piaget's sensorimotor stages, learning in babies from birth through two.  See this link for a summary of the stages as identified by Rita Smilkstein.

To identify where you feel you are in writing, you can use the charts below.  The first chart is for now.  How long have you been working seriously on improving your writing?  Identify your time line across the bottom.  Draw a line straight up from the amount of time you've put into it, as high as the level you identify yourself as being at.  If you are about halfway through the process of mastering writing, you would put yourself at 3, for example.  Of course, this is a rough estimate.  Draw a diagonal line from the "0" to the point you've established yourself at.  Then don't forget to fill in the dendrites below that line.

Before Essay #___

After Essay #___/ Before Essay # ___

Make copies of these charts and use them before and after each essay you write for this class.  (The "after" charts can also be the "before" charts for the next essay.) 

To learn more about the natural human learning process (NHLP), read Rita Smilkstein's book, We're Born to Learn:  Using the Brain's Natural Learning Process to Create Today's Curriculum, published by Corwin Press, 2003.

This page was last updated, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.

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