■ Raymond J. McNulty, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, recently said, “What got us to where we are in education will not get us to where we need to be in the future.” We are beginning to recognize the national importance of learning science in our schools, because 60% of world economic growth in next five years will take place in Brazil, Russia, India and China (the “BRIC” countries). Most importantly, we are also getting a better grasp on understanding the emerging “science of learning,” which certainly warrants the concerted attention of all parents, teachers, and policymaker
A renewed national focus on learning is vital to our future.
“Brain-considerate” home and school learning environments seek to soften the artificial academic borders that were initially created to make instruction and testing less complicated, making learning more difficult in the process. Ours should be “SMART” schools and homes, where we strategically organize learning experiences underscoring the synergies among Science, Mathematics, the Arts, Reading and Technology.
__ The learning experiences should also show how these conceptual and thematic relationships overlap and reinforce one another. Classroom instruction should occur where each of these topics is applied to the others, emphasizing their interconnectedness and linking them to the larger organizing body of what we call “knowledge.”
__ The National Assessment of Adult Literacy recently published the following data:
• 55% of adults in the United States cannot determine the correct dosage of liquid aspirin to administer to their child, given a chart with children’s ages and weights.
• 71% cannot compute how many miles per gallon their vehicles get.
• 78% of American adults cannot figure out how much interest is paid on a consumer loan.
But people are resistant to change. When progressive curricular changes are proposed, we often hear, “Let the kids learn exactly the way I did!” However, an abundance of evidence suggests that many adults did not master the thinking strategies they were taught. Here’s why: In life, we do not focus on one skill at a time, like the subjects we learned separately in school—math, science or reading—for 55-minute intervals. In reality, the hours of our days are filled with a need for all academic disciplines. For example, at a restaurant, you must read a menu and figure out the check. School subjects frequently join together in life, unlike the carefully orchestrated school curriculum.
__ Parents, teachers and the politicians who shape school curricula can improve the effectiveness of our collective efforts in teaching, learning, and parenting if they pay attention to six areas of the academic experience:
First-Hand Learning and First-Hand Experiences Are a “Must” for the Brain
Mark Twain once said, “If you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things you can’t learn any other way.” In research, we repeatedly encounter evidence that most abstract concepts are best taught, learned and understood in the context of their firsthand concrete scenarios.
__ One of the most effective techniques in teaching is to give learners firsthand experiences with objects. While playing with objects, learners are simultaneously manipulating their own thoughts—playing with ideas. They are using internal dialogues to attach words and meanings to actions and events. Exploring and experimenting involve examinations of the obvious as well as the subtle relationships and interactions, revealing connected systems. Learners formulate their own personal theories—mental constructs—to explain what they think based on what they see, what they do, and what they have validated by experience.
__ Symbolic representations of objects and events should always follow their firsthand experiences. People create meaning from what they physically do in their world, not from second-level exposures to written accounts. Consequently, during the early brain-building years, printed materials and technology are weighed down by significant experiential limitations. Young, developing brains benefit most from a rich variety of one-on-one emotional, verbal, visual, physical and tactile engagements, rather than by exposure to multimedia products intended to “make your baby a genius.”
Emotions Are Valuable in Learning
For decades, we were told that being emotional is the opposite of being intellectual, and that the two mutually exclusive conditions should never meet. Recent research on learning has shown that emotions are among the first and most powerful signals in the brain for activating one’s attention, based on related positive or negative prior experiences; triggering one’s perseverance; determining the level of motivation; and affixing the learning experience to a semi-permanent neural network for later retrieval. “An emerging theme is the question of how emotions interact with and influence other domains of cognition, in particular attention, memory, and reasoning,” wrote British neuroscientist R.J. Dolan in 2002.
__ Children and adults best remember events that are indelibly etched into their minds because of their emotional significance. For example, we remember our highest highs and our lowest lows because of their valence—the positive or negative emotional value associated with an incident. We cannot recall information that has not been encoded into neural language and stored in the brain. Emotionally charged events consistently enjoy a higher probability of being converted into memories that get permanently stored in the cerebral cortex due to their affective importance.
__ Parents and teachers make learning more memorable for children not by threats of punishment but by bonding their thinking and learning with their emotions. There are two consequences of punishment—both negative—that should be kept clearly in mind:
__ First, when stressed, people show a heightened amount of activity in the amygdala (a sub-cortical structure considered the brain’s “emotional thermostat”), and the highly reactive and more primitive brain stem plays a larger role in our response. During these stressful episodes, there is a significant reduction in higher-order cortical activity in the regions of the brain responsible for generating complex intelligent solutions.
__ Second, students and children are frequently and unfairly admonished for “not paying attention.” Their little brains are processing over four billion bits of information every single second! So, they are paying attention to a myriad of things; the teacher, the parent or the lecture just don’t happen to be among them at the moment. However, once the content is made personally relevant, we have their undivided attention.
__ An effective means of exploiting emotions is to always offer choices to the learner. When we tell a child, “Your report can be handwritten or typed, written in ink or with pencil, done individually or with a partner,” students will almost always temper their emotional responses and shift their attention from the work to be completed to answering the personal question, “How will I accomplish this task by making the best choice?” Many arguments between adults and children can be avoided by introducing simple two-item options rather than a demand, an assignment or a threat.
Health and Cognition Go Together
Would you have high expectations for an athlete who is asked to compete while he is both dehydrated and hungry? Academic performance is governed by similar physiological constraints. Seventy to 78% of the weight in a human brain is made up of liquids—primarily blood, water and cerebral spinal fluid. (The balance is protein and fat.) A 2% decrease in body-brain hydration often results in a 20% decrease in energy levels.
__ The brain is an extremely high-maintenance organ that grows at a faster pace in the first five years of life than most other organs and body parts. After the first six months of life, the weight of an infant’s brain is 50% of its adult weight. At this early developmental juncture, the size and the number of glial cells in the brain multiply dramatically. The quantity and the density of dendrites linking brain cells together also increases exponentially as the healthy young brain increases its weight by approximately 1 mg per minute.
__ At 30 months of age, the brain is typically 75% of its adult weight, and by age five, the brain has attained 90% of its maximum weight. But there is a corresponding darker side to this process: Inadequate nutrition, sometimes combined with poor health, will alter these growth figures as brain development and brain functioning are sometimes arrested. These circumstances are saddest when the outcomes are completely avoidable in prosperous industrialized countries, where nutritional deficits should be nonexistent.
__ While it typically makes up only 2% of the body’s total weight, the human brain consumes up to 25% of the body’s oxygen, 25% of the body’s nutrients and 70% of the body-brain’s glucose consumption. Inside the brain, a pint and a half of blood must sprint through over 40,000 miles of blood vessels and capillaries every minute. The arterial blood leaving the heart travels first to the brain, which gets “first take” on whatever amount of blood has been produced. When food, water and/or oxygen are in short supply, optimal brain processing and functioning are the first casualties. An unhealthy brain cannot learn well, nor can a hungry, dehydrated brain. Healthful meals are not optional for good learning.
__ Nutrition provides the fuel for the body and the brain, and glucose is one of the primary nutrients giving the biological brain energy for normal functioning and processing. In addition to water, all students need to exercise to increase cerebral blood flow; stimulation to keep the mind alert; sleep in order to concentrate; and an adequate diet that incorporates unsaturated fats, protein, fresh fruits with natural sugars (glucose), fish, nuts and complex carbohydrates for proper nutrition.
Vocabulary Development Is Key to Learning
The human sense of hearing begins to function two months prior to birth in a full-term baby. During those last eight weeks, fetuses are learning the essential sounds of the local language into which they will soon be born. All human competencies become fine-tuned following birth, depending on the richness of the environment in which they find themselves. Following delivery, infants begin a quest to perfect their language abilities based on the supportive verbal interactions that newborns and infants have with their primary caregivers.
__ While reading to children is considered indispensable in language development, it is the supplementary verbal give-and-take—the questions, comments and related prior experiences—that are as important as the reading itself. Research on language development conducted by Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd R. Risley for their book, The Social World of Children Learning to Talk (Paul H. Brookes, 1999), found that from ages 0 to 3, children are dependent upon their immediate families for developmental experiences, including language.
__ Tests of language fluency administered during second and third grade are better reflections of both the richness of the vocabulary a child hears in the first three years of his or her life and the quality and quantity of language interactions that have taken place with and around him or her than anything the schools may have achieved during formal language instruction. According to science writer Ron Kotulak, the average number of words spoken daily in professional, middle-class and low-income homes are as follows:
__ What is the most reliable predictor of vocabulary development and reading comprehension for children in third grade? His/her verbal abilities at age 3. What is the most accurate means of forecasting 11th-grade reading scores? Merely using a teenager’s third-grade reading and language test scores.
__ The academic challenges facing children with limited vocabularies are compounded over time. These children are correspondingly limited in their ability to think, due to a limited database from which to select words needed for speaking, thinking, listening, understanding, reading and writing with accuracy. Although it is often said that we use words primarily for interpersonal communications—speaking and listening—according to S.A. Stahl’s research published in his 1999, “Words are used to think. The more words we know, the finer our understanding of the world.” A robust “vocabulary tool chest,” or conversely, an extraordinarily barren one, will determine the amount of descriptive language resources to which a child has access for interpreting a concept, discussing an experience or writing about an event. His or her recollection of any of these experiences is largely dependent on the development of linguistic precision.
Make as Many Connections as Possible: Connect and Reflect
Inside the brain, there are approximately one million miles of nerve fibers, linking together over 100 billion neurons whose primary purpose is to establish over one quadrillion meaningful connections with other neurons. Through this elaborate process, we access a remarkable ability to make sense of an extraordinarily complex world. In his book The Mind’s Best Work (Harvard University Press, 1981), Harvard educator David Perkins writes, “Good thinking is a matter of making connections, and knowing what kinds of connections to make.”
__ Making connections is not just a useful description of the dynamic learning process, but is indeed quite a natural progression for constructive thinking. The distinguished educator John Dewey once said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on it.” In the following series of learning events, reflections set the stage for the next level of thinking.
__ If we are to build meaningful conceptual links for students—and connect “meaning” with print—we must make the most of opportunities to foster good thinking with logical connections. When students later hear a target word in context, or if they encounter it while reading, they are capable of relating that word back to the family of concepts and words to which it belongs, based on the students’ experiences with the meanings, interpretations and connections they have already learned. Repeated use strengthens the verbal, visual, auditory, tactile and abstract interconnections that are physically represented by specific intricate brain circuitry.
__ In Robert Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works, he describes the nine most effective strategies for achievement. Among them are non-linguistic representations (see chart Create a Concept Map). Pictures in one’s mind and those drawn on paper help students visualize images of objects, events and ideas, along with their significant relationships. The greatest advantage of these graphic organizers is their ability to provoke numerous associated memories.
__ In a complex world, cultivating problem-solving repertoire is an essential key to learning and the future. It is far better for a child to learn how to solve a problem five different ways, than to solve the same problem five different times. When we teach our students how to think in these ways, we’re teaching them how to learn in new and creative ways.
Turn of the TV and Teach Time Management for “CSI”
Technology dominates nearly every aspect of contemporary life, but today’s children between the ages of five and 18 are tethered to the Internet with social networking, computer games and countless numbers of entertainment media resources far more than adults. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that children are engaged with these devices and services for over 50 hours per week—comparable to a full-time job, plus overtime!
__ With media exposure for children under 15 years of age at an all-time high, the American Academy of Pediatrics has established guidelines for the number of TV hours per day to which infants, toddlers and children should be exposed: For children 0 to 3, avoid television viewing altogether; for children ages 3 to 8, only a modest amount of television per week.
__ How do we break the television and computer-game addiction? Is there a way to help parents and teachers corral their children’s media-centered impulses? The answer is Yes, indeed! Best of all, students and children can develop several “CSI” (Continuous Self-Improvement) skills as a byproduct of the process. In addition to learning to control impulsivity, children should also learn how to tell time, the hours of the day and the days of the week. They also need to learn how to manage their personal time and minimize their unproductive inclinations.
__ At the beginning of each week, give children their own personal weekly planners. Show them each of the days in the week and the hours available during each day. Point out for them the hours each day when they are sleeping, eating, attending school and engaged in extracurricular activities. Set a specific and firm number of hours each week for watching their favorite television programs and parent-approved computer games. Mark on their planning calendars the specific hours they plan—and are permitted—to watch television, the hours they will be playing computer games, etc., along with the times designated for homework, practice and recreational reading. However, here is an important caveat: Do not reward children with additional television and computer time. Doing so communicates an easily mistaken message regarding your value of personal development. Learning and homework have an intrinsic value that far exceeds anything derived from television or computer time. When children have an impulse to watch television, simply asked them, “Is this on your schedule?” Learning to control impulsivity is one of the major factors leading to success in school, college, and life (See: “Don’t: The Secret of Self-Control,” at newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer).
__ “I have come to a frightening conclusion,” writes Haim Ginott, in his book Between Parent and Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication (Three Rivers Press, 2003). “I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child de-humanized or humanized.” Every parent should make certain that learning and cognitive development are seen as the highest priority in the home, and that children understand the immediate power and long-term value of mental stimulation and learning.
__ Although we are prone to celebrate the first day of preschool or kindergarten, parents are every child’s first and most important teacher. Parents and classroom practitioners are immensely powerful in the ways they can shape—or harm—a developing young brain. Whether it takes place at home or in a classroom, all education is truly “special education” if it is delivered appropriately with the developing brain and mind and these seven considerations at the forefront. [bw]
Kenneth Wesson is a former college and university faculty member and administrator. He delivers keynote addresses on the “Brain-Considerate Classroom” and the neuroscience of learning. He speaks to educational organizations and institutions throughout the United States and around the world, and can be seen on PBS and other network programs on brain development.