■ American students continue to fall behind their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world in mathematics and science, according to the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Our high school reading and writing scores produce similar downward trending data. What can we do? How do we produce the best minds during a child’s elementary and secondary school years? That is the new window that parents, educators and policy-makers should be looking through to create a 21st-century-based school model.
A quarter of a century ago, the influential national report A Nation at Risk argued that lengthening the school day would expand a student’s knowledge base, improving his/her achievement scores. The contemporary financial climate may preclude extending the school day, but we can extend a child’s learning throughout the calendar year.
University of California neuroanatomist Dr. Marian Diamond, a pioneer in brain-based learning, has shown that neural pathways that represent specific knowledge or skills begin to diminish—they are pruned away—after only four days of non-use. Should we be surprised by the massive amount of re-teaching necessary in September following nearly three months of academic neglect?
Whether kids’ summertimes will be spent at home, in a summer-school setting, community center or library, there are a number of strategies parents, educators and the local community can employ throughout the summer season so that September will not be a cognitive wasteland, where educators spend their time playing catch-up to reacquaint students with an academic setting.
In school: Prepare students for fall in the summer!
Students should spend the last week of the school year with a teacher from the next grade level. Teachers would introduce the books students will have in the coming year, along with some of the key concepts and skills they will learn.
Student-teacher relationships could be initiated, particularly since this teacher may be the one whose classroom they will be sitting in come fall. Student learning would get a head start on the teaching and learning standards for the next year. Information would be sent home to parents, describing precisely how they can prepare their child over the summer months for greater success in the subsequent school year. Not only can students sharpen and maintain the skills learned from the previous year, which may serve as the building blocks for new learning, but the anticipatory pre-learning experience prepares the brain for making new pathways for learning by creating new neural connections.
In the libraries and school districts: Open your doors!
Districts and local libraries should collaborate to provide weekly refresher and skill-maintenance classes in reading, writing, mathematics and science; the usually predictable “summer drop-off” in skills proficiency could be substantially reduced if not completely eliminated. Brain connections that support academic skills become “hard-wired” with repeated usage. With HD videos, DVDs and virtual reality, when children walk past the wide library doors, even wider doors to boundless knowledge open as if by magic! They can take journeys back in time, travel inside the human body, go anywhere around our world, beneath the oceans and beyond our skies. “Dittos don’t build dendrites,” says educator Susan Kovalik, one of the leaders in the brain-based learning movement; active involvement does.
Today’s well-equipped libraries can generate the most memorable of all summer experiences when we shift our preoccupation away from the three Rs and toward the nearly infinite number of print and electronic media products and resources available, which provide limitless opportunities for learning. They will expand cognitive development, if the materials offer the four I’s of learning:
• The Interactive
• The Informative (“knowledge is power”)
• The Interpersonal (face to face)
• The Inspirational (and affirming)
For parents and teachers: Encourage helpfulness with the Helping Hand
Parents should find a highly visible location where they can post a giant poster of a handprint. (See Chart 1: A Helping Hand Aids the Growing Mind.) When one child helps another one learn, encourage the second child to write the name of his/her helper on the handprint along with a short sentence on how and/or why his efforts were helpful and worth public acknowledgment.
Once your children or students begin to appreciate the many supportive “people resources” around them, and how we can assist one another along the path of learning, you will find the following:
1. Students will actively pursue more opportunities to help one another, because human beings are first and foremost highly social beings.
2. Children will immediately look for their names on the handprint and read about their supportive contributions.
3. The self-esteem of less popular and/or frequently isolated students blossoms when they are sought out by their peers.
4. Bullying decreases, because it has been devalued.
5. Children begin to appreciate that teaching and helping are everyone’s responsibility, and not the exclusive property of a parent or teacher.
In March 2009, a Tennessee teacher learned of this “Helping Hand” strategy and deployed it in her junior high school science classroom. She reported an almost instantaneous increase in cooperation, involvement, patience, compassion and learning demonstrated by her students, which rejuvenated her passion for teaching enough to withdraw her request for an early retirement.
Rather than playing referee for the summer, parents should post a Helping Hand chart in a prominent place in the home, reminding children that supporting one another is a vital family value.
For parents: Boost vocabulary!
According to linguistics experts, the average child understands about 8,000 vocabulary words when he/she enters kindergarten, although many students begin school well below this figure. But students should exit high school with a working knowledge of more than 87,000 words. That’s 79,000 words in the balance! Students must learn 6,076 words per year, which translates into 34 words every one of the 178 days of the school year. (See Chart 2: Vocabulary Development.)
If we take advantage of the 8 1/2-week summer vacation as prime time for further vocabulary development, we can reduce this Herculean task by 30%.
Cultivating a robust vocabulary is a prominent key to academic success in listening, speaking, reading and writing. The brain establishes vast networks of dendrites, the branch-like extensions connecting neurons in the brain that interconnect our competencies in listening, speaking, writing, drawing and reading. Have kids:
• Talk about what they’ve read
• Write about what they’ve listened to
• Draw pictures of what they read
• Listen to others describe what they have read
• Read aloud what they have written
Providing these multiple exposures to meaningful vocabulary and firsthand formal uses of language builds dendrites and synapses that support what was learned but also serve as pathways for new, related learning. Dendrites are the neurophysiological access routes by which cognitive connections are later made.
Word-immersion activities benefit all children, particularly those who, unsurprisingly, are at the lower end of the achievement continuum. One of the best ways to teach “phonics” and phonemic awareness is to present students with a wealth of rich and regular opportunities to write new words before, during and after those words are read. When students practice writing the words slowly and reading them slowly, they began to reinforce the connections between the sounds produced by the letters and syllables. Writing activities cultivate a better understanding of both spelling and phonics.
Using camps to teach science and mathematics
Our ancestors have always been fascinated by, and solved problems in the context of, the natural world that impacts our daily lives.
Many students enter school enthralled by science, but that passionate flame is quickly doused when formal science education is reduced to read-about-science rather than treating science as a verb.
The research of Dr. Carol O’Donnell at George Washington University concluded that conceptual development in science is attained best when science content is delivered via hands-on and inquiry-based learning experiences. A significant portion of that learning success is attributable to the fact that seven of the nine Multiple Intelligences formulated by Howard Gardner of Harvard University are typically utilized during hands-on learning. (See Chart 3: Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.)
Summer science camps take advantage of our human evolutionary interest in the physical and biological world around us.
Project-based active learning, where students participate in science inquiry, quantifying what occurs during science investigations, drawing pictures of the relationships, writing about the experiences and participating in follow-up reading (reading aloud, reading alone, choral reading) allows students to merge goals of reading, writing, listening, speaking, science and mathematics. Educators have long separated these subjects and skills in the curriculum as if they were completely unrelated. Instead, these subjects and skills should all be taught together in meaningful and connected contexts. A child’s storytelling abilities were predictive of his/her mathematical abilities two years later, according to a 2004 article in the journal First Language. Children with high scores on mathematics tests also had correspondingly high scores on their storytelling abilities two years earlier.
Our human brain is massively interconnected to permit all of our competencies through:
• The association pathways, which link together areas of the cerebral cortex within the same hemisphere;
• The projection pathways, which project outwards from one area of the brain to more distant areas;
• The commissural pathways, which connect functional areas in one hemisphere of the brain with the identical “homotopic” (same-purposed) areas in the opposite hemisphere.
Ideally, learning should be all about maximizing these brain connections that produce what we call knowledge. In the book Consilience, Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, observed that everything in our universe is somehow connected. By softening the borders between subjects, skills and disciplines, and instead looking for ways in which they are tied together, students will benefit by navigating the academic world easier. Academic disciplines should not be thought of as areas of specialization but rather as topics for children that are in search of attention-grabbing, “ah-ha!” connections.
In 2008, Tacoma Public Schools started offering a 2 1/2-week Summer Science Camp, which capitalizes on these academic synergies. Unlike other summer school programs that start at the beginning of summer, the Tacoma project begins the month prior to the fall opening of school. Tara Edmonds, the school district’s elementary science facilitator, has reported significant growth in mathematics and science achievement scores for students who participate in Summer Science Camp.
Because the human brain craves stimulation, after brief periods of sensory deprivation we hallucinate in order to produce our own stimuli for the brain to process. For generations, parents have been led to believe that summer vacation is necessary for relaxation and recuperation from cognitive development (although by the second week of vacation, many children frequently complain that they’re bored). What is so physically or emotionally punishing about the school year that a three-month recovery period suddenly becomes mandatory? There is no research to date that confirms this notion.
The summer months frequently constitute the best time for giving children the highest quality and quantity of challenge, support and ongoing feedback.
Students compete with perhaps 30 others for the teacher’s attention in the classroom. Support and feedback are scarce commodities in a typical classroom, but young learners in particular need a steady diet of them for academic growth, concept development and skills mastery (see Chart 4). In addition to more challenge, support and feedback during the summer, the home and school should become places where the “S.A.I.L.” philosophy should be followed in an uncompromising fashion (see Chart 5).
Let them grow!
There is an old adage from Asia that says, “A man, who plants flowers, grows.” Planting a garden during the summer gives children one of the most intriguing experiences—witnessing the wonders of nature firsthand. In addition to having a unique opportunity to eat nutritional and healthful foods, the greatest returns on the time spent digging, planting the seeds and watering are:
(1) Children unknowingly develop better “number sense” when they:
a. plant seeds in rows;
b. count seedlings when they sprout;
c. gather and count the vegetables.
(2) Children learn to care for another living organism, which is one
of the most important skills they will learn in their entire lives.
Forward-thinking strategies like these eliminate the emotional numbness students feel from being academically blindsided when they are under-prepared at the onset of a new school year. These conditions frequently promote child and adolescent depression, resulting from overwhelming helplessness. Psychologists correlate this state of mind with the overproduction of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, making learning all the more difficult.
Hopefully, these strategies and other ideas presented will generate an epiphany during your child’s summer, and for his/her entire life, as well. Don’t forget, the chronologically-advanced brain (adults) can also use this prescription for a mentally healthy summer! bw