Education for the Real World: 6 Great Ideas for Parents and Teachers


Raymond J. McNulty, as president of the International Center for Leadership in Education 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 percent 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 policymakers.

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 percent 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 percent cannot compute how many miles per gallon their vehicles get.
  • 78 percent 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.

1. Firsthand Learning and Firsthand 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.”

2. 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 semipermanent 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.

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.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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