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


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 subcortical 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.

3. 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 percent 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 percent decrease in body-brain hydration often results in a 20 percent 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 percent 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 percent of its adult weight, and by age 5, the brain has attained 90 percent 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 percent of the body’s total weight, the human brain consumes up to 25 percent of the body’s oxygen, 25 percent of the body’s nutrients and 70 percent 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.

4. 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 Drs. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley for their book, “The Social World of Children Learning to Talk,” 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: “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.

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