A growing body of research is helping us understand not only how the brain works, but what we can do to enhance learning. Parents and teachers now have available much of the information they need to help guide the development of their children. In this article we will review some of the areas cognitive researchers in many fields agree are important findings regarding the brain and learning. More information is provided elsewhere on this web site for those interested in pursuing the topic. Our procedure will be to provide a brief narrative description of each finding followed by some suggested strategies for the adult caregiver including learning activities directed specifically to the finding.
Infants form mental models about how the world works and, as they receive new information from the environment, they modify their theories to better explain to themselves what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. As adults, we retain many of these explanations our early-childhood brain developed. We often trivialize evidence (including textbook learning) that refutes the original mental model. Once embedded, these early theories are difficult to dislodge.
Much of what we do in schools is based on the idea of finding the right answer to a question and it is assumed there is only one. Once we learn the right answer and report it on a test we do not need to think about the topic further. In real life, much of what is known is in a state of flux waiting for a new bit of evidence to modify the knowledge. Recent discoveries in science, for example, have greatly modified our understanding of the brain and how it works. What is true in science is also true in almost every walk of life. We have fostered a one right answer mentality in a conditional world.
Parents and teachers can help children develop mental models that are amenable to new information. Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University calls this mindfulness. She suggests that we should teach new information conditionally. A typical school task might be to learn the “three causes of the Civil War.” This information would later be solicited in a test item such as, “Name the three causes of the Civil War.” Taught conditionally, the instructor might say, “Some historians believe three causes of the Civil War might have included.” Taught this way, the student is open to other possible causes, information that might refute these causes, the role of historians in creating the historical record, etc. The test item might now become, “Here are three possible causes of the Civil War. Cite evidence for and against each of these possible causes. Have you found other potential causes? What evidence do you have to support their inclusion?”
Another thing we can do to help children build flexible mental models that are continuously refined is to talk to them about their beliefs about how the world works and how they came to their conclusions. I am often amazed at the complex (and almost always incorrect) theories children have developed about such everyday things as rainbows, falling objects, evaporation, or behavior patterns of their friends. Once we know their current level of understanding we can provide activities that will help them gain experience in the field of inquiry and can suggest reading that might help build new knowledge. Reading without experience is a poor substitute, however.
Emotion plays a central role in cognition both by driving attention and by aiding in memory storage. High challenge and personal meaning enhance learning while threat inhibits it. Each of us can describe in vivid detail the circumstances surrounding highly-charged emotional events in our lives. I once wrote a paper describing my first time behind the wheel of a car when I was asked to drive over seven miles of a switchback gravel road with no guardrails. The details I can recall of the day, the weather, road conditions, and route are incredible when placed against the memories of other roads I have traveled in the intervening years. The trick for parents and educators is to find the emotional hooks that will make learning memorable.
We obviously cannot stage major events with emotional hooks for every item we would like a child to remember. We can, however, tie chunks of learning to hooks. All fields of knowledge have organizers and sub-organizers to systematize the information contained in the field. Biology, for example, may be generally separated into botany and zoology (with some exceptions). Each in turn may be further divided into more and more specific categories. Music, which has high emotional content, might be utilized with theme songs for the various categories to help children remember them. The idea of theme music along with smells (Does baking bread bring up any memories?) can be extended to almost any important learning task. Think about teaming these ideas along with dramatic encounters with historical or literary characters. Chemical reactions with dramatic color changes, flashes of light, etc. are other examples of this principle. Again, I would limit its use to BIG IDEAS, not to trivia.
The second component of this principle directs us to lower the level of threat to the child while still providing challenging learning activities. The child (or older student) should feel confident that they have the skills and knowledge to successfully meet the challenge or that, at least, the skills and knowledge are within reach. If the activity has sufficient interest and the challenge seems reachable, we sometimes reach an optimum learning situation Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow.” Your goal in assisting your child is to know their interests, skills, and knowledge level and continuously ratchet up activities to match the newly acquired levels without adding pressure that is perceived as threat.
The growing brain is especially well equipped for particular kinds of learning at certain stages of development. Recent reports by Kurt Fischer and others indicates that progress from stage-to-stage is not a steady line of progress, but instead is a multitude of tiny steps forward and back as the individual encounters new situations and has new experiences. From the standpoint of a parent or educator trying to encourage intellectual development it would seem appropriate to provide lots of opportunities for new experiences in a supportive environment where it is okay to make mistakes.
Although it is clear that some types of learning such as language development are typically easier at a particular stage, it is also well documented that a new language or other learning can be assimilated after the optimum time has passed by. One of the principles outlined elsewhere in this paper holds that the brain is capable of new learning throughout life.
Specific examples of activities appropriate for various stages of development are beyond the scope of this paper, but will be taken up at a later date for inclusion on this web site.
BRAIN PLASTICITY AND THE ROLE OF EXPERIENCE
Brains are self-organizing, making connections and allocating space in response to each individual’s experience and perceptions. They are capable of growth throughout life.
Learning is a reflective activity that allows us to draw upon past experiences to create meaning, formulate deeper understanding, and shape our futures. Knowing depends on engagement in practice.
The first of these statements refutes the axiom, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Evidence has now convinced us that we can learn new tricks throughout our lifetimes. The key is continuing to seek out new experiences and to reflect on their meaning in light of what we already know. Adults can model this behavior for the young ones in their lives. It is important to talk with children about the life-long learning principle and to demonstrate how it works. How we learn should be discussed and our interests and learning styles need to become a common topic of conversation if we wish children to become aware of their own learning and take responsibility for it.
For parents and educators the second statement provides a roadmap for helping our young charges grow intellectually. Experiences along with opportunities to talk about them or otherwise reflect on them (drawing, writing, model-making, etc.) are the primary input for the growing brain. Just about any experience counts as long as there is time to reflect on the activity and think about how it fits with what is already known. It might be a trip to the zoo or just a observing a bouncing ball. The adult’s job is to ask questions, encourage reflection, and suggest other experiences to help answer questions that arise. When you drop a ball, is the second bounce as high as the first? What about the third, fourth or fifth? Why do you think this is so? Can you think of other things that behave in a similar way? Do all balls behave the same way? Are there balls that do not bounce at all? Is there a mathematical relationship that describes the height of successive bounces of a ball? What causes some balls to bounce higher than others? Does the surface you drop the ball on have any effect on the height of the bounce?
THE SOCIAL NATURE OF LEARNING
Learning is essentially a social, collaborative, problem-solving activity. This is not to say that we cannot learn when we are by ourselves, but learning is certainly enhanced when we can bounce our ideas off others and get feedback about both the process of learning and the knowledge itself. Thinking about and discussing the processes of thinking and learning is called metacognition. It can play an important role in nurturing cognitive growth.
Questions such as, “How did you figure that out?” or “What steps did you go through to solve that problem?” focus the child on the thinking processes. “Can you think of another way to do the same thing?” suggests there are many ways to arrive at an answer and, perhaps, some ways are more efficient or more likely to produce valid results. Making public your thinking and learning processes is risky business, of course, so the adult needs to create an atmosphere where it is okay to make mistakes as long as continuing pursuit of knowledge is the goal.
School-based programs such as cooperative learning, project-based learning, and problem-based learning use social activity as part of the learning process and are consistent with the finding under discussion here.
Adequate time is needed for assimilation and integration of new knowledge. In schools we tend to “cover” topics in quick order with little time spent on assimilating the information and connecting it to previously learned material. At the secondary level students are shuttled from class to class with different teachers responsible for discrete bits of the learning universe. Little if any effort is directed to the inter-relatedness of the information being provided and, for the most part, the lessons tend to be at a superficial level. Vocabulary is taught, but conceptual understanding is often neglected in the rush to finish the book.
One way for a parent or teacher to deal with this need for extended time is to develop the idea of becoming an “expert” in some particular field of interest. This can start with a hobby or some general area of interest, but should be child-centered, something they are particularly interested in. Let’s say it is insects. Observation skills can be fostered (See topic elsewhere on this site) and the child can learn to observe physical characteristics, behavior, etc. Recording observations should be encouraged. Books, even at a somewhat challenging level of reading difficulty, can be introduced once the child is sufficiently interested to pursue the literature on the topic under study. Adult encouragement of this type can lead to lifelong interest and development of expertise in a particular field.
From a classroom perspective, teaching for understanding has a distinct pedagogy. Resources for the teacher who is interested in pursuing this model can be found at Project Zero and at Understanding by Design websites.
The information provided in this article supports one component of our integrated approach to Personal Intelligence Management (PIM). To read more about PIM, go to the Brain and Learning Topic on this website.