For Better Learning, Teach Children How Their Brains Work

I’ve long advocated that if we want children to ‘own their learning’ and develop the inclinations and habits to become lifelong learners, then its important that the learning process be as rewarding, satisfying and effective as possible. I’ve gone as far as to say that it’s my belief that in our schools there are no bad learners, only learners with bad  or weak learning styles and approaches.

This is not at all surprising when we consider that generally children have been taught little or nothing about their brains, how they work and how that impacts learning. It’s like all the attention has gone on outcomes, with zero effort to address issues of the process. The result is that vast numbers of learners finish up with weak or inadequate outcomes simply because their methods weren’t the best.  All ‘what’ and no ‘how’.

This short video from Stanford University shares insights from a collaboration project with an innovative school to address some of these issues and to explore the results.

Who Said Lectures Are Useless?

There are plenty of people in education who want to suggest that the lecture offers a very poor way of learning, is old-fashioned and out of date. However, I suspect that none of those people have ever taken the time to watch Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University holding a lecture theatre of students spellbound in the palm of his hand.

His subject is Human Behavioural Biology and you might think there would be few takers for such lectures on Youtube. However, if you go and check out the lecture above, you’ll see it currently has over 3.2 million views. Sapolsky’s appeal is that he makes what he does look incredibly easy, and that’s a fine art. He takes complex subjects and through stories, humour and superb delivery makes them accessible.

We are truly living in an amazing world today. For those with the energy, the commitment and motivation and willingness to allot the time, learning can be gained from such a source for nothing more than the cost of internet bandwidth.

This is not just one lecture, but the first in a series of 25. That’s a lot of hours investment, but these days Youtube does offer the scope to speed up such videos. Even running at 1.25X speed cuts the time by 20%, without any loss of comprehension.

Before anyone asks – yes, I’ve watched them all. And it was worth it.

The Harm We Can Do in Early Years Education

A few years ago, I read a pretty alarming study that had come from Germany. A situation arose there, in a particularl area, where early years approaches to education were being changed from quite an academic’ approach to a much more play-based approach. However, as this process was going along there were political changes and the process stopped. it stayed stopped for some time whilst people figured out where to go next.

This created a unique situation – otherwise consistent for demographics and other background, about half the local children were experiencing a play approach in early years, the other half a much more academically oriented approach. Researchers latched on to the opportunity this represented and started a longitudinal study that tracked these children right through in to their adult years. Incidentally, after those differing early years experiences they were randomly educated through the same experiences in later years.

So, what did they find out?

a) Firstly, the children experiencing the more academic early years approach experiences academic benefits over their peers UNTIL CLASS 4. After that, the positions were reversed and there was an ever-widening gap with the children who had the play-based experiences outperforming their peers.

b) Maybe most alarming, in adult life, the children with the more academically oriented early years showed higher levels of alcohol and substance abuse, trouble with criminality, involvement in domestic abuse, psychological illness, obesity and poor health.

These are really quite alarming outcomes, especially as the research really didn’t flag up any long term positive benefits from the more academic approach to early years learning. Even more alarming when we see the pressures that come to bear throughout the world to make early years education more content driven, more teaching-centric and more focused on ‘getting an early start’ on the ‘stuff’ of school learning.

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s some further, new research from Stanford University, working with colleagues in Denmark about the difference between early and late starts for kindergarten. It showed those starting earlier had much higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity much later in their schooling. These are known factors that can be major negatives for academic outcome achievements

Quartz – Stanford Researchers Show We’re Sending Many Children To School Way Too Early

I don’t believe for a minute that we’re going to be changing the ages at which children start school. Therefore, it becomes critically important that we work to ensure that the experience they have is a low pressure, high-play one. We also need to invest considerable energy to educate parents, to share knowledge and expertise with them, so that they understand why the lay logic of a hasty start and early academic pressure are dangerous and counter-productive for their children.

Helping Children Build Empathy & The Growth Mindset

In the past, I have to admit fully that I've been somewhat critical of Classdojo for their app used by some school teachers for classroom management (classroom manipulation?) However, in recent months i believe that the people at classdojo have hit on a winner with their short series of videos based on the experiences of the monster Mojo.

They started out tackling Growth Mindset, working alongside experts of Stanford University making a series of short videos based upon the engaging little monster Mojo. These are designed for teachers to use with children, are engaging, attention grabbing and really quite thought-provoking.

Now, as this article highlights, they've built on that success by working with experts from Harvard Graduate School of Education on empathy. The principle behind these initiatives is that if there is promising research and ideas on skills development in the social-emotional domain, such vehicles can enable swift transfer to the learning environment to benefit teachers and pupils.

Huffington Post - Empathy Videos

The Growth Mindset video series hthey've gone on to work further with the team from Stanford on a new series on Perseverance. The first has just been issued, with two further episodes to follow over the next couple of weeks.

All three sets of videos, accompanied by discussion questions that can be used in class, can be found here;

ClassDojo - Big Ideas

There is a wealth of evidence that the development of strong social-emotional skills early in school life have a big impact in improving behaviour in school, interpersonal relationships, but also benefit academic performance from an early stage. I personally think these videos would make a great added resource for classes using Jenny Mosely's 'Quality Circle Time' principles to explore and address issues of how children behave, regulate their personal relations and develop strength as social beings.

And, the earlier children embark on such learning the greater their potential to build strengths that will be vital as they grow and valuable in their adult life.