By Bob Valiant, Ed. D.
I am often asked why I am so opposed to the drill-and-test curriculum that has been foisted on the public schools by corporatists and legislators over the past couple of decades in the name of accountability. There are many reasons, of course, but I will focus on what I consider the core issue here. The big issue for me is that the so-called reform efforts pay no attention to what is known about the brain and how we learn. As you read the following article, think about what research supports and the instruction that is actually going on in schools today. Then answer the question: What do you want for your children?
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. This paper will provide a brief narrative description of each research finding followed by some suggested strategies for the adult caregiver including learning activities directed specifically to the finding.
At birth, our brain is made up of tens of millions of basic neural networks, each programmed through natural selection to process a specific element of the environment such as a horizontal line, a color, or a specific action of a body part. The bad news is “you get what you got.” We are born hard-wired for these processes and any early damage or misalignment will generally not be replaced or repaired. The good news is that through learning and experience “work-arounds” can be developed for all but the most severe deficiencies.
The growing brain is especially well equipped for particular kinds of learning at certain stages of development. Although the basic neural connections are available at birth the brain can continue to develop additional connections throughout life. Spurts of development appear to take place for various brain functions at certain fairly specific life stages. For example, the brain structures that support higher-level decision making do not develop for most people until their late teens or early twenties. Knowing when these spurts occur can assist us in planning curriculum and experiential activities at a time when it is more likely to be assimilated. High-stakes assessments not at the appropriate developmental level are useless as measures of accountability and perhaps harmful to the children.
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.
One 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.
Read the other areas of research in the science of children’s learning that current “ed reform” does not address.