Here’s some irony: Much of what we’ve “learned” about learning just isn’t true. So, what fiction is still circulating?
Lie #1: We learn best when we’re still.
Lie #2: We can choose to pay attention.
Even though the brain is amazing, we already know it can only focus on so much at any given time.
For example, think how our concentration becomes impaired whenever we have the flu or a pounding headache.
And that’s similar to what’s going on with people who haven’t completed their lower brain development. When the lower centers aren’t fully developed, the brain is intently focused on basic survival needs—morning, noon, and night—which then makes it very challenging to pay attention to just about anything else. In fact, one could make the case that these people actually concentrate more than those who are viewed as attentive.
Lie #3: IQ does not change.
Suppose we’re given an IQ test after we’ve been up all night and are on a medication with a side effect that makes us dizzy. Do you think our IQ score will be influenced by such variables?
Well, when we administer IQ tests to people who have not completed their lower brain development, we may also not get an accurate score. That’s because such people’s brains are already distracted—only in this case, the cortex is preoccupied by trying to figure out how to compensate for missing automatic brain functions.
Yet, without this understanding, people may believe their IQ scores are etched in stone. For example, at Brain Highways, we’ve worked with many parents who were devastated when they learned their child’s IQ was so low. But when those same kids completed their lower brain development and were re-tested, their IQ scores were now higher—sometimes increasing even as much as 30 points!
Lie #4: Learning thresholds don’t vary among people.
Not only do we have different learning thresholds—where we truly can’t absorb one more piece of information without taking a break—but some of us may hit that wall within minutes of information being presented. Yet, those who do easily concentrate for long blocks of time just can’t seem to fathom how someone could run out of gas so quickly. However, if we’re trying to learn with incomplete lower brain development and retained primitive reflexes, that’s what typically happens.
Lie #5: Learning is linear.
Most curriculums are designed with an assumption that students first learn “A,” then move to “B,” and then to “C,” and so on. Those who do not move forward this way are often viewed as failing.
Yet, in truth, learning is an upward spiral, where we all periodically return to where we’ve been before. This retraceable part of our learning spiral is actually very important. This is where we’re given a chance to either learn previously presented information at an even deeper level, or we’re given an opportunity to absorb something we may have missed altogether at the first pass.
Lie #6: Mistakes are bad.
Whoever initially gave mistakes a bad rap clearly didn’t understand how the brain learns. For example, the brain wraps the most myelin (a fatty substance that covers neurons to help to increase the speed at which information can travel) when it’s actually struggling a bit. And, yes, during that phase of learning, mistakes may appear. But that just means mistakes are an integral part of true learning.
Well, what’s the fallout if we believe one or more of these lies? Plenty. For example, if we think we’re lazy or dumb or unfocused, then we may conclude we’re not capable of great learning—even though we are. In such case, we may stop dreaming of what we might accomplish. And once we stop dreaming, we stop creating. And once we stop creating, we’re no longer able to share our innate gifts with others.
So, maybe it’s time to debunk the lies about learning, and let the world know the truth. Who knows how many brilliant minds may be unleashed?
I’m often asked what I think an ideal classroom would look like. So, here it goes.
THE ROOM ENVIRONMENT
Here are a few simple ways to know if your child is learning in an ideal educational environment:
Okay, so maybe you’re thinking that ideal classroom is not really feasible or within your child’s reach. Well, if you believe that, then you’re probably right.
But look at that list. The overwhelming majority of those ideas don’t require spending a dime or passing any legislation.
That’s because the ideal classroom simply begins with the mindset of . . . why not? Why not desire that kind of environment for our kids? Why not explore whether one or two or three or more of those ideas are already happening in a classroom in our school? Why not expect to send our kids to a learning environment where they thrive and truly discover the joy of learning?
Here’s an idea for an invention that might revolutionize teaching.
I’m picturing a small machine that is hooked up to each student’s cortex—the thinking, logical part of the brain. As students access their cortex during lessons, teachers would now see different sections of those kids’ forehead light up as they process, ponder, and reflect on the information being presented.
However, if students are stuck in the primitive parts of their brain, teachers would now just see black, empty screens on those kids’ forehead.
So how would this nifty invention make a difference? Well, what if teachers, for example, note that 75% of their students have a black, empty screen? Yikes.
I’m thinking that’s going to make it a lot harder to continue with the lesson as planned. I’m also thinking there’d be more understanding and incentive to implement teaching techniques that address the probability that some (or many) students in a classroom have underdeveloped lower centers of the brain.
But, in truth, we don’t really need that invention. We already know there are kids in the classroom without complete lower brain development—those who have to juggle between paying attention to the lesson and finding ways to compensate for missing automatic brain functions.
We already know that when such underdevelopment is present, it doesn’t take much to trigger a “primitive brain response”—and once kids are in that state, no learning at all is going to happen (i.e. we’re back to the black, empty screen).
So why not forge ahead with various actions to ensure learning is accessible to everyone? Here are some simple ways to do just that.
1. Toss the idea that kids have to “sit up and be still” in order to pay attention.
When the vestibular system is not functioning properly, movement wakes up the brain. So when such kids rock or wiggle in their chair, this actually helps—not hinders—their ability to focus. Similarly, when kids have retained primitive reflexes, they’ll slouch or sit in chairs in odd positions but that, too, actually make it easier for them to pay attention.
2. Provide opportunities for kids to get up and move within lessons.
We all need to move to stay focused. The irony is . . . the classroom teacher is often the one who moves the most in the classroom.
3. Ask questions instead of issuing directives.
Kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain may not process directives the same way others hear it. In such case, a directive may become distorted and trigger a response that often seems disproportionate to what was actually said.
For example, a simple statement, such as, “Thomas, put away your book,” may be heard as: “THOMAS! PUT AWAY YOUR BOOK!” In such case, Thomas now responds as though someone had just threatened and yelled at him.
On the other hand, if we forgo directives and ask questions, we avoid this possibility altogether. Here, the teacher would say, “Thomas, did you think we wanted your book on top of your desk or inside?”
In short, questions are always processed in the cortex (where we want students to be at all times).
4. Reduce visual stimuli on the walls, ceilings, desks, and around the white board.
Some kids with an underdeveloped midbrain also have what’s called a visual figure-ground problem. Here, the brain has difficulty relegating information to the “background” and keeping what’s important in the foreground. So all those extras (that we thought were providing a stimulating room environment) are just sensory overload for many kids.
5. Keep directions short. Model both what you do and do not want to happen.
Kids with an underdeveloped midbrain don’t often process speech at the same speed as the rest of us. So, when teachers fire off multi-step directions, these kids are still processing the first part while teachers are now explaining the next step. We also increase the probability of kids comprehending directions if we take a few seconds to model what we don’t want to happen. Such contrast helps to make the desired action crystal clear.
6. Pass out materials only after the directions have been given.
When the midbrain is underdeveloped, it’s often like we have a magnetic draw to touch whatever is in front of us. So, by waiting to pass out materials, we automatically ensure that such kids are not playing with materials when directions are given.
7. Refrain from requiring kids to make eye contact.
If kids’ don’t have good peripheral vision (which is often the case with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain), they’re not going to be able to sustain good eye contact, whereas kids with poor eye teaming may actually see multiple images if forced to look directly at the person talking.
In short, kids with limited peripheral vision and poor eye teaming will be able to pay better attention to what the person is saying if they’re not required to make eye contact.
8. Honor the act of thinking, rather than getting the “right” answer.
If teachers deem an answer “wrong” in front of the whole class, kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain are likely to shut down or respond negatively (i.e. we see the black, empty screen when we’re in the survival part of the brain). That’s because such kids are “wired” to go into fight-or-flight behavior as soon as they feel threatened or fearful or uncomfortable.
So what can teachers do instead? Well, they can thank the student for giving the question “a whirl,” as well as acknowledge the thinking that went into the response.
Just eight simple tips . . . yet they can radically change many kids’ learning experience. What would it take to make these changes in every classroom?
Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to associate slouching with being inattentive. That’s why we often hear adults telling kids, “Sit up, and pay attention!”
Yet, I know many kids who actually pay less attention when made to sit up straight.
How can that be?
Well, some kids have retained primitive reflexes. In such case, sitting upright in a chair isn’t as automatic as it should be.
For example, a child with a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex will experience difficulty doing movement that goes against the pull of gravity. So these kids can only sit upright for a very short period of time before being “pulled down” (i.e. gravity wins).
This then explains why such kids sink lower and lower into their chair, or they sprawl across the desk when reading and writing. At least, in these positions, they can start to concentrate on the task as hand (they’re no longer distracted by fighting gravity) . . . that is, until they’re, once again, told to sit up straight.
Some teachers mistakenly think the child who always puts his head on the desk while writing is not going to bed at an appropriate time. She may even call the parent about this.
If the parent does not also understand the connection between retained primitive reflexes and difficulty sitting upright in a chair, she may now put her child to bed earlier (even though she’s a little miffed about the call because her child does go to bed at a decent hour).
Yet that mom can put her child to bed at noon or earlier—and he’s still going to go down, down, down when sitting in a chair. He’s wired to do so.
But now, the teacher may think the parent is ignoring her bedtime concern or lying about his real bedtime. After all, the child is still always sprawled over the desk. Since the mother is putting the child to bed earlier, she may start to think the teacher is just out to get her son. And all the while, no one understands the real reason the child slouches.
We’ve actually all experienced fighting gravity while sitting up. Think when we’ve had a bad flu. Suddenly, trying to sit up (let alone straight) is very cumbersome. We’d much rather be lying down, right? Imagine, then, how difficult this is for kids with primitive reflexes, who have to deal with this all the time.
So, maybe the next time we see a child slouching . . . we let it be.
Is our reaction to our kid’s next year’s teacher based on personal experience, or is it coming from what we’ve heard on the soccer field, walking around the neighborhood, or playing cards at Bunko?
If it’s the latter, how many of those parents actually had first-hand experience with our child’s assigned teacher?
For example, one of my daughter’s absolutely best elementary school teachers was believed to be (by the neighborhood gauge) so dreadful that many parents considered changing schools rather than have their child enrolled in that class. In contrast, my child’s worst year was with a prior “teacher of the year” who was the neighborhood favorite. Go figure.
But my point: It’s only your child’s experience with the teacher that matters. So, why not keep an open mind for now?
Some schools post class lists a few days prior to the start of school, while others send home a letter with just the teacher’s name and room number.
Of the two scenarios, the latter creates the most angst since parents (and kids) immediately get on the phone to see who else is in the same class. But what’s the message here? The school year is going to be terrible if our child’s best friend is in another classroom? Thought the classroom was . . . a place to learn. And what about making new friends?
People don’t move into a neighborhood per criteria that ensures the right number of kids for each class at each grade level. So, sometimes administrators have to create combination classes (two grade levels in one classroom). That means some kids have to be in those classrooms, including . . . maybe ours. Before we start dwelling on problems a combo class might present, why not wait to learn how the teacher plans to meet different grade level expectations?
The Portable Classroom
Sure, portables may be not as cozy and attractive as the main buildings, but what’s the alternative? Would we rather the school ban portables and bus our kids to another school?
The First Morning
Is our send-off showing we’re confident the day will go well, or is it long and laced with a subconscious message that reflects our own doubts and worries?
The truth is . . . none of us know how the first day of school will go. So if worrying made a positive difference in the outcome, then I’d say . . . worry away! But it doesn’t. In fact, the more anxiety we have over our child’s first day, the more likely whatever we’re “putting out there” may even happen.
So why hold on to any first-day-of-school anxiety? Why not just look forward to the possibility of a new, wonderful school year?