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Lies about Learning

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Here’s some irony: Much of what we’ve “learned” about learning just isn’t true. So, what fiction is still circulating?

Doing specific movements while learning helps to keep the brain alert.

Lie #1: We learn best when we’re still.

While all of us need to move to keep our brain alert, we absolutely need to move if we have a sluggish vestibular and proprioceptive system.

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?

Why Kids Slouch

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We can glean clues about a child’s brain organization by how he sits in a chair.

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.

Choosing Your Child’s Teacher

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It’s a long year when kids are placed in an environment that does not fit how they learn best.

Parents often rely on the latest buzz around the neighborhood, soccer field or baseball bleachers to learn who’s the best teacher for next year.

But I never found those sources reliable. That’s because the real question is: Who is the best teacher for my child? So, here’s a set of questions to ask prospective candidates:

1. How do you honor kids in your classes? We’re hoping teachers rattle off a list of concrete examples that show how they find ways to make each child shine (regardless of their current academic level), how they peel back, as needed, to ensure kids don’t shut down, how they hold kids accountable for what they can do, and how they set challenges that are within reach of every child.

2. What percentage of the day are kids expected to be seated and quiet? How many opportunities to move are included within daily lessons (and can you give some examples)? If teachers stumble on providing specific ways movement is integrated into their curriculum or if there is a high percentage of seated, quiet time, this classroom may be problematic for kids who really need to move.

3. Are the majority of your lessons multisensory in nature? If so, can you give me some examples? Most traditional classroom lessons rely heavily on visual pathways. So good to know whether auditory, tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory stimuli are also included, especially if kids are not strong visual learners.

4. How do you create a “safe” learning environment? Ideally, teachers respond that they focus more on thinking (rather than just getting the right answer) and more on the process than the end product. So it may be a red flag if the teacher immediately refers to a set of classroom rules when answering this question.

5. How do you handle kids who are viewed as uncooperative or who do not finish their work? Looking to determine whether: a) the teacher views classroom problems as his or her responsibility to address or expects parents to bring about change; b) the teachers’ response to such kids could be considered punitive or “branding” the child (i.e. every student in the classroom can quickly name who always gets “in trouble”); c) withholding recess is used as a consequence for unwelcome behavior or not finishing work.

6. Do you assign homework that can be done independently by the child? How much time a night do you expect kids to do homework? Since parents seem to differ in regards to what’s an acceptable amount of homework and how much parents should be involved, good to know if the teacher’s homework policies are in sync with parents’ expectations.

7. How do you make learning joyful? (See Why Schools Fail for a list of ways to do this.)
But what if your school doesn’t allow parent input for teacher selection? Well, just a quick look around the classroom can be very telling. Parents can also answer the above questions as they hope their next year’s child would respond, and then give that to whoever is responsible for their child’s class placement.

 

The bottom line: Each year, kids spend more than a thousand hours in a classroom. Seems worth the time to ensure that environment is a good fit and one where the child can succeed.

Why Schools Fail

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What would it take to ensure
joyful learning in the classroom?

Bill Gates, along with other well-known philanthropists, has now contributed billions of dollars to improve education.

What kind of change has all that money created? Well, Newsweek recently gave the overall results a disheartening B-minus to C-minus grade.

So I guess money wasn’t the simple answer.

But what if, before ever donating a dime, all those philanthropists had first answered this straight-forward question: How can we make learning joyful?
Yep, when we answer that question, we may be surprised at how much everything else falls into place. Here is how I believe we can make learning enjoyable.

1) We rewrite standards.
I’ve yet to read a state standard that includes the word joy as part of any criterion. Somewhere along the way, we decided that it’s only, for example, important to learn how to read—but it’s irrelevant whether we ever enjoy reading. But I don’t think you can separate the two.

So I want to see the words “with joy” tacked onto whatever skills are spelled out in existing standards. Think we’d see a change in classrooms if such qualifying words were part of how we measure success?

2) We present lessons that trigger a positive physiological response in the brain.
When we provide opportunities to move, engage multiple senses, and interact with peers while learning, the brain is able to process information efficiently and stay alert. It may even release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and motivation.

In contrast, if the brain becomes frustrated or feels “threatened” (e.g. “I can’t do this”), it immediately shuts down, going to the survival part of the brain. With repeated failure, the child then additionally creates a general brain map that says: I can’t learn. I’m not smart.

3) We present curriculum that parallels natural brain development.
For example, since there’s a growth spurt of dendrites in the right hemisphere during ages 4-6, we should be engaging these kids in activities that include lots of movement, music, creative thinking, fantasy and other activities reflective of the right side of the brain. We actually used to do that with our youngsters.

But without any research to back up the change, we switched to a left-brain focus (e.g. reading, writing) that begins as early as kids start school. Any surprise that so many children are now struggling?

4) We encourage and honor thinking over finding the “right” answer.
Not sure how getting it “right” ever came to rule in the classroom. But it’s a completely different learning environment when kids feel as though their ideas and reflections and questions are valued more than getting the correct answer.

Decades ago there was a “just say no” campaign against drugs. Well, how about parents “just say no” to stressful learning. Starting today, let’s make learning without joy . . . unacceptable, unpopular, offensive.

I’m lucky. I think learning is one of the most blissful experiences. That’s why it makes me sad that so many kids have no idea what I’m taking about.

Preparing for Standardized Tests (In a Fun Way)

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It’s possible to make standardized testing a positive, fun experience.

As the date for standardized tests looms on the horizon, the classroom environment sometimes changes. Information is suddenly fired at students at rocket speed because . . .well, just maybe, something will sink in at the last minute, and a few more students will get a few more right answers on the test.

And who can blame teachers for doing so? With so much weight placed on standardized test scores these days, such frenzy is almost expected.

Yet, ironically, the more pressure students feel in regards to standardized tests, the more likely they won’t perform well. There are two primary reasons for this. Some kids shut down under pressure, while others try too hard.  However, with the latter, we get stuck in our left hemisphere, thereby increasing the chances of taking the test without the benefit of an integrated brain.

But we can easily change all of the above by making standardized testing a positive experience for everyone.  Here’s how:

1.  We present a different perspective of standardized tests.

We tell kids that standardized tests are a wonderful “deal” for them. After all, they don’t pay a dime for the costs to produce or score the tests, yet they get free feedback that assesses what they currently know. That’s it.

2. We hype the upcoming testing as if it were the Superbowl, and kids participate in similar activities.

For example, kids can do a daily countdown, such as, “Eight more days to Supertesting! Bring it on!”  Kids can also become cheerleaders, creating original cheers related to testing, and they can “produce” entertaining commercials that are then presented on test days.

3. Kids practice movements that wake up the brain, keep it alert, and integrate both hemispheres.

Such movements can include jumping, spinning, running, rocking, arm wrestling, push-ups, and cross-overs. Kids then do these movements right before the test.  They also practice movements such as neck rolls, nodding the head, and doodling Lazy 8s (an infinity sign) since these keep the brain awake while seated.  The act of chewing gum additionally helps the brain retain focus, which explains why many educators suddenly give permission to chew gum during standardized testing.

4. We provide good “brain” food and drink prior to starting the test.

Crunchy foods, such as pretzels, are considered alerting.  Foods high in protein (versus those with a high sugar content) are good for preventing blood sugar levels from rising and dropping suddenly.  And, of course, water is always the best drink for the brain.

So why not pass these ideas along to our kids’ teachers?  Even if they’re not receptive, as parents we can still do a modified version of all of the above at home.  And by doing so, we model how something that may have been perceived negatively can transform into something fun and positive.

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