Preparing children for success in school begins before they are born. At some time during pregnancy, brain cells are generated at the rate of 250,000 per minute. Prenatal care with good nutrition and absence of stress is clearly important to create a healthy and efficient brain.
In the first years of life the brain keeps developing but also prunes cells and connections that are not used. For babies and toddlers, a responsive and interesting environment in which it is safe to explore with all their senses is crucial for later success in school. Children who miss out on that will almost certainly develop learning delays.
In an infant’s life, stress especially can seriously hinder brain development. Anxiety and tension deplete the glucose necessary for mental learning and processing.
“The experiences of the first year can completely change the way a person turns out”, says neurobiologist Harry Chugani in the book Teaching With The Brain In Mind written by Eric Jensen.
Though parents are responsible for laying the foundation for learning, schools should build on that as best they can. Teachers must provide students with learning that is meaningful. Young kids, naturally inspired to learn and explore, may do well in school at first but at some point many lose motivation. The blame usually falls on them as if it were a conscious decision on their part to start to fail.
It is more likely that student attention and interest wane because there is too little time and opportunity to absorb information and reflect on it. The brain may be highly capable of taking in and storing knowledge, but in order to really learn and retrieve whatever has gone in, it needs a chance to link back to previous experiences.
Passive learning such as memorizing facts, listening to lectures, and simply answering textbook questions does not allow the brain to make useful sense of new information. It hardly engages the mind at all! Passive learning is really a misnomer. No one can passively learn anything–at least not for very long.
Actively engaged, the brain does what it was intended for. It compares, contrasts, and sorts information.
“The greater the number of links and associations that your brain creates, the more firmly the information is woven in”, says Jensen, who is a teacher and co-founded SuperCamp, a cutting edge academic program in Oceanside, California.
Information that lacks meaning is stored at random. It is in there somewhere, and many students actually “know” much more than their teachers or even they themselves think, but scattered and isolated facts are difficult or impossible to recall.
Active learning requires thought and questioning during class discussions and referring new information to personal views and experiences. It is personal involvement through sharing and debating that keeps students focused.
“The whole role of student-to-student discussion is vastly underused,” writes Jensen who argues that “teachers who continue to emphasize one-sided lecture methods are violating an important principle of our brain.” Namely, that humans are biologically wired for communication with one another.
Language is one of our most evolved specialties. From birth to adulthood our brains flourish when we share, discuss, and talk about things that have relevance and meaning to us. Without opportunity to utilize the very processes that also generate great thoughts and ideas, people’s brains are bound to regress.
Previously published in The Greeley Tribune, June 29, 2001
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