Research on the brain and learning is providing exciting insights for
teachers, in many ways providing new understandings, in other ways
giving authoritative confirmation for classroom practices. Below are
intentionally provocative statements, each with a brief description
of how this implication can be drawn from the research.
The children who can learn from flashcards will learn better
if the card is round. The brain has evolved into a finely
tuned thinking organ, but an evolutionary pitfall lurks! When humans
are under stress, their brains automatically "downshift" to a lower
functioning level. This design allows fingers to pull away from a hot
pan before the thought "I need a potholder" can even be formulated,
but it just as easily sacrifices thinking and learning to such
"survival" responses. Under stress, humans drop from the thinking
level, to the emotional level, and eventually to the "fight or
flight" survival level.
Shapes can be ranked developmentally, based on the age at which each
shape can be easily recognized and copied. The circle is first shape
learned, at about developmental age three. Those children who can
benefit from flash cars will be most successful when they are working
at a slightly challenging level where they can safely extend their
skills. This means they will feel a small amount of stress. To keep
them from "downshifting" their thinking, flashcards should show the
least stressful, most recognizable of all shapes: the circle.
Circular cards generally allow children to focus more strongly on the
content of the flashcard, because the round shape is least
distracting. Pennsylvania teachers who have tried this report that
their students did actually recall the content of round flashcards
better than the traditional flashcards.
See: Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Renate &
Geoffrey Caine, Addison Wesley, New York, 1991. Also, books be
Barbara Meister Vitale
Movement is the only thing that unites all brain levels and
integrates the right and left hemispheres of young learners.
The locomotion centers of the brain are paired, facing one
another along the top of the right and left hemispheres, so that the
center controlling the left leg parallels the center controlling the
right leg, and so forth. For this reason, movement ties in both
hemispheres, allowing young children almost their only opportunity to
apply both sides of the brain to an effort and attempt to pass
information between the right and left hemispheres. For this reason
many young children (and older kinesthetic learners) must move to
learn. They are able to pay attention and learn only if they are free
to wiggle around; sitting still is a strain.
Communication between hemispheres begins when a child is about five
years old, becomes more effective around age seven (when a child can
deal with the abstract), and is fully communicating about age 9-10
for girls and puberty for boys. Until these maturation points, most
children are better off employing movement whenever possible to
See: The Brain and Learning: Directions in Early Childhood Education.
Marlin Languis, Tobie Sanders & Steven Tipps, NAEYC, Washington,
If children think a tall, thin container holds more than a
short wide container, there is no way for them to believe that "A"
and "a" are the same letter. Research has shown that from
about the age of 15, human brains have seven memory spaces, plus or
minus two spaces. The brain has to grow into these 7 + 2 memory
spaces. Every couple years another memory space is added, beginning
with one space by age three, then two spaces about age five, three
spaces around age seven, and so on, each with two more spaces under
optimal conditions, and two less under stress.
Children younger than five years old are not yet conserving, that is,
they think an equal volume of water poured into tall and short
containers must be "bigger" in the tall container. That is because
very young brains can, at most, use one memory space and deal with
one attribute at a time (focusing on tall vs. short, without thinking
of the narrow vs. wide dimension). It is impossible for the brain of
a very young child to accept that both "A" and "a" are the same
letter because they will evaluate the letters based on any one
attribute and conclude that the letters look different, therefore
they are different. Similarly, the big blue letter "B" on the
alphabet border must be different from the small black "B" in the
book, since neither the sizes nor colors match. Forward thinking
educators provide many opportunities for children to explore multiple
attributes through comparing, sorting, classifying, interacting with
manipulatives, and solving problems, because these activities will
help children develop their own thinking to a point where work with
words and letters has real meaning.
Between five and six years old children do begin to conserve,
frequently considering two attributes at once, and requiring two
memory spaces to do this. At this age children can be ready to learn
about letters, numbers, etc., especially if the learning takes place
in an emotionally positive environment, and is designed to link with
their prior knowledge or life experiences.
See: Wolf, Pat. "A Staff Developers Guide to the Brain", National
Staff Development Council, 26th Annual Conference, Orlando FL, 1994.
(audio tape from National Cassette Services, Int.) Also see Piaget's
writings on conservation.
If a child will be able to learn from worksheets it will not
happen until she/he can draw a diamond. Children who are
developmentally about seven years old have learned to draw a diamond,
which is the culmination of many factors in physical, brain and
visual development. Most children have begun to pass information
routinely between the right and left hemispheres of the brain by age
seven, allowing them to begin to think abstractly. This is possible
because seven year olds have three memory spaces (plus or minus two),
enough to realize that the 2-dimensional abstractions on a worksheet
are representative of real life while simultaneously considering the
content of the worksheet.
Also at age seven a child's eyes are typically able to track in a
full circle and therefore view an entire page. Prior to this, a
child's eyes have progressed on a developmental continuum from
tracking vertically, to horizontally, then diagonally and then in a
half circle (getting across the page then looking back to the
starting point without seeing the lower half of the circle, or page).
Also most second graders have outgrown the tendency to farsightedness
that is very common through age six, and made seat work especially
tiring for first graders.
Finally, six wrist bones are fully developed by seven years of age,
enabling children to indulge in the small printing favored by many
second graders, and appropriate to worksheet lines and spaces. So,
when children have matured in these ways, they can draw diamonds and
Teachers have 18 seconds to grab a child's interest.
Actually, every individual has 18 seconds, maximum, to gain anyone's
attention! The normal adult brain takes 18 seconds to decide
whether to keep or drop input, approximately enough time to hear one
sentence from beginning to end. This assumes that attention is
directed toward the input from the beginning of the 18 seconds!
(Visual, auditory and tactile stimulation are retained or dropped in
3/4 of a second or less. If this information were held longer the
brain would overload on things like the feel of clothing against
skin.) To retain input longer, the brain may rehearse, using
repetition, rhyme, music, movement, etc., or chunk information, tying
it to something else already known. Many popular classroom strategies
help children to retain information through songs, action poems,
repeated readings, etc.
See: Wolf, Pat. "A Staff Developers Guide to the Brain", National
Staff Development Council 26th Annual Conference, Orlando, FL, 1994.
(audio tape from National Cassette Services, Inc.)
This text is the sole property of Maria Almendarez Barron and may not
be copied or otherwise reproduced without her permission.
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