What is happening in the brain when your child tries to study by repeatedly reading their notes or the textbook, but they find they don’t remember it very well? And, what is going on when they say they really need to listen to music through their earphones when they study? How about when they show they can work for longer that way?
Parents around the world are confronted with dilemmas like this every day and, for many of them, neuroscience has an answer. Usually, the high-level science behind how people learn is not necessary knowledge for any parent or educator. But you might want to know the basics.
The brain, our learning organ, operates by physical and chemical laws. Thus, learning is physical. So, if a child is successful in learning something, she/he has produced a physical change in her/his brain. There is a natural relationship between the brain’s structure and learning. If we look deeper into the structure of the brain to examine the physical matter of the brain itself, what we can see is that the brain is made up of complicated cells. They connected to one another in an immense network of fibres and branches. These cells are called neurones, and the connections between them create neuronal networks. In some ways, we could say that when we look at pictures of the neuronal networks of a human brain, we see a tiny bit of the knowledge the brain once had in its physical form. Neuronal networks are knowledge because knowledge is produced by the brain through the formation of and changes in its neuronal networks. Any change in knowledge must come from some change in the brain’s neuronal networks.
When a child’s brain first learns, the brain is engaged in perceiving the world around them, and the sensory cortex is the first to receive sensory input. During concrete experience, physical information from the world and the body enter the brain through the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin, mouth, internal organs, joints and muscles). This information is then sent in parallel to the emotion monitor (amygdala) and the specific parts of the cortex for each of the senses. If the amygdala recognises the experience as dangerous, it will trigger an instinctive body action, such as jumping back or freezing. That is the extreme response. Normally, both the emotional and cognitive content of an experience are sent on to the cortex to be processed by the back integrative cortex. This is where cognitive meaning begins to form. Then, your child’s brain creates new ideas from these meanings (front integrative cortex) and prompts them to act on those ideas (motor cortex). When this process is repeated often enough through engaging activities, the information is well-stored and habits are formed (basal ganglia).
Let me give you an example of how this could work in school or when homeschooling.
If you want your children to learn about the right angle (90°), you could first invite the children outside and challenge them to draw a basketball court using spray paint only. After they finish, you could look at some pictures of real, well-created basketball courts and invite them to discuss the differences and how the entire experience went. You could then invite them to do some research online about how this could be done better and what technical knowledge and additional instruments are needed. You could suggest resources and explain some of the theoretical concepts, including the right angle, as well as offer some of the additional instruments, like a protractor, masking tape and a tape measure. When back inside the house or classroom, you could continue the conversation, extending it to new life situations where similar knowledge and expertise is required. The children could complete several worksheets related to an area of interest. They would not have to work on the same worksheets. Instead, they could choose between fashion, interior design, landscape, navigation, etc., as all of these are areas of life that are dependent on knowledge of the right angle. To make sure this is embedded for the long term, you could schedule several similar activities outdoors during the year for a group of related theoretical concepts, only this time you would invite the children to come prepared with research and tools.
So, when we invite children to learn this way, we are helping them to build new neuropathways in a natural way that is both effective and engaging.
- Next time you help your children learn something, first think about how you can connect them to those significant concepts through the lens of their own experience.
- Second, help them to do research or introduce them to the excellent knowledge and ideas that are already available in the world.
- Third, help them to critique and examine by creating multiple practice activities that enable them to achieve mastery.
- Finally, encourage their creativity by moving them beyond the content for its own sake to the adaptation of learning in their own lives.
Of course, this is only a tiny part of how we can begin to understand the brain and learning. Advancements in technology are making research easier, and each day we discover new things about the brain and learning. To help you get started, I’ve created three beautiful infographics that you can download for free from our parents page if you scroll down to How The Brain Learns infographics.
Going back to the two questions I started with: If in the process of reading over their notes for a test, your child needs to practise active recall, they must not just let their eyes skim over the material. Instead, they must actively challenge themselves. This means doing things like covering up their notes and writing down, from memory, everything she/he can recall about the topic. Then, she/he can match these with key ideas from their notes and focus on the ideas that were forgotten. Maybe even write them out a few times. Then, encourage your child to do something else for a while, like take a break and retest later. In my How People Learn book, I share several engaging activities that children can use to test themselves. You can download a free chapter of the book to see if your child finds it useful.
Regarding studying with music playing, you can explain to your child that, actually, when she/he is listening to music, part of their brain is not focusing on their studies. Instead, it’s enjoying the music. The brain is not working as hard mentally. That’s why it seems like she/he can study longer while listening to music. The reality is, it can take much longer to learn something while listening to music. It’s a much better idea to study in concentrated bursts, focusing on only one thing: learning. Then, your child can use music as their reward when their studies are done.
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