The sheer volume of technological advances across many platforms, together with the robust emergence of consecutive different-than-us generations, are enough to seemingly make the earth spin a little faster. The world of work used to applaud a process-driven output, and education followed suit: specific skills or tasks must be achieved at a specific time or age. However, with the rise in technology taking care of the calculated, repetitive tasks that require a precise process, the world of work and relationships are increasingly moving to an integrated focus: what is the big picture and how do we make things sustainable for a lifetime?
All of this begs the overall question: How do we ensure that we adapt, refocus and remain healthy, thriving, constructive and able to share our gifts and capacities in life-giving ways?
This question, focussed on the topic of educating our children, fascinates me endlessly. It has led me to develop an environment where capacity-building, wholesome learning processes can be explored by our wonderful children, because they will inherit this world, that grows and changes at least as fast as they do, in no time at all. And because they need the very
best that we can come up with, to be ready to join in the immense task and privilege of world-building.
In this two-part article, we will explore some thoughts on this huge, albeit exciting concept: how do we prepare our children to become thriving adults in their world? How do we choose a path for them among the many noises and voices, with wisdom and foresight?
In this article, we will dive into some facts and explore some thoughts around the brain and how it learns best. Part two will have us explore some concepts around play and soft skills.
Learning and the Brain
There is so much knowledge available to us today and our children know how to access this. Our role, to a large extent, has changed from imparting information to imparting the skills children need to work constructively with the knowledge available: How to process and validate information and communicate about what they know. Being able to come to conclusions, and make connections between seemingly unrelated facts that lead to new solutions for multi-dimensional problems. These capacities are the result of having the time to master knowledge with the express purpose of applying it, making meaning with it.
So, in light of this, let’s create a few hooks to hang our ‘education cap’ on:
- The brain has plasticity, in other words, it changes and adapts all the time to our internal and external environment. Internal environment: our thoughts, self-talk and consequent habitual emotions. External environment: our activities, relationships, physical space.
- The brain uses all the inputs from our environment to build neural networks that are used for all consecutive thoughts, interactions, experiences. eg: listening to music often, creates a pathway in the brain. Learning to play and instrument, will thus be easier for you, if you have been exposed to a lot of music. This process of learning to play, will turn that neuro-pathway into a highway, so to speak. Because the brain is very energy-efficient, it will use this ‘highway’ to perform multiple other complex processes. Creating strong neural networks through one activity, means that we can also effectively put different skills together for new outcomes: eg making music, art, math, organising, writing and speaking and in-depth study.
- The brain flourishes when the environment is full, rich, interesting and challenging. The best neural development happens when there are challenges to overcome, and space to explore the possible ways of doing so. (Note: learning styles are merely the order through which an individual processes incoming information – so we use all of them. Catering for just one or two styles narrows the environment we create.)
- The brain wants the big picture so it can process and remember a myriad of details. Seeing the big picture enables the brain to find the associations and links between topics, and also see the connection between previously learnt, familiar concepts as well as new ones. For example: understanding that everything is made up of atoms and molecules, creates a plethora of connections to different ‘subjects’ – suddenly plants, inanimate objects, animals, the human body all take on new dimensions as we see this big
picture that spans across the artificial boundaries created by teaching different subjects. Learning about atoms and molecules by building models with familiar objects (eg jelly, smarties, etc) creates a connection between familiar and new concepts, concrete and abstract ideas (atoms, which are invisible become ‘relatable’ and memorable because the senses were involved in the learning process)
- This is the natural way for our brains to learn and retain information in the long term memory banks. Seeing the big picture, and making connections between familiar concepts and new ones, making meaning and finding application for knowledge, are the aspects of learning that our children need our help with. Understanding these basic concepts of how the brain ‘likes’ to learn, and applying them to our childrens’ environment, will bring freedom, productivity and long term relevance to education.
To summarize all of the above into the practical ‘how’ of every day:
- Involving the senses and movement in the learning process, are crucial to the brains’ natural drive to learn, expand capacity and become proficient at different skills.
- Making, building, drawing and experiencing fosters deeper thinking and understanding, enables problem solving and frees the brain to make associations and find connections. It makes critical thinking accessible (more on this in part 2) and plays a significant role in storing the work in the long-term memory banks of the brain.
Lately, I have been thinking about gardening, and how it is such a great analogy of educating children. When we want a food garden, we inevitably dream of the fruits and vegetables that we are going to harvest…but achieving this will take time. We start in the most inconspicuous of places: Soil. Seed. Sun or partial shade. Water. We continue a process of fine tuning the environment that is best suited to the type of plants we want to harvest those fruit from…we hardly ever tweak and fiddle with the fruit itself. By engaging the needs of the part that remains hidden (the seed) we will eventually celebrate the part that is visible (the fruit) Also, when the plant shows signs of stress, fatigue, pests, we do not make changes to the fruit on the plant – we again tweak and make changes in the environment of the plant.
And so, processing all of the above, here is the thought I’m considering: If the focus of education moves to creating the kind of environment that works with the natural capacity of the brain to learn and adapt, we will be setting up our children with the ability and freedom to do, learn and become who they need to be, in order to participate in life, in ways that are uniquely meaningful to them and life-giving to those around them.