Smart Moves:Why Learning is Not All in Your Head

    Carla Hannaford

After hearing Carla Hannaford quoted many times, I decided that it was time to read this book and I was not disappointed. I started summarizing and excerpting books years ago to share with staff, but one of the primary benefits was to slow down my reading and to allow me the time to think more deeply about the implications of the author’s words. If you follow our blog, you have come across the understanding that thinking is not all in your head. We would have little difficulty with that if we didn’t already “know” that that all learning takes place in our brains. Changing our thinking, our beliefs, and our actions is much more difficult than learning when it does not require unlearning. I hope that the following excerpts cause you to pause as they have me.

Dr Williams for COVD

We have missed a most fundamental and mysterious aspect of the mind: learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest movements in utero right through old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world and from which to draw when creating new possibilities.

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Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, focused interest in what we do. In three weeks we can get ten times more proficient at anything if we are emotionally engaged with focused interest. Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates neurogenesis (nerve growth) for a lifetime. (This has been proven over the last decade when it comes to treating amblyopia. Intensive visual tasks for 20 minutes are more effective than hours of patching without a challenging, engaging activity.)

What we know, feel, learn, and think is shaped by how we know, feel, learn, and think. How we do these things is in turn dependent on the sensory-motor systems though which all our experience of the world and of ourselves is mediated. These sensory-motor systems shape our experience, and are shaped by it. So the story of how these systems unfold is a vital key to understanding learning.

Our proprioceptive sense constantly sends feedback to the brain that readjusts the balance of our shoulder and neck muscles in order for the eyes to remain level while reading.

Touch, hearing and proprioception are important organizers of the visual aspects of learning. Vision is a very complex phenomenon, with only a small percentage (less than five percent) of the process occurring in the eyes. The other over ninety-five percent of vision takes place in the brain from the association with touch, hearing, and proprioception.

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It’s easy to forget, or ignore, how much of vision is learned. We have to train ourselves, through books, movies, and art to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional space. We could call this visual literacy.

The eyes must be actively moving for learning to occur.

Words can only be understood when they provoke some kind of image in the mind of the learner. If students cannot access the underlying images, the words are not comprehensible; there is no context or visual understanding.

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Computer scientist David Gelernter makes this point emphatically: “Emotions are not a form of thought, not an additional way to think, not a special cognitive bonus, but are fundamental to thought.” Gelernter goes on to assert that emotions are also “inextricably tied up with bodily states. The bodily state is part of the emotion, feeds it and helps define it. This means that ultimately you don’t think just with your brain; you think with your brain and body both.”

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One of the most important things a teacher can do, especially with students with disabilities, is to bond with them. CAT scans show that children process information through their emotions first, and information that is the most emotional and emotionally relevant to them, is what students will learn. On the other hand, insecurity and fear can bring learning to a screeching halt by shutting down higher brain connections.

Another unnatural challenge has to do with learning to print block letters as the first step in writing. Printing is a highly linear process that takes us away from the more continuous rhythmic flow of language, both as it is experienced in the mind and as it is expressed through the hand – as in cursive…. Part of the problem is hand development, and asking children to perform the complex process of printing, way too early. In order to print the child must first crawl for a good long time with hands forward, to develop the bones in both the hand and to gain upper arm strength…. If you look at an X-ray of hand development, you will notice that the very intricate bones of the area near the wrist – the carpals, are not fully developed until about age twenty. The more developed these bones, the easier to hold a pen or pencil to print. If the child has had a lot of sensory-motor activation of the hand, printing can be more easily taught at about ages eight to ten.

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Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools.

Having been flooded a number of times, flood analogies come to mind. Trying to rush development is like trying to pump the water out of your basement before the level of the ground water goes down. You waste a lot of time and effort if you start too soon because the water keeps coming back in. You are eventually successful when the water (or the child) is ready. It is easy to fool yourself about the influence that you had be starting early. If we try to push children too early, we can also create failures as some children become confused and frustrated who would have done fine when they were ready and interested. Combined with this is the opportunity cost of what these children could have been doing and learning to enrich their experiential background prior to the vicarious experience that we get through reading. There is so much that can be experienced and learned in an interesting, interactive classroom. They can even go outside the classroom where most real learning takes place.

You may think that it is a contradiction for me to disparage in any way the potential to learn through reading but we learn very little when we read about things we don’t already know quite a bit about. This book is a good example. It would have glossed off me forty years ago when I knew that all learning took place in the brain. Decades of experience has enabled me to take information from this book that I could not have understood earlier in my career.

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Tummy Time

Visual Factors in Reading

When will identifying vision problems that affect learning become a new standard of care?

 

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What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 3

Rae Pica

 

Explicit learning may get the facts across more quickly than learning through exploration and discovery, but the latter has far more meaning to children and stays with them longer.

Adult personality is built on the child’s play. Among the social skills learned are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and to take the perspective of others. Play provides opportunities for children to meet and solve problems – the number-one ability they will most assuredly require in this rapidly changing world. It helps children express their thoughts and feelings and to deal with stress. To cope with fears they can’t yet understand or articulate. Through play, children acquire literacy, mathematical, and creative skills. Make-believe play, in particular, has been linked to self-regulations skills, which in turn have been linked to greater academic success than IQ has. How is social development supposed to be fostered? Do we imagine that one grows up and suddenly knows how to effectively communicate and collaborate and to be part of a community?

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Everyone benefits from a break. As far back as 1885 and 1901, the research is quite clear on this: both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods).

Outdoors, children can engage in behaviors (loud, messy, and boisterous) considered unacceptable and annoying indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have an opportunity to take control of their world, which is a rarity in their lives and which offers more preparation for adulthood than does memorizing the state capitals.

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Research has demonstrated that children learn better when they learn on their own or from each other.

Nowhere else in the world do standardized tests play such a large role in education. Standardized tests promote the myth of “one right answer”. There is a real danger to our children if they grow up believing there is only one right answer to every question.

Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, said that as a result of all the pressure placed on them to be perfect, today’s children lack resiliency, a key characteristic in happy, successful adults. The first time they make a big mistake, they fall apart. Additionally, she said, we’re raising a generation of kids afraid to take risks and to try creative things. They just want to “stick to what they know, pass that test, get that A, and move, on.”

Just because the things in children’s lives have changed, it doesn’t mean the children themselves have.

The homework debate has a long history, dating back to the 1920s and the 1930s. But one has to wonder why there’s any debate at all, when the research clearly shows no correlation between academic achievement and homework in elementary school.

      There’s also the value of relaxation, which is both a learned skill and a necessary one. Acquiring the ability to relax enables children to find a quiet place inside themselves that allows them to cope – to maintain control over their bodies and minds. The child who learns to relax will have the ability to manage stress and therefore lead a healthier – and more serene – life. But it will also ensure a more energetic life, as stress is most certainly an energy robber. There’s no debate over whether learning is important for kids. The thing is, they’re learning all the time; it’s just unfortunate that learning about such things as oneself, nature, and stress management are not considered as worthy today as are math equations and spelling words.

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People tend to misunderstand what positive reinforcement is. Ellen Ava Sigler said, “They believe that positive reinforcement is sweets, treats, and empty praise, when positive reinforcement is positive attention. Simply acknowledging a child’s work or talking to a child about what they’re doing is positive reinforcement. The child who has come to expect an intrinsic reward – who has become convinced that everything she does is worthy of praise or prizes – will be the adolescent or adult who can’t handle life’s realities.

I just read a review of a soon to be released book entitled, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. It struck me what a small percentage of self-help books are on improving your math skills, reading sills, or note-taking abilities and how many are on themes like emotional agility. There is a disconnect between how we are pressuring children in the educational race with narrow goals with the assumption that this will help them later in life and the problems that they are most likely to have as adults – those without a single correct answer. The goal of education should be to prepare the whole child for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. School has many opportunities and should have the expertise to help children develop skills other than math and reading which have been determined to be more important to their ultimate happiness and success in life.

diverse

Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development

The End of Average

The Mislabled Child

Assessing and Helping Children with Learning Challenges

The Mislabled Child is one of the first books I would recommend for concerned parents and educators. The authors, Brock and Fernette Eide, are neurologists who were invited to address the College of Optometrists in Vision Development in 2006, due to their enlightened understanding of children with learning difficulties. They recognize that learning problems have neither a single cause nor a single treatment. They explain why children with learning problems require a thorough, multi-disciplinary evaluation based on their signs and symptoms. They also explain who should do the evaluations and how diagnosed problems should be treated. Continue reading

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Hans G. Furth and Harry Wachs

There has always been a temptation to ignore the influence of child development. Development takes time; not everyone develops at the same rate; and all areas may not develop on the same schedule within one individual. There is an increased temptation to ignore development when there is pressure to push students to meet short-term academic goals. Continue reading

Sleights of Mind

 

By Stephen L. Machnik and Susana Martinez-Conde

With Sandra Blakeslee

This book, written by two specialists in visual neuroscience with the help of a science writer, uses magic and visual illusions to explain perception. The use of magic makes the book fun to read and it is fascinating to realize that magicians have had an empirical understanding of visual attention, perception and distraction for centuries. The following excerpts address some of the illusions that we have about how we function. Continue reading

Balanced and Barefoot

 

 

Angela J. Hanscom

While I advocate free outside play, I surprised myself when my first reaction to Angela Hanscom’s recommendation that children have three hours of free outside play a day was, “that’s not going to happen”. And yet that is how most of the parents of today’s children grew up and how almost all of their grandparents grew up.

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I am writing this after spending most of my day outside in the yard. I did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and how I wanted to do it – a fairly good definition of play. It wasn’t an organized sport at a scheduled time with people telling me what to do and judging how I did it. It was for my satisfaction. And the smells. Do you know what people and clothing smell like when they come in from outside? It is a subtle, ephemeral sensation that is nothing like fabric softener. We can’t top nature or even match it for that experience.

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I am not advocating that we go back to a “simpler time”. I am arguing that the pendulum has swung too far. While the world has changed, the developmental needs of children have not changed and most of the skills that children need to develop also have not changed. Using technology is a surface change. It doesn’t change the core needs of learning about ourselves, to use judgment, to inhibit our impulses, and to make decisions and live with the consequences. It has not changed the importance – or challenge – of getting along with others, nor has this gotten any easier to learn to do. Angela Hanscom’s thoughts about these issues are as follows….

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One problem that many therapists are seeing today, as opposed to thirty years ago, is that more and more children have trouble using the muscles of their eyes in unison, say to scan a room to find an object or to read a book accurately. Oftentimes, these vision problems go undetected, and children struggle in all aspects of their schoolwork. Typically, schools only assess a child’s ability to read letters or numbers off a chart. This tests their visual acuity. However, it is rare for schools to assess children’s ability to track and scan and effectively use their eye muscles.

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Children literally thrive by challenging their bodies. When their bodies aren’t challenged, they fall behind in their development.

 

 

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Without adequate gross motor strength, coordination, and control, it becomes very difficult to master fine motor skills, such as buttoning a shirt, cutting with scissors, and taking off shoes.

 

 

We start to develop core strength as infants. If children are given frequent opportunities to be on the floor as babies, especially on their bellies, they will start to develop their core muscles. For instance, when babies are given “tummy time”, they learn to start lifting their head up. This develops the muscles in the neck and back. The neck muscles need to be strengthened to support better looking and listening.

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The inner core (muscles of the hips, spine, pelvic floor, and diaphragm) establishes the midline! Without good core strength, there is no perception of center – no anchor on which to support smooth and efficient body movements.kid-1493889_960_720

For babies, crawling strengthens and develops the arches in the hands, later needed to grasp small objects (and to write).

Proprioception regulates how much force you need to use when completing tasks, such as peeling a boiled egg, without crushing it, holding a baby chick without squeezing too hard, and writing with a pen without ripping the paper.chick-in-hands-1446893155zjo

Although all children are born with the capacity for healthy sensory integration, they must develop sensory integration by experiencing many physical challenges during childhood.

 

 

Children learn best through hands-on and meaningful play experiences – something that is significant or important to the specific individual. When children can make connections with something that interests them, they are far more likely to engage with all their senses. When their senses are engaged, they are strengthening their sensory skills. And strong sensory integration results in a higher incidence of learning.

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The increase in how much time the school system expects children to sit is due to the expectations of teachers to fit in more and more curriculum at an earlier age. In fact, even kindergarteners are expected to sit for thirty minutes at a time at many schools. Teachers are under constant pressure to produce “results” in their students. By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to read, write, add, and subtract; if they don’t learn these skills, the children have failed, along with the teacher.

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Busy routines leave little time for free pay outdoors – the type of play that rebalances them and gives them respite away from an unnecessarily demanding world.img_6867

 

 

 

Organized sports can be an okay way for kids to get exercise, but they should be a supplement to active free play. Sports should be the icing on the cake, not the cake, when it comes to providing an environment for kids to thrive developmentally.

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Children need to experience failure which is necessary to develop the skills of persistence, control, and hard work.

Interpersonal intelligence needs to be learned through real-life experiences; it can’t be taught through textbooks or lectures.

 

The vestibular sense is necessary for attention, balance, eye control, and postural strength and more. Spinning in circles is one of the best activities to help children gain a good sense of body awareness. It basically establishes their center, or core. Until children have good awareness of where their center is, they will have trouble establishing a dominant side for writing and throwing, and coordinating the two sides of the body will be difficult. This is why it is important to allow your child to roll down hills and spin in circles just for fun.

 

The lymphatic system is vital for maintaining a healthy immune system. However, unlike the circulatory system, it doesn’t have a pump and moves only in one direction. This means it relies on the movement of our muscles and our diaphragm (muscle that aids deep breathing) to effectively replenish the system and get rid of toxins. If a lymph system becomes less active due to lack of movement, the body can be less protected against colds and illnesses.children-772275_960_720

Children in highly decorated classrooms are more distracted, spend more time off task, and demonstrate smaller learning gains when compared to when they were in classrooms with blank walls. Keeping things simple, as nature has already done for us, can assist with learning.

The Happy Kid Handbook

Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

The Importance of Being Little

Book Review: Nuture Shock: New Thinking about Children