How Children Learn

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

Much research has been going on to determine how the brain works and how we learn. One area of particular interest is the way children acquire language and verbal skills. Scientists once thought that children learned to speak by simply listening to and imitating their elders. But as it turns out, this is only partly true. Leslie Hart, who has written extensively on the subject of how the brain works, noted:

The common sense notion that children acquire language by imitating elders has collapsed, along with elaborate attempts to provide a stimulus/response explanation. We realize now that a child has a deep, genetically transmitted tendency toward speech; that large, rather well defined areas of the cerebrum are allocated to language; and that each child builds anew a system of syntax. When children say “I felled down,” or “he hitted me,” or the dentist looked at my tooths” we can hardly claim that these were learned from adults or older siblings. Such utterances attest that children extract subtle rules from exposure to talk. They do this without teaching because the human brain is by nature a powerful patter/extracting device.

We should note, too, that while parents may modify their direct talk to babies, this soon stops. Most of the speech a child hears (including that on radio and television) is not simplified or “graded,” but is adult, complex, unplanned and unordered. Yet almost all children become quite expert talkers, wit even grater comprehension. Again we see demonstrated the power of a magnificent brain that is born motivated to learn in its own way. As Smith (1975) and others have pointed out, newborns begin at once a vigorous, aggressive effort to make sense of the world they have entered. If healthy, they probe, explore, examine, investigate, and test until they find themselves captive at a school desk, coerced to sit still and listen, to do only what they are told, and to start and stop that as ordered.

These are brain-antagonistic conditions and under them, learning grinds to a halt. School and brain are at loggerheads, and the consequences are the learning failures, discipline problems, confrontations, frustrations, and boredom we see at every turn.

If, as psycholinguistics and other neurosciences now tell us, the human brain is constantly active (even in sleep) and highly aggressive, how did we come to have schools that express the opposite: that the teacher should be active and the students passive, usually listening? If a four-year-old can “sort out” patterns of past tense and plurals from random, adult talk, why in school do we provide basal readers with tiny, graded vocabularies, and try to break down other subjects into portions of pap in much the same way?

Hart goes on to describe some of the anatomical reasons why the current system of conventional classroom teaching inhibits creative thinking and other elaborate intellectual processing, such as language development. Here are his findings:

  1. Humans operate by programs.… Our capacity to deal with the world increases as we build and store huge numbers of programs…. Learning can be usefully defined as “the acquisition of useful programs.”
  2. The brain is by nature a subtle, flexible computer that detects and recognizes patterns by noting similarities and differences…. The process of learning can be defined as “the extraction from confusion of meaningful patterns.”
  3. Instruction that presents information logically, in an orderly way, in small increments, clearly and simply explained, is likely to prove ineffective—all the more if it is heavily oral…. As we often see in reading instruction, what is well-intended and “logical” may actually have a negative effect, frustrating and confusing natural learning.
  4. …Children must do …but telling is still what goes on in most classroom instruction. The nature of conventional classrooms forces teachers into this futile role and demands that students “stop talking!”
  5. …“Threat” must be minimal. We have long recognized that learners do not play, or explore, or experiment, or take risks, unless they feel relaxed and secure…
  6. The raw material of learning from which patterns may be extracted…is needed in huge quantity and variety for best learning. Outside the classroom, input is a deluge; inside, it is a trickle.[1]

In her book “Endangered Minds,” Jane Healy refers to animal research indicating the importance of active involvement and interest and their effects on learning.

Dr. Diamond and others have found that to keep the enriched rats’ brains growing, they must frequently change their toys to keep them curious and interested. In another experiment, simply having the rats climb over a pile of toys to get their food caused visual areas of the cortex to increase 7%.

Greenough agrees: “It appears that active interaction with the environment is necessary for the animal to extract very much appropriate information. Merely making visual experience of a complex environment available to animals unable to interact with it has little behavioral effect.” In support of the latter point, animals have been placed in small cages inside enrichment cages so they can watch their brothers and sisters play, although they cannot themselves get at the toys. The brains of the spectators end up not much different from those animals in impoverished cages.

As well-intentioned parents and teachers, we all sometimes end up taking charge of learning and trying to “stuff” in rather than arranging things so that the youngster’s curiosity impels the process…. Children need stimulation and intellectual challenges, but they must be actively involved in their learning, not responding passively while another brain—their teacher’s or parent’s—laboriously develops new synapses in their behalf!

Any activity which engages a student’s interest and imagination, which sparks the desire to seek out an answer, or ponder a question, or create a response, can be good potential brain food. Particularly in an age when we need “enriched” minds to grapple with increasingly complez problems, we should not encourage or even condone large doses of passive observing or absorbing for growing brains. But it is happening—not only in front of the TV, but in too many day-care centers, schools, after-school activities, and even homes. How much does this learner passivity contribute to lagging academic skills? A great deal! [2]

Dr Healy tells about a famous experiment in which identical-twin kittens were put into a large circular container painted with black and white vertical stripes. One kitten was confined to a small moving basket while the other could walk around. Though they had the same visual stimulation, the passive kitten became functionally blind to vertical stripes while the other kitten developed visual connections between his location and the stripes. Healy then quotes Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein: “Experience shapes brains, but you need to interact with the experience. Physical play is one of the main ways in which children interact with experience.” [3]

Interaction with adults, including language stimulation, is one of the growing brain’s most important assets, according to the research of Dr. Arnold Scheibel. He declares that parents are actually “participating with the physical development of their youngsters’ brains to the exact degree that they interact with them, communicate with them. Language interaction is actually building tissue in their brains—so it’s also helping build youngsters’ futures.” [4]

Any child who can spend an hour or two a day, or more if he wants, with adults that he likes, who are interested in the world and like to talk about it, will on most days learn far more from their talk than he would in a week of school. — John Holt

[1] Leslie A. Hart in Educational Leadership, March, 1981
[2] Jane M. Healy in “Endangered Minds—Why Our Children Don’t Think,” 1990, Simon & Schuster, p. 72, 73.
[3] Idem., p. 80
[4] Idem., p. 131