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Volume 54 Number 6 March 1997


How Children Learn

Perspectives / How Do Children Learn?

By Marge Scherer

For that matter, how do adults learn? I am tempted to answer "the hard way."

Research into aging and dementia indicates that "mental gymnastics are important in keeping neural networks alive and in forming new ones." If you want to keep your brain functioning, you may need to master new challenges, Harvard Weomen's Health Watch advises ("Seven Suggestions for '97"). Thus, if you are a knowledge worker, simply planning, reading, writing, working on your computer, and studying in your field won't help you as much as would tackling something you are completely unfamiliar with.

And, as many of those among the 1.5 million adults going back for graduate degrees each year would probably admit, learning something new at an older age is not stressfree.

Babies have it a little easier. Born with more than 100 billion brain cells, they are wired to quickly start making the connections (forming the synapses) that will allow them to make sense of a baffling world. Harry Chugani, a neuroscientist, suggests that a child's peak learning years occur between ages 4 and 10, when the brain needs twice the blucose that an adult brain does to form those synapses (Viadero 1996).

That's just one of the facts that medical researchers, through chemistry, the technology of magnetic resonance imaging, and other techniques (see illustrations, pp. 12-13), are revealing about how humans learn. Implications of this research for education are not crystal clear, but many of the new facts seem to back up what progressive educators say about creating optimum conditions for learning.

For example, as Renate Caine spells out in her principles for maximizing learning (p.11), the brain is a social organ. We learn from one another. Second, the brain seeks connections to what it already knows (a factor that perhaps makes learning harder as we grow older and crave even more relevance). Third, every brain is unique in organization. That we are intelligent in many ways and learn through many different styles underscores the need to reorganize our classrooms, many teaching strategies, and appreciate the role emotion plays in learning, instead of merely labeling kids and ourselves analytical or global, verbal or kinesthetic, practical or creative.

In her new book, The Girl with the Brown Crayon (1997), renowned kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley reminds us of another key ingredient in learning for both children and adults. In the year before her retirement, she discovered--one more time--"passion in the classroom." Working with her 5-year-olds, especially the child for whom the book is named, she watches them become fascinated--almost mesmerized--with the books written and illustrated by Leo Lionni. Lionni, like Paley's protagonist, is partial to the color brown and shows particular insight into characters who think differently and feel separate from their companions.

"Perhaps all paths this year do lead to Leo Lionni," Paley writes, as she and her co-teacher encourage and facilitate children's learning to read, write, draw pictures, and perform plays, as well as make great leaps in understanding vocabulary words, social realities, and the relevance of literature to their lives. "I resist the uninvented classroom," Paley writes about her own learning. "I need the immense preoccupation of a group of teachers and students' inventing new worlds."

In this issue, educators share with us many insights about how to invent such classrooms. In continuing to make such discoveries, we follow the tradition of our acestors whose cave drawings have made so many latter-day humans marvel over the human brain--and ask, as John Abbott (p.6) does, What does it mean to be intelligent?

I, too, intend to keep on learning.

References

 Paley, V.G. (1997). The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

"Seven Suggestions for '97." (January 1997). Harvard Women's Health Watch, p.1.

Viadero, D. (September 18, 1996). "Brain Trust." Education Week on the WEB