Are We Too Late? Teaching with Development on the Brain


It has been a while since I last posted. One reason is that I tend to be, unfortunately (to some parts of my life), a perfectionist. I started writing two different posts recently which I just couldn’t finish, and I was not happy with what I had written.

So today I am trying to commit myself to more frequent, but shorter posts. My inspiration for this approach is Barbara Blackburn’s (@BarbBlackburn) blog, Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word. Barbara has a very nice and concise style to her posts, and I am hoping that it might rub off on me.

On to today’s post.

This week my CFG (Critical Friends Group) looked into some brain research and how it can help the work we do as educators.

One of the things that surprised me was a section that discussed windows of development, time periods in brain development that seem to be ideal for acquiring certain skills. The two parts of this that I found particularly interesting were the emotional development, and the development of mathematical concepts and reasoning.

The following excerpt is from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families:

A great deal of emotional development takes place during a child’s first 18 months. Infants need loving care from a consistent caregiver. There is no substitute for a nurturing environment. Without it, a child will not attain emotional stability.

Between the ages of 1 and 4, children develop the capacity to understand logic and mathematical concepts. There is also a great deal of evidence suggesting that experience with music at an early age may enhance a child’s mathematical ability. Children whose math and logic capabilities are not exercised during this stage may have more difficulty learning those skills throughout life.

I’m a high school science teacher who co-teaches with a math teacher, and my first reaction was, “How can we possibly make up for lost time with students who struggle with math, logic, and/or emotional issues, if their brains stopped developing in these areas 10 years(!) before they even walked into my classroom?”

My next thought was, “How badly did I mess up my own kids’ development?”

One beautiful saving grace about our minds is that even when these windows of developmental opportunity close, there is still a level of plasticity in our neural connections. This allows us the ability to continue learning, albeit maybe not at the same skill level as others.

Yet, the fact that students do enter our classes with large gaps in these skill areas, requires us to address some larger questions:

  • What type of support can high schools provide to students whose early development in these areas was weak?
  • How to we fill in the gaps, so that high school students meet both testing and graduation requirements?
  • Can an older student with gaps in emotional development even begin to address academic needs before the emotional gaps are closed?
  • Are there structures in place in high school programs that can understand the needs of students in a timely manner, and then have enough flexibility in the program to address them?

Using a co-teaching model at the high school level is one answer to these questions. For example, today one of my students, for whom math is a challenge, struggled in manipulating negative values in an algebra lesson on quadratics. As the co-teacher in the room, I was able to pull him aside for some one-on-one work in order to provide some clarification and strategies for the types of problems he was working with.

This model of instruction is not possible in many schools, so what models does your school use, or could use, to address long standing developmental gaps?

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