What if teaching mirrors how the human brain learns?


“Here we are again.” These are the words of a Tennessee art teacher that reflect educators’ distrust of the new school year as a recent wave of COVID-19 threatens plans to resume in-person learning. Yet in the face of all this continuing uncertainty, heroic educators always ask: How can I support my students? They consider both the socio-emotional skills of their students and the “unfinished” academic content.

Educators are right to be concerned about these issues. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey of more than 2,500 parents found that 65% were at least somewhat concerned that their child was “falling behind” in school, and the majority of them were concerned about their child’s social (60%) and emotional relationships. well-being (59 percent). Indeed, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that virtual learning “may pose more risk than in-person teaching” when it comes to mental and emotional health. Academically, numerous reports paint an alarming picture of the projected and measured losses in reading and math assessment scores for many students, especially those in underserved communities. This is of particular concern given recent data showing that more than one million students, most of them kindergarteners, have not enrolled in school, an alarming trend known as the “exodus from kindergarten”.

As schools and communities work on better education for the next year, it is essential that they also use the best learning science to teach children in a way that reflects the way the human brain learns. .

At the start of the new school year, schools are encouraged to ‘accelerate learning’ – rather than practicing deficit-focused correction – a load that will help educators move children forward after a tumultuous year by tackling everything. unfinished content from the previous year within the classroom. level courses. As schools and communities work on better education for the next year, it is essential that they also use the best learning science to teach children in a way that reflects the way the human brain learns. .

Our education system has always struggled with this task. Educators and scientists are often plagued by a problem we call “binning”. We believe that socio-emotional skills are independent of academic performance. We assess student performance with separate assessments in reading and math. In older classes, we assign each subject its own classroom and its own teacher.

But science tells us that this is not how the human brain learns. Children do not learn math content only in math lessons or extracurricular activities pre-labeled “math”. It is the same for reading. In fact, reading and math skills are built on a similar basis. Imagine the human brain as a house with a foundation forming a base for learning all kinds of things, such as social skills, math, and reading. In the human brain, this foundation is a set of skills called executive functioning.

A new study has examined whether reading and math skills share the same cognitive basis. The researchers measured the basic reading, math and executive skills of first-graders. Scientists found that children’s reading and math scores were associated with a common set of skills in both subjects, as well as executive function skills. The “home” of reading and math was built on the same psychological foundation.

This study and others reveal that learning in young children is not a one-to-one correspondence between a subject trash can and the skills required. Learning doesn’t work like that. It is more integrated between bins and capacities. Reading does not depend solely on the ability to identify the sounds of speech. Success in math doesn’t just depend on the ability to count and even involves early reading and writing skills. It is crucial that educators target the foundation, which includes executive function and general knowledge. And we know how to do it through active learning, a holistic, child-centered approach to teaching.

Our team’s report for the Brookings Policy 2020 series provides an evidence-based, yet flexible, framework for educators to use this approach while drawing on their own expertise and knowledge of their students. It describes both how children learn best and what skills children need to acquire in the 21st century, and provides a checklist that educators can use to guide them through the implementation process. Pilot data even shows that teachers are happier and like to teach more when they use a more holistic approach, rather than a silo approach.

As we begin another school year filled with apprehension and hope, let’s reimagine our schools and classrooms as places where all children can learn through science-based methods, while celebrating our students and our teachers.


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