6 Learning

Here’s a question:  Are you teaching if students are not learning?  Professionals have debated this idea for generations.  I will leave you to ponder this thought.  For now, let’s look at some basics of learning.

Our brain was designed to question, explore and learn. We are born with billions of neurons just waiting to be connected.  Each experience we have, throughout our lifetime, creates connections or pathways between the neurons.   Learning begins at birth and continues until the moment we die.

In order for our brains to function effectively, it needs to have the following:  exercise, sleep, oxygen, hydration (water), and food.  If the brain lacks any of these, the brain will not function at full capacity.  Think about students who do not receive enough of one or more of these.  They are at a disadvantage from the second they step into the classroom; before instruction even begins.  As educators, we have little control over sleep, and oxygen is not a concern unless a child has a lung concern, but we can assist in the remaining needs.

Food and water are basics for life.   Allow students the opportunity for a snack.  It’s not unusual for teachers to have a stash of snacks for students who may not have one.  Many elementary schools have a snack time built into the day now, but the older children don’t always get this.  Fuel is important and you may need to plan for children to have a “nibble” as they are learning.  You will also want to encourage children to drive plenty of water during the day.  Water is very important for the body to function properly.  Keep this in mind for yourself also.  Pop, juice and energy drinks are not what the body needs.  Be sure to drink lots of water.

Exercise is easier in elementary than secondary classrooms.  Most elementary schools have at least one recess in the day.  Students should actually have more than one, but if that’s what you have then you have to work within that structure.  Please don’t take recess away from a student!  They need to have the opportunity to “burn off steam” and get fresh air and exercise.  There is a wide body of research that supports the connection between movement and learning.  Children need the time to move.  There are also a wide variety of social skills that are learned on the playground.  Children learn problem solving and how to enter play.  This is a very important social skill.  When your day just seems out of control and children are unable to focus, take them outside!  It will be the best thing you can do for them and you!

It’s a bit tougher for secondary classrooms.  You have very limited time, there is no recess planned and you have a lot of content to cover.  A simple exercise of having students stand in one place and move their body from side to side, backwards and forwards and then jumping up and down will “jump start” the brain and help them re-focus on what they should be doing.  We will talk more about this idea of movement a bit later.

Never Stop Learning words and girl with hands up, graphics for learning areas such as science, music, geography, math.

There are three definitions of learning that I want you to know.

  1. 1. Learning is a change in the neuron patterns of the brain.
  2. Learning is the ability to use information after a long period of disuse.
  3. Learning is the ability to use information to problem solve, and/or use it in a different manner or circumstance from which it was learned.

Make note of these!  They are important!

Terry Doyle from Ferris State University says that “The one who does the work is the one who does the learning.”  This is most certainly true!  Students have to put work and effort into learning the material that is presented to them.  It doesn’t just flow into the brain and stay.  The type of work and the amount of effort will vary among our students.  They will have to work harder in some areas than others; you probably already know that based on your own learning experiences.  As teachers, we have to help students discover what types of strategies will work for them.  We’ll talk more about that a little later.

As the brain takes in information, it will look for patterns, look for similarities and differences, look for relationships and connect the new information to what is already known.  All of these will create new brain connections and can result in learning.  The information goes into the short term memory, but in order for learning to take place it has to make the transfer to long term memory.  Here is how the cycle works:

The teacher shares knowledge the students need to learn.

The student’s short term memory is activated and records information that is important.

Neurons fire creating networks that represent the new information

If the student does not use the information, or only uses it a few times, the neuron-networks that represent that new information will break apart and be lost.

If the information is used a great deal (reviewed, applied and practices), the neuron networks form strong connections and become part of long term memory and then…


You can see that the student has to be actively involved in order for learning to take place.  Our responsibility is helping them develop strategies for making this transfer from short term memory to long term memory.

A very large factor in learning is repetition.  Students have to interact with the information over and over. Many of you do not sing your ABCs every day, but if I asked you to do it I bet you could.  The reason is that you really did learn it several years ago.  The information made the transfer from short term memory to long term memory.  Just reading an assignment, or listening to a lecture, is not enough to learn the information.  We have to spend time interacting with the material and in a variety of ways.

First off, we have to be certain the information we are trying to learn is accurate.  Neurons in the brain fire for misinformation as well as accurate information.  If you don’t understand an idea, or have questions, be sure to ask them.  Do not assume.  If you do not ask, you run the risk of studying information that is not correct or of doing something incorrectly.  Always be sure the information you are studying is accurate, and that your students understand this idea as well.

Second, students need to take the time to reflect.  Ask how the new information connects to what you already know.  Search your experiences and see if there is one that connects to this idea.  You can use it to help assimilate the new information.  Look back over how this information was presented to you and see if there are any connections there that will help you remember.  Ponder how you might use this new information.  Some students find keeping a reflective journal an effective strategy for them to use when processing new information.  A journal is a tool that will allow them to “think about” and reflect on the information.  Keep in mind, this may not be effective for everyone.

Another tool for transferring information from the short term memory to the long term memory is review.  Our review has to begin immediately.  We have to look the information over and create strategies for studying.  These will vary greatly among our students.  We have to help them discover what learning tools work for them.  For example, let’s look at learning spelling words.  We have all had the list of spelling words we needed to learn.  We all had our own way of doing it, but most of us just kept spelling the words over and over.  I worked with a third grader who struggled with spelling.  I had him draw pictures that made a connection for him.  Some of the words he drew pictures for and others he incorporated the word into the picture.  This worked for him and his spelling improved.   Again, this doesn’t work for everyone.  Others find flash cards helpful, or drawing graphs and diagrams, writing songs or poems with the concepts to be learned or creating games to play with study buddies.  Some students will highlight in their textbooks and write notes in the margins.  The bottom line is that students have to find a way to review information that works for them.  In some cases, we have to teach our students how to learn.

One review tool is a concept map.  You may also know this as a graphic organizer or web.  All of these terms refer to basically the same thing.  It is a visual organization of material.   As they create, they are interacting with the material again (repetition) and then they have a tool to use when they review the information.

Re-coding is a very effective tool in learning.  Re-coding involves writing the information you receive in your own words.  Taking notes is one way to re-code, as long as you are not copying word for word from a text or power point.  Keeping a learning journal is another way to re-code information.  Re-coding allows the student to put the ideas in his/her own words and based on our own experiences with the information.  This improves learning.  Don’t memorize definitions; always read the definition and then write it out in your own words.  These are the words that you will remember and understand.  It will also help to make that transfer of information from the short term memory to the long term memory.  Once again, they are interacting with the material a second or third time and we know that repetition is a major key in learning.  These are the types of strategies you can teach your students.

Research is showing that movement is an important part of learning.  The more movement we can incorporate into a classroom, the more likely our students are to stay focused.  This is especially important for younger children who have very limited attention spans, and are naturally wired to move.  Students who appear active, or never seem to be able to sit still, are often moving to help keep themselves focused.  How many of you doodle while listening to someone talk, or click a pen or tap a foot?  This type of “fidgeting”, whether you realize it or not, is helping your brain to stay focused on the task.  For students who are high in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, they need to move.   However, students are often punished in class for the very behaviors that will help them learn.  Technology has also robbed our children of opportunities to move, yet it is a necessary part of our development.

“A child’s mental development is based in part on his/her early motor development.  The brain begins to wire up its ability to process information by wiring up the body’s systems of balance, coordination, vestibular and motor development. What makes us move is also what makes us think.  As the brain and body begin to work together to process motor sequences and patterns such as rolling over, crawling, walking and jumping, the brain creates the pathways used for processing sequences in reading and math.” 

“Movement is the most important thing you do to increase learning.  Psychologists and neurologists have been saying for years that what we learn comes through our senses and that we learn through movement.  Yet at the age of four, five or six the child is placed in an equivalent of a three-foot cubicle and expected to perform.  (Steele, 1976.)” 

Think about these things.  The basic movements we learn as children, rolling, crawling/walking and jumping correspond with the way information travels in the brain:

  •     side to side across the corpus callosum
  •     back to front across the motor cortex
  •     up and down from the bottom to the top of the brain

Sometimes we have to “jump start” the brain by doing the exercises I mentioned earlier.  You can see how those simple movements can help get the brain “talking to itself.”

We can support learning by incorporating movement into our classrooms.  Exercise balls have been shown to be very effective for children who have the need to move.  The balls are used in place of a chair.  The small movement that is need to keep balanced on the ball is enough to meet the child’s need to move.  They can also move a bit on the ball within their defined space.  Allowing children to doodle or fidget also helps. Some students even benefit from a “fidget.”  This is some object that students can “play with” while they are listening, studying and working.  For example, a cushy ball to squeeze, or a small ball to roll around in the hand.  I use a small spring for my fidget and it goes with me to meetings and workshops, because I need to have some form of movement as I listen and try to focus.

You also want to think about activities you can put into place that will allow students to move.  Using a velcro dart board with math facts on is one way to get students moving.  They throw the velcro dart and have to solve the problem it lands on.  Labeling a beach ball with the elements of a story and tossing the ball around.  The elements their hands land on when catching it are the elements they have to explain or give examples of.  These type of things will increase the chances that this information will be transferred to long term memory.

There is another significant factor in learning and that is an individual’s mindset.  Carol Dweck’s research identified two types of mindsets:  a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  These mindsets influence how students view themselves as learners and influences the amount of effort they put into their studies.

Growth mindset individuals believe their brains are malleable and intelligence and abilities can be enhanced through hard work and practice. They believe only time will tell how “smart” they are.  Fixed mindset individuals see intelligence as fixed; some people are “smart” and others are not “smart.”  They believe that no amount of work or study will improve their abilities or increase their knowledge.  Both of these mindsets are reflected in the performance of students.  Let’s look at these ideas side by side.


Intelligence can be changed

See failure as something to grow from

Practice and effort will improve abilities

Risks are necessary for growth

Effort is necessary for growth and success

Individuals know they can improve

Take criticism as a way to learn and grow

Learning is paramount!

Intelligence is fixed and unchanging

Putting in effort won’t make a difference

View themselves as “not smart”

Avoid challenges

Make excuses and avoid difficulties

Believe it’s important to “look smart” 

Take criticism personally

You can see how the way in which you view yourself will impact your ideas about learning and thus your practices.  It’s vital that we help students develop a growth mindset if they are going to be successful.

Let’s look at a basic principle of learning.  In order to learn we have to take a risk and in order to take that risk we have to feel safe both physically and emotionally.  Most of our students feel physically safe in their classrooms (there are always those exceptions), but far fewer feel emotionally safe.  They don’t participate in discussions, answer questions or sometimes even do their work out of the fear of being wrong.   Most of these students will have a fixed mindset.  They don’t see themselves as learners and they don’t believe that any amount of work will make a difference.  They often shut down and do nothing because it is emotionally safer that way.  It is safer to do nothing than to do something and be wrong, which means they then deal with the humiliation of failure.  They have often experienced a great deal of failure in the past and they have now “shut down.”  I have seen this happen over and over with students, some as young as kindergarten.  If someone does not step in and help them experience success, they are doomed.  It’s never too late to help a student develop a growth mindset, but it will take time, patience and dedication.

If we have any hope of these students into productive students who participate in discussions, complete work and make academic progress we have to first help them experience success.  This requires a one-on-one conversation to discover the reason why these things are happening.  We then have to work to resolve the issues the student has.  They may mean we provide extra help to the student individually, alter assignments for a period of time, work with study buddies, or whatever it will take for the student to experience just a small amount of success.  With each new success comes more confidence.  We then continue to build on that success.  We have to continue to challenge them, but keep the support systems in place so they can continue to be successful.  Over time we will be able to remove some of those supports, but in the process they will be gaining strategies and tools they can continue to use in their academic endeavors.  They will also have gained confidence and most of them will have changed their mindset to one that more closely resembles a growth mindset.  This will make all the difference in their learning!

Learning is a complex process and we have to understand what is involved, what works for our students, the challenges they face, the emotional baggage they enter our classrooms with, as well as understand them and find ways to help them be successful.  We have to be willing to go above and beyond, change the rules and expectations now and then, and get rid of the notion of punishment and strive to teach!


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Education 2010 by Brenda Alward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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