Educators are Perfectly Placed to Boost Young Children's Brain Power!
I was excited this week that an article I wrote for parents about boosting their children's brain power at home was featured in NEW IDEA magazine. I am grateful to @New Idea for including it because developing competent conceptualisation at an early age is an abiding passion of mine. Any article allows limited space, so it captures key points but can hardly do the topic justice. I recently published a book: 'Edu-Chameleon - Leverage 7 Dynamic Learning Zones to Enhance Young Children's Concept-Based Understanding', which provides a much more detailed conversation about how to scaffold young children's thinking and learning.
The first half of the book explains what concepts are, how they are formed, and how they are integrated to develop conceptual understanding. The second half introduces and defines seven learning zones which educators can mobilise to enhance conceptual understanding. The zones are represented on the agility wheel below. Each zone has a specific degree of proximity between the educator and student. Sometimes the child is left to follow their own goals entirely and at others, the goals are defined by the educator and the proximity is much closer. The role of educator and student is set out in each zone and anecdotes are provided to illustrate the zones at work. Also included are how each zone is resourced and assessed. The book is easily available on my website: https://www.kriegler-education.com.
Every piece of content we internalise is acquired through cognitive processes. From the moment of conception, the miraculous human brain processes millions of incoming messages. It constantly interprets sensory perceptions, recognises patterns and assigns meaning. The process is never static and as more information becomes available, the systems shift to accommodate and amplify meaning.
The brain is built from inside and outside the body
The brain is the only organ that is built from both within and without the body. Each individual’s neural network is a combination of their unique genome and life experience. We can support students’ thinking and learning by providing a rich, stimulating learning environment but more importantly by helping them to understand their own thinking hardware – their brain and how it functions.
As often as we speak about thinking skills, they are very seldom explicitly taught or discussed in a systematic way.
Thinking as input, elaboration and output
I have had the privilege of studying the work of Professor Reuven Feuerstein, the late cognitive psychologist whose understanding of cognitive processes led him to design a program entitled Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment (FIE). His understanding of thinking processes evolved over decades of working with young people including survivors of the holocaust some so traumatised that they were elective mutes. Feuerstein was a brilliant scholar and a student of Jean Piaget in Geneva. From his observations, he realised, before the general acceptance of brain plasticity, that the tasks he offered his students were somehow altering their brains. He called what he noticed structural cognitive modifiability (SCM). He called the thinking and learning skills he identified cognitive functions.
Feuerstein was the first person to categorise cognitive functions into three phases: input, elaboration and output. He named and defined 28 functions. Eight in input, twelve in elaboration and eight in output. Because of the finite number, the cognitive functions become accessible. Because they are named, educators, students, parents and clinicians can recognise, discuss and use them. https://www.icelp.info/product-category/courses/
As an FIE trainer in both Basic and Standard, I have developed a better overview and a more granular understanding of the learning process.
That the brain uses processes to learn is not a new idea. Benjamin Bloom’s original taxonomy, revised taxonomies based on his work, and John Biggs and Kevin Collis’ SOLO taxonomy are familiar to educators. They encourage us to look more deeply than content learning to emphasise processes.
As Feuerstein intimated, thinking is about receiving information, processing it and then expressing it. Students can become more aware of their thinking at each of these phases and improve their mastery of content.
Focus and connection as key learning processes
All learning depends on focus and connection. Without focus, the brain cannot absorb information. Many students struggle to focus and it's evident in their behaviour. They are fidgety, easily distracted, behave like the class clown, distract others and fail to complete tasks.
Focus is a complex skill. The student is required to understand the whole and parts of what they are encountering. They need to understand the problem at hand at a global level and at a procedural, step by step level. If they can’t see the connection between the steps, and can’t prioritise them, they will become lost. Focus includes recognition, labelling, systematic understanding of the whole and parts and sequencing of steps for processing. Focus is a state of continuous monitoring as students import all the information and then throughout the entire problem-solving, or elaboration process through to the expression of what is learned.
Connection is the ability to recognise the relationships between things. Many connections are implied and invisible to students until they have experience in identifying them. I once discussed a picture with a child. The picture showed a scene where firefighters were attending a fire. It showed uniformed firefighters, a fire truck, a burning building, a hose. When asked what he saw, the child said, 'a man and a truck'. He had completely missed the cues leading to the global interpretation. All metaphorical language is also implied. When someone 'cries a river of tears', the meaning has to be interpreted.
The key cognitive functions used in connection are comparison and categorisation. If you were to ask me which cognitive process I regarded as most important it would be the ability to compare things in a systematic way.
Thinking is about receiving information, processing it and then expressing it. Students can become more aware of their thinking at each of these phases and improve their mastery of content. Comparison is not so much a single thinking skill as it is a compact battery of individual skills. In general, we have a focus entity A and a target entity B. We observe the focus and target entities in detail, have a goal for the comparison, determine the criteria for comparison, discard what is irrelevant, and come to a conclusion about the comparison process (Feuerstein et al. 1980). Comparison makes thinking more efficient
So, what can comparison relate to? Comparison denotes how things are equivalent, similar or different, by size, distance, volume, height, form, position, weight, orientation, function, age, effort, complexity, beauty, value, temperature … capacity to annoy you?
Each of these criteria gives us a specific kind of information. There are endless ways of connecting information through comparison and it gives us clarity about one thing in the light of another thing. How they are related.
When comparing two of their friends, children select specific criteria rather than doing a hazy comparison. They compare height, hair colour, loyalty, personality and many other features. We call this ability comparing apples with apples. This kind of targeted thinking and comparing is a very transferable skill.
A further fundamental aspect of comparison is to keep track of what remains the same and what has changed or transformed. For example, if six oranges have been cut in quarters, there are 24 pieces, but the fact remains that all the parts originate from six oranges. This is the conservation of constancy – tracking what is the same.
When we match things that are similar, we begin to sort them into groups. So we see that comparison is not a single skill, but a battery of skills. To successfully compare apples with apples, students need to be excellent at analysing the whole and parts of any object, situation, process or idea. Comparing objects is generally a simple process, but they also need to be able to compare complex systems. For example, comparisons of revolutions, colonisation, climate systems, systems of belief and ecosystems.
FOUR words to capture the process of knowledge acquisition and use.
I like to use four simple words to describe the learning process: know, connect, mobilise, communicate.
Know To know something is to recognise and label it. We can know something in the here and now. You may have a ruler on your desk and 'know' it. But we want 'knowing' to occur at a more abstract and universal level. It is important for students to have a conceptual understanding of ‘ruler’. Not the here and now ruler, but a ruler as representative of all rulers, so the information is available across different contexts. This means they are able to visualise and hold in mind the idea of the ruler. To conceptualise it. They need to know the features of both its whole and parts. The whole is that it is a measuring instrument. A partial feature is which units it measures in. Are they metric or imperial? Other features are length, texture, durability, material, quality, elasticity, transparency. Features need to be known in order to compare or connect any item to another. Working with students to specify the features of any object or process, and to explain how they relate to one another is the foundation for conceptual understanding. The object, ruler, is a concept, the features are concepts, but how they relate internally or externally is conceptual understanding. When we are in the act of knowing and conceptualising we are using cognitive processes. It is the cognitive ability to observe and explain how things work together. Knowing a ruler and being able to think of a ruler are good starting points, but this knowledge is static. It is an episodic piece of information unless it can be connected to other ideas to start to project conceptual relationships.
Connect Once you know what a ruler is, its features like shape, size, material, function etc, you can relate it to other instruments of measurement. You can integrate your knowledge of length, width, height and distance with other units of measurement like weight, volume, speed or decibels. You can compare the instruments of measurement: scales, measuring jugs, speedometers and sound level meters. The instant you start to connect and relate objects and ideas, you move beyond static knowledge into relational knowledge. Conceptual understanding is built on relational knowledge. To relate things, you have to understand and isolate the precise features you are using to compare things. Units with units, instruments with instruments, a phenomenon with a phenomenon. When presenting content learning, it is important to work on surfacing relational concepts. If you teach a unit of measurement, and students have internalised it, then compare it to other units. When they realise that they are studying one element in a category called units of measurement, they can more easily transfer their knowledge to understanding other units. They don’t learn things over and over, they learn them once and apply their knowledge in different situations.
Mobilise Even connected knowledge is limited if it’s not applied or used. Learning is more valuable if it is used to create something or solve a problem. It’s limiting knowing what a ruler is if you don’t use it to measure something accurately. Students can be encouraged to use the information in both closed-ended and open-ended projects. In closed-ended tasks, there is a predetermined endpoint. In open-ended tasks, the options are open and there is scope for creating something new. But mobilising information deepens the understanding of how things work together. This knowledge creates the latticework supporting creativity.
Communicate Some may think it strange that I regard communication as a distinctive part of the learning process and a kind of knowledge. But every content area has a unique language. Each utilises different representational formats of communication. If students don’t understand how the representation is derived from the original idea, what the symbols mean, or the order things need to be considered in a process, they will stumble. So, it is crucial that time is spent learning how knowledge is expressed in different subject areas.
Focus, recognition, connection, mobilisation and expression are all cognitive processes that can be identified, surfaced, and discussed to support students’ development of conceptual understanding. Over time, because of their ability to absorb, process, relate and use the information they have a more advanced understanding of how the world works. That in turn makes them more competent thinkers and creators.
If we only spend time arranging beautiful, learning-rich environments and don't spend time empowering students to connect and relate internally what they are learning into conceptual understanding, we are only halfway there.
Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of Edu-Chameleon. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria and she runs her own consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at https://kriegler-education.com For other articles by Lili-Ann follow her at https://authory.com/kriegler-education or https://www.amazon.com/~/e/B096ZPF4CK