Posts for May 2012

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

In order to get students to think critically, you need to help them break through their mechanical thinking and manage their emotional thinking.

What is mechanical thinking?

When students think mechanically, their brains are just repeating looped recordings of thought without considering them. For example, students might have the mechanical thought, “I'm not good at math.” It just crops up in their brains whenever they look at a math problem. Often that little mechanical loop doesn't even relate to reality.

Why do we think mechanically?

Group Expectations

Mechanical thinking is useful for routine tasks like walking, riding a bike, keyboarding, driving, playing an instrument, and other activities that have become part of muscle memory. To learn any of these skills takes a lot of critical thinking, problem solving, and practice, but once the skill is learned, it is stored in the cerebellum at the base of the brain. Often a person can do something with great ease but can't explain how to do it to anyone else. The skill is no longer conscious. But to learn new skills, students need to think critically.

How can students break through mechanical thinking?

When students are thinking mechanically about a topic in school, they are recalling old ideas about it and are not engaging the material in a new way. Most often, mechanical thoughts manifest themselves in statements that shut down possibility. You can teach students to recognize such statements, stop them, and replace them with questions that open up possibilities:

The Internet began as a U.S. military computer network meant to survive a nuclear attack. ARPANET, developed in the 1960's, stored information in a broad network of computers linked by distributed hubs so that an attack against one or more hubs could not bring down the entire thing.

Decentralized. Interconnected. Robust. Nuke-Proof.

Wouldn't it be great if you could get your students to build the same kind of neural networks around the subjects you teach? How can you move beyond superficial, short-term learning to create learning that sticks? Modern brain science suggests one answer that you can apply in your classroom today.

Providing a Sensory Banquet

The key to creating robust neural networks in students' brains is to give them a rich sensory diet as they engage with material. Here's what Ronald Kotulak says in Inside the Brain:

The brain gobbles up its external environment in bites and chunks through its sensory system: vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Then the digested world is reassembled in the form of trillions of connections between brain cells that are constantly growing or dying, or becoming stronger or weaker, depending upon the richness of the banquet.

By engaging many different senses, you lay the information down through multiple interconnected neural pathways, placing it in long-term memory and making it robust and "nuke-proof."

Map of the Reading Brain

Map of the Reading Brain: Imagine that you ask your students to read a paragraph about the Treaty of Versailles. The information comes in through the eyes, imprints upon the retinas, and then travels through the optic nerves to the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. The information there is decoded into words, and impulses travel to the temporal lobes, where language processing occurs. The impulses then arc up to the frontal lobe meaning of the words is evaluated.