Fwd: Unlocking young minds

Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Sun, 3 Oct 1999 21:54:23 -0400

Subject: Fwd: Unlocking young minds
Date: Sun, 3 Oct 1999 21:54:23 -0400
From: "Wade T.Smith" <wade_smith@harvard.edu>
To: "Memetics Discussion List" <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>

Unlocking young minds

Harvard education-school program finds children come to grasp knowledge
by following unexpected, nonlinear paths

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff, 10/03/99

It is a common occurrence in classrooms following a teacher's lesson:
Some students grasped the concept, others got basic elements, and a few
recalled seemingly random strings of the presentation.

Conventional wisdom is that children learn sequentially and steadily and,
if they don't, it is someone's fault - either the teacher's or the

But the new Mind, Brain & Education program at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education is challenging the long-held theory that children
develop or learn in the same consistent patterns - for example, crawling
by 8 months, then walking at a year.

Instead, says the program's founder, professor Kurt Fischer, children
develop much more chaotically: For example, some never crawl before
walking. Judging students by conventional methods is unfair and
dangerous, he says, because ''you can stigmatize the child and prevent
them from learning. In the worse case, you decide they can't learn.''

Fischer likens children's learning to a spider web. Students follow
certain strands that don't necessarily adhere to traditional educational
theory that describes learning more like a ladder - a smooth progression
from learning basic concepts to more difficult ones. What's more, Fischer
says, students often double back along the web strands to strengthen
skills and recycle what they've learned into more complex thoughts.

''The best teachers know this stuff intuitively,'' says Fischer. ''They
know the basic framework in the study of development is that people all
fit one pattern ... one curriculum for all. And that is not what is
happening in classrooms.''

The theory, called dynamic development, holds great hope for children
with severe learning disabilities who don't meet common milestones, such
as learning to read by age 7. Among Fischer's findings are that students
with severe dyslexia can become excellent readers by inventing their own
specialized reading skills. He is also studying whether abused children
can relearn emotional reactions by doubling back over the web strand.

Fischer doesn't throw out the traditional belief about development that
most children progress along a certain path. Rather, he says, a slew of
factors influence a child's progress, such as emotional state, cultural
background, and social ability. What emerges in some children is a
learning pattern that may seem somewhat random, but broken down, can be
predicted and guided to ensure students reach their full potential.

A child who is emotionally stable will master everything from an academic
lesson to a physical-education lesson much more quickly than a child who
is not. But for years, Fischer says, few studies took into account the
emotional state of children in development.

Fischer wants teachers to stop using a final product - a standardized
test or lab experiment, for example - to judge students. The comparison
is unfair, he says. Instead, he wants teachers to break down a final
product into a series of skills that children can be observed mastering
or not. Then teachers can double back over certain parts of the lesson
for those having difficulty along the way.

An experiment was conducted where children built a bridge with
marshmallows and toothpicks. Rather than judge each child on the quality
of the bridge they built, Fischer broke down the bridge-building activity
into four skill levels. For example, two students noticed how weak a
marshmallow was and how toothpicks had variations in them, but didn't
know how to take that knowledge to strengthen the bridge. Other students
understood right away that changing the angle of toothpicks stuck in
marshmallows changed the form of the bridge.

Student progress from one moment to the next can be closely examined, and
uneven development between the skill levels can be measured and
explained, Fischer said.

Of course, the teaching method would be expensive and time-consuming.
Still, Fischer says schools need to move toward that kind of teaching if
students are going to reach their full potential.

''The best traditional education is one tutor with one kid,'' he said.
While conventional classrooms ''makes life easier for the school'' it may
not be easier for individual children.

Fischer is also experimenting with how his dynamic theory transfers over
to emotional development. Students exposed to trauma can overcome their
past, he believes, because they constantly revisit and restrengthen the
development strands they learned earlier. If they are given positive
reinforcements, they relearn the negative message they got earlier.

In another experiment he oversaw, students, some of whom had been abused,
were told stories about girls or boys playing together and acting nice or
mean toward each other. Many abused children understood the mean stories
earlier and more comprehensively than the non-abused students.

Fischer now has an intervention program where abused children are paired
off in play therapy, working out relationships in a positive way. The
effort, now in its sixth year, appears to help students change the way
they deal with situations.

The new master's concentration in Mind, Brain & Education will help
teachers bridge the gap between neurological developments and what goes
on in the classroom, Fischer says. Teachers or social workers will take
the course in part to better understand how and why children grasp
certain concepts, and learn how to guide them to higher goals.

''We're giving them tools for looking at what children are learning,''
Fischer says. ''We want them to see it in terms of an individual child's
learning pathway, instead of do they fit the normative path.''


This story ran on page C05 of the Boston Globe on 10/03/99.
=A9 Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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