Your child walks through the door and you ask, “So, what did you do at school today?” to which you usually get a response of “Not much” or something similar. While you might just think that he/she is typically absent-minded the truth is that we only retain a small fraction of the information we are presented with. Most of it is trimmed from the memory as being irrelevant and forgotten.
There are lots of charts and graphs around that demonstrate how inefficient our memory is and we also know that old-fashioned techniques such as rote learning are definitely not the best way to learn and retain information.
For students at school, this all presents a problem. It is interesting, though, that even though they may not have a clue about the maths they did this afternoon (or if they even did any maths!), they will inevitably be able to perfectly recall the players on all the league football teams, or sing by heart whatever top 20 number they might have listened to a few times (OK, so I realise these songs don’t have that many words, but it still serves as an illustrative example).
So then, obviously there is the capacity to learn, remember and recall. The difference for most students between, say, Maths and Football, is twofold; firstly, there is the way learning takes place and then there is also the level of emotions that children associate to the task at hand.
Learning first of all needs student engagement. When teaching someone to ride a bike, for example, you can spend hours explaining what to do but until they actually get on the bike, the learner really won’t make much progress. Although such hands-on, physical activities are not always possible, at Mesh we use several techniques to get students involved in their learning – some of which you can use at home as well.
For example, I use this simple method for making sure I am getting through to children, but the reason it works is because of what was discussed above. Once a child seems to have mastered a concept, the best way to get to know if they really understand what they are doing is to have them verbally explain the process to you. It is surprising how many students can ‘get the answer’ but can’t tell you how they got there! Being able to explain to you what they have done gets them involved in their learning. It also clarifies the process in their mind and gives their self-confidence a real boost.
There are many things that can be done to foster an emotional engagement to learning. Rewards-based systems (when set up properly) work well in the classroom and at home. Plotting progress (where achievable goals have been set) also works wonders. It is also important to realise that as well as setting and achieving goals an often-overlooked aspect of this is reflection. To enable a young learner to feel good about his/her learning, it is important that they be able to look back at where they were and see the progress that has been made. Doing this makes it easier for children to set long-term goals as they will start to realise that getting the day-to-day tasks done results in overall progress.
At Mesh we try to engage students as much as possible in what they do with us. For students working on literacy, for example, we discuss specific goals that are to be focussed on when a writing exercise is set and we talk about how well these were achieved. We go through what worked and what didn’t. In other words, we involve students in the planning, goal setting and reflection stages of the process and we make sure they know that it’s OK that some of their work is not fantastic because this gives us a focus to work through next time.
Mainly I believe that we have to understand that it is not practical to think that we can just pour information into a child’s mind and expect that it will bubble away, be processed properly and be ready for retrieval at a later date. For this to happen, children need to be actively engaged in how they learn and they need to have an emotional attachment to the learning process itself.