How do they learn?


This is my favorite picture of my summer with my boys. I love this one, because you don’t even have to see his face to imagine what he is thinking. You can tell by his body language that he is completely awestruck.

I thought this was the perfect picture to go with the question of how our children learn. What commits an event to memory? What is it about experiencing something that goes beyond reading about it?

My little guy was 17 months when this picture was taken. My neighbor moms and I had taken our crew to the park to play at the sprayground. This is one of my absolute favorite places, and my children feel the same way. At the time of this picture, my little one was trying to determine whether or not he was going to follow his older brother into the biggest part of the fountain. He was at the peak of a learning moment, and I am so grateful to have captured it on film.

He stood there watching for a long time, and then began to alternate from running back and forth to where I stood with running deeper and deeper into the fountain after my older son. When he finally made it to where his brother and our neighbors stood, he started making those joyful squeals of his own. It was marvelous to watch. My experience was classic behaviorism. I can only guess what my little guy is thinking based on how he behaves. Another parent blogger, Jamie Wilhelm muses over a similar experience with her children, noting both Skinner’s Theory of Behaviorism and The Social Learning Theory.

Thinking back myself, I tried to recreate in my own mind what must have been going on in his little head. I remember the sound of the water shooting up out of the bricks mixed with the joyful screams of the children, the feel of the bricks under my feet, the smell of the chlorine (thank God), and the feeling of the hot sun paired with the cold refreshing water. I can use my own understanding of the world to imagine what he was thinking, but I simply cannot ask him to take a test or survey to gain understanding of what he was truly thinking, feeling, and learning in that moment. I can’t ask him to describe his sensory experiences.

The thought of multisensory learning has always intrigued me. What if our whole bodies are needed to really learn something new? There has been some speculation about cellular memory. Theorists have been writing about it for years, and there are countless horror films that show perfectly normal people being turned bad by implants from criminals. There are movies, documentaries, and stories about transplants that bring people new cravings, personality traits, or even lead their new recipients to a loved one of the deceased donor. There are also stories about amputees who can still feel their missing limbs long after an amputation. What merit do these stories have?

What if it’s not just our brains that learn? What if we learn best from our whole-body experiences? What if we are not just committing what we learn and experience to our brains but also to our bodies?

Helen Keller comes to mind when I think about multisensory learning. I read part of her autobiography several years ago, and it was rich with descriptions of both feeling and smelling sunshine. She describes herself as happiest when sitting or walking in the sunshine. Her parents gave her great liberty on the family farm, and she wandered the grounds as a child feeling and smelling flowers, grass, and trees. One of her most poignant descriptions is getting stuck in a tree during a thunderstorm. What you would think to be a frightening memory is described with awe, beauty, and bravery. Helen finally learned to read, write, and speak from a teacher who was able to get inside how she learned based on observations. Ann Sullivan was able to teach Helen words by tapping into her strongest sense, touch. There was no way Helen could tell Ann what she was thinking; Ms. Sullivan had to become a behaviorist in order to figure out how to teach Helen Keller.

As a special education teacher, one of my passions is learning to understand students who struggle to learn by traditional methods. Clearly students who struggle need something more in order to fully learn. But what is it that they need? I have long felt that they needed more multisensory experiences that sometimes can’t be offered in a traditional classroom.

Outdoor schools are popping up across the United States as well as outdoor classrooms in traditional schools. There are some great articles and news stories which include interviews from students and parents on how these alternative methods and environments have enriched their learning. My own son’s school recently added a beautiful new outdoor classroom which even includes a traditional whiteboard right in the middle of the woods. It’s one of his favorite places to learn.

As times change though, all students require more and more exposure to technology to ensure that they are prepared for work in our age of technology. Technology is rapidly increasing in the traditional classroom, changing the methods of teaching as well as what is being taught.  The virtual classroom is also becoming more and more common. Virtual public schools even advertise themselves on television.

In researching classroom technology, I came across the subject of classroom blogging. Classroom blogging was an exciting new concept, and I was so surprised and intrigued to see how much students were learning and how teachers were incorporating this technology across the traditional curriculum. The link to this Youtube video on The Benefits of Educational Blogging is fascinating. What is even more interesting is that several students from Australia actually took a trip to visit one of their blog  teachers, Mrs. Yollis, in Los Angeles. Their new knowledge of technology was supported by physical learning, and I suspect that the learning experience of those students was much broader and deeper than that of their classmates who were not able to visit that teacher.

I also found a blog this week by Red Pin Cushion titled The (online) Teacher’s Body. Amy Collier’s thoughts on the importance of the teacher’s physical body in the classroom really got me thinking about how we can better incorporate the teacher in online learning. There is just something irreplaceable about the physical classroom and teacher.

Most schools are now working hard to combine the traditional classroom, the technology rich classroom, and the outdoor classroom into one greater learning experience. However, I think the future of education is largely technology based. Often online home based schools are replacing the traditional classroom experience.  So where is the balance? How do we take these online or machine based experiences and help our students to commit them to physical and cellular memories? I think that a true behaviorist would say that we will have to wait and see what happens.

One thought on “How do they learn?

  1. Toni says:

    Though some may consider it mystical or foolish, cellular memory is a fascinating scientific theory. Think of the possibilities if this theory could be proven. Think of how this could negatively or positively affect bone marrow donations, organ transplants, and other procedures. If I need a kidney will I be able to pick and choose from an array of personal preferences of the deceased? Will my condition allow for that time?

    I am an organ and bone marrow donor so strictly from a self-interest perspective; I am excited to think that my memories may live on after my death. However, which memories, preferences, and beliefs will my donor absorb? How does the body determine which aspects are passed on or like the brain are the memories also scattered through out our bodies in some order we are not fully aware of yet?

    Obviously, I have more questions than answers and I would be very interested in reading more of your thoughts on the subject.

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