How does your child learn?

How does your child go from not knowing 1+1=2 to knowing 12×12=144? Learning is a complex and fascinating process, which still keeps thousands of scientists employed. The most talked about theory on children’s intellectual growth was developed by Jean Piaget. He believed children came to know things through their continual revision and building of new cognitive structures (also called schemas). Cognitive structures are organized patterns of thought or action used to cope with or explain some experience. Melissa for instance may not know what to call an octagon the first time she sees it. The building blocks in her head don’t give her the answer. This imbalance prompts Melissa to add an eight-sided shape to her vocabulary of shapes. Eventually as she adds more and more shapes Melissa will come to think about shapes in an entirely new way. Piaget believed that if children are to know something, they must construct the knowledge themselves, rather than be told by someone else. Moderately novel experiences are the best breeding ground for discovery learning.

Piaget divided children’s cognitive development into four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. Between birth and two years of age children explore and gain a basic understanding of their world using their sensory and motor capabilities. They are action oriented. A ball is not a round toy, but something they can bounce, throw, bite, squish, sit on, or roll. Gradually infants become more reflective. As they think more, infants begin solving problems in their heads, forming simple concepts, and communicating their thoughts.

The second stage, preoperational, lasts from two to seven years of age. It is during this period children get better at using words and images to explore and explain their environment. Play, Piaget believed, was the ideal way to encourage children’s social and intellectual development. Research also has proven that children who like to pretend play are more socially mature and popular, and are more likely to think of novel uses for play objects. Play also gives children a way of coping with feeling problems, and of learning how to get along with other kids.

One task preoperational children cannot do is look at the world from another person’s point of view. This is called perspective taking. We all know how frustrating it is to reason with a child who firmly believes Santa will bring her a hippopotamus–even though a hippopotamus is too big to fit on Santa’s sleigh. Preoperational children are easily fooled when objects change their volume, mass, or number. It can’t be the same amount of water–even though they’ve watched you pour it from the big glass into three smaller glasses. At this stage children cannot reverse actions, and they tend to focus on one part of a problem rather than the whole thing.

Starting at about seven years of age and lasting till eleven years children learn how to think logically about objects, situations, and events that are real or imaginable. This is known as the stage of concrete operations. Children are able to understand arithmetic; think about language; put animals, people, objects, and events into groups; and understand the relations between upper and lowercase letters, letters and printed words, and words and sentences. They get better at taking other people’s points of view as they learn more about why people do the things they do.

Piaget’s final stage, formal operations, begins at about eleven years of age and extends right through adulthood. Children are able to think rationally and systematically about processes and events that have no basis in reality. They no longer have tunnel vision, and can find multiple solutions to problems. Unlike younger children who tend to accept the world as it is and do as their told, formal operators question the unfairness and inconsistencies of the world as they see it.

Researchers have pointed out that cognitive growth is not as cut and dry as Piaget described it. The transitions between one stage to the next happen very gradually, and often there is little consistency in children’s performance on tasks measuring the same stage. For instance, it is possible for Nigel to be a formal operator in his moral reasoning, and concrete in everything else. Another criticism is that children at seven years of age don’t all of a sudden learn how to take another person’s perspective. Perspective-taking begins at a very early age. My son, for instance, rubbed and kissed my shin after I banged it against the back of our stroller–and he was only two-and-a-half.

Another developmentalist, Lev Vygotsky, pointed out the importance of children’s social contact in learning. He noted that new skills are most likely to blossom in a social setting where children can learn from a more competent partner.

The newest theory on human information processing likens it to the way a computer works. (diagram) Information logs in, and if attended to goes into short-term memory where it can be held for several seconds. If you think about and try to remember the information it will go one step further into long-term memory–a big and relatively permanent storehouse of information, including our knowledge of the world, impressions of past experiences and events, and strategies we use to process information and solve problems. Executive control processes plan and monitor what we attend to and how we use our knowledge.

Computer Model of How we Process Information

To recap then, learning is a three step process:

  1. attending
  1. changes in our brain’s chemistry
  1. remembering

Before we can say we’ve actually learned something, three things must happen:

  1. There must be a change in our thoughts, perception, or reactions to the world around us.
  1. The change cannot be due to us getting older, heredity, or physiological damage, but rather from us studying, repeating, practicing, or observing.
  1. Changes must be long-lasting; materials you immediately forget don’t count, as don’t temporary changes due to fatigue, illness or drugs.

Memories are organized by senses. Separate little memories can however be put together to create one big memory. A cup of coffee, for example includes all five of our senses. We can remember more than one sensation at the same time; so long they’re not travelling along the same wavelength. For instance, have you ever tried reading your morning paper and talking to your partner at the same time? It doesn’t work. However, you probably can read your morning paper while eating breakfast. So the old adage, “you can’t do two things at the same time,” doesn’t apply to everything.

According to the computer model many factors could account for Cecilia’s tough time solving an arithmetic problem:

(1) She may not be paying attention to the most relevant facts. Believe it or not preschool children can hold just as much information in their sensory store as older children and adults. They run into problems however in trying to pay attention long enough to get all the information they need. Even when they’re doing activities they like, young children frequently look away or get up and wander around the room.

(2) Cecilia’s short-term memory may not have enough room to hold all the relevant information. The cognitive effort required to access and implement a new strategy may take up so much of Cecilia’s working memory that she doesn’t have any room left to encode the information she’s supposed to remember. As children get older they can process information faster and more efficiently, leaving more room for storage.

(3) She may not know the strategy for transferring new information into long-term memory, or for accessing knowledge already stored there. Even if they know a strategy will work, kids may not use it unless they know why the strategy works.

(4) Cecilia may not know the rules or operations needed to solve the problem.

(5) Her executive control processes may have trouble coordinating all the necessary steps to solving the problem. Older children know more about memory processes, enabling them to choose the best strategy for solving their problem, and also for monitoring their progress. In addition, as children get older they acquire more knowledge, and this growing base improves their ability to learn and remember.

What does the computer model tell educators?

(1) Look closely at what students need to know and the mental operations they need to do to get the right answer. This will help you figure out why they are making errors.

(2) Be conscious of how many things you want children to remember. If you ask them to encode more than three or four pieces of information, young children may not have enough room left in their short-term storage to think logically. When introducing a new problem or concept, always start with the simplest version. If your problem involves several steps, you can help students cut down on their short-term storage by encouraging them to answer one step at a time. Once children understand the new concept, their information processing will get easier, and they’ll have the short-term capacity to do more complex problems.

(3) Find out whether children are encoding all their task-relevant information, as well as using the right rules.

(4) Encourage children to have fun using their memory. Games like Concentration, Name that Tune, and When I Went on Vacation help.

(5) Give your kids plenty of opportunity to learn effective memory strategies. You can do this by grouping learning materials, or by giving children easily categorizable sets of items to sort and classify. Questions like “Tell me how hotdogs, hamburgers, and french-fries are the same,” and “How are boys and girls different from dogs and cats” help children learn the similarities and differences upon which organizational strategies depend.

(6) Teach your kids how to plan, monitor, and control their information-processing skills. They need to know why strategies work before they’ll use them. One way you can do this is by talking aloud your own metacognitive strategies. For instance, you might say, “I’ll have to read this page more than once before I can figure out what the author is talking about,” as you’re reading a computer program manual. You can also drop subtle hints and reminders like “Remember what happened the last time you forgot to double-check your answers?”