Monthly Archives: March 2012

Update: Emma, still climbing at two


Image

Emma’s dad reports that she did all the work.  There were a few missteps.  He took her off the platform and carried her down.  The thing that looks like a scarf on the left may be one of the many slings he and Emma’s mum use to carry her.  He may have used it to partially secure her for the descent.

Just a reminder that Emma’s parents don’t push her to do anything like this.  However, if she is keen and they think she can, they encourage her and spot her to ensure it is done safely.  I suspect that it may be safer, on occasion, to support these deeds of derring do than repress them and take a chance on Emma trying something when they aren’t looking!

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how to take down a teacher in the ottawa district schhol board (sic)


The title was the search engine term used by one reader who reached my site.

Wolves chasing an elk

Wolves taking down an elk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It made me start thinking about my career with this board and the number of teachers in the board I have seen targeted, or I have been told about by a colleague who saw them targeted.

Here is a partial list of those cases in no particular order.  Some were dealt with fairly; some resulted in a teacher suspension or a teacher being charged.

  1. A primary student told a supply teacher that he was going to tell the principal that he (the teacher) had taken down his (the student’s) pants.
  2.   Parents decided a junior teacher was too fat to teach physical education and were instrumental in getting her dismissed.
  3. Some intermediate girls were annoyed with their poor marks and got back at their teacher by falsely claiming that he had sexually assaulted them.
  4. Some intermediate students set up a homophobic web site and showed it to one of their teachers on the assumption that he was gay.  The parents of one of them thought the subsequent suspension was unfair.
  5. On two different occasions in the same school two different students lied about two different teachers in two consecutive years.  Instead of investigating, the principal turned each one over to the board which chose to believe the children.
  6. A teacher on an exchange on the other side of the world was called by a friend to find out if she had a good lawyer.  Unbeknownst to her, she had been charged with sexual assault by a former student and it was all over the news.  The judge eventually threw it out of court but not before she and her family had been through public hell.
  7. Thirteen parents got together in a private home to discuss a new teacher’s math program because A) she said math wasn’t her thing so she wouldn’t be running an extracurricular math program, B) she didn’t always teach from the textbook or assign lots of homework (she was an experienced math, English and social studies teacher).  The principal refused to deal with it.
  8. A gifted and imaginative grade one teacher was turned on by the parents and her colleagues in the program she taught in because she (successfully) used whole language rather than phonics exercise books to teach reading.  Her students also learned to appreciate art through an appropriately designed unit on Matisse.  One of her colleagues even withdrew her daughter from the class.  Her principal did not defend her or reprimand the colleague.  She left the program.

Unfortunately this desire is not an anomaly.  There are many students and sometimes parents who want to “take down” a teacher.  If  parents support the students or the administration does not support the teacher, the life of the targeted teacher becomes hell.  Every action, every slip, bad call, ambiguous action becomes open to the worst possible interpretation. 

Calling Teachers from All Nations


INTERNATIONAL TEACHER READERS

TO INTERNATIONAL TEACHER WRITERS

Student and teachers trying out KEEP IT! versi...

Student and teachers trying out KEEP IT! version one - Kakamega at KEEP Saturday school. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fellow teachers, we can learn so much from each other. Every country has its own traditions and attitudes concerning education. In some countries there is not enough money and in others there seems to be more than is necessary.

Wittenberg International Student Party

(Photo credit: Matt Cline)

Teachers, please write in and tell us about the educational system in your country. How does it work for average students? Are there provisions for students with learning difficulties? How do you deal with your very bright students? What is a school day like for a teacher?

What is it like to be a teacher in your country? Are teachers respected? Are they as well paid as others with the

Studying for the chance to become a teacher

Studying for the chance to become a teacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

same education? Do you feel that you have been trained well enough to do your job? Are you able to get more training each year after you have become a teacher?

Parents, what do you need to do to keep your child learning? Do you have to pay for school? Is there a point where you can’t afford to have your children in school? What is the most important thing your school or your classroom or the students need? What hinders learning most where you teach?

Word Press keeps a statistics page for each blog. Just recently they have added a

School-kids-going-to school

School-kids-going-to school (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

list of countries from where we are being read. I have been vaguely aware of having readers from our neighbours to the south and from the United Kingdom but I had no idea that there are readers from half way around the world and the Southern Hemisphere.

Please write.

You may send something you would like to see published as a post and it will be published (with some

Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkan...

Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkand. Early color photograph from Russia, created by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1909 to 1915. Français : Enfants juifs avec leur professeur à Samarkand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

editing if necessary) under your name. All comments that fall within the guidelines will be published unless that your comment not be published. If there are a number of unpublished comments from different countries, I will write a post combining the information, without attributing anything.

OTHER STATISTICS

mahatma gandhi university

mahatma gandhi university (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Word Press also shows a list of posts viewed and by how many viewers; a list of referrers and how many were used; a list of search engine terms and a list of clicks i.e. which links I have provided that my readers have clicked on – and which ones. These statistics are given by the day, week, quarter, year and from the beginning of the blog. They are an immense help in assessing what is of interest to readers. If I am trying to decide which avenue to pursue, the stats help.

Child with teacher in Mauritius

Child with teacher in Mauritius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below are the ten most read posts over the history of the blog and the top ten views by country. You can see why it would be so worthwhile to hear from other teachers in other countries.

Current Top Ten Posts:

R on the Report Card Does Not Mean F (Failure)

French Immersion: Is It Accessible to All Students?

Gifted and “Education for All”

Should Elementary Teachers Work Longer Hours for Less Pay than Secondary Teachers?

Math - Teacher Education

Math - Teacher Education (Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman)

Acronyms and Abbreviations for Educational Terms

Neglecting the Education of Children with Learning Disabilities

Is French Immersion a Money Maker for School Boards?

For Teachers: Some Charts Based on “Education for All”

Getting Ready for the Teacher-Parent Interview: Part One of Three

Inclusive Education in Practice

Sackville EFI Protest

Sackville EFI Protest (Photo credit: Harold Jarche)

See: New Brunswick’s Three Options for FSL Delivery

Top Ten Views by Countries

Canada United States India Philippines Brazil New Zealand Jamaica Australia Malaysia United Kingdom

Elementary School in Chittoor,AP,India. This s...

Elementary School in Chittoor,AP,India. This school is adopted by Aashritha under the 'Paathshaala' project. The school currently educates 70 students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Related articles

What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four


Attention is arguably the most important ingredient in learning.  In order to map a skill, a concept or a new way of doing things, a child must work with it attentively the first few times.  Attention happens when we are engaged in a struggle to do or understand; Emma’s fierce concentration as she climbs on to the baby gym demonstrates her attention.

To retain what the child has learned, she needs to practice it next.  It is not sufficient to understand or do; the newly learnt word, concept or skill must be worked regularly so it goes from the explicit memory into implicit memory.

Children initiate much of their learning. Parents and teachers who are aware of that and ready to support it will also support the child’s enthusiasm for learning.  Children delight in novelty so will often respond to being taught new things if they are ready to learn them.  They will also learn things that their parents and teachers insist on, assuming the new skill is within their abilities and taught carefully.

“…the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development”    

(Vygotsky 1934/1986)

When Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, stated that learning really takes place in advance of development he meant the area where a child can learn if supported by a more knowledgeable peer or teacher.  He called this the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD.  Climbing up is Emma’s achievement; climbing down safely was in Emma’s ZPD.  The support (in this case provided by her parents) is also known as scaffolding. There are lots of academics running around defining it and publishers selling books to hapless teachers about it.  I prefer to think of scaffolding as spotting with appropriate instruction as needed.

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers...

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers anymore (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Do you remember gym class when you were doing tricks on a trampoline, trying to do a handstand or vault over a horse?  There was always someone there to spot you, with a hand ready to put under your back to stop you from falling awkwardly and doing serious damage.  The trampoline required several spotters holding both hands palm outwards in case they had to push the jumper back.

This, to me, is probably the best example of scaffolding; the athlete is not protected from scrapes and bruises but is protected from a broken neck so she can take the risks necessary increase her skill.  She may fail many times, and that’s fine, because if it is a matter of technique, the instructor will come by to correct her.  If it is just a matter of training the muscles, her classmates will call out the occasional word of encouragement as they spot her and await their turn.

This is what a more knowledgeable person can do for a child in her ZPD.  It does require teaching a child to deal with failure.  I see that word on the page and I realise how stomach clenching it is.  Failure.  For most, the connotations are unpleasant: failing a grade, a business failing, a person who is a failure.  We need to put that stigma aside and think of a child learning to walk.  How often does he end up on his well-padded bottom after a few steps?  He has failed to walk, but do we think of it as failure?  No, because we believe that within the year he will be walking and running.  Plumping down to a startled sit is just part of the process.

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933 (Photo credit: sean dreilinger)

If we allow failure, we develop children who persist. They will regard mistakes as part of the learning process.  These children will ask for help, figure out what went wrong and then move forward.  They will be comfortable with struggling on occasion with new ideas.  Eventually they will become that current cliché, but truly important ideal, an independent learner.

If a student is not learning in their ZPD, they are not moving ahead.  They may be moving sideways, collecting more information, but they are not learning new skills, new concepts or new patterns.  They may be reinforcing their learning so it moves into implicit memory. Students need to spend time consolidating new learning and building on it.  Teachers need to be conscious of which kind of learning is going on.

In practical terms, when you teach multiplication or three-digit division to students, you are not done when they grasp the concept and the time allotted for the unit is over.  Your goal is to get them to the point where they can do the work automatically without stopping to think about how to do it.  This requires practice, drills, homework, games or whatever it takes to keep them practicing until the skill is in implicit memory.  Some will argue it is more important for children to understand mathematical theory than memorise arithmetic and they would be right.  They do not say, however, that the children should not be able to do the arithmetic, and that requires practice.

How would this apply to history? Teaching the war of 1759, I would use overheads to show how the French lost the battle of Louisbourg in 1758 and how Wolfe successfully repeated the tactics a year later in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham at Quebec.  Then I would ask the students to hand-draw both battlefields, the surrounding geography, the troop movements and gun emplacements.  Why? The physical act of drawing and labelling practices and reviews the material. I would not allow students to trace diagrams, because tracing would not focus student attention on the locations of fortifications, cliffs, homes and cannon.

As the students work over their diagrams, questions will come up.  The ensuing discussion is another form of reinforcement.  I might show an excerpt from a Hornblower movie (Napoleonic wars – 40 years later but similar issues) to show the importance of shore guns in keeping harbours safe – or isolated, depending on whose guns they were.  I might play music from the era when the students grow weary.  The students might choose to compete in the accuracy and neatness of their diagrams.

Depending on earlier training, drawing and labelling accurate diagrams might be the ZPD for most students. Drawing troop movements and understanding what that would look like in real life or vice versa is very likely to be within their ZPD.  As a combined history and phys ed class, it would be a great opportunity to take students into the schoolyard to deploy their troops and see the translation of plans to real life.

Freehand drawing seems a very old fashioned way of learning and yet it is an excellent way to use visual and kinaesthetic intelligences to learn in a discipline which is far too often taught only through reading, writing and lecturing. (Gardner 1983)

If attention is the most important ingredient in learning what does it say our classrooms and study areas should be like?  Think about what distracts you and then ask yourself if you could work in your classroom or wherever your child does homework.

A quiet hum of activity is acceptable, but unnecessary movement, music, raised voices and interruptions through phone calls and announcements are disruptive.  When I couldn’t persuade our office to leave messages or send emails, I took the classroom phone off the hook when the students needed to pay careful attention.

Should classrooms be papered with bright visuals demanding the attention of the children as our administrators encourage?  It certainly looks charming, but is it conducive to children paying attention well enough to learn?  Instead, should classroom walls be painted in soothing colours only occasionally punctuated with a helpful poster?  Should there be plenty of study carrels or nooks where students can wrestle with ideas?  Should the group work area be strategically placed so the gentle murmur of discussion doesn’t disturb the other scholars?  Should a primary goal be to teach children consideration of each other’s learning environments?  Should we teach our children how to pay attention?

In some homes all the kids do homework at the dining room table.  For some children that works, especially if a parent is available to keep everyone on task.  It doesn’t work for all.  Figure out what works and put that in place. Many students complain homework takes too long.  When I asked questions, I realised many were texting, chatting on line, receiving phone calls on their cells, listening to music and being interrupted by younger siblings and sometimes parents – all while they were ostensibly doing homework.  None of this was conducive to any but the most mindless and useless of homework.  As I don’t assign that kind of homework, I was not surprised they were taking so long to get it done.

What about students with learning disabilities?  We sometimes think that accommodations mean letting them learn less.  Would they do better if we first worked to improve their ability to pay attention?  They could start with one minute and keep adding as they succeeded.  We could also work to improve their areas of weakness. If the brain changes naturally in response to attentive learning followed by practice, what couldn’t we do for our students who learn differently?

To sum up, a student begins to learn when he is paying attention.  The initial learning is mapping in the brain.  That mapping is not sufficient; practice is needed to ensure the mapping remains. It is like walking through a field; it takes a lot of walking over the same line before there is a trail that will last a month, more to last a year and so on.

How to do mapping and reinforcement is another story, but it is a normal part of a teacher’s repertoire. Reconsider the organisation of your classroom and the structure of the day, but the actual techniques are at most teachers’ fingertips.  It may be necessary to stand back while your students wrestle with their understanding of a concept but you will be rewarded with triumphant smiles as they eventually master it. While your administrator talks brain-based education, you will actually walk it.

Bibliography

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind.

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.

Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London  England., MIT Press.

Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.

Negotiating Learning: how do you get to Carnegie Hall part three


Emma’s parents are clearly in charge but they give her opportunities to make her own decisions.  They love to introduce her to new things: lambs, flying above her daddy’s head, swings, carrots, croissants and sandy beaches.  They are careful to keep the first contact with a new experience brief and pleasant. Should Emma show real signs of distress, they distract her with something else and remove the new experience.  They do, however, give her time to figure out what she thinks.  A first grimace does not mean distaste or fear.

Emma approaches most new things with enthusiastic caution.  At first contact, her face remains solemn as she assesses the taste or the experience.  Her expression upon her first taste of potato was comical. She remained serious as she ate most of it but she wasn’t unhappy.

Soon after first contact with a new experience, Emma usually starts to smile.  The potato didn’t rate a smile but it wasn’t rejected, either.  When Emma becomes comfortable with new activities, she often chuckles, sometimes in anticipation.

The local playground is designed for young children.  It has tough rubber flooring, many gentle angles and slopes, steps that are wide and go quite high, different kinds of slides and different challenges for the climbers including big nets.  There are lots of physical challenges but some for the imagination as well.  The gate opens into a large grassy field that is also toddler friendly.  Emma visits it nearly every day and here she has a lot of freedom to determine her own agenda.  For the most part, her parents follow her, reserving the right to exercise a veto.  The veto is seldom employed because usually they can negotiate a solution as they did with the swing.

Emma knew she wasn’t ready to swing solo but she does like the feeling of independence of being on the swing by herself. She isn’t ready to get on the swing and she doesn’t try but she is happy to sit on the swing with Mum’s help.  She gets to feel what it is like to be on a big-girl swing with the independence of holding on and balancing.  On the other hand, she is not anxious about falling, as she trusts her mum.

When she does fall in the course of her experiments, Emma rarely cries.  She looks up with surprise and the parent in charge usually calmly comments “That was a good bump, wasn’t it?” or “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” and they laugh together.  If a bump causes tears, then Emma gets picked up and comforted while her parent casually inspects the bump to see if needs more treatment than a kiss.  Eventually, Emma wiggles to get down and goes back to what she was doing.

Letting Emma fall is part of her education in consequences; taking risks can result in a delightful new experience or a bump.  She has to assess where the dividing line is.  Since her parents don’t intervene unless she is likely to get really hurt, she gets lots of practice in making that assessment.

So Emma often pushes herself to learn new things, but her parents also expose her to new experiences.  They support her ventures. They don’t fuss over a bit of dirt or a skinned knee.  Emma and her clothes are washable.  Emma’s scrapes and bruises heal quickly and are forgotten quickly. Usually Emma is the one who determines the pace at which she learns to do things, although, like most parents, hers can’t resist the temptation to occasionally coax her into trying something.  Who hasn’t tried to persuade a baby to take a step?

Wisely, her parents also teach her how to do things important for her own safety, such as getting down from a perch. Theirs is an approach of “if you are going to climb, you need to know how to get down safely.”  Her parents taught her to turn around and get down feet first.  When she first started climbing, they would have physically put her in the position to climb down.  Later, she heard a lot of

Turn around, Emma.  That’s it.  Now get down.”

Later comments were:

That’s not safe, please move… Thank you”

Or

Remember what happened last time you did that?”

Climbing, with the exception of climbing on cabinets and the computer desk, is not discouraged.  Her parents have always spotted Emma’s early climbs, even if she wasn’t aware of it.  However, potentially dangerous antics such as crossing the bouncing bridge require a parent holding her hand.  Since her parents don’t restrict most adventures, she accedes more readily to having her hand held.  Emma practices her balance on the bridge, but safely.

Today Emma climbs steps, kitchen chairs and other furniture with the same confidence as she walks.  While her eyes glint with mischief when she is admonished not to do something dangerous, she understands perfectly both the request and that she might get hurt doing it.  She might continue once or twice to tease her parent, but she is usually obedient. In this family, the toddler’s growth is a pragmatic and joyous negotiation between her and her parents.

The negotiation between Emma and her parents and their willingness to let her take some risks have brought her to the point where she wants to climb on the baby gym.  The task requires concentration, strength, balance, some risk-taking and confidence; she has enough of each.

Currently, the estimate of what goes into Emma’s growth would be roughly 40% nature, 60% environment or what we used to call nurture. Emma was unusually active even before she was born.  How would she have developed if her parents had not been active themselves?  Would they have responded to her need for physical activity or would she have become a little less active – or would they have met in the middle?

You often hear parents comment that their child sleeps better if they have a walk in the afternoon – or they need some quiet time after their bath and before bed to settle down to sleep.  Most parents are pretty good at figuring out what their babies need.  Most parents figure it out without thinking too much about it, too, and manage to negotiate something that works both for them and their child.  When you think about it, this isn’t really a surprise.  Parent and child is the oldest human relationship and they have been working it out for a long time.

Emma’s Brain: how do you get to Carnegie Hall, part two


Preceding article:  How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?   Part One
NATURE AND NURTURE    

I am a teacher by trade; my interest in the brain stems from trying to understand how we learn. I have tried to make my understanding of a complex and not thoroughly understood topic, clear and simple. All the mistakes are mine, but I am grateful to those who took the time to check it over and answer my questions while I was writing it. Readers who wish to pursue this subject should check out the books in my bibliography below.

EMMA’S BRAIN     

Contrary to common ideas as expressed in this ...

This map of the brain suggests that specific and static areas are responsible for specific functions. In fact it is more complicated, less static and less specific than that. Image via Wikipedia

What is happening inside Emma’s brain and body?  She was born with a good genetic mix.  We can make that assumption because not only does she have smart, healthy parents but she is also a bright healthy baby who has hit all the milestones, except for size (she is on the small side), on time.  As far as anyone can tell she has the tools she needs to learn and grow successfully.

A brief word about genetics and the brain:  the current understanding is that the brain is too complex and the genetic code too limited to allow the brain to be directly blueprinted by genes.  What is probably in the genetic blueprint is the timing of brain growth and which area is responsible for what. The rest is experience pruning and encouraging growth of synapses. (Schwartz 2002)

This is a fairly simplistic explanation of memory and learning.  I should also note that there is considerable disagreement among the experts as to which does what where, when and sometimes how.  With that caveat, you can see the difficulties a mere amateur faces.

Gross Motor Learning

Most of the learning I have been describing is called gross motor as Emma is largely using her big muscles.  She learns through constant repetition of movement until both muscle and brain remember the movement.  Both are needed to move her leg as undirected muscle, no matter how strong, is useless and skilled direction to the muscle without a trained muscle is, at the very least, frustrating.  Each movement Emma makes is retained in the neocortex in an area that deals with gross motor movements and as she practices, it becomes more firmly embedded in her memory until she can do it without thinking about it.  It is probable that the area storing this memory is not as specifically located as maps of the brain might lead us to believe.  In fact, at this age the area may change day to day.

Explicit Memory

I am looking at two kinds of long-term memory here. (LeDoux 2002) One is the kind of memory we have of events.  If we remember an event such as a birthday party, we remember through a number of sensory images such as smells, pictures, tastes, sounds and touches, and we remember them in the areas that originally received them.  We patch them together (or blend them, depending on

English: hippocampus. Images are from Anatomog...

Hippocampus Image via Wikipedia

the most recently accepted theory) through the hippocampus (among other areas of the brain) to create a memory of the birthday party. Neuroscientists call these kinds of event memories explicit or declarative memories.  Others call it “knowing that” as in you know that red wine was spilt over your favourite cream shirt and the stain has never come out.  Because we assemble declarative memories, they are seldom as accurate as we think or identical to those of other witnesses.

Implicit Memory

Most of Emma’s memories of learning to get her knee up on the level where she wants to climb are called implicit or non-declarative memories. (Walsh 2010) It might be easier to understand if you think of it as “knowing how” as in knowing how to ride a bicycle (which one apparently never forgets). These tend to be muscle memories, skill memories or memories which Emma will eventually recall and employ without consciously doing it.  She probably isn’t conscious of most of her later efforts to get her knee up on a step any more than you remember specific incidents of lifting weights or steps in going for a walk.  You will still strengthen your arms or your heart.  She may remember specific attempts: the feel of the step under her knee and hands, the sound of her mother’s voice and the smell of detergent on her clothing. Those will be declarative memories.

Mapping and Practice:  they’re brain changers

Emma’s constant practice does not just build muscle.  It also changes her brain.

Motor cortex

Motor Cortex Image via Wikipedia

Somewhere in the motor cortex, synapses have been alerted that this kid is into climbing and needs the brain involved more in the legs. The brain grows in the area of moving a leg onto a step because Emma is paying attention to what she is doing.  It isn’t just that she exercises her muscles in a novel fashion but that she also gives it her attention as she learns how to do it. The growth Emma causes in the brain is called mapping.  It takes very little attentive repetition to effect the mapping.

The Great Importance of Attention in Learning

Mapping is a little bit like the difference between driving (or cycling) somewhere yourself or sitting in a cab that is taking you there.  If you are the driving force, you are more likely to remember.  If you are sitting in a cab, looking out the window, you will find it harder to remember the route.  The same is true as Emma gives attention to the skill of getting that leg up on a step and then pushing with her knee and her arms.  She is the driver and she is not likely to forget this new skill.

That’s worth repeating: attentive exercise, in this case of the legs, will strengthen the legs and the area in the motor cortex that is involved with this movement of the legs.  The difference is, and it is a big difference, the change in the brain requires Emma’s attention to what she is doing. (Schwartz 2002) This is only one small example of how Emma’s will and interaction with her environment shapes her brain. Even more interesting is that the brain will continue to be plastic enough to be shaped by her will throughout her life, although probably never as effectively as now:

The motor cortex …is hardly a static layout.  From day to day and even moment to moment, the motor cortex map changes, reflecting the kind of movements it controls.  Complex movements result in outputs from the motor cortex that strengthen some synapses and weaken others, producing enduring changes in synaptic strength that result in those things we call motor skills.  Learning to ride a bicycle is possible, in likelihood, not merely because of something called muscle memory but also because of motor-cortex memory.(Schwartz 2002)

The Equal Importance of Practice in Learning

The non-declarative memories won’t do more mapping in the brain but will reinforce the mapping Emma has already laid down in her brain through her earlier attention to getting her knee on a step.  She needs to do a lot of practice to get this skill into her implicit memory.  Emma didn’t just climb the big steps outside.  Her apartment is on the third floor and ever since she learned to climb steps, she has climbed the two stories to her home.  A parent patiently walks behind ready to catch her if necessary but mainly chatting with Emma about what she is doing, what her trip to the park was like and what they will do when they get home.  All that climbing has created strong arms, legs and strong implicit memory about climbing.  None of this is special to Emma; every child maps new skills in the brain and reinforces the skill with practice.

English: diagram based on Squire and Zola (199...

Image via Wikipedia Click to see details of chart and sources.

Not all of this learning is just about gross motor movement and therefore intrinsic memory.  Her parents deliberately teach Emma how to climb down safely.  Teachers call it explicit teaching. The headfirst dive her mother caught her doing off the couch is not safe and so not acceptable. Emma is not allowed to

ever get down from a height without turning around and lowering her legs first. This practice will eventually end up in her muscle memory and in implicit memory.  She will not think about how to get down safely; she will just do it. I suspect it gives her confidence as she learns because she knows her escape route.

Were her parents thinking this way?  Probably not.  More likely, they were thinking about making sure Emma knows how to be safe even when they aren’t watching.  It is just as well, as who wants to think child–rearing from first principles?

When Emma is ready to move on, she builds on the implicit memory of putting her knee on the big outdoor step, by using her hands to pull herself up on that knee. She doesn’t learn to climb onto the baby gym and balance there immediately after standing.  She learns to put a knee on a step, pull herself on the step and so on to each stage in the process.  Usually when she starts a new stage, the previous stage has been mastered to the extent that it requires little or no thought, (i.e. it is in implicit memory) but the new stage will require her attention.

Some Questions

Emma’s ascent of the baby gym brings up the question of how much planning was involved. It’s hard to believe that she hadn’t thought about getting up there.  The question is how long had she been thinking about it?  Had she been thinking about it on and off for a couple of days, perhaps every time she saw it?  Had she thought of it just that day or just before the attempt?  Did she think about how she was going to get on it, or did she just attack it the way she attacks a big step or the couch?  Did she get one knee and two hands firmly on the gym, balance, and then realise that getting the next knee up was going to be a bit tricky?  These are questions worth answering.  Have they have been answered? How could they be answered?

Whenever or however Emma planned her ascent, there must have been a point when Emma had to start thinking as well as doing. From the expression on her face, you can see the concentration that does not come from doing something learned and mastered.  This is something new.  Her concentration is fierce as she balances and brings the second knee to rest on the gym.  When she is climbing steps, she will look around to see who is watching or taking a picture but this particular feat has all her attention and there is none left over for an audience.  This feat will probably be in her explicit memory as it is the first time and she is very pleased with herself.

Many thanks to Dr. J. P. Thivierge and Dr. Vanessa Taler, both of the School of Psychology, University of Ottawa for suggesting books, clarifying concepts and reading these four posts for errors in neurology.

NEXT:  NEGOTIATING LEARNING BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILD

Bibliography

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.

Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London  England., MIT Press.

Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Part One


How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, Practice, Practice … goes the old joke.

We think of violinists and pianists, but every toddler is performing the same miracle of intensity and practice right under our noses. We are accustomed to it and fooled by the small laughing faces smeared with sweet potato and any dirt they can find. Let’s follow Emma to her ta da! moment at eighteen months and then we’ll explore the neurology behind it, her negotiations with her parents and the implications for teachers and parents.

This is Emma playing under her wooden baby gym. She is ignoring the toys as she works on turning over. In one short year things will change dramatically.

At eighteen months old, Emma is active for her age and persistent in teaching herself things she wants to learn. Emma is fortunate in her parents.

They are not only active themselves, but her mother is a former competitive athlete and her father loves to cycle and hike. He once cycled across four provinces, including British Columbia. Her parents don’t discourage her from most of her experiments in action so she keeps busy and keeps them busy.

You will notice that in the picture above, Emma has her leg up on what is the bottom step of a climbing structure. The toe in the left side of the picture is her mother’s. In the next picture (on another day), you can see Emma as she reaches the top of these steps. She has made it clear to her parents that she does not need help so an unseen hand, ready to grab an arm, a shirt or the back of her overalls hovers discretely behind.

There are all sorts of activities at the top of the steps but what she wanted was the bridge in the pictures below. As you can see, Emma is having great fun charging across this bridge made with wooden slats and her mother is having only slightly less fun trying to keep up. She wouldn’t have held her mother’s hand but for her mother’s insistence.

Emma sometimes decides that she wants to learn how to do something and then persists until she learns it to her satisfaction. It isn’t always obvious to anyone except her why she wants to learn something.The goosestep she appears to be doing in this picture is not that at all. She is not throwing her leg forward but executing a sidekick every few walking steps. It was quite deliberate and unusually well executed for a toddler. What made her decide to do it puzzled observers. Why she was doing it was a puzzle but that she was doing it must have both strengthened the muscles in her leg and hip and maintained if not increased the flexibility that allowed Emma to swing her leg up on the step in the second photo. I have no expertise in toddler fitness so I am speculating here, based on having raised three children of my own.

It is characteristic of her parents’ style that they are unobtrusive but present to stop any major falls. Otherwise Emma is allowed to experiment with pretty well anything she thinks she can do. Emma’s first ideas about how to get down from the sofa were not good ones. Only the pillows on the floor and her mother’s firm grip of her leg stopped it from being a painful experiment.

Emma experiments with going up the slide. Her parents made a point of teaching her how to get down from places where she has climbed up. The photo below shows how they have taught Emma to turn around so she can lower her feet first.

Sometimes Emma climbs where her parents don’t want her to go. They deal with this much the same way they deal with headfirst descents: they make it clear to Emma that climbing on the computer desk is not acceptable and they remove her. But first, of course, a photograph is in order! By contrast, the couch is an acceptable climbing spot so long as she doesn’t get on the back because that is too high.

Emma likes to try new things and her parents encourage her. Swings are a good example of how her parents introduce and encourage her in trying new things. First there was the baby swing with Dad in front pushing the swing. Emma could see her dad and they shared a smile of delight. Next she sat on her daddy’s lap while he went back and forth on the grown up swing. Later when she went again to the playground, shewanted to sit on the swing by herself. Her mother put her on, made sure she understood she had to keep her hands firmly wrapped around the chains and gently pushed from behind.

It was possible that Emma might fall but highly unlikely. Her mother was right there and Emma is a sturdy child with a good sense of balance.

These months of practicing climbing and balance, building strength and derring-do have led to this moment caught on a parent’s camera. The baby who lay under the baby gym, just a short year ago, trying to turn over, is now climbing on it.

How did she get there?

Next Post:  Emma’ s Brain.

NATURE AND NURTURE