Category Archives: age

When zero is not allowed, what is the difference between a student who doesn’t do assignments and a student who is on an Individual Education Program?

It is common to accommodate a student on an Individual Education Plan due to a disability either intellectual or physical, by reducing her workload if that is appropriate.  For example, an English teacher might require a student to answer one of two questions as thoroughly as every one else in the class.  For the second question he might jot down a few words to remind him of his thoughts on a possible answer, if he had time.  He will meet requirements of the assignment by thinking about both questions, but reducing the amount of writing required would accommodate his dysgraphia.

I should add that there are many other forms of accommodation.  Shortening the amount of work is only one but sometimes a useful one.

Gifted students on an IEP may have the number of questions they do for math practice reduced as they do not need as many to cement the concept.  Instead, the teacher may assign problems that take them farther into the concept.

You can see where this is leading.  What a teacher assigns and the amount she assigns is tied in to how much work she believes is needed to learn the material.  If you have read my four posts “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” you will remember that repetition AKA practice is necessary for learning skills.

If a student is not on an IEP, does a teacher have a moral right to change the program he used his expertise, experience and professional judgement to design just to accommodate a normal student who hasn’t handed in some assignments?

Consistently not doing work is a behaviour problem and those who are best equipped to deal with them should be informed: parents, guidance counsellors, principals, vice principals.  In the meantime, teachers should be allowed to get on with what they were trained to do.  And that includes assessment

Do we really want our future doctor, lawyer, builder of bridges, electrician or plumber accepted to train in their professions even though they had missed parts of their math or physics or English classes?  If they find zeroes discouraging, let them ask for help.  If they don’t want to learn enough to ask for help, please don’t lie to the public by indicating they have actually passed a course.

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

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

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.


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.



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.

Being young is a fault which improves daily. Swedish proverb

When I grow up, these shoes will fit me. How soon is that?

Learning Chinese And What It Has Taught Me About Teaching

I'm learning more than Chinese!

I am back studying Chinese and my grades are beginning to reflect my assessment of my real comprehension.  I’m studying harder, longer and using a wider variety of methods; I am working for recall and not merely recognition but I still flounder.  I am very frustrated and am too tired at the end of the day to pursue my first love, thinking and writing about education.  Chinese was supposed to be a hobby.

We have the good fortune to have two professors of psychology as neighbours.  I asked Dr. F why I was working so hard with so little effect.  She pointed out that memory starts declining at the age of 25, “… and I bet the class is full of kids in their twenties.”  I am probably 30 years older than the oldest of them.  Learning a language requires memory work and Chinese requires more than usual as there is no connection between a character and its pronunciation.  Not only that, but Chinese has no connection to English or French so there are no connections to use.

In fact, it is all memory work.  I have tried hard to use my analytical skills (which improve with age) by tracking homophones, noting components of characters and using mnemonics of all kinds.  Still I lag.

It did start me thinking about the implications for education.  We, and I among us, have turned up our noses at memory work or “rote learning”.  I am beginning to reconsider its value.  Before I go on, I must assert that I strongly believe in teaching children to think and analyse from their first day in school; however, in order to think, there must be something to think about: facts, ideas, issues.  Architects and engineers are necessary to design large buildings, but if bricks and mortar and construction workers don’t turn up at the site, the design wouldn’t come to fruition.  Nor would it come to fruition if the planners didn’t know the physics and mathematics of solid construction.

While children are at their strongest ability for memorisation, the education system should be taking advantage of that strength to teach them.  Recently I observed a primary class where numeration (arithmetic) was taught as a concept, not to mastery.  It isn’t difficult to teach arithmetic to mastery; I have found five minutes a day throughout the year is very effective.  Some children will go further, some will lag, but mastery will allow them to focus on other math skills that can’t be memorised.

Imagine the panic a student feels as she tries to understand area and volume when she can’t remember the times table.  She looks at l x w x h and instead of thinking about how cool it is that length, width and height are used to create volume, she is looking at the two x’s and worrying about dealing with them.  Instead of thinking that this is just area multiplied by one more number, she is unhappy about multiplying three numbers together.

She may understand the models with blocks and other manipulatives, but she won’t want to translate that into numbers.  Without being able to easily retrieve the product of length, width and depth from memory,  she must resort to her fingers, a multiplication table or a calculator, all of which are slower and more distracting than knowing her times table.

Why is this a problem?  If the student doesn’t have an easy relationship with arithmetic, she won’t be able to comfortably estimate the answer to mathematical problems and see approximately what the answer should be.  It means she will not know if an answer is probably right without looking it up.  She may not get past arithmetic into the fun of mathematics.  If you had to build a desk and chair every time you needed it, wouldn’t you get fed up?

More practically, checking the total of grocery bills, calculating tips, estimating change, doing her own taxes and other mundane applications will become too bothersome to be worthwhile.  She will end up trusting others instead herself to take charge of her money.

History educates our children to become informed citizens.  The big patterns of history repeat and understanding reasons and results is important to understanding the current play of events.

While I am not keen on memorising dates in history, it is important that the sequence of key dates be understood.  One way to aid memorisation is a timeline running through the halls so that all the history that is studied in elementary school is displayed with only the important-to-learn dates on them.  Below are some of the dates I would include.  For the events linked with the dates, see the next post.  As students learned about these events, posters and pictures could be put up below them so students could learn the sequence of events and eventually, the dates.  It is important, for example, that students learn that the Quebec Act preceded the American Revolution and the French Revolution was roughly coincident with the American.  Why was the Quebec Act necessary and what role did it play in the American Revolution?  Is it a coincidence that there were two major revolutions going on at roughly the same time?

Some teachers might argue that putting up the same timeline year after year would be boring.  It could, but  the approach to the events might be varied, the children will certainly have grown and have learned and even the dates could be varied.  Within each classroom there would be a more detailed sequence of the period that class is studying.  My hope is that within the classroom there would be more emphasis on the social history of the time.

Presumably as the students get older and have a better understanding of history, they will see the events in different lights. That and remembering the key dates will start them on the road to understanding the sequence of world events.  With those tools, they can begin to look at cause and effect and use history as a lens to look at the events unfolding in the daily news.  At least they can if their teachers help them to do so.

Memory work in geography is even more vital.  How often do we laugh when our comedians go south to ask Americans simple questions about Canada?  I suspect that our ignorance is only less by comparison.  We should be using the children’s strong memories to ingrain the continents, the countries, the rivers, mountains, oceans and major cities. Will they remember it all twenty years down the road?  No, but  literature , the news and the study of other subjects will reinforce some of it.  Their memory for others can be jogged by references to what they do remember; “Tunisia, oh is that on the Mediterranean or the Atlantic – no near Libya somewhere – ahhh and Libya IS on the Mediterranean so Tunisia probably is, too.”  And some they will indeed remember.

They will have a rough idea of the climate, vegetation and the economy of each region.  They will know what the key indicators are of health and welfare in each country.  This kind of information along with the well learned and understood sequence and pattern of events of history will help them make sense of the current politics and business.

The facts are no substitute for understanding.  At the beginning of my Grade Seven geography class, I used to hold up one of those three page plasticised summaries of physical geography and say.  “Everything you need to know for this course is in here but if you were to memorise it all, you still would not pass this course.  What you also need to know is what the facts mean, what you can do with them, how to use them.  In short you are going to start to learn to think like a geographer.”  Then I pinned the summary to the back wall and we went to work.

I would argue that there is much to be gained in memorising poetry.  The first is that by memorising poetry a child goes over and over the words.  Given the right poem, the child may begin to see things in the poem that a teacher could not have pointed out.  Secondly, poems are meant to be spoken.  A child who has memorised a poem and then learned to speak it, has learned viscerally the effects of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, or if there is no rhyme, then the effects of the literary devices.  Finally, the poem has become a gift; the child carries it in his head as something he can turn on and turn over.  If you still hear a poem or song in your head that you learned many years ago, then you know what I am talking about.  Since that is the case, choose carefully the poem you ask a child to memorise.  Make it worthy of the effort.

At one point in my teaching, I looked for an alternative to detentions so I asked students to copy a chapter (about the equivalent of a poem) from the Tao de Ching, an early work in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism.  The writing is not easy to understand but I felt it gave the students something to think about.  Many students began to memorise some chapters by heart and occasionally quote them in class. One lad who was a persistent talker often got Chapter 24 which starts, “To be always talking is against nature…” and goes on to reflect on the power of stillness.  One day he came to me and said that he was beginning to get the passage beyond the message of the first few words.  The repetition had engraved it in his memory so it was always with him to contemplate.  This is one of the gifts of memorisation.

So to go back to Chinese and the dull tools I must use to learn it; will I stop?  No, because I CAN learn it, just much more slowly than the university students in my course.  Instead I remind myself that learning Chinese is a hobby and ask myself if I can pare my goal down to what I can reasonably achieve.  When April comes, I will write the final exam and then hire a tutor or swap English for Chinese conversational lessons.  Since I want to speak and understand, that is what I will focus on.  I am exploring spending time in China in the fall.  In the meantime, I will put reading about education and the brain and writing about education first.

Some dates I think are important, especially to Canadians.  This is not intended to be definitive!

~5 BCE to 650 CE
1914 – 1918