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Engaging young minds: Part three

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

In the third part in this series, Huw Thomas looks at how learners analyse the different stimuli they encounter and how we can use what we know about the brain to support learning in the classroom

Illustrated head and cogs

It’s hard to imagine anything more complex than a human brain. The main wiring in our brains is made from a phenomenal 100 billion cells, or neurons. Each of these cells has a chunky body, about a hundredth of the size of a full stop, with branches called dendrites that receive stimulation, and a long branch called an axon that passes it on. The long axon reaches for the dendrites of other brain cells, making connections between cells that receive and transmit thought. There are tens of thousands of these dendrites around each cell body, with the staggering result that your brain is teeming with connections between cells. These connections, called synapses, number a quadrillion, and a thousand million of them can fit in the space taken up by a grain of sand.

What? Where? When?

Our brains are set to analyse the stimuli they receive and integrate this deluge of information. There are two pathways in the brain that channel this gathering of stimuli – one devoted to ‘what’, the other devoted to ‘where and when’. There are a few key questions children can work on, as ways of structuring their approach to the ‘what’ and ‘where/when’ of analysing something:

What is it? Start with the big picture. If it’s a piece of technology, what is it? If it’s a maths problem, what’s the basic story? Can we say what we are looking at in one sentence?

What is it similar and different? How is magnetism similar to other forces? How is it different? (See below for more on sorting.)

What does it do? How does it effect other things? What purpose does it serve? To figure out how a clothes peg works, you have to have some idea of what it does.

Where are the different parts? A problem, a scientific process, a geographical event – they are all made up of various components. Can we pick these apart? Can we list them?

When does it change? Look out for changes over time – how is something different before and after? What changes occur?


Imagine an alphabet of capital letters. How would you sort them into two groups? Vowels and Consonants? That’s boring. Straight edged and Curvy? Ones with spaces to colour in and ones without? When you do any sorting like this, you are analysing your stimuli. There are various ways of doing this. (It’s worth noting that, in all the work done on boys and engagement with learning, one feature to emerge is the engaging nature of structures like these for boys’ learning.)

Structures for sorting

Venn diagrams: Like the alphabet example, two circles are a starting point for sorting. If they are allowed to intersect the task becomes even more interesting – and realising the potential for intersection is a significant step in learning how to apply sorting criteria.

Before and after lines: One way of analysing the events in a story is to choose one event and write it in the middle of a flipchart. Children then have to think of other events and place them before or after the original event. One nifty variation is to ask for the events to be written in a way that denotes how distant or close they lay, within the story, to the one in the middle.

Grids: Any table with one set of criteria down one axis and a different set across the top prompts analysis. Faced with a table like the one below, we have to analyse stories and figure out the components. Grids like these have a huge place in learning, taking subject matter and picking apart with analyses that find similarities and differences.

Table of information about fairytale characters

Ranking: Take any series of statements or facts about a subject, and you have the raw material for ranking. A set of 10 or 12 cards can be ranked, either showing the most to least important or the one that people most agree with to the one that they least agree with. Items don’t have to be ranked from 1 to 10 or 12. They can be ranked as a rectangle – top four, middle four, bottom four – or a triangle, with one outstanding item at the top, two on the next tier, three below and so on. The main thing is that ranking involves analysis. (See the Staff development activity below.)

Mapping thinking

One visual way of analysing information is through a thinking map. The image below shows an example – a thinking map about thinking maps! There are a few rules worth communicating to children, and sticking to, when mapping. For more information take a look at Nancy Marguiles’ excellent guide (see Books, below).

Thinking map about thinking maps

Rules for mapping

  • Use a landscape page (longways paper – and do use paper!). The chart needs to be saved and stuck up for future reference, so use big sheets and good quality marker pens that can show thick and thin lines.
  • Start at the centre with the word or image that is provoking the thinking.
  • Add doodles – little images that represent the words you use. These need to be symbolic, made up of a few lines, and for the benefit of the learner – not a work of art.
  • Grow branches from the centre. Branches need to grow from thick to thin, and should be one word long. Use different patterns, colours and images to make them stand out.
  • Write one word per branch. This is challenging but encourages brevity and focus.
  • Branch your branches. My ‘use’ branch carried a lot of baggage which I split out into the two branches that lead from it.
  • Think free! Within such tight rules, there is the freedom to think and branch. Mapping draws out thoughts and builds up a picture that is pure analysis.

Staff development activity: Ranking

Try this activity as a staff team. How would you rank the following statements about learning?

Learning should always be exciting.
You can’t learn anything in just one go.
You can learn things you’re not interested in.
You only remember things you need to remember.
To learn, you have to enquire.
The more questions you ask, the more you learn.
The slower you learn something, the better you remember it.
Learning should always be fun.
You have to know about something before you can learn more about it.
Real learning can never be boring.

The Stroop Effect

Psychologist John Ridley Stroop’s experiments demonstrate the difficulty our brains can have integrating information. If we are shown a colour word printed in a different colour – such as the word ‘red’ printed in green – and asked to say aloud what colour the word is, we struggle. Our brains find it easier to read the word – after all, that’s what words are all about. The added complication of turning a colour into a word causes the viewer to falter in their observation.

You can try the test here at Eric Chudler’s excellent ‘Neuroscience for Kids’ website.

Web links

  • Why not stimulate thinking with some interesting clips or images, asking children to analyse what they are looking at. Two excellent web sites for pictures include the Getty Library and Google Images.
  • John Medina is a controversial enthusiast for the brain and learning. Watch him at his best in this interview.


The Art of Changing the Brain by James E Zull (Stylus Publishing) is a great tour of the brain with some of the best links to learning.

Two books highly recommended as guides to the mapping of thinking are:
  • Mapping Inner Space: Learning and Teaching Visual Mapping by Nancy Margulies and Nusa Maal (Corwin Press)
  • Mind Maps for Kids: An Introduction – The Shortcut to Success at School by Tony Buzan (Thorsons)

Take a look at the previous instalments in the ‘Engaging young minds’ series.