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Engaging young minds: Part five

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

The fifth part of this series looking at how our brains work focuses on making connections between areas of learning

Illustrated head and cogs

The capacity to connect, linking the new to what we already know, is a vital component of learning. To say ‘aha!’ and figure something out involves transforming what our senses perceive into something meaningful.

In his book How the Brain Learns (Corwin Press, £25.99 PB), David A Sousa describes how the brain takes in information and decides whether to retain it or drop it. The selection process is narrowed down to two factors: ‘Information is most likely to get stored if it makes sense and has meaning.’

This statement provides the shortest, yet most powerful, checklist for planning and evaluating teaching – that is, did the teaching make sense and have meaning? Sousa suggests if both boxes are ticked we’ll learn this material. We can get by with one, but if there is neither sense or meaning, forget it. Of the two, meaning is the more significant, having the greater impact.

So, how do we make learning meaningful? (Take a look at the other articles in this series).

Personal connection

I recently took a class where the children were supposed to devise a leaflet persuading people to carry a gas mask, as if we were in the blitz. Having not experienced the blitz, there was a gap between the children and the learning. They knew some facts that made sense: gas falls, no mask means that you die. However, they had no connection with the issue.

When we turned the discussion to responding to the fire alarm we made a connection: safety procedures that may one day be life saving. The more we can connect new learning with children’s personal experience, the better. Evoking emotion is particularly powerful, here.

Connection questions

Use these ‘connection’ questions to prompt children to form links between their learning and their world.

Making connections

Ten questions to try and make connections. Insert something you are learning about in the space below.

Can you make a connection between ….................. and:

  1. something in your house?
  2. a job you would like to do?
  3. the area where you live?
  4. someone in your family?
  5. food?
  6. shopping?
  7. a programme you have watched on television?
  8. your favourite place?
  9. something in the classroom?
  10. something special to you that we haven’t asked about?

Creative connection

Can we connect new learning with a creative form? Our brains lap up narratives, jingles and images and it’s worth seeing if each piece of learning can be represented as an image. Stories also provide a great tool for powerful learning – if the learning is about the water cycle, can we tell the story of a raindrop? If it’s number operations with fractions, the anecdote about the pizza party needs deploying.

Using metaphor

One creative strategy to prompt children to do their own creative connecting is to ask them to make sense of a metaphorical link between something they are learning and something quite different. If they are learning about clauses in sentences we can ask the question: How is a clause like a…? and fill the gap with a random word. If the word is ‘train’ we may think about coupling and travelling together. If the word is ‘stapler’ we may explore how one arm connects to the other in an attachment.

It’s very much one of those strategies that is strained when you first try it but grows the more you do it.

Big picture connection

Kanizsa Triangle

The image above shows a Kanizsa triangle. Can you see the triangle? It’s not there, but you can see it. This is because the brain has a tendency to see a whole, using principles termed ‘Gestalt grouping principles’ (‘Gestalt’ meaning something similar to the English word ‘whole’).

The brain turns parts to wholes. This tendency should underpin a further task of connection in our teaching – to connect one piece of learning to the bigger picture. Everything we teach is one component of a bigger picture. Subtraction is a component of the workings of the number system. Tone is one of many art techniques. Children need that bigger sweep to find the sense and meaning in the current lesson.

Paragraphing game

The concept of a paragraph is a vital element in children’s writing development, and can be played with in the context of making connections. In the big picture of the full text, the paragraph finds its place, connecting with the whole text.

This game uses connections within a subject to cause a lot of running around and a bit of paragraphing.

Hand out slips of card about 20cm long and 8cm wide. Taking any subject (for example, playtimes, school, football, space), ask children to write words that would feature in writing on this topic – so for ‘school’, cards may include ‘playtime’, maths’, ‘friends’ or ‘detention’.

Ask the children to complete two or three of these cards each. Give each child one card and place the rest on a central table. Next, stand the children in a circle around the room. The task now is for children to club together into logical themed pairs – so, the child who has a card saying ‘maths’ may see a child with a card saying ‘multiplication’ and join them. The pairs should then join up with other pairs to create a ‘paragraph’ on a theme. So, the ‘maths and multiplication’ pair could join up with an ‘English and spelling’ pair to create a ‘subjects’ themed paragraph.

If a word or idea is duplicated, one of the pair of children holding them needs to put down their original card and find one left on the table – whether their own or someone else’s.

Children can make gaps and cluster in groups till the end result is a room made of ‘paragraphs’, with each group paragraphing together. The ‘paragraphs’ each represent an aspect of the overall theme. The cards can be kept visible, stuck on the wall or collected on a line of clothes pegs – but the outcome is a planned set of paragraphs that will structure a piece of writing.


Before the arrival of scientific gizmos that can now scan and search our brains, psychologist Donald Hebb suggested that ‘nerve cells that fire together wire together’. For such firing and wiring to connect, children need to experience transfer. In Perkins and Salomon’s article on transfer they describe transfer as knowledge or skills from one context reaching out to another. Examples can be as basic as the way learning to use one adjective supports placing another one in a sentence. The higher order version occurs when reading a persuasive text about cycle helmets enables the learner to write one about a totally different subject. They suggest it can’t be taken for granted and often breaks down, proposing the need to teach for transfer ensuring that our teaching manages to both. They use the terms ‘hug’ and ‘bridge’:

  • Hugging involves using the resemblances between things being learned and what is already known. So, learning about speech marks benefits from ‘hugging’ close the topic of speech bubbles, with which children will already be familiar.
  • Bridging is about unpicking the elements of teaching that children carry over into new learning, such as the fact that to use speech marks you need a clear idea of what is being said. What you learn about place value will support your learning of decomposition. What you learn about gravity can support your understanding of weighing.

Perkins and Salomon suggest: ‘rarely is this done persistently and systematically enough to saturate the context of education with attention to transfer… Taken together, the notions of bridging and hugging write a relatively simple recipe for teaching for transfer.’ These notions serve as a prompt in lesson planning – to always ensure that you’re making those connections.

Other useful resources

Kanizsa Triangle

Experience the brain’s Gestalt urge to think in wholes using this dynamic version of the Kanizsa Triangle.

Guardian advert

This video is a great example of the way in which various parts connect to show the whole picture. This is a good way of making the point to children – and a great stimulus for writing different points of view in news stories.

Teaching for transfer

Read Perkins and Salomon’s full article on transfer.

Bees and fire and wire

Donald Hebb’s firing and wiring idea received support some years ago from the lives of bees.

Two great books for more reading

Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb (O’Reilly Media)
How the Brain Learns – David A. Sousa (Corwin Press)



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