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Engaging young minds: Part two

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

The second part of Huw Thomas’ series, discussing how understanding the way our brains work can help motivate learning.

Illustrated head and cogs

Take a trip round your brain. The walnut-looking cerebral cortex scrunches a surface area the size of a school desk into a space the size of a head. The two halves, or hemispheres, are made up of specific lobes, areas that perform certain functions. Tap the back of your head – just inside there are the occipital lobes, mainly involved in seeing. The temporal lobes, just beside your ears, deal with sound. The left side mainly deals with language, the right side with non-verbal sound. The parietal lobe, at the top, deals with spatial thinking and some aspects of recognition.

We’re all geared up to see, hear, take in information and, at the front of the brain, just behind your forehead, the frontal lobes do the higher level of thinking, reasoning and making sense of all this information.

You’re entering…

Learning involves crossing a divide, described by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) – the gap between the things a child could do independently and those which they could do with support from adults or peers. Enquiring minds step into that zone where they:

  • think ahead. Our brain uses what we know to figure out what we learn, so provides opportunities for children to speculate, estimate and guess at what lies ahead in their learning;
  • draw on things they already know. To find the number between 1 and 100 with the highest number of multiples they will use knowledge of multiplication and reverse functions;
  • encounter something new. It’s worth asking at the start of a lesson: what will be new here? Even a lesson of revision should contain some new slant on the subject matter.

Provoking thinking

Puzzles, problems and just strange images and ideas can provoke thinking. Anything that makes children think twice is worth toying with, stimulating enquiring minds. One fun way to play with these features of an enquiring mind is through optical illusions. And check out Ian Gilbert’s ‘Thunks’ – provocative and fun!

Illusions

Optical Illusions come about because the brain approaches new information with a load of ideas about what it expects to see.

The Ponzo Illusion plays with the way we think those two lines going almost vertical are going off into the distance – so the horizontal line at the top feels further away, and so must be longer. But is it? Measure and see at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ponzo_illusion.gif

The same game is played in Terra Subterranea: members.lycos.nl/amazingart/E/30.html

That’s why the moon feels bigger when it’s closer to the horizon. Our mind is telling us the horizon is further away than when it’s in the sky above us. So to be that size, that far away, it must be bigger. In actual fact it never changes its size. Check out the Father Ted explanation: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmU_ q5xrnto

The Ebbinghaus Illusion works a bit like this. Your visual system assesses the size of something by contrast with other things, so thinks the inner circles differ in size. But do they? Ebbinghaus Illusion

Neuroscientist, V.S. Ramanchandran presents simple illusions with a commentary at: cbc.ucsd.edu/ramaillusions.html

Ian Gilbert’s ‘Thunks’

For questions that make you think, it’s worth checking out The Little Book of Thunks. Here’s the web link for thunking: www.thunks.co.uk

A spirit of enquiry

Questions are the primary tool of an enquiring mind, so how can we use them to promote a spirit of enquiry in the classroom?

  • treasure: we need to raise the profile of questions – praising children when they ask them, highlighting good examples and picking apart what makes it a good one;
  • gather: children need to have easy and encouraging ways to lodge questions and lots should be gathered, providing raw material for learning;
  • give time to questions: all too often question and answer is hurried with a view towards getting to delivery of subject matter – so let’s clear this one up here: however much time you currently devote to enquiry-oriented discussions, think about doubling it. The principle behind this is simple – additional time spent on enquiry was never wasted;
  • give time to answers: various studies suggest teachers give just a few seconds between posing a question and expecting an answer. Allow ten. And before you teach something, tell children what question you will ask later on. Ask a question and leave it hanging there to be returned to later;
  • help out: encourage children to ask questions of each other, putting questions to children who have already shared some thinking. To ensure this isn’t threatening the crucial words are: “Help them out!” This sends the message that discussion isn’t inquisition.

Quality questions

Like any species, the question has its subspecies. One way of exploring this is to look at a taxonomy of learning. That’s nothing to do with stuffed teachers. It’s a way of subdividing types of learning. One of the most famous was originated by psychologist Benjamin Bloom, in 1956.

Bloom points out the difference between just storing facts and other types of learning, like synthesising, where a learner is connecting new learning to what they already know, or evaluating, where they make a judgement on something.

In the classroom it prompts us to extend the level of enquiry in which we engage children, and it has particular relevance to the level of questioning we put to our classes. Studies of questioning have shown that teachers tend to ask a lot of undemanding ones – possibly feeling there’s a lot of mileage to cover and little questions keep us in control of the journey.

I’d echo Robert Fisher’s guidance – I’d tape it up in every classroom:

“We should try to ask fewer and better questions”

This series breaks the process of learning into the six stages of engage, enquire, create, analyse, connect and apply. The resource linked to this article presents a set of top-notch questions that should be applicable to a wide range of content, organising them under these six areas of learning.

Closed vs open questions

Ultimately this article isn’t about questioning – it’s about enquiring minds. The three moves below are designed to shift away from questions being like a quiz show to promoting that genuine spirit of enquiry.

  • Move from questions that check what you know to ones that explore the nature of that knowledge: How do you know it? How can you be sure? Why is it worth knowing? What can you do with it?
  • Move from factual questions, asking ‘What is..?’ and ‘Where is…?’ towards the words ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ – questions that are probing processes and connections of cause and effect
  • Move from once only questions that, once answered, are finished off, to questions that can be asked more than once. Asking “What process dries up puddles?” will give a one word answer. Asking “Where do puddles go?” may elicit a few.

Good questions have legs, and run away. Inquiring minds chase after them.

Other useful websites

Tour of your brain

There are loads of good pages navigating around the brain on the web. One of the best is on this link, with the cursor highlighting where you point and what that part of the brain does: thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_01/d_01_cr/d_01_cr_ana/d_01_cr_ana.html

It’s part of a bigger site, with lots of brilliant brain information: thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/index_d.html

Neuroscience for Kids is another great site with this menu: faculty.washington.edu/chudler/introb.html#bb

And this tour of those lobes: faculty.washington.edu/chudler/lobe.html

Thinking questions

The resource below has a range of sentence starters that will engage children in the six areas of thinking and learning we cover in this series.

  • engage: latching onto the process of learning
  • enquire: exploring and questioning new learning
  • create: thinking in varied directions and creative ways
  • analyse: picking the content of learning apart
  • connect: connecting one thing that is learned with another
  • apply: remembering and using what is learned

It’s not exhaustive, and not every starter works in every context, but if the learning objective is about the moon, instead of just asking “What does the moon do?” we can ask:

What do you think about the moon?
What could we ask about the moon?
What things can we say about the moon?
What do you mean by 'orbit'?
Why do you think it's so bright?
What if it wasn't there?
What if we could go there?
Have you ever been there?
When it seemed to change shape, why did that happen?
How do you know it's smaller than earth?
How did you find out about tides?
We've learned all this. So...?

It’s not a means to devise loads of questions – more a way of finding the quality questions that are worth a dozen lesser ones.

Each section of the poster has one question at the start that can be asked as it stands about lots of things. The other lines start other questions.

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