Learning for Life

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach,

maybe we should teach the way they learn”.  

Image provided by imgarcade.com

Image provided by imgarcade.com

This quote by Ignacio Estrada (Gutierrez, 2014) has inspired my thoughts on the general state of education, my personal learning environment, as well as my career journey in higher education. Prior to the masters program courses, my knowledge of education was limited to my experience not training. My understanding of how the mind learns and my knowledge of teaching and educating has dramatically increased. This quote wouldn’t have caught my attention, had I not been learning concepts and theories and practical information, from the Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning course. Nor would this quote have the same deep intrinsic meaning as it does now. It cuts to the core, since it addresses concepts that are so critical and affect our future of education in my personal learning environment as well as this country. Let’s break it down and possibly you’ll be inspired as well:

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should

teach the way they learn”.

Attention, Memory and Learning

First, the quote addresses learning, a simple word with powerful meaning. In my class one concept learned was the cognitive connection between attention, memory and learning. This concept involves the integration between these essential elements and by grasping this concept it allowed me to transition to a different level of belief and understanding of how the brain really learns and affects education.

Here’s a short recap from previous blogs. Attention is the present state of the mind. It is the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate and actively process information that is presently in one’s environment. Attention requires effort and has its limitations. Attention is viewed as the path towards cognition. Learning rewires our brain, produces more myelin and is stored as memory. Memory is the recall and the recognition of what we have processed. “The ability to process information via attention and store information in an accessible state via memory are critical aspects of our cognitive capacities” (Fougnie, 2008, p. 1). The result of this cognitive relationship and integration process is learning.

Dynamic Learning Systems

Jumping ahead, the course just recently covered Dynamic Learning systems, another concept that has significant meaning to me. The dynamic system is an approach in cognitive science that promotes the concept of the overall mind, body, environment and external factors that occur all around us everywhere and mold us, as we evolve over a period of time. This framework is not just based on context, but mathematical theories come into play as well, because of the compounding domino effect of how one event affects another and the probability and variability, at which they may occur. This concept is important to me because it addresses the external factors. Attention, memory and learning connections take place internally based on these external factors. The combination of these two general concepts reinforces the overall integration process of learning. Not all simple, extremely complex and very powerful!

Personal Story

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should

teach the way they learn”.

Here’s a personal story about a little girl, a previous student of mine, who struggled to learn. When we first met, she was in kindergarten. Her behavior in class was very poor and she had frequent outbursts, fought verbally and physically with other students and could not get along in a social setting. However, put her on task or read her a story and she was engaged, at least for a few minutes. She had the mechanics in place, so not entirely learning problems, just behavior issues.   She was definitely the student that made teaching challenging as she would frequently disrupt the entire class. The teachers she had were strict and patient. Strategies were put in place to help “deal” with her. No one gave up on her, except her home life. Her microsystem consisted of crime and part time guardians. She lived in a very unsafe neighborhood in the city. Her older brother was partially responsible for raising her. He however, sold drugs, and was frequently in jail. Her Father did not exist. Her Mother worked the night shift. She usually came to school without lunch and her school uniform was often times dirty or ripped. Her house was raided for drugs and she witnessed things, many adults only see on TV. She was an angry and neglected child. Things started to improve as she learned how to read. She found something she could do, something she enjoyed and her reading took her to another place where she wanted to be. Miraculously, around 5th grade she grew into a completely different little girl. She became the “star” student. She was funny, well liked and smart. She got along with others and would even help her classmates. Her dynamic learning system, what she learned and experienced externally had a huge impact on her ability to focus and pay attention, making it very challenging for her to cognitively progress thru the learning stages. Her microsystem was in shambles but she was able to turn herself around with the help of her school environment.

Perkins’ Principles of Teaching

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should

teach the way they learn”.

The third concept learned in this course, when tied together with attention, memory, learning and dynamic learning systems may reveal for you, a new meaning behind this quote.

There are seven Perkins’ Principles which can be viewed on the Perkins’ Seven Principles website.   Three will make my point: the Hard Parts Principle, the Hidden Games Principle and Learn the Game of Learning Principle.

  • Hard Parts Principle

This principle refers not only to practicing the hard parts but identifying the hard parts. The hard part for the student is not just learning the material but digesting the process of learning. Singular focused selective attention on the student’s part will enable the material to flow into the brain, stimulate a few billion neurons, and process, program, and save the data into memory.  The educator truly only has (some) control over their own brain and very little control over another’s, so the attention process is most entirely left up to the student.  What the educator can do is engage, motivate and anticipate the hard parts.  These hard parts are not time and circumstances (Perkins, 2009).  The hard parts are the nuts and bolts, the stumbling blocks, what makes the material difficult to understand.  Educators must know their material so extensively that they can troubleshoot and anticipate learning challenges.   Even a simple subject can have tweaks that cause stumbling blocks and challenges for the student to learn.  In order for the educator’s objectives and learning outcomes to be reached, the educator must have an influence over the material by understanding the students need to focus and pay attention as well as anticipating the hard parts.

  • Hidden Games Principle

This principle refers to the subsets of learning and/or knowledge that is obtained from a particular subject. Within a general area of study are specific elements, subsets or junior versions of the whole game. Getting really good at a game, or really understanding a subject means digging deeper. Delving into the parts and not simply scratching the surface. Covering material for the sake of a test, to simply obtain the basics and then move on to the next chapter, does not involve critical thinking, thorough thought processes, analysis or problem solving. “Getting really good at the overall game means learning the games underneath the surface also, layers, dimensions and perspectives that can make big differences in understanding and performance” (Perkins, 2009, p.135).

  • Learn the Game of Learning Principle

This principle refers to the deep internal altruistic individual process of learning.   This theory is about the student intrinsically motivated and ideally educating themselves and to make the leap from student to lifelong learner in a self-serving meaningful way.   Perkins uses the analogy of driving a car. Teaching a teenager to drive is only one step in the process. It is not until the new driver, for example takes the car out for the first time and learns how to get from one destination to another and back home again. Really, this is learning how to drive. A map that guides us to our destination with interpretation is like lifelong learning which continually strengthens our intellectual being and continually builds upon our foundation of knowledge. If a formal education has done its most important job, it is this – that the student enjoys learning maybe even, loves to learn for the pure sake of learning.

 If a child can’t learn the way we teach,

maybe we should teach the way they learn”.

Let’s put all three concepts together. First: attention, memory and learning, second: the dynamic learning systems and third: the hard parts, hidden games and learn to learn principles. As educators or cognitive scientists we know how the brain learns. So why do we keep teaching the children using the same methods and the same material in the same fashion? Students are not learning how to learn, because we are not teaching the way they learn. We are not teaching to the way the brain learns. This quote goes way beyond a simple reading assignment or arithmetic problem. The real common core is that our brains, even as a young child, learn to learn. Its a scaffolding process of knowledge, built on knowledge, built on knowledge, built on knowledge. It’s like the illusion of the never ending staircase (World-Mysteries, 2011). Yes! Change a lesson plan, update a course, revamp a curriculum, overhaul the entire education system in our country; adapt to the learning styles if students aren’t learning. And guess what they’re not (really) learning the way we teach, so we need to teach the way they learn!!

 Image by M.C. Escher provided from World-Mysteries.com

Image by M.C. Escher provided from World-Mysteries.com

How To Links:

Adult Learner – Faculty Focus: Five Tips for Fostering Learning in the Classroom (Spencer, 2013).  Faculty Focus

Child Learner – We Are Teachers: 10 Ways to Inspire a Love of Learning in Your Classroom (Macpherson, 2015).  We Are Teachers



Fougnie, D. (2008). The relationship between attention and working memory. Nova  Science Publsihers, Incorporated.

Gutierrez, L. (2014). Cognitive science: adult training and development. Retrieved from http://freshapproachlearning.wordpress.com

Macpherson, E. (2015). Ten ways to inspire love of learning in classroom. Retrieved fromhttp://www.weareteachers.com/blogs/post/2013/11/15/10-ways-to-inspire-a-love-of-learning-in-your-classroom

Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can   transform education. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Spencer, K. (2013). Five tips for fostering learning in classroom. Retrieved fromhttp://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/five-tips-for-fostering-learning-in-the-classroom/

World-Mysteries (2011).  Retrieved from http://www.world-mysteries.com/illusions/sci_illusions3.htm


About deborahcrowley

I work as an Administrative Assistant in the Academic Affairs office at Becker College in Worcester, MA.
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