Why Giving Kids a Roadmap to Their Brain Can Make Learning Easier

Personalized Learning

Why Giving Kids a Roadmap to Their Brain Can Make Learning Easier

By Megan Nellis     Sep 25, 2018

Why Giving Kids a Roadmap to Their Brain Can Make Learning Easier

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

Three years ago, Phila had never touched a computer. Soon after joining our after-school program and being exposed to the likes of Code.org and programming lessons on Khan Academy, he started showing up at 7 a.m. on Saturdays to cram in two hours of lessons prior to class time. Three years later, he’s developed two apps and started a coding club to mentor younger students.

The first time I showed Lizzy a video about plastic pollution in the ocean, she cried. From that day forward, she voraciously educated herself and, as of today, has started her own plastic recycling project (building eco bricks), and began an environmental awareness club at her school.

At Imagine Scholar, a youth and educational development initiative in South Africa, I get to work with curious, ignited, conscientious youth who boast an array of curiosities and passions, which we channel into projects they care about. Yet students like Phila and Lizzy often get overlooked because they happened to have been born in rural Africa. So much of education in rural South Africa is focused on just getting students to the pass level, and rarely about cultivating the boundless youth who are primed to learn, grow and create.

But becoming an Imagine Scholar means being a different kind of teenager. During our 7-month selection process, we do not look for the smartest kid. Instead, the kind of student who is successful is the one who most wants to be here. Students in our program attend an average of 25 hours a week—all on top of their government schooling. It's a big commitment, and we are constantly impressed by how dedicated our scholars are to their own growth, and how far they’re willing to go to achieve their goals. This summer alone, students have traveled to a space camp in the U.K., Yale Young Global Scholars program in Connecticut and a robotics camp in Ghana.

In the long term, we aim to provide scaffolding for youth to be able to tackle extraordinary situations, challenges and opportunities. While we can’t know how each student will choose to manifest this in their lifetime, we do know that the success of their actualization will depend on their ability to learn and how well they can connect with other people. Over the last nine years, we’ve come to believe that a user’s guide to cognition is an incredibly effective tool to empower youth.

While we strive to help our students apply and go to university, our program is really about aiding our impassioned youth in becoming lifelong learners. It’s about helping them truly understand how they learn—and for that we turn to science.

Learning, Down to a Science

Metacognition. Neuroplasticity. Retrieval Practice. Amygdala. These aren’t the normal words you’d expect to hear in a 15-year-old rural South African’s vocabulary. Here, though, it’s common talk. And why shouldn’t it be? Over the years, we’ve found youth are innately hungry to learn about the inner workings of their mind—where, why and how learning, thinking and decision-making happens. So, we teach them cognitive science.

Specifically, in the first year class, we start students off with something they know well but have rarely thought too deeply about: school and education. We explore the etymology of the word, dig into the general history of “formal” education and debate whether the point of learning is to put information in or extract out. We want them to think hard about what the end goal of learning really is.

Through studying Saul Khan’s work, we begin to discuss his ideas of “humanizing the classroom” by giving the power of learning over to students via the flipped classroom model. Additionally, the students hear his points on “mastery” and “swiss cheese learning” rather than just the normal emphasis put on passing. These passion-filled conversations lay the foundation for our journey into the science of cognition.

Over the next three years, we teach students about the software and hardware of the brain. From Carol Dweck’s online Brainology curriculum, they learn about growth mindset, memory and mnemonics, the neural infrastructure of the brain. They learn how stress impacts learning and about neuroplasticity—or how the brain learns. From David Eagleman and Dan Siegel, they learn about the changing landscape of the adolescent brain and how novelty, emotionality and peer relationships aid in learning.

As students study how memory works they see that learning is not just about putting information in, but equally about being able to extract it back out and apply in various situations, which is based on research around retrieval practice. When students shed the shame and self-consciousness that normally coincides with forgetting, they open themselves up for learning and action.

Take one of my grade 9 students, Siya, for example. He’s a huge fan of Albert Einstein and in his spare moments, he watches documentaries about the great scientist’s life and famous thought experiments. In light conversation, Siya has in casually mentioned doing “brain dumps” (a retrieval practice strategy) to strengthen what he remembers in the videos. He frequently comes to talk to me about what he is learning and tries to combat the illusion of knowing through the Richard Feynman technique, where you try and explain what you’ve learned in simple terms to see how much you really know. It brings me great joy when he tries to explain something and catches himself, saying, “Well, maybe I need to go back and relearn that!”

Pulling from books such as “Make It Stick” and “How We Learn,” we pointedly teach students about the science behind retrieval practice, metacognition and other strategies. We expressly use them in our classes so students see and experience the direct impact, and we also dedicate a whole class in our program for students to practice applying these strategies toward their own academic learning from school.

School, at least in our area, seems to be something that happens to our students. What we’re aiming to do is bring them into the process. We want to drop the veil on when and how learning happens. We spend so much time learning about the world, yet are left in the dark about our own inner workings. Our goal is to bring students into the same sort of conversations and debates that great educators have amongst themselves. Ultimately, we tap into their innate and inexhaustible curiosity and turn it upon the most interesting and important subject in the world—themselves.

For students like Siya, Phila and Lizzy, learning about the mind, how to harness its powers and how to take control of their own learning has given them an immeasurable confidence. They are in the driver seat of their learning process and constantly tweaking and improving their own system. More importantly for me as an educator, I’ve seen this introspection build humility, fallibility and empathy toward themselves and others. While we can’t know what our students will face in their future, we feel the best toolkit we send them on their way with is a roadmap to the mechanics of their own mind.

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