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Activate Minds and Thinking / Comprehension will Follow

blog photo active learning

Last month’s blog, When Thinking Gets in the Way of Learning, garnered lots of interest. It’s clear that the relationship between thinking and learning is not as linear as most parents and teachers believe. While personally-meaningful thinking is a significant path to learning, there are many ways that children learn that don’t involve slow, heavy and deliberate thinking. Children and teens learn almost continuously – in and out of school — from a long list of cognitively, emotional and socially engaging but light-on-thinking activities, experiences, interests and interactions.

The key to learning appears to be an active and engaged mind that naturally results in thinking and comprehension. There are many simple methods that activate children’s minds, drawing them into learning. Many of the methods rely on the natural ways that heighten attention, including novelty, shifting perspectives and change. They also exploit the most innate ways of thinking, including making inferences, associations and predictions, sensing cause and effect and good old human reasoning. Sparking attention and effortlessly promoting comprehension are at the heart of my favorite ways of activating minds, Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning, Making Caring Common’s social learning methods and The Waters Foundation’s approach to systems thinking. We devote a chapter to these methods in our book, Creating Capable Kids.

Mindful Learning

Ellen Langer’s book, The Power of Mindful Learning is one of the most exciting books on education, with research-proven methods that dramatically enhance the way children learn.   This is not a book that promotes mindfulness in the traditional introspective manner but in a true learning context. Langer has development a number of effective techniques that promote mindful learning, which she calls sideways learning. An alternative to “top down” lectures and “bottom up” experiential learning, sideways learning promotes attentive, curious and engaged learning by playing with aspects of attention and cognition, including novelty of experience, shifting attention, looking for differences and changing situations. Lessons that promote sideways learning include having children:

  • shift their focus continuously, both cognitively and physically to keep learners attentive
  • be alert to changes in everything from a character’s mood to animal movement
  • remain open and exposed to new experiences and novelty by exposing them to different activities
  • develop a sensitivity to differences, distinctions and fine details instead rather than superficial sameness
  • examine shifting context, such as settings, characters and event change, also builds mindfulness
  • change perspectives, from moving to a different seat at the dinner table, to taking the viewpoint of an opponent

Systems Approach to Activating Minds

Another approach to activating minds is derived from systems approaches to learning. Systems thinking / learning helps students not just accumulate facts, skills and content but see the big picture, the take-home message or the theme. The Waters Foundation has assembled a number of elements of systems thinking that activate students’ innate awareness and comprehension. Many of the methods parallel and enhance Langer’s mindful / sideways learning, by having students:

  • observes how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends
  • look for cause and effect relationships and other types of connections
  • take multiple perspectives and viewpoints – physically, cognitively and emotionally
  • Understanding both short and long-term consequences, including unintended consequences
  • question assumptions, check results and continually revise your understanding

The foundation has a nice, simple poster that make these complex issues clear to most any parent and teacher.

Zooming in and Zooming Out

There is no more important place for children to have activated minds as in social situations – the place where the rubber meets the road for so much of learning. One of my favorite sources for social learning is Harvard’s Making Caring Common. To raise caring children teach them how to zoom in and zoom out. Zooming in activates a child or teen’s mind by helping them learn to listen attentively without judgment or the constant need to have their views voiced. Zooming out involves “taking in the big picture and considering the range of people they interact with every day.” This might involve having children consider or discuss how their actions impact the larger group or taking the perspective of children with different social or cultural backgrounds.

Zooming in and out helps children expand their “circle of concern” beyond their individual needs or immediate circle of friends.” Almost all children empathize with and care about a small circle of families and friends.  Our challenge is help children learn to have empathy and care about someone outside that circle, such as a new child in class.” To really zoom out, children and teens should be encouraged to understand the perspective of people far outside of their social circle, including those who are often marginalized and invisible. In an age of political conflict and social stratification, zooming out should include understanding the views of the opposing groups.

This is more implicit approach to learning. Rather than asking leading questions or promoting a specific line of reasoning activated minds are open to learning on a deeper level.

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