Information Age Education
   Issue Number 191
August, 2016   

I am greatly saddened to report that my good friend, long time professional colleague, and IAE Newsletter co-editor died on August 5, 2016. Bob Sylwester and I began to work together in the mid 1980s. He taught me about brain science and I taught him about computers. We later combined our talents and knowledge in two jointly-presented workshops.

Bob became co-editor of the IAE Newsletter beginning in December, 2009, with the 31st issue. He suggested the idea that we develop single-topic sequences of newsletters and then publish books based on the newsletter series. Thus, we jointly published six books, and a seventh on Joy of Learning will be coming out in a few months.

IAE is seeking volunteers to work on the IAE Newsletter and other aspects of the IAE publications. For details, see http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/reporting-on-educational-changes-throughout-the-world.html.

We are particularly interested in one of more volunteers to become co-editors of the IAE Newsletter. We are looking for people with qualifications such as:
  1. A deep interest in working to improve education at all levels and throughout the world.

  2. Ability to work with authors—specially, those early in their writing careers—to help them become more skilled in communicating with preservice and inservice teachers and other educators, and with parents.

  3. Interest in writing for IAE and in helping to shape its future.
IAE’s current plans are that, after the Joy of Learning series is completed, the newsletter will continue following two paths:
  1. Publish newsletters that are not part of a series. Here, we are particularly interested in research and implementation-based articles targeting preservice and inservice teachers, particularly at the preK-12 levels. The focus is on research and practice-based topics that a preservice or inservice teacher can learn about in a relatively short time and can then effectively implement in classrooms teaching. In other words, focus on what actually works to significantly improve education.

  2. Continue to develop and publish newsletter series that lend themselves to being collected into a book. Tentatively, we had planned that the next series will focus on educational research and practice, with knowledge and skills that can transfer to education between countries and regions of the world. Here, we are particularly interested in research and practice that can be implemented in schools that have not greatly benefited from recent advances in research, practices, and technology that have been proven effective.

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

The Role of Student Questioning in Joyful Learning

Pamela Nevills
Adjunct Faculty: Cal Poly Pomona; University of Riverside; Brandman University Consultant on Learning and the Brain

Teachable Moments Anytime

Student questioning is perhaps one of the most under-utilized teaching strategies. Its use can enhance all the appropriate neural pathways and draw visions and connections that can ultimately lead to some new and original thinking. A teacher who is gifted at posing the right questions can create a whirlwind of excitement, but what does student questioning accomplish? How many opportunities do we adults give young people to inquire within "teachable moments"? Can we afford to miss these prospects?

Here is a personal example of a teachable moment. I was recently reading the story of A Baby Sister for Frances by Russell Hoban to Abby, my five-year-old granddaughter. We observed that Francis is a girl, but an animal girl. "What kind of animal?" Abby asked. I responded, "She is a raccoon." Abbey asked, "What is a raccoon?" I responded as best as I could. I added that her grandpa once had a raccoon for a pet but that it did not turn out well. Raccoons have sharp claws and they scratch. Abby pressed on. "What do they really look like?" I was momentarily at a loss, thinking of encyclopedias that might have a picture.

"Ask your cell phone," Abby said. So I Googled the word raccoon and found pictures and information, but that was not enough. "I want to see a video." My phone had access to YouTube. Needless to say we had a delightful time learning about raccoons, seeing them in action, and hearing accounts of other people who had worked with raccoons as a pet. Abby's questioning determined the search for information. I can only imagine the conversation around the dinner table at my granddaughter's home that night.

Catching a teachable moment took an even more significant turn on another day. I was playing some music from a compact disc in the car. Abby and I usually try to identify the instruments that we hear, and this time the sound was unusual. Abby asked, "What makes that sound? It is a bagpipe?" We stopped and accessed a YouTube video that featured a Scottish man in a full kilt uniform playing a bagpipe song with no accompaniment. After that I was often asked when driving, “To play the CD with the bagpipe music." Abby's two-year-old sister was also struck by these strange sounds and melody. I again had to produce the video on my phone.

It seems that after that, every time I came to their home, my younger grandchild wanted to go into my car to hear the bagpipe music. This story took an interesting twist, because their mother was drawn into the joy of the girls' learning. She bought an entire disc of bagpipe music and encouraged the girls to dance with the music. The ultimate experience for these children is that their mom read of a bagpipe festival in a nearby city, and took them. And all because we responded to their questions.

I am not certain how important it is for these young learners to be familiar with raccoons and bagpipe music. But, the experiences left them with some impressionable realizations. They were listened to. What was interesting to the children became a focus for the adult. They had conversations about their curiosity. Useful information is now available through hand-held devices that they need to master. They were challenged to fit this new information into previously developed or newly formed neural pathways in various parts of their brains.

Why Outside the Classroom?

School is our society's most significant learning place. But, the average classroom includes one adult with up to 30 (sometimes fewer, but nowadays, oftentimes more) students. Much of the school curriculum is required core content. Tests are used to measure the basic, foundational, and expected general knowledge students are gaining.

School should also be the place where students are encouraged to be curious, to question, and to resolve problems. As students gain in cognitive maturity, school should thus help students to develop critical thinking. In summary, during the most important hours of the day and for most of the calendar year, students should be enrolled in classes to attain what society dictates that they learn. This creates a situation in which the teachers tend to ask the questions and the students answer, rather than the other way around. Teachers are often pressured to cover the prescribed materials and to make certain students test well. The excitement of learning is overshadowed by the dictates of societal expectations.

Where is the joy of learning in this scenario? Gifted teachers are able to sustain a "joy of learning" environment for most, if not all, of their students. Their requirements for learning are encased into stimulating joyful practices. Good teachers consciously plan engaging activities, but they must also pursue skill development through repetitive practice. Each of thirty students needs unique experiences to stimulate their individual brain.

A unique part of very child’s education can be what they do with an adult individually or in very small groups outside the school walls. Parents, grandparents, and other adults must also notice that when a child wonders about a raccoon or bagpipe music they are unlikely to have their curiosity satisfied in school. Such inquisitiveness offers stimulating experiences that, when satisfied, can bring joy to learning.

What Is Needed?

Here is my advice to teachers, parents, and others who have the opportunity to follow it:
  1. Realize that you do not have to have all the answers. I appreciate this condition only too often with my eighteen-year-old grandson, who possesses an exceptional storehouse of knowledge that he has learned through extensive Internet activity. I often have no understanding of his explanations. I start by establishing an initial base so I am able to understand the subject. Then I become the student as he explains the issue. We switch roles, because he has the knowledge and I need to be a good questioner and summarizer. He has an opportunity to deepen his knowledge base and communication skills as he searches for and uses information in his brain or on his phone or computer.

  2. Practice the art of asking questions. Develop questions that have many right answers. Become a good listener. Realize that answers can lead to another question. Perhaps respond with what the answer meant to you, to ascertain that you heard correctly.

  3. Pay attention to what students are saying to discover what interests them. We often lose opportunities because we are also actively caring for their physical needs of safety, eating, or cleanliness. We thus ignore the opportunity to nourish the curiously developing brains of students as well.

  4. Be aware of opportunities. Events, museums, points of interest exist within the community and also on your cell phone. Think about the extension of learning opportunities through the arts and project development.

  5. Know when to stop. If you are pushing too hard to learn more about the topic a student introduced and note that interest has waned, let it drop. A student was supposed to choose one book to read for 20 minutes for a sustained reading activity. After 10 minutes he went to the teacher and asked for another book. "This book is telling me more about penguins than I care to know," he pleaded.

The Human Brain Is Wired to Learn

To conclude, let us take a basic look at what actually is happening when a young person or child experiences the "joy of learning." Realize that we have an insatiable, living, changing brain designed to determine who we are and how we respond to the world around us. The innermost parts of the brain contain structures that are more primitive than the outer parts. Buried deep within our brain is a structure called the thalamus. It is connected to all other areas of the brain as a type of switchboard. It receives information from the senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. It sends information back to the areas of the brain that are adept at interpreting the sensory signals. Furthermore, the thalamus is located near the amygdala, which is our emotional center. Chemicals are released when exciting sensory stimuli are received and interpreted. The chemical interactions create feelings of joy, excitement, and accomplishment. These explainable and highly desirable times of joy for children and learners of all ages happen as adults grasp the occasion to satisfy a young person's constant need to learn.

References and Resources

Nevills, P. (2011). Build the brain for reading, grades 4-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Nevills, P. (2014). Build the brain the common core way. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Author

Pamela Nevills is first and foremost a teacher, working with learners from preschool through postgraduate programs. Pamela's expertise as a staff developer began with a county-level position and management of a curriculum and instruction office. Subsequent activities included state-level leadership for teachers' professional development and student-to-work programs. She was a collaborator and data collection manager for a mathematics research project spanning four states. Recently Pamela supervised student teachers/interns and taught methods classes at California State Polytechnic University and the University of California, Riverside.

Dr. Nevills studies neurology, mind imaging, and research for education, organizational change, and neurology. By combining information about how the brain functions for child and adult learning, she provides innovative insights for educators and other professionals. Her present position with Brandman University expands her expertise in transformational change into many aspects of society.

Contact information: panevills@earthlink.net

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.