Sit still. Listen carefully. Take notes. Regurgitate it all onto a test or essay. For most of us, this was the way we were expected to learn. Desks sat in rows, and we sat still. The teacher was the one with all the knowledge and power and we listened. If not – we likely failed the class. Unfortunately for those who don’t listen and retain information well, the classic lecture is a horrible way to learn. In fact, it’s not even that great for those of us who do hear information and retain it. It boils down to the emerging science of the brain.
The Brain and Learning
There is still a great deal not known about how the brain operates, but one thing that is put to work in the educational community is the difference between short term and long term memory. In order for you to remember something in a long-term sense, it must be hung on something you already know or have experienced. This “schema” is your background knowledge on a subject. When you hear something new, it enters your short term memory. If you don’t do anything with that information or it doesn’t relate to something you already know, it will filter away in a very short amount of time.
To learn something totally new, the average person has to hear the information more than six or seven times – some people need to hear it upwards of twenty times before it makes it past the barrier between short term and long term memory. It’s unusual to find a high school teacher willing to repeat key elements of the lesson twenty times for those who are struggling to keep up. Fortunately, there are other ways to move information into your long term memory.
The Progression of Learning
The least effective way to learn something is to hear it. Reading or seeing the information isn’t much better. If there is something in your memory already that the new information can attach to it will be a lot easier to learn – perhaps you learn a new way to barbecue chicken, but you’ve barbecued hamburgers in the past so you at least understand the basics of working the grill. If you’ve never opened a grill in your life, the whole lesson on chicken will likely be lost on you.
Listening and seeing information are at the bottom of effective learning practices for most learners although combining them has been shown to help considerably. These processes use the front part of the brain that is attributed with short term memory. One way to store the information more deeply is to simply talk about it. Speech uses a middle portion of the brain that is far closer to long-term learning.
This is why collaborations and discussions are becoming such an integral part of classrooms today. You hear about something and then you talk about it in a group. However, you can have an extended discussion on the merits of chipotle sauce or traditional barbecue sauce for the chicken recipe and not feel any closer to understanding than you did during the lecture. This is because there is still a key element missing – you haven’t effectively used the information.
Kinesthetic learning does exactly that.
What is Kinesthetic Learning?
A simple definition of kinesthetic learning, or tactile-kinesthetic learning as it is often called, is education through movement and touch. Instead of listening, reading or watching a lesson, with kinesthetic learning you actually perform the lesson. If your child keeps bringing home projects with marshmallow atom structures or a full scale historical figure drawn to be life size, he’s working in a project-based, or kinesthetic classroom. And chances are, regardless of his labeled learning style, he’s benefiting from this style of learning.
In a kinesthetic classroom, your child is likely hearing an introduction to a lesson and getting some basic facts. He is then going to work individually or more likely with a partner or small group to use the information he just learned. Toothpicks and a bag full of small colored marshmallows become a complex carbon atom. A hanging mobile sorts through the characteristics of the protagonist and antagonist in an assigned novel. What appears to be arts and crafts to the parents who sat through the lectures and tests are really opportunities for your child to build schema, or that framework where all future knowledge on the subject can be hung.
Consider the carbon atom. All of those marshmallows and toothpicks arranged by color in the right structure will stick in a child’s mind more effectively than drawing a bunch of labeled circles on the page. The children likely draw the circles initially while they copy the teacher’s notes, but today’s learners get to take the project the additional step by cementing that knowledge using marshmallows (or blocks, or jelly beans or gumdrops.) Wise teachers have a hands-on sort of project for almost all critical elements of their subject matter- perhaps making wave patterns with icing on crackers or drawing the major body systems on a life size cutout or creating a time line of all overlapping historical events.
Parents Supporting Kinesthetic Learning
Kinesthetic learning provides a framework for children to learn more complex knowledge over time. By doing something with information, they are able to process and store it more effectively. Hearing about changing your oil or making chicken is no substitute for actually getting under the hood of a car or barbeque grill. If you’re uncomfortable with the amount of crafts and projects that seem to be coming out of your child’s class, rest assured that the information and learning is there – even if it doesn’t look the same as what you remember from your time in school. In fact, many educational researchers have even gone so far to say that kinesthetic learning is indeed the best way for children to learn.
If you want to support your child’s learning in a kinesthetic way, get her involved in special camps and projects at home where she is exposed to new and different things. Special exhibits in museums cater to children’s desire to touch and physically change things as they experiment. Visit museums, shows, gardens and animal centers or zoos to see and learn. Everything your child is learning or experiencing as she visits and experiments on these family outings will enter her long-term memory as powerful schema. These extensive frameworks of experiences will be critical to expanding her learning indefinitely going forward in her formal education.