Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Building happy brains

Over the past three years I have learned more about the brain and how it develops then ever before in my career.  Like the children, suddenly there was a purpose for my learning, it intrigues me, fills me with a need to discover more and to share this learning with others.

Building happy brains has kind of become my little hashtag...born out of a realisation that in the past, the brain and how it develops has not even been part of my thinking when teaching new entrants, or in any age group for that matter.  I taught the way I taught because that was how things were done.  I taught reading in leveled groups, every day, with every child, even my newest children.  I expected them to be able to sit down and work towards criteria in activities.  I expected them to write for extended periods of time after I had modelled, even if they had no idea how to hold a pencil.  I thought using taskboards and systems like daily five gave them 'choice.'  I thought that choosing time was a great way to incorporate a bit of play.  My classroom was a traditional new entrant room, full of routine, timetabled learning and structure, because that is what children need...isn't it?

Now don't get me wrong, teaching has always been something I was born to do, I love it, am good at it and couldn't even fathom doing anything right.  But the absolute and utter truth is that my way of teaching four years ago was not in the best interests of the children, it was in the best interests of me.

I won't spend time going through my journey as there are many blog posts on here about that, a couple of short books and a recorded webinar you can watch via facebook on the learning through play page if you would like to know more.

What I do want to talk about is my greatest passion and in turn my greatest concern.   Over the last three years brain development has become and absolute passion of mine, and as I have learned more, I have become increasingly concerned that many classrooms don't take into account anything that the research shows us.  

We continue to place children on a conveyor belt of learning that sees some succeed and some fail.  Why is that ok with us?  It is my contention that many children fail in our system because we have a very poor understanding of the brain and how it develops and the practice we employ does nothing to assist this development in a positive way.  In fact some of the practice does more damage than good.  We need to start appreciating children on an individual level, rather than trying to put them into poorly labeled boxes.

Now, firstly let me say, I am no expert, most of what I have learned, I have learned through my experience, a bit of trial and error, a lot of listening and a lot of reading.  I have no intention to blow you away with science and every intention of showing you the most important facets of what I have learned so far to show you how knowing a little bit about brain development can transform what we do and how we engage with children.

Nathan Wallis has become one of my go-to experts, he explains things in simple, matter of fact manner that makes sense to me.  This is a good listen if you have not heard it.https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2595176/what-3-to-7-year-olds-need-to-learn-nathan-mikaere-wallis

The most important feature of my learning has been the role body awareness, fine motor, gross motor and the development of dominance and working memory play in developing learning readiness.  In the brain is simply not ready for any sort of academic learning until these things are in place.

Something that Nathan mentioned at one of his sessions is that the brain is like a house, built from strong foundations and from the ground up.  Seemingly so simple, yet when we look at how we transition children from ECE, where they are intent of laying strong foundations, to school, where we try to put the roof on first, you can instantly see where we are going wrong.  

It is like a building project, one contractor has spent time and love laying strong foundations, may have even started putting up some of the structural walls, but is deemed to be working to slowly, so the job is handed over to another builder (a bit of a cowboy if you ask me) who quickly whacks up the rest of the walls, puts the roof on and walks away, without any thought given to the quality of the job...the house is bound to have structural issues later on.

Without any intention, primary school teachers have become those cowboy builders, with an endpoint in mind and targets to meet, time is not a luxury we have afforded to the children who walk in our doors.  Now this is not entirely our fault, we've been doing what we have been trained to do in a system that has become heavily dependent on testing and targets.

So what can we do, how can we change this.  What we did, was set some early goals for us to work towards with children on an individual level when they walk into our classroom.  A point for us to take up from and a way of showing progress.  We are obviously play based and only read with children when they are ready, no more conveyor belt for us or our children.

I really like this blog article.

My own diagram that I interact is based on the model below:

This is my version

These goals are working so well for us.  We can take children from where they are up to and continue to lay lovely strong foundations and gradually work our way up the diagram until we begin more formal learning.

What I want is for more classrooms to take brain development into account when developing our programmes, not just for new entrants, but for each year level.  If we are to take brain development into account, we will end up ultimately with every child being successful, we will be able to see easily where their needs are and if they may need some extra help.

We need to stop being in a rush.  There is no winning post, learning is not a race.

In a room based on play, employing this philosophy is possible.  If you have not looked into play based learning I urge you to do so, and get into an ECE near you to see just how they go about laying those lovely strong foundations.

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