Robert J. Doman, Jr.
Changing the brain (i.e., learning) requires providing the brain with specific, appropriate input that must be delivered with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration. Of the three components – frequency, intensity and duration – the least important is duration. Unfortunately, duration is the one component “education” tends to concentrate on the most. Most educators and legislators believe that “in order for our children to receive a good education, they need to go to school for six hours a day, 180 days per year, and spend 2.5 hours per day on homework and study.”
However, what children learn and how much they retain is not a reflection of how many hours they spend working at it. Rather, the intensity with which they take in the information determines how much of it is truly learned and will be remembered.
Unfortunately, as you increase duration you tend to decrease intensity. So, spending more time going over the same material can be counterproductive and actually slow down the learning process.
The brain responds to intensity. When information goes into the brain with low intensity, it has little or no impact on the brain. When information goes in with high intensity, it has high impact and actually changes the brain by stimulating the growth of new connections between brain cells. These new connections are required for “learning” to occur. A typical question asked about children with supposed learning disabilities is, “How come John, who after twelve years still doesn’t know his math facts, can tell you the statistics of every player in the NBA?” The answer is intensity. John is turned off to math and turned on to basketball. For John, math has low intensity and basketball has high intensity.
The primary goal in any learning situation is to turn the student on to the subject matter.
Just today, my son who is a college freshman told me he will be signing up for a physics class next semester. As we talked about his choice, I asked him if he remembered what his junior high science teacher had done with the bowling ball. He not only recalled the event, he recalled it with the same clarity and intensity with which he had conveyed it to me the day it occurred.
On that particular day my son’s science teacher Mr. Jenkins took his class down to the gym. The group entered the gym and discovered he had attached a rope to the very high gym ceiling. Hanging down at the end of the rope, almost touching the floor, was a bowling ball. Mr. Jenkins then proceeded to haul the bowling ball up to the top of the bleachers where he stood and held the ball to the tip of his nose. As my son and the rest of the class watched in amazement, the ball swung away from the teacher, across the gym, and returned to stop precisely at the tip of Mr. Jenkins’ nose. Intensity! I suspect that my son will never look at a pendulum or listen to a professor discuss kinetic or potential energy without thinking of Mr. Jenkins and his wonderful demonstration. I have often wondered how many future scientists were created that day.
Obviously most teachers and parents cannot replicate the demonstration provided by this gifted science teacher, but they don’t need to. Whether you are teaching your child to ride a bike, shoot a free throw, do algebra, or bake a cake, it is not how long you make them endure the lesson or how often you make them repeat it that will usually determine if they will learn it – and, once learned, will use and repeat it. Rather, how much learning occurs is determined by whether or not you taught them to love it.
Most children as preschoolers love learning anything. Tell a preschool child you are going to teach them how to clean a toilet, and they’re off running for a brush! But then, sadly, at the end of twelve years of “education,” many hate the thought of learning anything.
Teach them to love it.
Reprinted from the Journal of The NACD Foundation (formerly The National Academy for Child Development)