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Tornadoes: Thoughts on the Brain and Child-Centered Learning

by Bob Doman

tornadoUnderstanding the brain and how it works has been the subject of a tremendous amount of study and research. Exploring such research in college really engaged and intrigued me, particularly when I realized that the knowledge that had been gained in neuroscience was not being acknowledged, reflected, or utilized by the educational community. Regrettably, this really hasn’t changed significantly in the fifty years since I began these studies in college. Most of our schools still have difficulty utilizing the foundation of neuroplasticity, frequency, intensity, and duration and hold children hostage to a structure of curriculum that is contraindicated based on basic neuroscience. “Let’s teach everyone the same thing and, if possible, even at the same time in the chronology of the school grade, and even month.” Really!

I have always believed that our strength lies in our individuality. I have also always believed in unlimited potential and have fought against labeling and categorizing children.The educational opportunity should be about becoming, about opportunity and facilitation. Educationally we want to provide a child with the opportunity to develop the basic neurological pieces that help them learn, think, and communicate. We want to help them discover who they are, teach them to love learning and become lifelong learners, facilitate discovery, help them become passionate about things and life, and assist them in becoming an expert and excelling.

The nature of young children is that they develop intense interests that turn into little passions if given the opportunity. These early passions help us become the unique individuals we are, shaping how our brains take in and respond to input for the rest of our lives. One thing I find terribly sad is speaking with school children, whether they are five, ten, fifteen, or twenty, who can’t think of anything that they are excited to learn. How do we take children who innately have passions and love learning and put them into an “educational” system that, rather than fostering these passions, tends to stifle them? As I have stated many times before, we have a system that takes preschool children who love learning everything, send them to school, and after twelve years, have taught them to hate learning anything. Sadly, the educational system often does a great job of teaching children that learning is “work” and boring. “Study this and take a test and move on.” I can still recall my disappointment with ninth grade science. We had done the typical curriculum piece, studying rocks and minerals. We learned the basic facts, terms, and definitions and were getting to the point where we really could start learning, when it was time to take a test and get ready to move on to the next thing. But I wasn’t ready to move on to the next thing—astronomy. Everyone in that class was different and I was no exception, because I grew up next to a vacant lot that was filled with lots of cool rocks and minerals. One of these little treasures that amazed me was mica. I though mica was really cool; as a matter of fact, I still think mica is really cool and I still have a modest rock and fossil collection as testimony to the power that the first piece of mica had on my then-five-year-old brain. I still wish I had been able to pursue more about rocks and minerals way back when and become an expert. That wasn’t so easy without help in the fifties, when my prized possession, the Encyclopedia Britannica, had only limited information, and I had to take a bus or ride my bike a few miles in hopes that the tiny public library had more information. But the curriculum wouldn’t permit it; it was time to move on and get some more isolated facts, dates, and definitions. We are all unique, and what we bring to any and every situation determines how our brains react to, interpret, and assimilate each and every bit of information. Educationally we need to stimulate, not stagnate.

Understanding the brain facilitates developing and changing the brain. For educators and parents, it may be helpful to have a model that helps them visualize and relate to a significant aspect of learning and thought—intensity, association, and child-centered education. When I think of an operating brain, I can visualize a mass of tornadoes of various sizes spinning throughout the layers of the neocortex. These persistent tornadoes tend to feed upon themselves, sucking data up and spinning it back down and around growing and shrinking and spinning off new tornadoes. These tornadoes represent associated recognizable sequences, patterns, and associated bits and chunks of information. As we process new information or reinforce the existing patterns through our thoughts, actions, and new input, we feed the brain tornadoes, thus growing and reinforcing them and having them suck in more and more distantly related and indirectly or remotely associated bits and chunks.


Neuroplasticity is the foundation of and that which drives our brain function and growth. The more input we receive, and the more we review and perpetuate a pattern or associations of thoughts and actions, the more we trigger neuroplasticity and reinforce and develop thoughts, functions, and actions whether positive or negative. And thus we change our brains and our minds. Random pieces of information that are not directly related to existing information are relatively speaking meaningless, tending to just fly off; and they are neither associated nor retained in long-term memory.

Tornadoes running through the various layers of the neocortex create an interesting picture. I actually can visualize a variety of brain tornadoes; some are taking place with blue skies, sun, and rainbows while others are in dark skies, kind of an apocalyptic scene out of a movie with thousands of spinning growing tornadoes of varying sizes, with shots of white and blue lightening everywhere (reminds me of some teens I know). Hopefully your brain is made up of mostly blue skies and rainbows.

henry2Let’s look at how a tornado is created, one of the blue-sky rainbow tornadoes, using one of my favorite subjects, my son, Laird. When Laird was just tiny, I got him interested in basketball. In Utah we are big on basketball, having a number of good college teams and our Utah Jazz NBA team. I fostered the interest in basketball with Laird because it was actually a sport I knew something about, having played throughout my childhood, and because I wanted something that we could play together, talk about, and enjoy together throughout our lives. Basketball started with a Little Tikes basketball hoop in our family room. I can still vividly remember kneeling and shooting hoops with him using little baseball-size soft Utah Jazz balls. Before he was even close to tall enough to progress to our outdoor hoop, we were going down to Salt Lake City and cheering on the Utah Jazz from the top row of the upper deck. By this time between playing at shooting hoops, the experiences of going to the games, and talking about the rules, the players, the other teams—all fun, all high intensity—we had started a little tornado in his brain that starting growing and sucking in more and more information. As he grew older, he played on basketball teams and learned more and more, and by the time he was twelve he was being quoted in the Salt Lake newspapers as a Jazz expert. He became the Utah connection for the head reporter covering the LA Lakers, made connections with Jazz players; and at seventeen he became a reporter and columnist covering the Rocky Mountain Review, the NBA’s summer program. Part of what intrigued me as I watched Laird build his basketball tornado and collect vast amounts of information was that he seemed to suck in data from the air. At only five or six years of age he was taking in written information at what should have been way above his reading level from the newspapers and sports magazines. I used to challenge him, driving home from Jazz games, by quizzing him on players from the opposing team. He astonished me with not only knowing the names of the opposing players, but by talking about their college careers, what teams they had played for, what their stats were, and what the likelihood was of them staying with their team, being dropped, or traded. I recall at one time asking him how it was that he knew so much about basketball. His response was, “I never forget anything I read, see, or hear about basketball.” I think he was right. His basketball tornado was so large and so strong that it rapidly associated, pulled in, and retained any related information. This was truly a reflection of a very large and dynamic tornado. This huge tornado spun off other tornadoes, which ranged from geography (where were the teams and where were the international players coming from), finance and business (what was the financial structure of the NBA and the various franchises, what were all the pieces that needed to be evaluated to put together trades), personal investment and finance (what did these NBA players do with all of their millions, how could some of them be broke a couple of years after finishing their careers). The pieces go on and on, from the size and structure of the various buildings where the teams played, to the success of the concessions, to the differences in the crowds in different cities, even down to testing a theory that the fans in the lower bowl seats would on the average be taller than the fans in the upper bowl. Laird’s basketball tornado is a 5 on the tornado EF scale, and it has spawned many more tornadoes that have helped shape who and what he is, a very happy and successful adult.

Complexity of Thought

Back in the beginning of my career as a special education teacher, I realized that what I could put into a child’s brain was related to the complexity of information they could process. In that I was working with young and relatively low-functioning children at that time, I realized that most of what was said literally went over their heads; but when I really looked at what they could process, I realized that not only could they take in a picture and attach a single word to it, such as the picture of an animal or a state and attach the name of the animal or state, but that they could learn these things very quickly if I presented what I labeled back in 1970 “bits of information” with sufficient frequency, intensity, and duration. The children could not only learn these “bits,” but they could also retain them, particularly when I started grouping, associating, and helping them develop an interest in these related bits of information.

An isolated piece of information was like a piece of sand. When I started presenting associated bits, such as all animals, or all fruits, these isolated pieces of sand started to come together and like gently blowing on sand, the bits started to move together. We could then, as we worked to build the child’s processing skills, start adding subgroups, which we called “units,” such as when working with animals, we could lump together mammals, or farm animals, or wild animals. Then within each group we could attach more and more information, and we would start seeing signs of wind moving these units around and taking form, then puffs of wind moving these “units” into little piles, and as we feed in more and more associated information, we created little whirlwinds, and occasionally some dust devils. At each level we were pulling in more and more related and connected data and information; and at each level having the child think more and more about the information, and thus building the dust devils even more, and adding to all that was being sucked into their brains. One of the very key ingredients to building tornadoes is intensity. A puff doesn’t turn into a whirlwind or a tornado without intensity. If we do not have intensity, we are just blowing around bits of sand. If we can create positive intensity in the child, we start seeing the grains of sand take shape and grow into mounds and build, and then with the vital piece, intensity, start building dust devils, and ultimately our tornadoes. Educationally we want to build, associate, make information exciting and relevant, and look for opportunities to facilitate and help the child build tornadoes.

Unfortunately back in the ‘70s I didn’t understand tornadoes. We put in lots of bits and associated pieces of information, but I didn’t realize what tornadoes were, and thus didn’t take that last huge step of running with the individual child’s interests and helping to build tornadoes, and more importantly, helping them learn how to build tornadoes and teaching them to love building tornadoes.

Child-Centered Education

Tragically, most little whirlwinds just dissipate, and the previously associated pieces of information just blow away. One of the great keys to learning and education is making it child-centered. One of the things I have preached to parents and educators has been that no matter what it is you are trying to teach, first and foremost teach the child to love it. If you teach the child to love dinosaurs or praying mantises or reading or math or whatever, you are off and running and from that base of intensity you can start building your tornadoes. The reality is that it’s not so much that you teach a child to love something as it is that you have to provide opportunities, watch, and discover what they love. We put it out there, make it fun, make it interesting, and watch and listen for the hints and run with it.

The nature of “curriculum” is that it prescribes what will be presented and learned, and in what order, and often in what time frame, leaving the learner out of the equation. Remember the old adage that on graduation day most high school graduates have all ready forgotten 99% of what they learned? How sad and ridiculous is that? Child-centered education builds blue-sky rainbow tornadoes and teaches the child that they can learn, that learning is fun, and that they can become an expert on whatever they wish. And they retain what they learn.
henry1At a recent meeting with Henry, one of our very cool NACD kids, he proclaimed within seconds of walking into the room that he had a praying mantis named Goliath, and that he loved praying mantises. When he started educating me on the different types of praying mantises, he could hardy contain his excitement. He had a praying mantis in an improvised insectarium, and knew an incredible amount about them. Henry not only knows about praying mantises, he is an expert on them. Henry is building a great blue-sky rainbow tornado around praying mantises. While he was with me, I googled one of my favorite sea critters, the mantis shrimp, named because of the structural similarity to Henry’s pet. Henry was very excited about this new discovery and immediately started sucking the mantis shrimp into his existing tornado. Henry may continue to build his interest in insects and end up becoming an entomologist, or he might become more intrigued with sea creatures and become a marine biologist. Or he may find a cure for cancer or become an expert in whatever, because his brain is learning how to do it and has also learned to crave it. Blue-sky rainbow tornadoes produce more blue sky rainbow tornadoes.

Auditory Processing

Unfortunately not all brain tornadoes are good. I’m currently trying to help turn a little guy named Mark around. Before I met Mark he was taught that reading and math are scary, dangerous, and impossible to comprehend. Most schools and educators do not have the knowledge or the luxury to properly individualize education. If you start trying to put something into the brain in an improper form, prematurely, or even in a less than positive manner, you have all the ingredients for building a tornado, a negative apocalyptic tornado. Imagine a little boy in a classroom being “taught” reading. Unfortunately this little boy has some auditory figure-ground processing problems, and as a result, is constantly distracted by the little sounds his classmates are making, or the leaf blower out in the school parking lot, or the plane flying over at thirty thousand feet. He also has an auditory sequential processing issue resulting in auditory short-term and working memory issues. This child’s teacher is speaking in sentences that are too long for the child to process, and she is trying to get the child to understand what the sounds “k” and “a” and “t” have to do with the creature at home that he calls Tiger. Little grains of sand “bits” are collecting fast, but they are not leading toward a tornado that is going to permit Mark to read; just the opposite. And they are being pulled together by the frowns of the teacher, the giggles of his classmates, and most of all the high frequency, intensity, and duration of his own mind saying, “I can’t,” “I don’t get it,” “What is wrong with me?” “I’m stupid,” “Mrs. Smith is stupid,” “My mom is stupid,” “This school is stupid,” “I hate reading,” “I hate school.” The winds are really starting to whip around. The neuroplasticity is shooting messages and associations and establishing connections and networks all up and down the neocortex. This poor kid sits in this class day after day and the winds are blowing so strong now that anything the teacher says to him he perceives as negative. The kind look from the little girl whose desk is next to his is interpreted as a sneer, “You poor dummy.” And then Mrs. Smith talks to Mom and Mom tries to talk to him. The winds are blowing harder and harder; looks, thoughts, words are getting sucked in faster and faster. The poor kid lies in bed at night, thinking, “I hate reading,” “I can’t read,” “I’m a dummy,” “I don’t want to do this ANY MORE!” Each of these thoughts builds and builds until we have a full-blown tornado, twisting and fitting distant pieces of data into his tornado’s perspective and growing it day after day. The factors of frequency, intensity, and duration that build positive tornadoes are the very same factors that build negative tornadoes.

Successful Education

Just as my son’s positive basketball tornado spun off other positive tornadoes, and I believe taught his brain how to grow more and more tornadoes with blue-skies and rainbows, I also believe that when we start creating dark sky apocalyptic negative tornadoes that we are not only warping and sucking in more and more negativity, but are spawning more and more negative tornadoes with resulting negative perceptions, behaviors, and self images.

Successful education should be synonymous with neurodevelopmentally-based education, with individualized education, with positive education, with child-centered education.

Let’s build lots of blue sky and rainbow tornadoes.


Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 27 No. 4, 2014 ©NACD


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