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Back to school

With the beginning of September comes the excitement of heading back to school. I have always loved school, and loved fall because it meant new notebooks, pencils and backpacks. Now that I have a child of my own that is heading back to school, my focus is not only helping him get ready with the usual school supplies, but helping him transition back to a structured day of  learning. During the summer, I hope that he knows that the activities that we do are actually focused on helping him continue to build skills by reading recipes for fun summer foods, measuring and counting ingredients, reading street signs so that we can follow directions to our favorite summer vacation spots, and lots and LOTS of fun summer reading. But our days are much less structured; it’s summer and we “go with the flow”. If we find books that we like, we could spend the day in jammies reading! But I have often wondered if our lazy days of summer are doing him a disservice. According to a recent article in the New York Times by Benedict Carey entitled “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?_r=1) , I may actually be helping him by taking his learning “out of the box”.

“For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

‘We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,’ said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. ‘Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.’ “

As I have begun studying education and how we learn, one thing has really surprised me. We actually know quite a bit about how people learn, but many schools have great difficulty applying that knowledge. I have often seen that teachers and schools get bogged down by the pressures of test scores, reluctant to change the status quo in fear that it may further jeopardize achievement and funding.

“Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. ‘The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,’ the researchers concluded.”

If schools are caught in the trap of the status quo, how do I help MY child be successful as he heads back to school, when the pressures of standardized testing permeates every lesson plan and homework assignment? According to research, the best I can do is help him learn skills in a variety of contexts. By using complementary skills, reading, vocabulary, and spelling in a variety of context can help form a more intricate neural framework of that knowledge.

“When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.”

So tonight, I think we will try something new. Meatloaf with a side of his new batch of sight word flash cards. Brings a whole new meaning to “food for thought”.

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