When you better understand how the brain works, you can see why a variety of new learning experiences are important. The brain is a complex organ, composed of billions of neurons, or nerve cells. By age three, a child's brain has approximately 1,000 trillion synapses (learning connections or pathways), which is twice as many as an adult. The synapses connect the neurons in the brain, enabling the advancement of thought processes and learning.
As a child seeks and acquires new experiences, new synapses will grow and strengthen in the brain. If the number of stimulating, new experiences drops off, the number of synapses will diminish and be lost, breaking some of the learning connections. Those synapses that are not used regularly are pruned off in the second decade of life, and they are lost forever.
To strengthen synapses, the brain requires frequent new stimuli. This is why bonding, nurturing, positive interactions, creative stimulation, explorations, and new experiences are encouraged in the learning environment from birth. They provide crucial reinforcement and strengthening of neural pathways that are important for acquiring, processing, and applying knowledge throughout life.
Though much about the brain remains a mystery, scientists, psychologists, and behaviorists continue to learn more about the way it functions and processes information and intelligence. The findings of these educational theorists can help you better understand the learning process and your child's individual learning style.
Swiss educational theorist, Jean Piaget, found that quality learning took place when children were actively involved in their own learning process. Through exploration and discovery, children turned their experiences into learning patterns that provided foundations for further explorations and subsequent learning.
Piaget found that children's cognitive skills, or the way they process information, were enhanced through physical experiences and perceptions. He believed in active learning environments where children could discover, absorb, and build on new experiences and information. Much of his research focused on the developmental stages of children's intellect and learning readiness.
Maria Montessori believed that the child's learning environment should be endowed with simple manipulatives, or tactile materials, that hold the child's interest and promote exploration and learning. She felt that teachers should be guides who encourage children to freely explore the learning materials in their surroundings.
After working in the psychiatric clinic at the University of Rome, she opened her own schools for children, incorporating methods she had used at the clinic. Her style eventually became known as the Montessori Method, a self-motivated learning style that is intended to enhance a child's self-confidence and self-discipline.
Education is not something “the teacher does,” but, rather, a naturally occurring process in humans, determined Maria Montessori. “The teacher's task is not to talk,” explained Dr. Montessori, “but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.”
Educational psychologist Howard Gardner, proponent of the theory of multiple intelligences, believes children develop their own learning and thinking patterns (intuitive learning) between birth and age five. When entering the school system, a different educational style is introduced (academic learning), which is not necessarily in line with the child's style. This contradiction in learning styles (intuitive versus academic) can create confusion for the child, making the learning process even more difficult.
Gardner suggests implementing varied learning methods and environments that allow children to use, and benefit from, their individual learning styles. In providing a wider range of learning activities and experiences, he believes that learning can be enhanced.