Brain-based Learning Applied to Developmental Stages
This article focuses on one of the biological readiness conditions for learning: developmental maturation. When students are taking norm- referenced exams or any type of high stakes testing, many assumptions are made. One is that we are comparing students who are on a somewhat even or predictable playing field. As you’ll find out, that’s not true. Our premise for the article is that we may need to strengthen the understanding and practice of what it is to be developmentally appropriate. This goes right to the heart of brain-based learning.
Brain-based learning is all about doing what respects the brain.
There is evidence that a more flexible and responsive approach may yield better educational outcomes. There are also proactive steps we can take to prevent and remediate problems. This is brain-based learning in ways that respect the brain.
Any mismatch between the development of the brain and the social, emotional and cognitive reality of the brain creates significant performance problems. These problems can become exacerbated and develop into emotional and behavioral problems later on.
This challenges the mainstream paradigm because most of our schools are based on a notion of a fixed developmental model. How is that manifested? Everyone takes the same tests and is held to the same norm-referenced standards. Yet all teachers have had the experience of students who are not ready for the curriculum, and the subsequent testing given to them. These challenges can be addressed with different ways of thinking, better diagnosis and interventions.
How to Match Learning with Development
The work of Piaget (1952) suggested a developmental trajectory based on observation of behaviors. Vygotsky’s works (1934) suggested that the complexities of social and cultural experiences play a huge role. Both were right, though today’s scientists have found many nuances to the puzzle. Schools are complex and demanding environments. Most children who are not ready, academically or socially, are typically identified through testing or interviews. They may be placed in a pullout program or some may remain in an inclusionary classroom. The three primary areas of basic developmental conditions not being met are:
1. Language (addressed as another baseline, in Article 4)
2. Culture (addressed in Article 14)
3. Academics, primarily reading (I make some suggestions here)
Nobody can tell you that ALL first graders ought to be able to do such and such or they shouldn’t move on. Based on research from neurobiology and our own personal experiences, that kind of lockstep approach for the early years is flawed. While 30% of all brains are within a 6-month maturational level, another 62% are as much as 24 months outside the median—but still healthy and “normal.”
There have been too many exceptions. Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Airways), Paul Orfalea (founder of Kinkos), and Charles Schwab (discount broker)—as well as popular culture icons Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Henry Winkler, and Whoopi Goldberg (5 Emmy nominations)—all struggled in school with their early reading years and seem to have survived. Many “survivors” attribute their success to someone (maybe a teacher) who believed in them enough for them to go on.
What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?
The concept of developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) has been part of education for years. While early researchers characterized DAP as being only age and learner appropriate (Adridge 1992), newer definitions have added vital additional components; it must be cultural and socially appropriate (Bredekamp and Copple 1997). Assessments and curriculum rarely recognize this fact; learning includes, not excludes culture. Recognizing social and cultural experiences unique to each individual child based on social and cultural differences among people rounds out the major components requisite to DAP.
Having said this, there has been some controversy over DAP partly because it is not explicitly clear what teachers do every minute and there’s no fixed curriculum for it (Stafford et al. 2000). This is the heart of brain-based learning. Brain-based learning is all about doing what respects the brain. Here what we do is ask ourselves, “What is the brain doing, developmentally?”
The primary feature of DAP is that it matches the surrounding environmental stimulation with the specific development of the student’s brain and their interest level. All of our brains develop on slightly different trajectories, but also specific areas of the brain develop on a trajectory guided by both genetics and experience. For example, frontal lobes are typically the last area of the brain to develop. Yet, teachers often talk to first graders about concepts of honesty, freedom and fairness as if they can sort out abstractions. Ordinarily, that’s not a problem until you start expecting them to generalize experiences into smart decision-making.
For some, the thought of education being more child-centered, and less stressful is a natural fit for their personality and even for their own children.
Home schooling numbers have shot up dramatically in the last decade. But for others, DAP brings up images of the inmates running the prisons and another “new math” experiment gone badly. It must be reiterated, however, that any “one size fits all” educational philosophy is the most likely one to fail. DAP reminds us that there are many ways to reach our collective goals of both academic and social/emotional fulfillment. In later articles, we’ll explore how to customize the curriculum for DAP.
What’s the Research-Based Evidence for DAP?
Many findings shed some light on DAP evidence. First, there are LSU data that suggests there were fewer stress-related behavioral problems with DAP classrooms than in a traditional non-DAP classroom (Charlesworth et al. 1993] This is important because many cognitive classroom problems are related to stress.
Here are other studies:
Among low-socioeconomic-status (SES) students, DAP classrooms had higher report card grades (Burts et al. 1993), particularly in early years. The higher SES students seem to do equally well in either DAP classrooms or more traditional ones.
In another study related to stress and environment, researchers used twin studies to eliminate the IQ differences among children who grew up in traumatic, stressful homes. Children of domestic violence have lower IQs even when other variables are taken into account (Koenen et al. 2003).
Another question is test scores; how do DAP students perform? Typically, the best results are found at the K-3 level; one researcher found positive results academically in first grade (Frede and Barnett 1992). In other studies, the students did better (Sherman et al. and Mueller 1996) and (Marcon 1992) in both reading and mathematics achievement through second grade compared to others.
Here are additional study results:
The DAP students did not do any better (or worse) on standardized achievement tests. But children in experimental DAP classrooms scored higher on measures of creativity, or divergent thinking, than children in traditional academically oriented classrooms (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 1990) and (Hyson et al. 1990).
Children in DAP actually developed more self-confidence; they emerged more positive about their own cognitive skills (Mantzicopoulos et al. 1994).
Social and Emotional Factors
In one UCLA study started with 228 preschoolers, with each attending classrooms classified in one of two ways. One group was in a more formal classroom, emphasizing basic skills, but not focusing on social climate. It was a structured, teacher-directed approach commonly used in schools preparing students for high-stakes testing. The other classroom environment was DAP, de-emphasizing basic skills, but focused on maintaining a more positive social climate. The results of both qualitative and quantitive measures showed primarily negative effects for the non DAP classroom (Stipek et al. 2000).
Though not generalizable to wider populations, the study suggests that early in a child’s education, social and emotional factors may contribute as much as academic ones (such as drilling) to success. Let’s take a common example of DAP not being applied—a developmentally appropriate approach to reading.
Developing reading skills turns out to be one of the largest predictors for student success. But many schools are not teaching reading at the developmentally appropriate time. Boys simply need more time and curriculum ought to match it. It’s no secret that boys comprise the largest majority of the special needs population, and the mismatch starts early. By first grade, boys are already being identified as being “behind” in reading. Behind what or whom? Their brain development is typically behind that of girls in language, but the girl’s brain is behind in other areas such as spatial mapping.
Why not adapt the curriculum to the student instead of faulting and labeling the student because the curriculum is out of alignment with brain development? The match between where a student is developmentally and the school experience, is known as developmental readiness.
Unfortunately, many retained students never catch up, suggesting that the best researched predictors of reading success are not implemented proactively. Listed here are proven predictors of later reading skills (Schatschneider et al. 2004, Schneider et al. 2000 and Kirk 1998).
The following are the kinds of things that ought to be developed early on, before boys (or girls) are expected to “magically” read or get labeled as disabled in reading skills. Make sure students:
1) know letter name and sounds,
2) have good naming speed
3) learn phonological awareness
A large number of students, mostly boys, could become better readers if 1) the precursor skills were taught first and 2) there was more time for their brain to develop into reading readiness. It’s embarrassing to have 10-15% of all boys with serious reading problems and another 20-40% who can read but they struggle. DAP could go a long way towards fixing that problem.
If this seems too good to be true, take some time to investigate the curriculum in Denmark. There are far fewer cases of reading problems (especially with boys) and the reading methods are not superior to those in other countries. What’s different? Children are given extra time for their brains to become ready to read, usually 6-18 months longer than in America.
What Is the Related Brain Research?
The primary evidence for a more developmental approach to curriculum from a brain research angle is that of documented variance in human brain development. Any thorough analysis of the breadth of studies suggests wide variances in the developing brains. Recent research suggests that our so- called sensitive periods are not as fixed as we once thought; they vary with experience (Hensch 2004). This is a fundamentally new paradigm because most of our schools are based on a notion of a fixed developmental model.
A new paradigm is that the developmental readiness of our students is based on experience, not years or grades. This archaic notion has caused problems for years.
Brain imaging specialists have a clear developmental course for maturation and brain volume and intelligence. But the rate of fulfillment for that course varies from one individual to the next. At any given month, there are differences in many areas such as brain volume (Landing et al. 2002) synapses and neuron counts (Shankle et al. 1998) and fibrous pathways (Thompson et al. 2000). It is known that these are highly correlated with both intelligence and behaviors. There is a gradual loss rather than addition of new synapses and presumably a strengthening of remaining synaptic connections (Casey et al. 1998). Childhood is very busy, but it is also experience-dependent.
Overall, the most important concept about developmental readiness is that it is highly individual and specific to each person’s genes and environmental upbringing. Each human being progresses at his or her own pace which is driven by both genetics and environment. Dr. Arthur Toga is the founder and director of the Brain Imaging Research Laboratory at UCLA. He has looked closely at not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of MRI scans of the human brain over the last fifteen years. He has tracked the developmental stages of humans and he has compared and contrasted brains to find the differences. His technology allows him to visualize both individual and composite brains in four dimensions (3-D plus over time). He is world- renowned in his field and has authored several textbooks in the field of imaging.
I asked Dr. Toga, who should know as well as anyone, how a typical brain develops, if there is a bell-shaped curve of development in the brain and he replied that there is indeed a typical pattern. I asked him if the brains that are 12-24 months on either side of the median of that curve would be also be considered normal or typical. He said yes, there is a wide range of what is typical in brain development (see chart in Figure 2.1).
I then asked him, on stage, in front of 700 educators, “Is it appropriate for schools to mandate that all children be learning the same things on the same day, same week, same month or even same year?”
To that idea, he said, “Nonsense. Brains develop at different rates, even healthy ones” (see Toga, 2005). It is this kind of science perspective that implores us to stop making curriculum and assessments that expect students to all develop at the same rate. It’s dead wrong and someone needs to stop it. The solution has been around for some time.
The testing of children based on a fixed, calendar-dependent developmental trajectory for all is wrong. Because the specific skill sets that are involved with cognition and emotional intelligence vary from brain to brain, it makes standardized testing problematic. Overall brain tissue volumes (mass of the cerebellum) vary dramatically, increasing during childhood and then decrease before adulthood. The rates of glucose consumption change dramatically from birth to 18 years. Initially, the rates rise from birth until about age 4. At 4, the child’s cerebral cortex uses over twice as much glucose as that of adults. From age 4 to 10 years, these high levels are maintained. Then, they are followed by a decrease (as much as half) leveling off as adulthood is reached (Chugani 1998). In addition, there is a widely distributed neural basis of intelligence (Haier et al. 2004), meaning that there’s no one place (mature or not) for our “IQ” area. Instead, cognitive functions are widespread across a wide landscape of areas, each maturing at a different rate. The brain’s white matter (myelin sheathing) is a sign of activity-dependent learning and its volume increases with age and experience, with no fixed formula.
Frontal lobe development varies widely. Functions of the frontal lobe include problem-solving, creativity, working memory, decision-making and planning. From a developmental standpoint, it is one of the single greatest constraining factors in student achievement. Studies of the ability of the frontal lobe to handle distractions, concentration, novelty all indicates that this brain region is still maturing into late adolescence (Segalowitz and Davies 2004). For some, it’s ready for big decisions at age 15, for others, 20 is safer. The speed of processing is regulated primarily by the amount of myelination, pruning and production of new synapses
Executive functioning (working memory, planning, judgment, reflection, etc.) is modulated by maturation of the frontal system (Travis 1998). Another area that is highly variable is our auditory capacity. One reason for the range of differences in listening and reading skills among all students is the wide window for maturation of the auditory cortex neurons. From the years 5 to 12, maturation of axons in the corpus callosum and those known as “cerebral association” axons in the communication between different areas of the auditory cortex, are forming an essential basis for highly complex cortical processing of auditory stimuli (Moore 2002).
What Are Other Questions About DAP?
First, when is DAP a consideration? DAP makes sense in the early years, not randomly applied across the curriculum. Most advocates are fairly adamant about the first five years (K-4) and the discussion tapers off after that. The reason? Older students have had more time to adjust to the learning and are often better adapted to stressful life experiences.
Second, who benefits the most? Generally, with students who have less exposure to the distress of domestic violence, neglect, abuse or unresponsive parents, the DAP will make less of a difference. Why? Students who have some resiliency and a healthy stress system will find they are more likely to cope in classrooms where the developmental fit is not perfect. But students from stressful backgrounds may “freeze up” and underperform under artificial and stressful situations.
Third, what is the effect of stress? Earlier we mentioned the Hirsh-Pasek, and Rescorla study (1990). These children showed lower levels of test anxiety than children enrolled in the more structured academic programs.
This again suggests that stress plays a part in the outcome. If you reverse the process, and look at the other extreme of evidence, children put in classrooms that were a poor fit developmentally, exhibited more total stress behaviors throughout the day on many different activities (Burts et al., 1990). When only these studies are used, the downside risks seem fairly small. But many have argued vigorously elsewhere (Pratt et al.1997) (Hancock and Warm 2003) that stress is a significant factor in attention, cognition and behavior. Here we’ve seen the connection to brain-based learning. Brain-based learning is all about doing what respects the brain.