Neuroscience reveals the importance of children learning with their hands

Francis Gilbert's picture
Last night, I attended a brilliant talk given by Dr. Steven J Hughes last night at the Maria Montessori Institute AMI where he argued that the most up-to-date science is showing that "child-centred learning" is much more effective than more "instructive" teaching. Hughes is an is assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and an extreme articulate, persuasive advocate for the Montessori method, backing up its pedagogy with hard scientific evidence. He gave a long, inspirational talk which amounted to one of the most powerful arguments for child-centred education I've encountered.

His most striking point was his evidence was that so much brain-capacity is aimed at developing "hand skills". His picture below shows how that if the human body's limbs were proportionally the same size as the space in the brain devoted to them, then we would all look a bit like the rather grotesque figure next to the brain images here:

This, of course, has huge implications for teaching because it shows that so much learning occurs when children touch, manipulate and engage “sensually” with the world. Hughes powerfully argued that the Montessori classroom enables children to learn through “doing” things; by feeling counters to learn maths, by manipulating jigsaw maps to learn geography, to touch and manipulate letter sounds before learning to read. The abstract becomes tangible, and thus thoroughly comprehensible. This is how our brains are set up to learn; this is how we've evolved as a species. We learn by movement, by doing things.

He claimed that most Western education systems are far too "abstract" in their approach, being curriculum-centred and based around the concept of: teacher, student, test. The “transference” of knowledge model of education, rather than “active learning”. He called this model “School 1.0”, arguing that we need classrooms that are modelled on “School 2.0”, which is basically the Montessori model. Classrooms should be “learning environments” which encourage independent exploration and analysis, and foster things like initiative, imagination, patience and deferred gratification. It’s all stuff that chimes a bell with many experienced teachers: we need a system which is much less exam driven, and much more focused upon encouraging problem-solving and imagination.

Dr Hughes' website is here if you're interested in finding out more.
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W Smith's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 19:01

Considering that the government seem very worried that we are not producing enough scientists from our education system, it does not seem very eager to listen to scientific evidence to support it's own educational reviews. I can't wait see the evidence they put forward to support their new national curriculum for state schools only.

Sarah's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 20:07

I have no issue with this research - but are you aware that Montessori Schools are amongst the Free School proposers in many areas. In my own area wishing to establish a free school to serve and area which has two good primary schools with surplus places. The school they want to establish is on a site with no transport links making it hard to see how it's going to serve the poorest and most disadvantaged children in the area.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 20:24

Thanks for this Sarah. Yes, I am aware that there are a number of Montessori schools wanting to set up as free schools, which I am opposed to on principle. My feeling is that an approach is proven to work then it should be available to ALL children -- so that everyone benefits, not just a chosen few. I suppose this research really must make EVERYONE look at what is the right school model for ALL children. I think our obsession with teacher-student-test is highly problematic, although I have to say I personally am not entirely against testing. We really need a NATIONAL debate about: what are schools for? What do we want ALL our children to learn? I feel that many state schools actually do an amazing job because they do manage to make a "child-centred" approach work with passing exams. My son's primary certainly does this, and the secondary school he is going to is very child-centred too and is achieving great exam results. As a teacher too, I have found that project-based learning is not necessarily incompatible with getting good results.

Alan's picture
Fri, 04/03/2011 - 23:47

fMRI research such as this really confirms what lateral thinkers have been saying for decades, that teachers as facilitating guides are more effective than rigid instructors, Lev Vygotsky's research on play and his zone of proximal development is one such example. If you’re interested, Fisher (2008) provides a detailed analysis of cycles of cognitive brain development in relation to education but warns against speculation that nothing new can be learnt during 'flat periods' between growth spurts. Apparently, in the States there was a suggestion that curricula be changed to introduce no new concepts during these periods. On a positive note, there is a growing body of evidence that the developing brain may be able to recover from injury or to reorganise function. This is particularly good news for children who have been born in difficult circumstances who require a little extra help to catch up (my interest). This brings me nicely to examinations. Perhaps neuroscience will one day convince educationalists that imagination plays a more significant role in finding solutions to world problems than measuring performance in examinations.

Fischer, K. W. (2008). Dynamic cycles of cognitive and brain development:
Measuring growth in mind, brain, and education. In A. M. Battro, K. W.
Fischer & P. Lena (Eds.), The educated brain (pp. 127-150). Cambridge U.K.
Cambridge University Press.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 05/03/2011 - 09:20

Thanks Alan, this is very useful.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/03/2011 - 14:39

This builds on the work of Piaget who wrote that children learn and develop in stages. Although criticised today for being too rigid in his age classifications and ignoring such things as the child's background, his ideas still carry weight.

Piaget suggested that children learn by progressing from the concrete to the abstract, and the concrete was the important first stage. This was brought home to me when I was introduced to cuisenaire rods during teacher training. My friend and I (both mature students) grabbed the rods and started to build houses. We became aware that the other students were watching us.

"This demonstrates exactly what I mean," said the lecturer, "Let the children play."

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 05/03/2011 - 14:55

Radio 4's Soul Music programme in 1/3/2011 discussed listening therapy which addressed poor listening skills in people with normal hearing. The speaker described how people who are left-ear dominant can have problems sequencing, and how emotional disturbance can inhibit listening. (4 minutes in)

This is another example of how research into brain function can enhance understanding of learning.

Maureen Cronin's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 09:05

I have taught people from age 4 to age 40 - I am now with 4 and 5 year olds. The way we painstakingly set up our classroom every day for experiential learning is the way all of our classrooms should be prepared. What we do in Reception can be adapted all the way up the primary school and into secondary as well.
I remember reading about an MIT professor being asked why he produced so many Nobel Laureates, and he said, my 'classroom' resembles a nursery school. Enough said.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 10:26

How do you set up the classroom, Maureen?

Maureen Cronin's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 12:38

Just realised my contribution sounded a bit strident. I meant to add, in my opinion to all of that!
Sorry. I wrote it pre-coffee.

louiselivingston's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 15:05

You may be interested in the Royal Society's Brainwaves project which aims to open up dialogue between neuroscience and education so that education may become informed by how human beings develop rather than by what governments decide children should learn. You can find the Report and comment on the their website. As a Montessori teacher trainer I can confirm that we have been aware for a long time that education needs to be about helping the child to develop the capacity to learn rather than filling him up with an adult led curriculum - at the Maria Montessori Institute we help our students and future Montessori teachers to understand how to help the child develop all the essential executive functions such as inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and working memory - the environment that we prepare for the child's education is focused entirely on helping the child learn how to learn.

louiselivingston's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 15:07

Maureen - strident or not - like, Francis I too am interested in how you set up your classroom - now you have had your coffee!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 18:50

Louise, thanks for the Royal Society brainwaves link, which I wasn't aware of. It's here:

I think this summative comment was good: "The brain changes constantly as a result of learning, and remains ‘plastic’ throughout life. Neuroscience has shown that learning a skill changes the brain and that these changes revert when practice of the skill ceases.
Hence ‘use it or lose it’ is an important principle for lifelong learning."

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 06/03/2011 - 19:16

I thought this was interesting too from the Brainwaves report:

"Digital technologies can be developed to support individualised self-paced. Training and plasticity of working memory. learning and highly specialised practice in a game-like way.
Interactive games of this kind use a teacher-pupil model to adapt the task to the learner’s needs, and a task model to provide meaningful feedback on their actions. This means interactive technologies can provide personalised help on a daily basis in a way that is difficult to achieve in a demanding
classroom environment."

Alan's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 00:06

I think both Piaget and Vygotsky were trying to link epistemology and biology (the mind as being instantiated in the brain) using the study of children. Whilst Piaget makes some remarkable observations on child development using his own children he misses the point that Vygotsgy makes, which is widely accepted today, that adults unconsciously modify their behaviour to provide children with information to solve problems. Whereas Piaget considers biology (nature) to be a limiting factor to acquiring new skills, Vygotsgy’s position is that culture (the environment) has a more significant role. He recognises the effects of adult influence on children’s biological systems.

“Neuroscience has shown that learning a skill changes the brain and that these changes revert when practice of the skill ceases. Hence ‘use it or lose it’ is an important principle for lifelong learning.”

There’s also the saying, “When two neurons fire together they wire together”. However, children’s brains still require a healthy base from which to grow, to remain resilient and malleable – that is, good parenting and teaching.

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