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How children learn

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Little brains - those belonging to first-graders - aren't very good at paying attention for very long.

They are just beginning to learn such things as cause and effect and logic and organization. Sometimes they make the mouth say funny things; sometimes they make the body wiggle.They are good at recognizing letters and numbers but not as proficient at putting them together into words and sentences and math problems.

They are not always sure of themselves. But they do like it when other people pay attention.

And no two of them are ever exactly alike.

In the first grade, these little brains embark on the learning adventure of a lifetime. And how they do here will have an impact on the rest of their lives. When school works for these little brains, they begin to believe that they are competent and that school is a good place for them. Unlimited possibilities lie ahead.

But too often we expect these little brains to act just like big ones, says Toni Bickart, co-author of "What Every Parent Needs To Know About 1st, 2nd & 3rd Grades" (Sourcebooks, $12.95).

"Six-year-olds are not the same as 16-year-olds," she said.

Their learning processes are not the same, and their classrooms should not look the same.

Bickart and her co-authors are advocates of a system that educators call "developmentally appropriate learning," a method of teaching based on the belief that "educational decisions should be made by what we know about how children learn and by knowing children as individuals." It has become the standard in today's primary grade classrooms - in Utah as well as the rest of the country - over the past couple of decades.

Current research confirms that programs that emphasize active and challenging learning are more effective in promoting social and academic competence than programs that rely primarily on practice and drill, Bickart said.

"This is particularly true in the early grades when children are forming patterns of learning that will last their lifetimes," said Bickart, a former teacher, speaking from her home in Washington, D.C., where she now works with curriculum development.

An earlier book, "Constructing Curriculum for the Primary Grades," was designed to help teachers; this one is aimed at parents. "Parents need to know why today's classrooms look different," she said. "They think back and say, `It wasn't like that when I went to school, and I turned out fine.' " But, as trite as it sounds, times have changed.

"The educational practices of previous generations were designed to prepare students for a workplace with very different demands from the workplace of the 21st century." Today's children need more and higher-level skills. They are more likely to work as part of a team than on a manufacturing line. Information becomes much more important.

"Children must not only know how to access knowledge but also how to apply information effectively. They must be able to solve problems and work with others," Bickart said.

This is a challenge for today's teachers; they must teach social skills as well as basic learning skills. They must build a community in the classroom.

"We know that children learn better when they talk about things, when they try to teach someone else. If we know that, then why do we want to go back to classrooms where all the children sit at individual desks and don't talk to each other? We want talking; we don't want silent classrooms," Bickart said.

Nor, she said, do we want classrooms where everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, although she freely admits it is a much easier way to teach. "It's much harder if a teacher has to look at everyone's writing and pick out the words each student wants to learn; that means you might have 20 different spelling lists instead of just one. Reading is the same; why should everyone read the same book when they all have different skills and in-ter-ests?"

The first thing you notice when you walk into Sunee Folkman's first-grade class at Mountain View Elementary in Layton is the noise. But you soon realize that while it sounds chaotic, this is a controlled chaos.

Folkman is just starting a unit on patriotism, so children at the listening center are following along on a story of Abraham Lincoln as they hear it through their headphones.

Meanwhile, the kids at the free exploration center examine mon-ey - looking at pennies with magnifying glasses, feeling the difference between pennies, dimes and quarters. They find Abraham Lincoln, but what fascinates them most are the numbers. "Look," April said, "1991. This is as old as me. I was born in 1991."

At the fun center, Hayley measures wheat from a half-cup into a two-cup container. This is part of a unit on measuring. "If I just scoop it up," she explains, "I get too much, so I have to scrape it off with a knife." Dip, scrape, pour. Dip, scrape, pour. How much wheat does she have? "How should I know? I'm not going to count every little piece!"

Pints and quarts aren't part of the formula yet. When the large cup is full, she dumps it out. Next, she will try to fill it with a tablespoon. She starts counting how many spoonfuls it takes but soon finds that it is more interesting to pour the wheat through a funnel, watching the big pile come out in a little trickle.

At the book center, Kameko has selected the three books she wants to take home and read this week. She must check them out and write down the titles in her folder. This week's reading list: "Good to Eat," "The Storm" and "A Journey." Why did she pick these books? "They just looked like something I would want to read."

The students will stay at their learning centers for 15 or 20 minutes then rotate to another one so everyone gets a turn at each place. Only once does it get so noisy that Folkman has to turn off the lights. That's the signal that the kids need to pull it back a bit, and they quickly respond.

Learning center groups vary from day to day. Sometimes students are grouped by ability, sometimes just randomly. "But no one ever knows how they are chosen," Folkman said.

And usually they are just a morning activity. After lunch, there will be writing workshop time, math, time to look at the words of the day and other things.

After recess, Folkman calls the students together to see the amazing structure created by Candice and Tori. Rows of blocks create a wall of windows, and standing in each window is a little wooden person. "It looks like a skyscraper," Folkman said. "Have you ever seen a skyscraper?"

Yes, said Candice, when she went to New York. So, nothing will do but for Candice to make a sign that says New York that she can put in front of her creation. Many days, things come along that are not a part of the lesson plan but a learning opportunity just the same.

Next door in Leslie Wilde's class, it is language arts time, and today's featured book is "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie." At one center, students listen to the story through headphones, at another they paint paper plates to look like cookies. A group is coloring pictures that they will cut out and paste along a string, so they can tell the story to their families at home. Wilde works with the fourth group, helping them learn sequencing.

"If you give a mouse a cookie, then what would he want next?" A glass of milk. And after a glass of milk? A napkin. The students select the answers from a list of words printed on strips of card-board.

If students finish their activities before the rest of their group, they can go to free-choice centers to do wall reading or journal writing or room writing or computers.

"It takes a lot of energy to keep up with them," Wilde admitted, "but it's fun, and very rewarding. They are all so different."

Learning in the first grade works best if it is interactive and a small-group activity, said Laura Bond, assistant principal at Mountain View and developmentally ap-pro-priate practices coordinator for the Davis School District. It works best for students of all ability levels, even those with special needs.

This developmentally appropriate approach to learning is a labor-intensive kind of teaching, and teachers at Mountain View rely heavily on parent volunteers, she said. But that's good for the parents, too. They need to know that in today's classrooms - which look so very different from their own - this isn't just playing around but guided learning.

There are a lot of different levels of learning, Bond said. And there's so much more to it than filling out work sheets. "A paper and pencil - that's at the low end of the spectrum. You're on a higher plane when you can actually build things."

Learning should be individualized. It should take into account things like age group and cultural background. It should be meaningful.

"The learning centers are all related to core curriculum. But you can use blocks to teach math or science or art."

That, after all, is how little brains work.