Uncovering the Stages of Learning

homeschooling Nov 17, 2017

Most homeschool moms feel like they are winging it.  Taking on the responsibility of educating our kids is weighty and most of us take it pretty seriously.  There is an underlying anxiety to most of what we do - Will it be enough? Should I be pushing more? Should I back off? Is there enough rigor? What are other people doing?  How will they be successful if they can't even remember to wear deodorant?  I've come to understand that this anxiety is part of the journey, something I have to accept in order to step out of fear and into possibility.  But learning about how we learn is helping me let go of the anxiety and be more confident in our choices.

When I first started homeschooling, I asked every mom how they knew what to teach their kids and when to introduce certain concepts.  Some moms were thinking about this - they were using Blooms Taxonomy, or subscribed to a philosophy like Waldorf or Classical education that introduced concepts in stages.  But they seemed conflicting to me and when we tried out some lessons, they didn't feel like they fit.  I kept hoping for something definitive (and research based).  This seems like something we should know.  I'm finding that homeschooling moms have to rely on intuition, attuning to their children, and the curriculum chosen. Not many have time to read research papers or dig more deeply.  

Reading Lawrence Lowery's article on the Biological Basis of Thinking and Learning filled in a gap for me.  The article summarizes recent brain research for educators, explaining discoveries about the brain and the nature of learning, breaking it down into specific stages and ages.  Lowery contends that the biological process we go through as developing humans cannot be rushed or changed.  I thought I'd share a summary here and my initial thoughts about how to incorporate this into homeschools.

The Nature of Thinking and Learning

Let's start with an understanding of how we develop our thinking abilities naturally.  Did you know that we have all of the brain cells we ever get by the age of one?  The growth of the brain over time is happening in the connections between cells that form a web.  This growth happens naturally through experience.  "Connections are created when an individual becomes curious about something and is free to explore that curiosity." (p. 6)  Thus, understanding something is really about the quantity and quality of connections within the brain's systems.  The more interested you are in a subject, the more connections your brain makes.  The connections formed in the brain are not permanent, they only become permanent with practice, exploration and reflection.  

The Stages of Development

Humans have evolved to have a very long childhood so that thinking can develop properly.  "We are not born with our thinking capabilities completely in place; they develop sequentially over time, and through our interactions with objects in the environment." (p. 7)  Thinking capabilities are programmed to appear at intervals; they are spaced apart so the current ability has time to establish itself.  

It turns out that pattern seeking is at the heart of thinking and learning.  "Humans, for the most part, are pattern seekers.  Sometimes they are playful pattern seekers as when they doodle, work puzzles, or day dream.  And sometimes they are purposeful pattern seekers as when they try to get answers to things, plan ahead, or resolve problems.  As humans use their pattern seeking capabilities, they come to learn about and understand their surroundings." (p. 3)

These are the seven stages of development outlined in this article.

Inability to Impose Patterns

Stage 1: Accidental Representation (Birth - Age 3)

At this stage children explore one thing at a time in a highly sensory way.  Their brains are designed to encode words easy and they actively construct concepts and associate them with words.  At this stage objects are explored randomly, and any organization or plan is accidental.  The child does not think about imposing patterns on objects at this stage.

Stage 2: Resemblance Sorting (Age 3-6)

Children start to pair objects based on color or size or shape.  "All her thinking is characterized by the ability to match two objects together on the basis of one common attribute, or to link two events on the basis of one relationship." (p11)  But they aren't intentionally matching before they move objects.  They work by trail and error and afterwards recognize the concept.  Card games kids enjoy at this stage are Slap Jack, Concentration, and Old Maid.

Stage 3: Consistent and Exhaustive Sorting (Age 6-8)

In this stage, children form sets of groups based on one common attribute.  While they have more potential properties to sort on, they sort based on one at a time, sometimes mixing up their logic for the grouping.  Card games they can learn and play at this stage are Fish, Spoons, or other games that match up sets.

True Patterning Abilities

Stage 4: Multiple Membership Classifying (Age 8-11)

At this stage they can combine more than one idea at a time or into a category based on two or more simultaneous properties.  A good card game at this stage is Gin Rummy.

Stage 5: Inclusive Classifying (Age 11)

At this stage, children are able to think about the relationships of groups and a superordinate conception of them. Deductive reasoning also emerges at this stage, allowing them to make inferences at the general and less general.  They can see logical relationships, recognizing that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts.  

Flexibility in Patterning Abilities

Stage 6: Horizontal Repatterning (Age 14)

This stage is more flexible.  Students can classify by one or more attribute and then reclassify in different ways.  They can see that they have a choice between many possible ways.  "Combinational thinking enables students to determine whether or not a conclusion derived from a set of premises is logically valid." (p. 15)

Stage 7: Hierarchical Repatterning (age 16) 

At this stage, students can classify and reclassify ideas into hierarchies of relatedness.  "The student is able to develop a framework based on a logical rationale about the relationships among the objects or ideas, while at the same time realizing that the arrangement is one of many possible ones that eventually may be changed based on fresh insights." The ability to find new patterns and rearrange ideas based on new information or looking from a different perspective is the highest order of flexible thinking.

Learning happens in fits and starts

The progression of stages happens in bursts of new learning and brain growth followed by a plateau of integration that can last for several years.  During these plateaus, "new capabilities are integrated, used, and made functional." (p17) 

“Although at any stage of development, nature is preparing us for the next stage, the beauty of this system is that we are conscious of none of this.  Ideally we must fully accept and exist within our developmental stage and respond fully to its content and possibilities.  This means that every stage is complete and perfect within itself...Never are we simply on our way; always we have arrived.  Everything is preparatory to something else that is in formation.”
— Professor Lawrence F. Lowery, p. 17

It strikes me that this insight applies to all personal development, not just in education.  It is hard for teachers and parents to not want to recreate periods of exciting insight and growth immediately after they occur, in an attempt to string together a bunch of high-impact learning opportunities with our kids to feel like we are progressing their studies.  But the reality is that slumps of learning and motivation are actually part of the process of growing our brains and developing more complex thinking abilities.


Implications for teaching

Beyond better understanding of the biological process of learning, I did take away some ideas to implement in our homeschool:

  1. Teach fewer topics in greater depth. Make sure that the curriculum is building on prior learning to reinforce connections in the brain. Also, try to provide as many opportunities to practice skill they've learned and reflect.

  2. Explore interests. Many families do this as interest-led learning or unschooling, and I can better understand the merit of this approach. It doesn't feel good to push through lessons that are boring or feel like busywork, and I've tried to eliminate as much of that as possible. But my kids aren't always expressing a deep interest in things either. Now I will try to get out of the house more and give them more space and less educational programming so they can discover new interests and fill their time with things they are curious about. The learning happens faster when we do and it is so much more fun.

  3. Experiences before abstractions. Create as many firsthand or hands-on opportunities to engage with a topic as possible. Allow students to come up with ideas on their own through exploration. This means that I can't (or shouldn't) always try to craft the perfect experiences to get the results that I want or think are important. Allowing them time to think and explore without my direction is an important part of adolescence.

  4. Read more books together. "The great value to reading books, whether narrative, technical, or expository, is that the words (symbols) are used to take a reader's prior knowledge and rearrange it in fresh ways...The rearrangements establish new insights, fresh ideas, and conceptual frames through analogies and metaphors that the reader had not thought about previously." (p19)

  5. Slow down. Keeping up with gifted learners is its own special challenge. But blazing through curriculum doesn't always work. Sometimes slowing it down allows you to correct a mismatch in curriculum and ableness. Sometimes they can cognitively understand a concept, but need to experience it in a different way than just reading about it at an abstract level. Sometimes you need help, and slowing down could look like hiring a tutor or taking a class to help supplement the learning and engage learners during these times.

There was a lot of food for thought in this article.  For example, the explanation that we separate survival tasks from brain development, allowed me to relax a little bit and trust that the life skills stuff will fall into place when they are cognitively ready.  My main objective at this stage is to provide fertile ground for exploration and a safe place to rest.  I am so appreciative of the Homeschool Alliance for bringing it to my attention and encouraging me to think more deeply about the process of learning. 

Do you know of other ways to understand the nature of learning and the stages of growth? I'd love for you to share in the comments.


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