YARMOUTH — “But Dad, when I was in class, it all made sense.” This could be a line on a T-shirt, but there are legitimate reasons why students may well not be able to recall content they grasped earlier in the day.

Recent research tells us that new neural networks, or the “wiring” in our brain, are not permanent. In fact, they begin to degrade almost as soon as they are formed.

So while students may understand an algebra problem at 9 a.m., they may not be able to remember its solution by 7 p.m. Add to this fact that most students from middle school onward dart between one subject and another throughout the day, often without time to practice, apply new knowledge or make connections to previous experiences.

With this challenge in mind, educators may want to spend less time debating the length of the school day and content of curriculum and more time addressing this question: How do we help students learn and then retain information so they may later use it in meaningful ways?

In an Education Week article titled “Brains and Schools: A Mismatch,” Alden S. Blodget stated that building neural networks requires more time and effort than one would typically exert while memorizing flashcards or writing down mathematical formulas.

In fact, Blodget states, meaningful and long-lasting learning “results from an active effort to understand, an effort that promotes the growth of increasingly efficient webs of neural connections among different regions of the brain.”


The goal of teachers, therefore, should be to do more than download new information for their students, particularly in light of the abundance of information available through other sources.

Instead, teachers should enhance understanding by making knowledge relevant and helping it to last through consciously establishing new neural pathways. Writes Blodget: “Each time we rebuild the neural network, the skill or concept becomes more stable and automatic.”

What are some of the best ways to create and sustain these pathways? As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “Outliers: The Story of Success,” one of the best methods for mastering an activity is through practice, sometimes over a period of years, allowing for increasing complexity of thought and activity.

But Gladwell’s advice to practice a particular skill for 10,000 hours isn’t practical in a school context, particularly when days are chopped up between subjects and so many different sets of knowledge are required.

So how can teachers help students succeed in a school’s environment? The answer’s straightforward: high levels of intrinsic motivation so students want to learn on their own.

It’s no surprise, then, that neuroscientists cite the value students place on the information they learn as perhaps the most significant factor in determining the degree of long-term retention of new knowledge. Keeping our children motivated while providing their brains with increasingly complex tasks may seem like a Herculean task. But here’s the good news: Despite the ease with which they lose information, our brains are intensely plastic and, once inspired, love to work.


“Children are natural learners, alive with questions,” says Blodget. “And then school happens.”

Blodget’s solutions include discarding teaching practices that emphasize rote repetition and instead fostering the kind of deep, meaningful learning that students want and need. Teachers should be given the latitude to be flexible when delivering their curriculum and accommodate student passions, letting kids run deep with a skill or an activity.

When the opportunity presents itself – a student wants to track her school’s recyclable waste, a project that would combine math and science, not to mention social skills – teachers need the latitude to embrace and encourage that student’s interest in and outside of the classroom context.

So while it’s true that teachers need to deliver content to foster a knowledge base for students to become literate both locally and globally, they also have to create an environment where students’ motivation to learn is heightened through practice.

Easy? No. Especially with increased national pressure to achieve higher standardized test scores. But well worth it? I would argue yes, for the long-term rewards.

First steps? Touch base with students about what matters most and find ways to make those passions as grounded and present as possible in their lives. Give them the chance to practice what it might mean to be a carpenter, a journalist, an engineer, a historian, an artist.

And as for algebra? Yes, that, too. Practice may not make perfect, but it’s an incredibly helpful way to convince that lively brain that something’s learnable and important.

— Special to the Telegram

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