Engaging young minds: Part three

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

In the third part in this series, Huw Thomas looks at how learners analyse the different stimuli they encounter and how we can use what we know about the brain to support learning in the classroom

Illustrated head and cogs

It’s hard to imagine anything more complex than a human brain. The main wiring in our brains is made from a phenomenal 100 billion cells, or neurons. Each of these cells has a chunky body, about a hundredth of the size of a full stop, with branches called dendrites that receive stimulation, and a long branch called an axon that passes it on. The long axon reaches for the dendrites of other brain cells, making connections between cells that receive and transmit thought. There are tens of thousands of these dendrites around each cell body, with the staggering result that your brain is teeming with connections between cells. These connections, called synapses, number a quadrillion, and a thousand million of them can fit in the space taken up by a grain of sand.

What? Where? When?

Our brains are set to analyse the stimuli they receive and integrate this deluge of information. There are two pathways in the brain that channel this gathering of stimuli – one devoted to ‘what’, the other devoted to ‘where and when’. There are a few key questions children can work on, as ways of structuring their approach to the ‘what’ and ‘where/when’ of analysing something:

What is it? Start with the big picture. If it’s a piece of technology, what is it? If it’s a maths problem, what’s the basic story? Can we say what we are looking at in one sentence?

What is it similar and different? How is magnetism similar to other forces? How is it different? (See below for more on sorting.)

What does it do? How does it effect other things? What purpose does it serve? To figure out how a clothes peg works, you have to have some idea of what it does.

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