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How do children learn?

Nature (genetics) and nurture (the total of all your experiences as you grow) will impact what you’re able to learn and how easily
© University of Reading

Learning is basically about committing something to memory and then being able to use that memory.

Someone who has difficulties with spelling isn’t able to lay the spellings to memory so they can be automatically recalled as efficiently as someone who doesn’t have difficulties.

Genetics, as well as the environment you’re brought up in, will impact what you’re able to learn. In others words, nature (genetics) and nurture (your environment in its widest sense – being the total of all your experiences as you grow) will impact what you’re able to learn and how easily.

The ‘machine’ which enables learning to happen is, of course, the brain, and it’ll be the brain which will determine what can be learned, how much, how fast and how easily, along with controlling emotions and personality. To help pupils learn you need to understand that each person brings their own genetics, emotion, personality and environmental experiences to any learning situation.

What needs to be learned?

What needs to be learned can be narrowed down to possibly four things: skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes. If you take something like reading for example:

  1. The skill is about the eyes being able to work effectively together to see the page and words, and to be able to read the words and send messages back and forth to the brain about that information.
  2. To be able to read there needs to be an understanding that the words we speak can also be written, and that the symbols on the page represent the spoken words.
  3. The knowledge is about what the words mean and that there are patterns and rules, such as phonetics and grammar.
  4. The attitude is the desire to read and to see its purpose.

This example shows that everything you do has a body and mind connection, which involves motor development. It also demonstrates how complex learning is and it’s not just about gaining knowledge or skills, because what’s the point of learning the skill of reading if there’s no desire to read?

Everyone is different

Although there are fairly clear stages or phases to development, such as you need to walk before you can run, or that learning to speak comes before learning to read, it has to be noted that pupils are all different and will, given the right environment and care, reach the important milestones when they’re ready.

It also has to be remembered that some pupils have developmental disorders which may impact their learning, for example, severely autistic pupils are not able to lay down memories as other children can. Some pupils may struggle with organisation as they’ve developmental coordination disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia.

“Sometimes students are going through things that we cannot know about and/or understand. The way that they react to you is not your fault, and it isn’t personal if they take some time to warm up to you.” – Ayeasha Cindy
© University of Reading
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