Brain-based research gives us a clearer picture of the optimal times for learning new content. According to Sousa in his book, How The Brain Learns Mathematics, there are two “best” times for learning: at the beginning of a lesson and and the end. Using a 40 minute lesson as a model, he explains that the brain’s capacity to download and retain new information declines in the middle of that lesson. This model of learning also makes plain sense. Kids’ brains (like that of adults) have a limited capacity to maintain attention and absorb and apply new information. After a “high” point of acquiring information and a relative period of reduced retention, there is another maximum learning opportunity in the last portion of the lesson (these times are approximate, of course).
How does this affect special needs kids who are struggling in math? The initial explanation of skills and procedures was not clear to them. It may not have meshed with previous learning (often because the previous topic was not not learned adequately or correctly). It may have triggered anxiety about past math failures. It may not have included visual cues or manipulatives. It may have had too much information presented too quickly. Guided practice may be completely embedded into the initial instruction, so that student were overwhelmed by both new vocabulary and new procedures. When these kids are “released” into independent practice at this point in a lesson, the teacher may not be available to provide corrective feedback, so the kids practice incorrectly. And practice makes permanent. Kids are also hitting that learning slump in the lesson, along with increased anxiety and perhaps task avoidance. Special needs kids may be heading down a dead-end road. When the teacher concludes the lesson with opportunities for students to apply this newly learned information to real problems, our special needs kids have partially memorized procedures, partial understanding of underlying concepts, and inadequate practice without corrective feedback. Yikes. Then they have homework on the topic, where they continue to practice incorrectly.
As Sousa points out, “unlearning and relearning that process correctly is very difficult…. (B)oth teacher and student have a difficult road ahead to unlearn the incorrect method and relearn it correctly.” (page 63) Obviously, the earlier the math intervention, the better the outcome. Younger learners relearn more easily and have had less time to practice incorrectly. Motivation to relearn is also a big factor.
There is hope. Stay tuned for how to navigate that “difficult road.”