This article explores the place of mind in today’s learning theories. A modern term for that is minds-on, and all successful learning requires it.

Parts of the Mind

A popular teaching theory today is called hands-on. Violin, tennis, and such activities require a focus on training the hands, but that is not what theorists refer to with the term hands-on. They mean adding a craft or physical activity to any topic. Sometimes this successfully adds to a lesson and other times not. We can decide by determining whether the activity promotes thinking or whether it is just for a fun activity’s sake. Is it a way to increase understanding or just a way to drill on rote memory?

Also popular today are brain-based theories, including the one that splits left and right brain. Educators leap blindly from this research to teaching methods. The original research message came from studying patients whose corpus callosum was cut to cure severe seizures. The corpus callosum connects the left and right halves of the brain. From these patients, the researchers learned that using words and language largely activated the left side of the brain and music or art activated more of the right side. Educators suddenly began labeling children as left- or right-brained, and tried to adapt teaching methods for each kind. That ignores the fact that normal children have an intact corpus callosum and have constant interplay between the brain halves. Young children, for instance, exhibit more right brain activity when they first hear music, but as they learn more about music, the left brain becomes increasingly involved, even just for listening. So there remains the question of whether we should aim to teach the right brain during that time or just teach music and let both halves of the brain develop as they will.

The brain is incredibly complex, and people with faith in science believe that through brain research we can learn how to teach, or how children learn. Over the years I have collected a shelf full of brain books, but they always disappoint. Though educators jump at each new finding, the researchers know better. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning of Seattle Pacific University, says that he reluctantly believes that brain research has very little to say at this time to the world of education. Researcher Michael Gazzaniga says, “If we ever learned how the brain learns to pick up a pencil, it would represent a major achievement.” Still other brain researchers echo those opinions.

Educators leap blindly from other research besides the neurological. One group of salesmen heard information about recent sales and another group saw the information explained on a graph. The next day the seeing group remembered more than the hearing group. So educators began teaching that children remember more of what they see, complete with scientific sounding percentages telling exactly how much they remember. That leap ignores numerous aspects of the situation—what kind of information, how interested the children are in the topic, what background of “readiness” they have for it, how motivated they are to remember it, and whether it works the same for children as for adults.

Teachers have a habit of hearing a bit of research and leaping to senseless theories from them. An old such leap gives specific, short attention spans for young children. But those researchers observed children doing teacher imposed tasks instead of timing a three-year-old in a self-chosen task such as stacking blocks. A preschool teacher who believed in short attention spans complained to a mother that her 3-year-old was a problem because he resisted moving to each new activity on schedule, but wanted to finish what he was doing instead.

A newer leap is from the styles research. These data are collected from questionnaires filled out by college students and by employees in the workplace. The resulting list of adult preferences has been turned into a list of labels by which to categorize children and their curriculum, again ignoring what the topic is, that the research was with adults, and so on.

Whether we emphasize brain, eyes, ears, nose, hands, or body, they all refer to physical, neurological aspects of the learner. Mind is the only term that goes beyond the physical. Mind refers to the total conscious being that reasons, thinks, wills, perceives, and more abilities that God put into us and that we do not fully understand. It includes more than brain and the sense organs that send information to it. According to the Bible, cognitive processes occur also in the heart and other inward parts, not only in the brain.*

Full Mind

Scientists continue researching the brain, along with related neurological wiring of sensory input to the brain, and someday they may figure out how the brain learns to pick up a pencil. While we wait for that, we can aim for more minds-on learning by an effective method that teachers and parents have figured out. That method is to try something and see if it works. If you have two ideas, you can try both and see which works best. At one time that was called “action research.” What teachers do in action, thoughtfully, brings useful research results.

As an example, here is an idea for learning the two-letter state abbreviations (which are more useful in life than are the state capitals). This involves thinking, not mindless rote memorizing. Children can pretend they are working for the postal department back when it decided to install new abbreviations, and they have the job of planning what each abbreviation should be. Beginning with the A states, what would they decide?

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas

Both Alabama and Alaska cannot use the initial letters AL, so what else might work? AB might sound like Alberta, Canada, but AK sounds distinctively like Alaska, so choosing that leaves AL for Alabama. The next two states compete for AR. Three of the A states, and Alberta, begin and end with the same letters, so the Hawaii (HI) and Iowa (IA) plan will not work. Arkansas cannot use AK because Alaska already does, but AZ sounds good for Arizona. That leaves AR for Arkansas.

Working through the states by that problem-solving way—the Ms are the hardest—children will end up able to put practically any correct abbreviation on an envelope, and they haven’t spent hours with mindless flashcard memorizing. Many children would enjoy reaching the decisions conversationally with fellow students or with the teacher. When they finish the fifty states, they can check their list against an official list to see if they should change any. After sleeping on it, they can check their knowledge of the abbreviations by trying to write them again on a list of states or on a map. (Sleep, including naps, increases learning efficiency.)

That procedure integrates eyes, ears, voice, hands, and brain. The follow-up review or re-learning sets the information more firmly and more permanently in memory. Researching the eyes versus ears or hands would be useless, since all those sensory inputs are processed simultaneously in the brain. We would get better information by comparing this minds-on approach with a rote memorizing of the official list.

You can eliminate most of the rote memory of math facts in a similar way. It takes longer than the state abbreviations, but it ends with understanding. Mark Twain said this is like feeding on corn and not the husks. If children forget a fact in the future they will be able to figure it out from what they understand.

For solving a beginning problem like 3 x 4, they can stack 3 piles of 4 checkers and count that there are 12. With enough slow work like this, the mind catches on to the concept that multiplication is combining groups of equal number. The mind also begins to form mental images of the smaller amounts so it no longer needs the actual piles. Larger piles cannot be visualized so easily, but once children understand the concept of multiplication, they can figure out the higher numbers by various routes; 9 times something is 10 times that number minus one pile; 7 x 6 is 6 x 6 plus one more pile (if they know the “doubles”). And so on. If children continue to stumble over a few of the higher facts, they can resort to rote memory of those, but it is not meaningless rote because by then they understand what it means to say 8 x 7.

It is weak and misleading to categorize this as “hands-on” learning because of the integration of hands and eyes with brain to think, solve problems, and understand. Add persistence, interest, and desire to learn, and the procedure might best be called minds-on. This leads beyond the immediate learning of particular facts and concepts; it also develops thinking abilities that enhance future learning.

A scholar, William Cobbett, wrote to his son in 1819, that he should be cautious of learning by rote because he may come to value the powers of memory more than those of reason. Cobbett happened to be referring to memorizing rules of grammar, but he could just as well have meant math facts or geography facts or any facts that we try to drive into children’s brains through the hand or eye or ear gate.

Centuries ago parents knew about thinking. And parents today still know, if they do not get sidetracked into modern “scientific” theories. Minds-on is the most powerful learning. 

Dr. Ruth Beechick was a curriculum specialist, author, and advocate of Christian home education. She passed away at the age of 88 in November of 2013.

*Information on Bible cognitive processes is in Heart and Mind: What the Bible Says About Learning by Ruth Beechick.

Dr. Ruth Beechick was a curriculum specialist, author, and advocate of Christian home education. She passed away at the age of 88 in November of 2013.