What Does Enrichment Mean? (page 2)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 12, 2011

Novel, Challenging, and Meaningful Learning

The human brain is designed by nature to survive. Learning is the only way to do that, since we live in a world far more complex than one of simple stimulus-response. It seems that physical activity may enhance the production of new cells, but it is the novel learning that appears to increase brain cell survival and functionality.13 Novel, meaningful learning is key, and quality schooling changes our brains.14 Relevance is critical because meaningless tasks provide no enrichment. Just basic stimulation alone does not drive an enriching change in the brain; it has to be behaviorally relevant.

This creates the essential "cortical imprinting" needed to release the acetylcholine necessary to form the memory to "save" the new learning.15 We need a meaningful context for an activity to get purposeful changes in the brain, and studies show that more relevant, meaningful learning is better.16 All of these factors, like novel, relevant learning, allow us to make better-quality predictions. In fact, the primary strategy for schoolage survival is to predict likely outcomes and respond appropriately.

Recommendation: The most critical ingredient is contrast, so the curriculum and instruction must feature contrasting choices for students. This is a key factor for keeping kids in school. The five dominant strategies used by schools to match up learners and instruction have been

  • Choice by students of what and how to learn
  • The use of differentiation
  • The use of pullout programs
  • The use of acceleration
  • Using prescreening testing to match students with curriculum

Let's walk through these suggestions that may enhance the enrichment response.

Choice. The first option is to allow students to pick their own learning, challenges, and grade requirements. I would argue against students at any grade having a total choice over their curriculum. School-age kids do not have mature frontal lobes, and their ability to make decisions with long-term consequences in mind is a bit suspect. Some moderate choices are acceptable.

Differentiation. The second option is differentiation; here teachers use instructional strategies to modify and adapt the curriculum for various ability levels within a given classroom.17 The concept can work for certain talented teachers with student populations having more narrow ranges of ability, in smaller size classrooms. This is one of the more widely accepted educational theories in the past ten years.

Pullout programs. In the third option, students are pulled out of their regular classes for special tutoring. It's primarily for those needing improvements in skill levels (reading, writing, math, and other basics).

Acceleration. Acceleration allows students to move quickly past units of content if they are able to pass the exam. Students might spend half the time on the same content as other students if they are ready to move on.

Prescreening. The last option allows schools to mix and match students at the right school based on the student's abilities and the level that the school offers. Any of these five could work, but the last one is the most ideal because of its reliability.

Coherent Complexity

Complexity is a big part of what challenges the brain. It requires shifting from one cognitive factor to another, allocating resources such as working memory and stress management. The stress issue is huge because if the complexity crosses the line into chaos, the potentially good learning event becomes stressful. Neurons under distress become conservatory and won't grow or communicate properly with other cells under distress. Their dendrites, the branch-like extensions from neurons mentioned earlier, were reduced by 18 to 32 percent in one animal study that exposed them to stressors.18 The opposite condition, boredom, can also create a retracted or withered dendrite, from underuse.

This factor is a bit tricky, because it always rides the edge between boredom and distress. Complexity is a school experience in which students see school as a busy (but not chaotic), interesting (but not threatening),and challenging (but not overwhelming) experience. Two strategies are suggested to make complexity saner. First, allow a graduated level of complexity that builds over time as the human brain develops the capacity to handle multiple levels of curriculum, social structures, and the necessary emotional responses. The second strategy is the building of student assets. This includes emotional intelligence, resiliency against stress, study skills, and time management.

Recommendation: This factor means that students need to have the kinds of options that they perceive as "juicy" and "cool" subjects. That includes the arts (theater, photography, dance, music, and so on), sciences and problem-solving (talent fairs, special projects, Odyssey of the Mind, math league, debates, and so on), and exploration (field trips, internships, mentoring, community service, and so on). Without these types of options, not only can students lose interest in school, but you'll never find out what they're good at doing.

In theater, drama, dance, and other performance arts, subjects improve emotional intelligence, timing, reflection, respect for diversity, and even SAT scores.19 In fact, compared with those taking no arts courses, those taking theater and drama scored thirty-five points higher on the math part of the widely used college entrance test and sixty-six points higher on the verbal portion. In case you're thinking that sharper students simply self-select into arts (a possibility), that too has been debunked.

Showing that it's the time spent in the arts that matters, the more years one is in the arts, the greater the difference on the SAT. This suggests that it's the work in the discipline, not the selection process, that contributes to the SAT difference. The first year, there's an average differential of ten points between the mean scores of non-arts students and a firstyear student in drama. But by the fourth year of arts participation, the difference is close to forty points.20 This is a clear example of the enrichment response. Students start out above the average (ten points) and yet, still gain an additional thirty points on the SAT over time.

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