PreK/K: A Burst in Cognitive Ability
The human brain’s capacity for higher-level, executive functions undergoes an explosive expansion during the preschool and primary years. We will explain executive functions further in a moment, but for now consider it as closely tied to critical thinking.
Never again, during an individual’s entire lifetime, will there be a similarly accelerated rate of neurological and cognitive processing power as occurs between the years of 3 to 6 years of age. What a fascinating period in development!
The Information Processing Model of Learning and Memory
Humans receive and process information from the environment all the time. One of the simplest forms of information processing is the knee-jerk reflex used in basic neurological examinations. Most of us are familiar with this simple procedure. The patellar reflex occurs when a small rubber hammer is used to strike the patellar ligament located just below the kneecap (the patella). This tap causes a stretch in the quadriceps muscle above the kneecap. This stretch is sensed by a nerve cell (a neuron) that runs from the muscle to the spinal cord. This signals another neuron in the spinal cord that runs back to the quadriceps muscle and causes it to contract with the characteristic jerk of the lower leg, the knee-jerk. This processing of information is so incredibly simple that it does not even require involvement of the brain. Thus, it is a very fast reflex.
While the simplest form of information processing may be a reflex action like the knee-jerk, at the other end of the spectrum of complexity are learning and memory. Learning and memory may involve any or all of our senses and utilize many different areas of the brain. This is the level of processing complexity at which the Information Processing Model becomes useful to us.
Information processing is essentially learning and memory. In fact, if the brain does not process new information, it will not lead to permanent memories and learning will simply not occur. Conversely, the more extensively new information is processed, the better it will be remembered, and the more learning will occur. The steps involved in the input and processing of new information by our brain are summarized in the illustration to the right. Let’s go through the steps.
Learning and Our Senses
The term Input at the left in the model indicates sensory information communicated to our brain through nerves connected to our organs of sensation. These sensations of course include touch, vision, hearing, smell and taste. Despite all of our cognitive complexity and our brain’s ability to deeply consider the meaning of information, it is only through our five senses that we are aware of what is going on in the world around us.
At this point in our technology, it is almost impossible to get information from the outside world to our brain except through our five senses. Even augmented and virtual reality devices, which may soon have a significant impact on education, must deliver information through our senses to gain access to our brain for processing and interpretation. This is important to remember as we turn to technology as a mechanism to enhance learning. Not until we can somehow bypass our senses to implant stored information and the meaning of such information further downstream in the Information Processing Model, can our senses be circumvented.
In the Information Processing Model, we notice that there is a loss of information gained through input from our senses indicated by the first arrow leading downward to Forgotten. This indicates that some information, in fact the vast majority of information that we are presented, never makes it very far at all. We constantly receive an enormous amount of information, thousands of stimuli per second. We cannot process so much information at one time. Consider, for example, the “feel” of your right foot at this very moment. If you choose to concentrate on it, you can actually sense information being sent from your foot to your brain, its location relative to the rest of your body, for example. Obviously, it would be difficult to concentrate on anything else if we spent all of our time dealing with information coming from our right foot, let alone the rest of our body as it senses the environment. Therefore, we routinely filter out almost all information delivered through our senses.
Background sounds, changing temperature, vibrations, most of what we detect in our visual fields and so on are routinely relegated to the unconscious and not processed beyond the Input step in the Information Processing Model. We filter them out and they are therefore forgotten. If we were unable to do so, the shear amount of incoming sensory information would incapacitate us.
The conversion of new information from limited storage to long-term memory requires a process called Consolidation. Consolidation is a complex process involving comparison of new information in limited storage to “previous knowledge” through Retrieval of related information from long-term memory. Virtually no new information is consolidated without first comparing it to information we already have. Every bit of new information will be compared to “old” information already stored in long-term memory. Thus, if I tell you that in my living room I have a fish tank that sits just to the left of a brick fireplace and that a double French door is to the right of that fireplace, you see a version of the scene based entirely on images of fish tanks, French doors, and fireplaces that you have already stored in your long-term memory. You can’t control this – all new information is encountered in terms of previous knowledge. As might be expected, this turns out to be of incredible significance in terms of teaching and learning.
Subsequent Rehearsal of the new information in the context of what is already known may then lead, through consolidation, to its permanent storage in long-term memory. Rehearsal comes in many forms in the classroom environment. Homework that necessitates application of information gained in class is rehearsal. One student explaining new information to another is rehearsal for both students. Students working on their lab report based on data they collected while conducting an experiment is rehearsal – and so on. Almost any time a student refers back to newly introduced information and uses it in any way they are rehearsing, and it will help them consolidate the information into long-term memory.
By far, most information in limited storage never makes it to long-term memory – it is not consolidated – it is lost and forgotten (third arrow in the model leading to “forgotten”). For information to enter and remain in long-term memory, new connections between neurons in the brain must be made. This is a physical process that involves turning on genes and making proteins. Thus, learning is a physiological process that can be affected by nutrition, drugs, and the overall status of the body.
Attention and Executive Functions play controlling roles in the overall process. Executive Functions essentially oversee the handling of new information – they orchestrate the retrieval of relevant pre-existing information from long-term memory, guiding rehearsal while helping direct attention. Executive Functions are responsible for the integration of different brain functions. When a student decides that a new piece of information is similar to something that he or she has seen before, that is an example of using Executive Functions. When a student realizes that he did not understand a concept that he just read in a textbook and decides to reread the paragraph containing it, he used Executive Functions both to check his understanding of the concept, and to formulate a plan (rereading the paragraph) for improving his understanding. Attention is required throughout information processing. No new information can be consolidated into long-term memory if we do not attend to it. Executive Functions are involved in helping students decide what they should focus their Attention on in a given circumstance. Thus, Executive Functions oversee and guide almost all areas of information processing and learning.
Executive Functions and Critical Thinking
In the graph at the top of this page, we showed the rapid increase in executive functions skill proficiency during the preschool and kindergarten years. Executive functions help in organizing the activity of diverse brain areas to focus attention and solve problems. Interestingly and importantly, executive functions provide the cognitive environment for another essential component of rational brain activity to occur – namely, critical thinking.
Many teachers and educational psychologists are familiar with the concept of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This hierarchal ordering of cognitive levels was first outlined by Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s and has had amazing staying power over the years. In fact, much of what we are learning through neuroscience and neurological imaging (fMRI, in particular) is entirely consistent with the taxonomy. The idea is that the more new information is used and applied, the better it is understood and remembered. Thus, simple memorization of information leads to the shallowest level of understanding and learning. As one moves up the taxonomy, higher and higher cognitive characteristics are required and developed.
Moving students up Bloom’s Taxonomy in a whole variety of subject areas might well be thought of as a primary objective of education. Importantly, both executive functions and critical thinking are also used and practiced as students move up this classic hierarchy of cognitive power. Consequently, early experiences, like LabLearner, help develop the most basic and important thinking skills at the precise time they are developmentally expanding with the maturing brain.
Carol Grugan, LabLearner Teacher
There are so many good things to say about LabLearner Science. However, the “ahs”, the “ohs” and the other squeals of delight that come from the students during our labs, let us know that these student scientists have grasped another important science concept. Hands-on learning has proved exciting and productive!
Geralyn Arcieri, LabLearner Teacher
The LabLearner curriculum is awesome; however, when I first experienced the LabLearner training sessions, I wasn’t too sure if this is what we were looking for at St. Bernadette Catholic Academy. With much trepidation, in September we launched this new program in a fully equipped lab. That first week totally blew my mind! Students who never used microscopes were jumping in and using them like pros. Everything I taught them was being retained! This was due in part to all the hands-on experiences they were gaining! 5th Grade learned terms such as wet mount, dry mount, etc. When it came time to do the performance assessment, the students in grades 3-5 sailed through them. All you could overhear was that this was the best test they had ever taken! 3rd grade learned so much about electricity and some of their parents who are electricians were so impressed with what their little ones were learning. My 4th graders were acting like true future doctors in the Human Body cell and my 5th graders were so proud to find out where they came from in their Genetics cell!
Dan, LabLearner Grade 8 Student
I enjoy going to lab because every Monday morning when I remember that it’s pre-lab day, I get excited to learn how and what we are going to discover in the next day’s lab class.
Sheena Byrnes, LabLearner Teacher
LabLearner is an incredible program for the students in my school. We used it for the first time last year and it had a huge impact on both the students and myself. I was able to teach Science in a way that I was never able to before because I finally had equipment that allowed the students to reach their full potential. Students came in asking to go to the lab every day and loved being there. They enjoyed everything from wearing the lab coats to using equipment and materials most students don’t see until high school or college.
We had our annual Science fair in May and students came up with ideas that were more advanced than they were in the past. They were asking to borrow things from the lab to complete their projects. We had a very successful year in Science and the LabLearner program was the main reason why. I am excited to use it again this year and I would highly recommend it to other schools.
Gary, LabLearner Kindergarten Student
I like pouring stuff into beakers.
Michelle Nitsche, LabLearner Principal
The LabLearner curriculum has helped our students develop critical thinking skills. The weekly labs build upon previous concepts learned in each investigation and challenge students to work collaboratively to “think outside the box”. The LabLearner curriculum also does a great job with providing students with hands on, real world STEM experiences.
Mike Ward, LabLearner Teacher
I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from Nativity students who are/were in high school and have/had a better foundation for the specialized science classes there. I really believe in the value of the program. Students who have gone through LabLearner here tend to do very well in high school. They tell me so.
Brian Palmer, LabLearner Principal
I have noticed in students writing and presentations outside of science the use of science vocabulary. For example, one student was sharing her story about marshmallows in her hot chocolate. She used the word buoyant to describe her marshmallows. She more than likely would not have used that word in her writing had it not been for the LabLearner curriculum.
Isabelle, LabLearner Kindergarten Student
I like pouring and holding. I like coloring in our lab books.
Kathleen Kenney, LabLearner Teacher
My students enjoy using the LabLearner program because every child can be involved in the construction of the demonstration, recording information, and analyzing the results. I am happy to see that they are more focused on the science tasks than they had been in past years. My students ask thoughtful questions in response to what happens during the investigations. I can see them mentally putting 2 and 2 together while they try to connect each investigation to the last one. The fact that LabLearner investigations spiral and constantly reinforce concepts with each lesson is great! It’s like a built in review! The material is sometimes complicated and presents concepts on a higher level than my students are used to, but the program also lets the children learn the information step-by-step. They’re not just reading about the scientific principles; they’re witnessing them firsthand.
Devin, LabLearner Grade 7 Student
My older sister is taking freshman biology, and we are learning about some of the same things in seventh grade. LabLearner makes me feel smart.
Kathy Buscemi, LabLearner Principal
Saint Bernard Catholic Academy loves it’s LabLearner STEM Lab. From our 3 year old in Jr. PreK to our 8th graders, the students look forward to their time in the lab. The teachers love the layout of the workbooks. Material is presented in a very easy to follow, logical manner. The students are well prepared intellectually for the discovery part of the lesson in the lab.
Caterina Cuoco, LabLearner Teacher
Every LabLearner investigation gives the students a better understanding of what is focused on during the hands-on lab as the vocabulary words for each lesson beforehand are a great key in preparation. Each unit allows a good understanding of the main topics covered, which relate to daily life. Evidence has shown the students have scored high in each assessment for every lab lesson, which is based on the visuals, lab results and understanding of each investigation.
Paige, LabLearner Grade 5 Student
I like the science lab because we get to work with partners and we get to use a lot of cool science stuff.
Mary Basile, LabLearner Principal
St. Clare Catholic Academy introduced Lablearner to both the students and the parents in September 2017. It was very exciting for the students to be able to utilize the state-of-the-art science lab. Students enjoyed learning science by “doing.”
Many expressed that this program changes the way science is taught and learned. Students learn so much from one another. Our students worked together gathering information, experimenting and solving problems. It was evident that conversations were taking place, students began listening and respecting each others ideas and the feeling of accomplishment were had by all. Our students look at science in a whole different way. We look forward to another year with this program.
Ann DiNovis, LabLearner Teacher
Two of our 7th graders placed high in a competition called “You be the Chemist.” Most other schools in the area had been preparing for this contest since September, but OMPH only found out about it in January. I credit LabLearner with how well our two 7th grades did in the contest because they are in the lab every week and doing a lot of chemistry. One student came in third and is eligible to go to the state competition at Penn State. The other came in fourth and is the alternate for states.
My middle school students are using lab equipment that was only available to me in high school or college. They are making wet mount slides using cross-sectioning and latitudinal sectioning. They can focus a microscope, and even magnify 1000 times using the oil immersion lens on our compound light microscopes. Because of the program, my students know how to measure. They can use graduated cylinders, rulers, triple beam balances, spring scales. They have a lot of practice graphing, and understand the difference between the dependent and independent variables, and where they belong on a graph.
Sasha, LabLearner Grade 8 Student
LabLearner makes me feel like a real scientist. Rather than having answers given to me by a teacher or textbook, my lab partners and I run through experimental procedures using real equipment to collect data. After analyzing the data, we discover the answers to questions. It’s the best way to learn!
Linda Milewski, LabLearner Principal
Blessed Trinity introduced LabLearner to their students in grades Pre-K to eight over four years ago. This research-based program has definitely changed the overall student opinion of Science. Just a few short years ago; the majority of students did not enjoy Science class. With this hands-on approach our students are interested in Science and eager to learn. Standardized test scores have shown a positive increase in student scores. I strongly believe that this increase is due to the LabLearner program.
Jacqueline Edelmann, LabLearner Teacher
This is our fourth year using the LabLearner program at The Academy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Our grades have steadily improved both during the school year and on standardized tests.
This indicates to me that LabLearner not only delivers content knowledge, but it also delivers the skills to comprehend and analyze any scientific information presented in standardized tests. Students know how to read data tables, interpret graphs, and analyze experimental procedures and results. It is challenging, and they rise to the challenge.
Sarah Paquette, LabLearner Teacher
We are nurturing the next generation of scientists. Students need to know how their learning is relevant; why it matters. For each LabLearner CELL students work through, they develop a list of possible STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers that use the concepts they are learning about in lab.
Sr. Mary Sue Carwile, LabLearner Principal
One of the greatest strengths of the LabLearner program is its emphasis on meta-cognitive skills. Saint James students do not just absorb content, but rather think about the process and reflect on their learning at every step of the scientific method. This is in keeping with the LabLearner’s Information Processing Model and spiral curriculum that sets out to continually address critical scientific themes across elementary and middle school grades. The depth of material that each unit reaches and the emphasis placed on critical thinking, active instruction, and prior learning, in keeping with the educational philosophy of Saint James and the IHM sisters, make the science curriculum authentic and enriching for all students.
Erin Jakowenko, LabLearner Teacher
LabLearner has been a real game-changer for our students and we couldn’t be happier or more pleased that we brought the program to our school. From day one of the program, it caught our students’ attention. They were focused and driven. They worked together towards a common goal. They became the scientists leading the class and discussions, smoothly performing the labs and continuing with the performance assessments.
I have not seen such a genuine interest in exploring our world as I have with LabLearner. The students are engaged and on task and have begun to think deeper about core concepts and utilize those higher-order thinking skills we so desperately seek as educators. I can honestly say it’s because of the structure of the program and the thorough explanation of concepts that has brought such a depth of knowledge to our students. I am so grateful that I teach in a school that uses the LabLearner program!
Jackie Smith, LabLearner Teacher
I use the LabLearner program in grades 7 and 8. The students love going into the lab once a week to explore the concepts learned. When we de-briefed at the end of the year, the students shared that they prefer the hands-on aspects of LabLearner much better than the science program used in the lower grades. When alumni return to visit our elementary school, they always share that they feel prepared in high school for all the science classes due to the rigor of the LabLearner program and the regular use of varied lab equipment. Also, the math connection is strong and practical. I watch my science students use algebra skills that they never thought they would use and become proficient in graphing the data.
Stephanie Collins, LabLearner Teacher
I would like to express my many thanks and overwhelming awe with this program. I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect, from implementation to daily lessons. You definitely have a winner.
I have been teaching for over 27 years and I was surprised how much my students didn’t know. LabLearner has opened my eyes as well as my students’ eyes. I don’t know how I ever got along teaching without LabLearner. I LOVE this program!!!
Sheila Korynta, LabLearner Teacher
I have to let you know that our substitute teachers really enjoy coming into the lab to work with their students!! Amazing, huh? The substitute teachers appreciate that I set up the lab materials for them and they can proceed without any concerns. They know that our kids are SO LUCKY to have the LabLearner program here at Midway Public Schools in North Dakota!!!
Sarah Rae, LabLearner Teacher
One of my favorite aspects of LabLearner is the availability of the staff for any questions I have about the curriculum–whether it’s about the content, materials, procedure, or otherwise. Every time I’ve called, I’ve received prompt and thorough replies. It’s so wonderful to be able to depend on that kind of customer service!