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Imagine walking into a classroom where it looks as if the children are playing ‘hide-and-seek’. But actually, this is a revolutionary way of having a reading lesson. A group of French pre-schoolers are learning how to read with their fingers. In addition to their ears and eyes, they use their sense of touch.
This new method shakes up conventions, but is definitely helping children to learn better, because at this age touching is one of their most developed senses and comes naturally.
French neuroscientist Edouard Gentaz is a well-known expert in young children’s brains. He says reading has to be acquired in three dimensions.
“The big challenge for primary school children is to understand the link between the visual form of a letter – which is treated by the visual cortex – and the corresponding sounds which are treated by the audio zones. In order to facilitate this association we add the zone of touch. In this way we improve the relationship between the visual form of the letter and its corresponding sound,” he says.
And in the pupils’ heads, it is working. By the end of the school year, they make fewer mistakes and recognise more words.
When science and education meet it is called Neuropedagogy, whose scientific aims are to learn how to stimulate new zones of the brain and create connections.
Neuroscientists also conduct experiments on teenage brains which are dominated by emotions. How can they be controlled?
Plugging into emotions is one way of starting a Physics class. For this teacher, it is all about surprising his students; to provoke a connection that scientists call a ‘positive emotion’.
“We put on a short video, or an image, or sometimes text, which captures their attention. Immediately they have a positive emotion and they start to listen to the lesson and it’s really interesting. Then afterwards we notice that at a certain point they are distracted. So we put on another little video, we recreate a positive emotion amongst them and it lasts a while,” says Physics teacher Dominique Fargues.
When the brain feels a positive emotion, it releases dopamine, known as the pleasure hormone that makes us eager to learn.
On the other hand, if negative emotions such as stress or fear accumulate in the limbic system, the brain blocks itself. Information will not circulate towards the prefrontal cortex, the home of our deep memory and our capacity to think.
So scaring off or intimidating students is counter-productive. On the contrary, neuropedagogy uses more effective memorising techniques.
Over to a French literature class, where 16 and 17-year olds are studying “Le Rouge et le Noir” by Stendhal. But instead of following a linear structure or learning by heart, students work by association of ideas to trace a ‘mental map’.
The aim is to connect the text to images and personalised memories, because it is proven that the brain creates connections and remembers information more easily.
“It helps me to draw, because then I remember – I’ve detailed several parts, for example Mme de Rainal’s view of Julien, or the way he sees Mme de Rainal,” enthuses Manon Bellan.
“I remember that ‘the little heart’ reminds me of the title, and this then reminds me of what I have written down,” says Hannah Sorgi.
In 2007 the OECD examined those methods and rated them as promising. Teachers and scientists now have to cooperate to find a way to apply them.
The sense of touch allows us to make a better connection between sight and hearing and therefore helps adults to learn to read. This is what has been shown by the team of Édouard Gentaz, CNRS researcher at the Laboratoire de Psychologie et Neurocognition in Grenoble