Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

Children's Thinking Takes Flight

author avatar
Students who take on projects in the early years develop mental capacity for self-direction, thinking skills, and the ability to collaborate.

As the 3- and 4-year-olds approached the Cessna airplane, their excited comments and questions filled the air. These preschoolers were accompanied by several members of the Civil Air Patrol (one of whom was a student's parent). They knew they would be able to not only look over the small plane, but also take a private tour of the inside, try out some equipment, and ask the pilot questions that they'd generated and written on note cards.
These students were prepared to study the Cessna in ways that fit their specific interests and gave them practice with real-life skills. As part of a seven-week project, they'd been looking at and listening to many books about aircraft and brainstorming questions about planes and flight. Students had identified what they most wanted to learn on this site visit and formed groups, each of which approached the plane with a mission: One group was prepared to count the number of doors, windows, and wheels on the plane; another planned to measure its tail, propeller, and wings. Several students came ready to take photographs or sketch parts of the Cessna or to interview a major in the Civil Air Patrol. In addition to these investigations, the children learned how to read the pilot map and find airports. A most exciting unanticipated experience occurred when each child was able to "fly" a plane using a flight simulator.
This is what developing a 21st century intellect looks like in a program for young children. In this classroom, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is alive and well. Students are mastering learning standards and integrating new knowledge and skills into the study of something they find intensely interesting—airplanes. More important, they are building mental capacity.

Why Projects Prime 21st Century Thinking

There is much debate today about what students need to prepare them for the 21st century. Gardner (2008) cautions that we need to think globally about this issue. When young children who are currently in preschool and early elementary school become adults, they'll faces challenges and opportunities we can't possibly anticipate. In addition to important literacy and numeracy skills, they'll have to be good problem solvers and enthusiastic learners as they encounter new technology and environmental challenges.
Although academic skills will still be important to success, they're unlikely to be sufficient. As students grow into adulthood, they'll need to develop the mental capacity to be continual and enthusiastic learners; to be self-directed, persistent, and creative in solving problems; and have an intense desire to figure things out and to collaborate. It will take more than academics to prepare children for the future. It will take intellect.
Here's where the project approach comes in. This approach to curriculum immerses students in deep investigations of topics that offer opportunities for hands-on learning and much questioning (Helm & Katz, 2016). Good projects engage students in topics of high interest, focus on student-generated questions, and are student driven rather than preplanned or packaged. Karen Coyle, the preschool teacher who initiated the airplane project, used this experience to achieve curriculum goals and give children a chance to investigate a multifaceted topic, developing questions and pursuing information about the subject on their own. Similar approaches to curriculum include project-based learning (Polman, 2000); problem-based learning (Barell, 2007); and place-based education, which centers on in-depth investigations of the community near the school (Smith & Sobel, 2010).
Project-based approaches require that students do the thinking. Thus, they support the vital growth of students' minds. The project approach is especially meaningful for students in prekindergarten and early primary grades, who aren't yet proficient in reading and writing. Interest in project work is growing as we learn more about how the brain operates.

Revisiting the Brain

Technology has changed our understanding of how the brain learns. Beginning in the early 1990s, new technologies enabled us to observe the brain in action. Previously, researchers could only speculate on what occurred in children's minds on the basis of what children tended to do and say. As neuroimaging became more sophisticated, those who studied the process of learning eagerly jumped on findings from neuroscience, applying them directly to teaching. Unfortunately, some of these applications (such as the claim that listening to Mozart makes you smarter) turned out to be "bridges too far" and in the end weren't found to be scientifically sound (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010).
The hoopla over these early applications and the discrediting that followed left educators wary. But there is enormous potential to draw valid implications for educational practice from neuroscience—including new kinds of neuroimaging that use chemical analysis and provide insight into how emotions and stress affect learning. It's one thing to avoid taking a bridge too far, but the solution isn't to give up building bridges.

Implications for Teaching

Since 2000, there has been a growing movement to build new bridges, to conceptualize a scientifically substantiated art of teaching (Fischer & Immordino-Yang, 2008). Researchers from biology, education, and the cognitive and developmental sciences have begun to collaborate effectively.
In 2010, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa facilitated a consensus process with 20 experts from six countries to define standards for a new collaborative "mind, brain, and education science." Eventually, these experts agreed on promising practices and instructional guidelines for applying mind brain education science to teaching (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010). Many of these guidelines coincide with the instructional methods used in project work and reveal why this approach is so effective. They also provide guidance in how to make student-centered investigations more meaningful. Let's consider a few of these recommendations and how projects embody them.
Guideline on learning environments. Good learning environments are intellectual spaces in which the teacher models and requires respectful intellectual exchanges. Learning experiences should begin with assessing what students already know and appreciating the knowledge they bring. Teachers should have a clear vision of what students need to learn and should keep learning activities student-centered, embedding facts and skills in authentic experiences and natural contexts.
Guideline on active processes. Good classrooms include more than passive listening and knowledge transmission. They include opportunities to practice higher-order thinking and emphasize developing skills, exploring attitudes and values, and receiving feedback. Effective teachers guide learners to put the knowledge they acquire into action by "design[ing] significant learning experiences that require students to act on their own knowledge" (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010, p. 122).
The airplane project embedded skills like generating questions and measuring within authentic experiences. Students later put the knowledge they'd gained into action by building a cardboard model Cessna—one large enough that they could get inside. To recreate the plane accurately, they drew on the group's sketches, photographs, and data.
Guideline on the social nature of learning. Learning often occurs in social contexts and can be enhanced through social interaction. Activities that encourage "active exchanges of perceptions and information" and frequent debate enable "students to think critically and to interact with each other" (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010, p. 115).
Guideline on memory. Teachers understand the vital link between memory and learning and teach to strengthen memory. They take advantage of different sensory pathways to improve chances of recall, plan experiences in which children use associative memory to link past knowledge with new information, and recognize that what's emotionally important will be remembered. One of the first steps in the airplane project, for instance, was to discuss students' experiences with airplanes. Their observations of things they'd noticed led to rich questions and topics to pursue.
Guideline on metacognition. The teacher provides activities—including end-of-class or end-of-day reflections—that guide students to reflect, to "think about thinking," and to consider new information in ways that allow for questioning and help consolidate memory.
Guideline on attention span. Teachers minimize passive activities. They work to engage learners and maximize opportunities for them to gain new knowledge and expand their attention spans. They introduce experiences involving different people, places, or topics. Students reflect and summarize new information to maximize memory consolidation.
After exploring the Cessna, the preschoolers discussed and reflected on what they'd learned. They reinforced this learning by creating different types of paper airplanes, predicting which would fly higher and why.
Coyle's students practiced group problem solving as they constructed their "big Cessna." The photos students had taken of parts of the plane helped them determine the shape of the wings, which they drew on large pieces of cardboard. After sticking these wings on their cardboard fuselage, students were dismayed that they wouldn't stick out. Back to the photos they went and saw that struts supported the wings. They pieced together cardboard tubes from gift wrap to act as struts. However, these tubes collapsed. After experimenting with different materials the children found that plastic pipes worked the best.

Laying the Foundation

How children think today determines their ability to think in the future. The brain develops by building networks of neurons and creating efficient pathways. There is a natural biological process of growing and pruning back these connections and pathways which enables the brain to adapt to its environment. The process is similar to shaping a bonsai tree, only instead of being pruned by scissors, the brain is shaped by use. The neurons and pathways a young person uses remain; those that aren't used are pruned away. So when a child learns something or masters a new skill, the physical structure of that child's brain changes.
The building of these neuronal pathways is affected by emotions, attention, prior knowledge, and the degree of rehearsal or repeated learning (Blair, 2002; Hardiman, 2012). The more a pathway is used, the stronger and more efficient it becomes. Building these efficient pathways develops a readiness for new skills and knowledge, just as building a new highway leads to communities developing along that highway. Experiences of independent thinking in the early years provide the foundation for the ability to think independently in later elementary and secondary school.
In the same way, when children aren't provided opportunities to do their own thinking, it's harder for them to do so later—just as communities that are started away from highways struggle to survive. According to a theoretical principle called canalization, as development proceeds, the brain's initial great range of potential behaviors, or plasticity, narrows (Blair, 2002). When we limit children's thinking experiences, we may restrict their ability to think in different ways in the future.
So we are making a mistake when early learning time is dominated with low-level thinking or teacher-directed activities. Project work needn't be the only approach in a classroom; it can exist happily side-by-side with other learning experiences. Research suggests, however, that there should be part of each day where kids think on their own.

Making It Happen

Knowing that experiences shape intellectual capacity, early childhood educators should ask themselves, What are the brains of children in my classroom being shaped to do? As they plan their units, learning goals, and weekly activities, they should try to identify—and strengthen—activities that will allow students to experience the intense desire to figure something out and to practice problem solving and collaboration. In every unit, at least a few hands-on activities or deeper investigations should help students know how it feels to accomplish their own goals and satisfy their curiosity.
Unfortunately, classrooms where young students conduct their own investigations aren't typical. Some very young students still learn in classrooms that, at best, could be described as inappropriate for their developmental age—at worst, as lacking in stimulation. Students who struggle in school and who face challenges of poverty or second language learning often learn in early environments oriented toward rote learning.
At the same time, students who have had intellectually stimulating early schooling too often find themselves, later, in classrooms where their intellectual capacity is neither appreciated nor built upon. To maximize intellectual growth, students must have an opportunity to use their intellect early and continue to use it throughout their schooling.
In highly engaging investigations like the airplane project, academics become meaningful, useful, and exciting. Students study something they really want to learn about. And we place them on a trajectory toward lifelong inquiring and learning.

Barell, J. (2007). Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Blair, C. (2002). School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of child functioning at school entry. American Psychologist, 57(2), 111–127.

Fischer, K. W., & Immordino-Yang, M. (2008). Introduction: The fundamental importance of the brain and learning. In J.-B. E. Team (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning (pp. 183–198). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, H. (2008). Five minds for the future. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Hardiman, M. M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Thou sand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Helm, J. H., & Katz, L. G. (2016). Young investigators: The project approach in the early years (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Polman, J. L. (2000). Designing project-based science: Connecting learners through guided inquiry. New York: Teachers College Press.

Smith, G. A., & Sobel, D. (2010). Place- and community-based education in school. New York: Routledge.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). The new science of teaching and learning: Using the best of mind, brain, and education science in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Judy Harris Helm provides educational consulting services through her company Best Practices Inc.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 116033.jpg
Learning for Life
Go To Publication