Another "C" for Learning

Article excerpt

Taylor was beginning to seem just a little desperate when she asked if I could meet her after school. Her topic was Sudan, and she was trying to answer the essential question, "How does a country's history affect its current economic or political situation?"

This question was really stretching most of our students because when they walked into the library to begin this project, they knew very little about Sudan, the Philippines, South Africa, the Congo, or any of the other countries on the list. For the first time, the three world history teachers were using this research question as a common assessment for all of their students, at all levels (with some adjustments for lower-level students), and like many of her classmates, Taylor was really struggling with it.

Taylor had already gone to at least one of the online encyclopedias to which our library subscribes because that was where I had told the classes to start gathering background information. I had also read several of these online articles about Sudan myself, so I could understand why she was having some trouble-it is a complicated history! Taylor was not seeing the connection between the times when Egypt and Great Britain had feuded over who was in charge in Sudan during the nineteenth century and the atrocities that she vaguely knew had been playing out over the last few decades. My job as the librarian was to point her toward the right sources to help her make that connection.

I found a book for Taylor that used many photos, maps, charts, and colorful pages to boil down a complex history into something comprehensible to a tenth grader. I suggested to Taylor that she start with the first fifteen pages of the book. When she was done, we talked through what she had just read, bringing in the little that she knew about current and recent events in Sudan; suddenly, I saw the light begin to go on! We talked about what she knew from news reports, and she began to understand the connection from Sudanese history to the Sudanese present, and ultimately, to the news that she hears about in her own life.

I cite this story to illustrate a point. Framework for 21st Century Learning by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills states that there are "four Cs" that are critical learning and innovation skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. The framework states, "Learning and innovation skills increasingly are being recognized as the skills that separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century, and those who are not" ("Learning and Innovation Skills"). Although not included in this list, I believe very strongly that making connections could easily be considered a fifth C. Not only is there a workplace imperative for students to learn how to make connections, but there is also scientific evidence that making connections is how we learn best. And in the effort to increase students' ability to comprehend complex texts--one of the college-and-career-readiness goals of the Common Core state standards--helping students make connections is a crucial component of that toolkit. If we want our students to grow into life-long learners, then this is a skill that they simply must learn.


The brain physically and chemically makes connections to enable learning by creating a dense web of messages sent back and forth between neurons. The more often these passages are used, the faster the messages travel. The more stimuli used to create a memory, the denser the web becomes, and the easier it is to recall things. In fact, the best way for brains to remember is to pull together all aspects of experience from visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli into feelings and emotions.

Understanding the malleability of the brain helps teachers see that they are brain-changers every day! When we teach students something new, pathways are created in the brain. …