JSM Feb: Making learning effective and fun (Part 1)

The whiteboard after the session.

The Junior Saints Mums met on 22 February 2018 for a discussion on how to make learning effective and fun for our kids.


The session began with a paired sharing for mums:

Share with your friend one thing you that appreciate about your son for, since we met last month. What was the occasion? How did it make your feel? Did you let him know?

The exercise helped to remind us that our children, who may be sometimes be a challenge to look after, often have strengths and mindfulness that can both surprise and delight us.

The Learning Process

A quick run through of the agenda with Brenda.

After a quick run-through about the agenda points, our facilitator, Brenda Tan, asked the 16 mums to discuss the following questions in their groups:

What do you remember about your own learning strategies in primary school? What seemed to work for you?

The groups reported that their own learning strategies consisted of:

  • copying notes and mind-maps
  • practicing 10 year series
  • participative learning (doing the exercises)
  • repeated writing/intensive ?? (copywork)
  • self-revision (homework/assessment book)
  • tuition (doing assessment)
  • memorise (recite repeatedly)
  • repetition and memory work

The group agreed that while the strategies were effective for them, they do not appear to be fun activities for learning.

The groups also noted that there are strategies that were limited in the time when they were in school:

  • technology
  • school outing (limited), and exclusively for upper primary
  • no overseas trips

A close up on the mums’ personal strategy for learning when they were in school.

The mums shared that these strategies not only gave our kids a learning opportunity that went beyond the curriculum, but made the learning fun too.

The Neuroscience of Learning

Brenda briefly shared about new learnings from neuroscience and how learning at middle childhood may differ from teenage years and adult learners simply because the brain is changing as the child is growing.


A process called myelination occurs a fetus is about 16 weeks and continues into adulthood. A substance called myelin, made up of fatty lipids and proteins, surrounds around the neurons. These myelinated cells become more efficient in the way they carry messages throughout the brain; information travels much more quickly than in cells that have not been myelinated.

When myelination completes at about the age of 25, the brain becomes efficient and effective in its functioning. Some neurons are fully-myelinated at birth, eg. those that control the ability of an infant to suck. Other neurons become myelinated in early life, and provide increasing efficiency for toddlers as they fine-tune their vision, hearing, language, emotions, and physical capabilities.

The frontal lobes, where the brain plans for the future, more accurately assess risk, makes sound judgement, reasons, controls impulses, sets goals and priorities, plans and organises multiple tasks, and exhibits emotional control, is the last to be myelinated.

Myelination also aids cognitive development.

This myelination of the frontal lobe starts occuring at tweens (10 to 12 years old) and continue through their teen years to adulthood. Myelination also helps tweens inhibit their impulses more efficiently and to demonstrate greater self-discipline, although many will continue to have impulse control problems until the myelination process is complete in adulthood.

Limbic System

The limbic system triggers our “fight or flight” response for survival. Thus, in less than 0.1 second, the nerve endings sends signals via our spinal cord to the amygdala in the brain so that the body can react to it. eg. touching an open flame triggers the brain to remove the hand from the source of heat.

The limbic system also controls our emotions and memory, so when confronted with anxiety, stress, or threats, the amygdala becomes over-activated, and cut off access to memory storage, reasoning, and association circuits. Therefore, when our children are in a distressed emotional state their learning ability is directly negatively impacted.

On the other hand, when in a positive emotion, the neural pathways to memory storage, judgement, and connections open up, and new information can be processed, associated, and stored for later retrieval and use.

Therefore, there is a scientific fact behind ensuring that the learning environment for our children is a safe, happy, and fun one!

Yet, why do the learning strategies that the mums say work for them as student work, even though they do not appear to be much fun?

Practice Testing and Distributed Testing

Interesting, the strategies that the groups cited as effective are also cited by many research on meta-learning (how people learn) as the top two effective learning strategies: Practice Testing and Distributed Testing.

Both these strategies are effective because while they may not be “fun”, they train the brain in memory retrieval. Memory isn’t stored in the brain as a unit or in one part of the brain, but are widely distributed throughout the brain, with duplicated neural pathways so that the memory can be retrieved if any of the neural pathways should be wiped out. Memory retrieval therefore, has to do with training the brain to associate retrieving the information from different elements stored in different parts of the brain, and this requires re-visiting the neural pathways the brain formed when creating the memory, and strengthening these pathways results in how quickly the memory can be recalled.

Therefore, perfect practice makes perfect.

Practice Testing:

any form of testing for learning which a student is able to do on their own.


  • flash cards
  • completing practice problems or tests
  • copywork/”xi-zhi”

However, one-off heavy practice or cramming does not increase the memory retrieval process. This is due to the increase in cortisol levels which triggers the stress level to the brain (remember the “fight or flight” situation regarding the emotions?), blocking the amygdala from opening the neural pathways to cognition and association.

Therefore, there is a need for these practice testings to occur over a distributed period of time.

  • Distributed testing:
    distributing the learning over time.
  • revisit and review materials periodically
  • allow for time lag between learning episodes for brain to consolidate learning (aka sleep on it!)

Brain health requires good nutrition and rest!


Brenda reminded the group of when their children were babies learning to walk and the mums’ reactions to that process:

  • Encouraging in tone and emotion that it’s a positive process.
  • Celebrating for every strengthening step.
  • Discounting the “pain” of falling.
  • Placing the baby near the sofa to support them cruising.
  • Ensuring the distance isn’t too great so that the goals are achievable.
  • Ensuring the space is safe to walk.
  • Ensuring the space “grows” with the walking — self-exploration is safe.
  • Creating walking boundaries.

If learning to walk were a metaphor for learning in school, have we reacted the same way to our children failing, like the way we react to our babies falling?

The Fall And I Learn process is part and parcel of the learning process, and our reactions to how our children fail impacts the limbic system’s memory and emotion regulation. If failing in school is constantly a negative memory and emotion, it creates a downward spiral towards any formal learning setting.

The brain is a learning organ in any situation, and association with new information is connected with prior experience about what to do with that new data.

Therefore, a positive framing of failure is key to helping the brain understand how to deal with the natural negative associations with failure — a topic to look into more deeply for another JSM session.


How then do we make learning fun?

Knowing that effective learning is as fun as hitting the gym for hours on repetitive exercises and bland chicken breast meals, the fun in learning is actually in a few key strategies, which allows the learner to feel motivated and getting a dopamine hit:

  • Keeping track of progress: recording the number of times and results of each practice testing (how often correct, how short a time to get it correct, etc.)
  • Celebrating milestones with a positive memory, eg. ice cream cone for achieving a school goal.
  • Noticing the progress: Articulate to our kids the progress that they’ve made and our emotions to that. Help them see the changes that they can’t see.
  • Provide learning support: (see our previous JSM meeting on Strategies in motivating our kids to do their homework well.)


The motherhood journey in supporting our children to grow and thrive is an immensely satisfying and rewarding one. Thankfully, it’s also a journey of friends, who can help us be better mothers in their sharing of strategies and perspectives that work for them.

The Junior Saints Mums ended their February meeting with a delicious lohei, and shouts of blessings upon our school community: staff, families, and children.