Learning from Marva Collins

Imagine yourself as a 10th grader. You received your mid-term exam results. You scored 10 out of 100 in Mathematics. Your math teacher calls you an idiot in front of everyone as you flunked the test. Your classmates make fun of you by calling you dumb. You go home unhappy and show the test results to your parents. They scold you for failing the test and call you a fool. You get dejected as you were labeled as an idiot, dumb, and a fool on the same day.

After few months you get your half-yearly exam results. This time you get 9 out of 100. Once again you get scolded and ridiculed by your teachers, classmates, and parents. After back to back failures you are convinced that you are not genetically wired to learn Mathematics. You start to hate and avoid the subject. A negative feedback loop kicks in and it results in more failures and you are in an infinite abyss.

Are you really dumb? Are you not wired to learn Mathematics? Are your teachers and parents correct on their assessments about you?  Let us understand your situation by looking it through the lens of psychology and neuroscience.

1. Association: Our ability to process information is limited and we adapt to this limitation by developing heuristics that focus on few pieces of summary information. On such summary information is your test score. By getting 10 out of 100 one can conclude that you did not understand the fundamental concepts well. But that does not mean that you are dumb and not wired to learn mathematics. Your teacher, parents, classmates, and you made a psychological blunder by associating your low score with your inability to learn mathematics forever. This is similar to Pavlovian dog associating bell with food.

2. Authority: Teachers and Parents are authority figures. Since they continuously remind your inabilities you assume that they can’t be wrong and believe that you are incapable of learning mathematics. You made another psychological blunder by blindly believing in authority.

3. Stress: Learning mathematics is hard. You need to put in a lot of effort and your mind has to be clear without any worries. But by constantly worrying about your inabilities you put your brain under stress all the times. This in turn upsets the chemical balance in your brain. Also effective learning happens only in an enriched environment. But stress creates an impoverished environment and this inhibits learning.

Animals raised in enriched environments—surrounded by other animals, objects to explore, toys to roll, ladders to climb, and running wheels— learn better than genetically identical animals that have been reared in impoverished environments. Acetylcholine, a brain chemical essential for learning, is higher in rats trained on difficult spatial problems than in rats trained on simpler problems. Mental training or life in enriched environments increases brain weight by 5 percent in the cerebral cortex of animals and up to 9 percent in areas that the training directly stimulates. Trained or stimulated neurons develop 25 percent more branches and increase their size, the number of connections per neuron, and their blood supply.  — Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

4. Lack of awareness: Human brain does not come with an instruction manual. This makes people think of the brain as a mystery. They assume that intelligence is innate and they believe that a person is either born smart, average, or dumb. But this is not true.

Many people think of the brain as a mystery. They don’t know much about intelligence and how it works. When they do think about what intelligence is, many people believe that a person is born either smart, average, or dumb—and stays that way for life. But new research shows that the brain is more like a muscle— it changes and gets stronger when you use it. And scientists have been able to show just how the brain grows and gets stronger when you learn… When you learn new things, these tiny connections in the brain actually multiply and get stronger. The more that you challenge your mind to learn, the more your brain cells grow. Then, things that you once found very hard or even impossible— like speaking a foreign language or doing algebra— seem to become easy. The result is a stronger, smarter brain. — Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Meet Marva Collins

Marva Collins taught in Chicago’s public school for fourteen years. She was not happy with the quality of education. In the year 1975 she started her own school in Chicago. She named it as Westside Preparatory School and enrolled her own two children and four other neighborhood children. During the first year she took in children who had learning disabilities. How did they perform after studying in her school?

At the end of the first year, every child scored at least five grades higher proving that the previous labels placed on these children were misguided. The CBS program, 60 Minutes, visited her school for the second time in 1996. That little girl who had been labeled as border line retarded, graduated in 1976 from college Summa Cum Laude. It was documented on the 60 Minutes programs in 1996. Marva’s graduates have entered some of the nation’s finest colleges and universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, to mention just a few. And, they have become physicians, lawyers, engineers, educators, and entered other professions. — Marva Collins, Biography

As Collins looks back on how she got started, she says, “I have always been fascinated with learning, with the process of discovering something new, and it was exciting to share in the discoveries made by my … students.” On the first day of school , she always promised her students— all students—that they would learn. She forged a contract with them. “I know most of you can’t spell your name. You don’t know the alphabet, you don’t know how to read, you don’t know homonyms or how to syllabicate. I promise you that you will. None of you has ever failed. School may have failed you. Well, goodbye to failure, children. Welcome to success. You will read hard books in here and understand what you read. You will write every day.… But you must help me to help you. If you don’t give anything, don’t expect anything . Success is not coming to you, you must come to it.” — Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

When Collins expanded her school to include young children, she required that every four-year-old who started in September be reading by Christmas. And they all were. The three- and four-year-olds used a vocabulary book titled Vocabulary for the High School Student. The seven-year-olds were reading The Wall Street Journal. For older children, a discussion of Plato’s Republic led to discussions of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Machiavelli, and the Chicago city council. Her reading list for the late-grade-school children included The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov, Physics Through Experiment, and The Canterbury Tales. Oh, and always Shakespeare. Even the boys who picked their teeth with switchblades, she says, loved Shakespeare and always begged for more. Yet Collins maintained an extremely nurturing atmosphere. A very strict and disciplined one, but a loving one. Realizing that her students were coming from teachers who made a career of telling them what was wrong with them, she quickly made known her complete commitment to them as her students and as people. — Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Marva Collins understood how the human brain worked. She never associated low test scores as an indicator of students inabilities to learn. She took students who had failed in the public schools and treated them like geniuses. This created a stress free environment for the students to learn. She believed that with dedication and hard work anyone can learn anything. No student will be left behind if teachers and parents follow the footsteps of Marva Collins.

3 thoughts on “Learning from Marva Collins

  1. this article is very inspiring. I am 40. I am learning public speaking. I am determined to keep at it and master it before I turn 50.

  2. I discovered your blog only recently. Each one of your blogs is either informative or makes us think. Education in our country is a minefield with each person having his pet obsession. Your article on Marva Collins is an eye opener. Similary, the 2007 movie, “Freedom Writers” which is based on reality is also inspiring. Your article and the movie are the two things that helped remove the clutter in my mind in recent months.

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