The Phenomenon of Assimilation

Have you ever wondered why a child suddenly performs poorly on a spelling test or why the multiplication tables are, at times, so difficult for that child to recall?

What brings a capable child to such a temporary state of mental vacancy? What can cause these synaptic delays?* Perhaps he is experiencing a condition called, “The Phenomenon of Assimilation.”

It is a time in the learning process when neural connections are being constructed, organized, reorganized, and assimilated. Recent advances in neuroscience confirm what many parents and teachers have known for decades: students experience occasional memory lapses as a normal part of learning.

An example: Take a look at John, a third grade student. He is a good student, attentive, and well liked by the other children in his class. But his mother is concerned because, as she half-jokingly reports,

“Occasionally he acts as if he has static in his brain. Lots of noise, but not much going on!”

Perhaps the explanation below will shed some light on John’s temporary lapses in judgment.

When John is presented with new information, his brain searches through existing neural (brain cell) networks to find a way to make sense of the incoming data. Then when his brain begins to refocus – making accommodations for the newly learned skill – some of his present skills temporarily disintegrate.

For John, “learning time” comes after the class instruction, after the lecture, and after the textbook read. Learning time actually takes place when all of the new information undergoes processing, brain encoding, and neural rest. This “after the lecture” stage of assimilation is when new facts and skills are incorporated into John’s system of brain organization.

In fact, this natural phenomenon can be loosely compared to the time when a computer’s RAM becomes full. The computer appears to lose the ability to store new information. The hard drive searches for areas in which to store new facts. When it cannot find any more areas labeled “storage,” it informs the user that the memory is full. The user must go through the shut down procedure so that the RAM can re-organize and re-prepare the short-term memory.

In a similar way, John’s quality of work temporarily deteriorates, because in order to assimilate new information, his brain has to temporarily shut down other skills.

It is normal and predictable: The good news is that this Phenomenon of Assimilation

  • is normal,
  • is predictable, and
  • is vital for future recall.

This phenomenon is also U-shaped, meaning that it has a beginning, middle, and end. John will arrive on the other side of the assimilation mountain with all of his previous skills intact along with an organizational structure designed to incorporate the new skill, as well.

How to help: How can John ‘s teacher help him through these periods of assimilation? In the classroom, the process is accomplished during “student time” through projects, discussions, group work, self-assessment, journal writing, feedback, design, research, mapping, interviews, review, or memorization.

What can John’s parent do during a period of assimilation? Be patient. “Clinical studies suggest that it takes up to six hours for any skill or action-based learning to ‘imprint,” states Eric Jensen, author of Brain-Compatible Learning. Give John some downtime. This time of relaxation will give his brain an opportunity to process the new information and permit new brain connections to strengthen.

“The brain is not designed for continuous attention,” writes Jensen. Neural fixing only happens when there is no other stimuli or when there is a non-competing stimuli. Allow the child to choose a quiet activity like reading, independent artwork, or listening to music.

In the future: To shorten future periods of assimilation, John’s parent may want to introduce topics days or weeks before a lesson begins. By pre-exposing him to new information, John’s brain has an opportunity to form new patterns prior to instruction. (see Building a Network of Prior Knowledge).

* Use of the term “synaptic delays” is with the permission of Researcher Susan C. Rooney

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