Understanding the levels of learning

If movement develops the brain, why is hyperactivity a bad thing?
July 20, 2017
July 24, 2017

By Dr Melodie de Jager

Learning is not about:

  • school
  • left and right
  • shapes, colours, numbers
  • punctuation
  • reading, writing, spelling
  • facts
  • comprehension, memory
  • math, science
  • study skills
  • tests and exams.

 Learning = the ability to adapt.

Learning is the ability to adapt to your environment.

Like when you go to the beach and you swop your corporate attire for a swimsuit, or you go to Chinese restaurant and swop knives and forks for chopsticks, or when you move from a preschool to a primary school and you swop playing for reading and writing.

If the transition from play-learning to school-learning is difficult, you might instinctively wonder if a child lacks IQ (intelligence quotient). Or, you might question his EQ (emotional quotient) and ask yourself, what is happening at home; what is happening in class; does she have friends; did he move home recently; did she loose a pet, friend or family member? These are great questions to ask and show a keen interest in reaching & teaching a child rather than labeling & stabling a child. But does it remove the barrier to learning?

Reaching & teaching = I reach out and teach hands-on about real life things.

Labeling & stabling = I park children with barriers in a stable with a label, and now others ‘will take care of that one’.

Physical intelligence includes the ability to:

  • manage impulses and movement
  • integrate sensory input
  • overcome extreme dominance (of certain brain and body parts)
  • produce skilled movement in speech and action.


In recent years, the role of the physical body in the learning process has made headlines and showed that not only IQ and EQ are important in preparing a learner to learn with ease, but that PQ also has a vital role to play.  To illustrate the role of physical development on how easily (or not) a child learns, the Mind Moves Institute interprets the Triune Brain Theory (MacLean, 1990), which shows that academic learning stands on a sturdy foundation – PQ.

We call this The Levels of Learning and use this model to illustrate the sequence in which the brain:

  • pays attention
  • focuses
  • and concentrates.

Physical needs always take precedence over intellectual demands.

  • Is the child: unsafe, sick, hungry, cold, too hot, or perhaps tired?
  • Can the child: sit up, sit straight (no lying on arms, or supporting the head when reading or writing), and sit still for an age-appropriate time frame?

If the answer is YES to one or more of these questions, the brain might be concentrating more on the body (and the physical aspects of the task), which leaves very little ‘concentration and energy’ for feeling good and being sharp.

If the answer is NO to all the above questions, the feel-good hormones charge through the body and boost immunity, confidence, concentration and memory!

Emotional needs also take precedence over intellectual demands – an unhappy, anxious, fearful, emotionally or physically abused child fights a continuous internal battle and so the biggest lump of their ‘concentration’ is applied to their emotional state, which leaves very little ‘concentration’ for paying attention in class and concentrating on the task at hand. An unhappy, unpopular, lonely child disengages, while a strong, happy, healthy, confident child engages and says: “Bring it on, I am ready to learn!”

Intellectual needs are greatly influenced by a child’s reality and is often the reason why motivation to learn: algebra, names of clouds, or the steps in a production process, is low.

Why would a child learn that stuff if he is ‘never ever going to use that stuff in his life’. Besides he has Google at his fingertips!

Intellectual needs are also influenced by a child’s learning style, because information or ‘stuff’ is filtered through a child’s preferred way of learning new information en route to the brain. Info needs to get IN before it can be PROCESSED and understood, and before a child can RESPOND by answering, demonstrating or writing.

Traditionally when there is a problem with learning, we looked for the cause on a ‘higher level’ – usually either the emotional (EQ) or the cognitive level (IQ) as point of entry to remediate. However, the growing body of neuro-scientific research shows that a substantial number of barriers to learning could be due to the child’s physical development (PQ), or rather the lack of optimal physical development.

 All children GROW, but not all children DEVELOP

Physical development is at the root of all learning, with a critical developmental growth spurt between conception and 14 months in life; followed by an emotional growth spurt between 14 months and 4 years; and a cognitive growth spurt between 4 and 11 years. This does not mean that no emotional or cognitive development occurs during the growth phase for physical development.  In fact, the child is always in the process of developing as a whole being – physical, emotional, social and intellectual – but each phase has a time frame where development of that specific phase, is the developmental priority.

Stabilising the levels of learning

The foundation of PQ learning is made up of two systems that stabilise the Levels of Learning – INPUT via the senses and OUTPUT via skilled muscle movement.

Learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body – Carla Hannaford


Stimulated senses fill the brain with information and in so doing, the senses wake up the brain to integrate and process the information. To integrate and process means to adapt, which means to learn, but this entire process relies on sensory input. Multi-sensory input. Why? The brain prefers to receive new information on a concrete level; using as many senses as possible to form a clear perception of the information.

Concrete learning means learning with real objects that you can touch, smell, hear, and see, e.g. think of the difference in quality of learning when you simply tell learners about a lion, compared to visiting a game lodge where they can smell lions , hear them roar, and see roaming around in nature.

Concrete experiences like outings and experiments fill the brain with multi sensory images that elicit strong emotions. When information is emotionally charged it is glued in memory, broadens the memory bank and is readily available as a vast database from which to draw.

 Environment determines experience and vocabulary.

 Case study

Question in national exam paper: write an essay of 300 words on the day in the life of a traffic officer:

If a child lives in a rural town with no pavements, stop or other road signs, and hence no traffic officer to enforce compliance with these signs, is that child not lacking performance because he is lacking the experience?

 From 0 – grade R is the prime time for multi-sensory learning and a myriad of real life experiences.

Too early reading and writing robs children of opportunities to experience things on a multi-sensory level. Multi-sensory experiences create the database from where learners draw to recall information. I.e. for a child to be able to spell the word fire engine, he first needs to be introduced to a fire engine, know what it looks like, know what it sounds like and know what its ‘job’ is.

Only after having had the advantage of years of concrete sensory experiences do children fully benefit from looking at books and screens with images of experiences (semi-concrete level).  Only then can semi-concrete information evoke a memory of the multi-sensory concrete experiences they’ve had, and create a positive and easy learning experience.  Learning on a semi-concrete level without first having experienced the objects in real life, makes it harder to learn. It is like comparing the experience of eating a delicious meal to looking at a picture of the same meal – it is simply not the same. Most of the information received on a semi-concrete level would be abstract and quite incomprehensible to those who lack prior concrete experiences.


The abstract nature of the numbers and letters and the seemingly theoretical nature of math and science may easily discourage children from reading and from choosing these subjects. The alphabet, math and science deal with concepts that cannot be touched, e.g. left and right, shapes, colour, time, speed, velocity, etc.

You cannot touch and hold symbols like: the letter A, or the color red. Similarly you cannot touch and hold concepts like: speed or velocity. Because these concepts are not perceived concretely through the senses, learning on an abstract level can pose many challenges.

An inspiring teacher with a gift to explain abstract concepts on a concrete level, like explaining fractions by cutting an apple; or by demonstrating the passage of time with different segments on a clock, is invaluable to the learning process!

When a teacher uses more concrete experiences and less ‘chalk and talk’, abstract concepts become more ‘real’ and accessible, to more learners.

ALL learning occurs via sensory experiences FIRST. It is a general misconception that only babies and toddlers learn through concrete, multi-sensory experiences.  All learners, regardless of age, learn best this way because learning doesn’t just ‘happen’, information ‘travels to the brain’ before it is learned and applied. Information has to travel via the senses (IP), to the brain through the emotions (EQ) before it can reach the top story where symbolic and abstract learning takes place (IQ).

Most high school pupils are expected to learn on an abstract level, either by listening or reading, with no database of concrete sensory experiences to refer to. Can you imagine how difficult it is for these children to make sense of these abstract concepts?  Without concrete sensory experiences: they battle to read, write, and understand questions.  Because of this, they fail math, science and accounting. No wonder there is such a high drop-out rate and the real Grade 12 pass rate is so low in SA!


Learning, according to Honey and Mumford (1982:1), has occurred when:

  • A person knows something that he did not know earlier and demonstrates a change in behaviour.
  • A person can do something he was incapable of before.

In both instances muscle OUTPUT provides evidence that information has traveled successfully through the physical, emotional and cognitive parts of the brain and that learning has occurred. Only muscle responses can be assessed: oral examination, written exam etc all involve muscle responses i.e. the mouth and speech, the hand and writing. If the assessment shows that little or no learning took place, there might be a barrier in the learning process that needs to be addressed.


Barriers to learning can occur anywhere during the learning process preventing information from flowing from the senses to the brain and then to the muscles for appropriate behavior to show that learning has occurred.

A barrier can occur at the INPUT phase when a sense is inaccurate or ‘faulty’, for example, a child:

  • Has low vision (sense of sight)
  • Has hearing loss (sense of hearing)
  • Dislikes textures or is a fussy eater (sense of taste)
  • Is hyper sensitive towards smells (sense of smell)
  • Is tactile defensive or tactile dormant (sense of touch).

Such a child may ask for help by displaying physical signs such as licking his lips, sucking on his collar, sucking his thumb or sucking his hair. A child with impaired or underdeveloped hearing and sight tends to withdraw by: day-dreaming, yawning, disengaging, complaining about a sore tummy and generally does not want to go to school. Such a barrier may present as ADD and hypo-activity.

An INPUT barrier may also occur when all the senses are on hyper alert. Whenever this happens, the senses feed too much information to the brain which creates a traffic jam (Ayres, 1994). At times like these the brain gets over stimulated or overfull, which creates chaos in the brain. The brain then desperately needs order to operate and process properly. PROCESSING cannot occur where there is chaos. To reduce the internal chaos (it may feel like ants under the skin, noise in the head or even a feeling of nausea; the brain screams: “MAYDAY! Get rid of the chaos, fight off new input or take to flight!”).  In extreme situations, the brain and body may even seem to FREEZE UP. No matter which part of the fight, flee or freeze response becomes active; NO NEW LEARNING CAN OCCUR.

Learning occurs when a child is able to sit still, engage and pay attention. In a brain overwhelmed with chaos, none of the above is possible. The fight-or-flight response often presents itself as uncontrolled movement.  This leads to a lack of concentration which usually carries the hyperactive label of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). It can also give rise to labels such as lazy, demotivated or a bad attitude.

Behaviour is a barometer for the effectiveness of the flow of information from the senses to the brain and then to the muscles. If there is a problem with the senses being underdeveloped or overly active, info only flows through PQ – in through the senses and reflexively out through the muscles without any emotional (EQ) or cognitive (IQ) considerations. Such a learner would tend to be stimulus bound with high levels of impulsivity and might behave inappropriately.


Being ‘locked’ into a lower level of learning may start a negative learning spiral, resulting in:

  • negativity towards school and learning
  • low self image
  • lack of confidence
  • low motivation
  • learned helplessness
  • and failure.

“Real learning gets to the heart of what is meant to be human.  Through learning we re-create ourselves.  Through learning we become able to do something we were never able to do.  Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it.  Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the general process of life.  There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning” (Kelly, 2002:14).

 As teachers, we do not dare kill this hunger in learners with outdated and inappropriate ‘chalk and talk’ teaching strategies.

Teach what is real. Teach with all your heart.


Ayres, J. 1994. Sensory integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

De Jager, M. 2006. Mind Moves – removing barriers to learning. Johannesburg: The ConneXion Pty (Ltd).

De Jager, M. 2004. Clever Play. Johannesburg: The ConneXion Pty (Ltd).

Hannaford, C. 1995. Smart Moves. Virginia: Great ocean Publishers.

Honey, P. & Mumford, A. 1982. The manual of learning styles. Berkshire: Peter Honey.

Kelly, L (2002) What is learning… and why do museums need to do something about it?

MacLean, P.D. 1990. The triune brain in evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York: Plenum Press.


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