Breakthrough Learning

What is Breakthrough Learning? Setting the Context

A breakthrough is an event where we face what seems impossible and, with a new approach, with new technology, or with superhuman efforts, we are able to break through and succeed.

Important Breakthroughs in history

We are all familiar with the long history of breakthroughs in science and technology. In my lifetime we went from slide rules to pocket calculators, to computers and now hand-held devices that take and mail your pictures, surf the web, and even include a telephone.

Digital cameras changed photography. With music we have changed from records and tapes and CDs to computer downloads. And, as you well know, the kind of music changes almost as radically.

But in education, most  breakthroughs have been in new methods for teachers

Teachers use cooperative learning, manipulatives in math, graphic organizers, multiple intelligences to reach larger numbers of students, team teaching and integrated units (especially in Middle Schools), methods of “Brain-based Learning” and much more.

But students today still read books, do math homework, memorize vocabulary, and take tests much the same way as I did in high school and college and as they did in my parents’ time and my grandparents’ time.  It is true that we now use computers for instant research and write papers that can be revised and corrected without needing to retype the whole thing. The question is:

“Why have there been so few breakthrough in methods of learning?”

I really wish I could answer this question.  There have been several strategies that seemed helpful but didn’t really change the problem for most students.

Howard Gardner:  Using Multiple Intelligences

The best known is Howard Gardner’s “breakthrough” concept of Multiple Intelligences. There are many books that advise parents or students on how to identify their intelligence and use it to learn. It is interesting to understand your intelligences but very difficult to apply. Teachers cannot teach seven or eight groups of students differently according to their strongest intelligence. The best we could do was to make an effort to include activities related to several intelligences in each lesson, but few teachers do this. It isn’t easy.

Even if you could learn everything using your strongest  intelligence, this would be harmful. We should all strengthen our ability to learn in every one of the intelligences.

It’s fairly easy to use these while teaching or learning:

Linguistic intelligences (reading, writing, speaking)
Visual/Spatial Intelligences (looking at pictures, charts, demonstrations)
Logical/Mathematical Intelligences (reasoning)

Few teachers use:

Interpersonal Intelligences (working with others such as with cooperative learning)
Intrapersonal Intelligences (Reflection, sometimes used with journaling)
Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligences ( using manipulatives or using movement to learn)
Musical Intelligences (can be used to remember with rhymes or little songs but rarely used in class)

But while it is hard  to use in a classroom, it is even harder to picture students studying using some of these intelligences.  My websites includes sections on using Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic methods for memory.

Tony Buzan: Mind Mapping

When Tony Buzan wrote his little book, “Use both sides of the brain”, there were three extrememly important insights. Research has shown that all of these are effective.

1. We remember better when we review in regularly scheduled times: “Scheduled Reviews

2. Study time should include a great deal of self-testing, or as he would say, re-creating your mind map.

3. We learn better when we take more frequent breaks.

He also had two insights that became extremely popular but that were NOT especially helpful.

1. The title of his book “Use both sides of the brain” started a trend in books on educations related to right brain and left brain activities. Interestingly enough, Buzan outlines the idea but doesn’t show how to use it except that his innovative idea of mind-mapping was more right-brained because it was visual rather than verbal.  There is very little emphasis on this in recent years.

2. The public including everyone from education all the way to industry embraced the idea of mind mapping. They never seemed to realize that a mind map is simply a visual form of an outline.  The map is better for SHOWING the IMAGE or how parts fit into the whole.  Outlines are better for showing a larger quantity of detail. Eveery year there are more and more books on Mind Mapping.  You won’t find any of them helpful

That is why this website has been created. There are helpful methods in some areas but most students either never heard about them or don’t know how to use them. You may know or discover methods that I don’t know, methods that will be a helpful breakthrough in learning for other students. If you do, please share them.

Like so many others in education, I believed in the power of mind maps and used them in my own studies, but I soon discovered that it isn’t nearly as helpful as believed. I used Concept Maps which are slightly different in order to plan an essay or website, but I rarely use them for study. When I used them in class, students clearly didn’t find them helpful; they were one more annoying assignment.

What is a Learning Breakthrough Moment?

a Breakthrough takes place when then sun shines through dark cloudsYou are certainly familiar with the idea. A comic strip shows someone with a light bulb glowing inside or over his head. He’s had a new idea. Some say they have a flash of inspiration. Some say the answer just came to them.

For Archimedes, settling into his bathtub, it was a Eureka Moment. The water overflowed and suddenly he knew how to find the volume of a crown. I’ve always pictured Archimedes running down the street naked, waving his towel in the air in excitement.

When this moment of insight opens the door to a new way of learning, it can be called a Breakthrough Learning Moment. Before that moment the task seems impossible. Suddenly you see a way to accomplish “the impossible.”

Picture a gray day. The sky is heavy with dark clouds. Then, quite by chance, there’s a break in the clouds just where the sun is.  In the midst of the darkness, the sun’s light shines though.

How does this happen?

For many people, especially in the sciences, this moment begins with a question.

  • .What is the shape of the DNA molecule and how does it work?
  • Why do apples and other objects fall to the ground: What is the cause of gravity?
  • What is the smallest possible particle of matter?
  • How can the chemical elements be organized?
  • How can we compare the strength of earthquakes?
  • Is there more than one kind of intelligence?

Sometimes we may be thinking of something entirely different when the answer pops into our minds. These are Breakthrough Moments. Those who don’t struggle with difficult questions rarely have this experience.

For students, the source is often a special kind of question. A student has a difficult assignment. It seems impossible at the time. The question here is “How can I ever understand this?” or “How can I remember all this?”

The problem simmers in our brains, sometimes for a long time as we struggle to find solutions. Then, sometimes, a new idea comes to us.  We discover answers to our questions, solutions to our problems. We may say “It came out of thin air,” This is a Breakthrough Learning Moment.


to read about Breakthrough Study Skills    – the skills taught on BreakthroughLearning websites and in Workshops

to learn about Breakthrough Learning Workshops      for teachers and parents or for students


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