Toggling: How This Old-School Process Can Help Struggling Learners Today

By definition, to “toggle” is to join one thing to another, or (in its verb form) to move from one thing to another. As education continues to draw on the wisdom of brain development and neuroscience, the process of “toggling” is on the cusp of becoming the new buzzword, the hot new technique in education. The irony lies in the fact that parents, educators, and families have been doing this for generations! Toggling, as it is used in neurodevelopment, applies to the process of moving from one concrete educational activity to one that reinforces the same general principle, but in a less formal manner. For example, students can memorize the names of the continents, but rote memorization does little to actually increase knowledge or create a scaffold upon which to build more complex understanding of geography. Toggling, in this situation, might be to have students use a puzzle of the world to reinforce the skill of identifying the continents. Another example might be to have students color maps of the continents or read/listen to a story about a character who travels the world, jumping from continent to continent.

If this sounds a lot like the kindergarten/early elementary classrooms you remember as a child, you’d be right! The shift toward more qualitative educational strategies has pushed many of these supplemental activities off the table, but for many students, these activities are the gateway to learning!

How does toggling work? Toggling allows learning to occur in a passive manner. Put another way, toggling is when learning takes place “in the background.” That explanation might make toggling seem like a quaint and novel concept, but here’s the thing about toggling: it is essential to learning!

Memory (and learning) is constructed from neural pathways that are non-linear, but that fire together in the brain as patterns. Neuroscientists call these “base patterns.” We link ideas and memories together in an infinite number of combinations, and these combinations are constantly being modified and enhanced through sensory stimuli. Scientists have long known that to increase a memory or skill, one should attach it to as many senses as possible, in large part because the brain patterning is enhanced each time new stimuli from the brain correlates with that same memory or skill. To say it plainly, the more ways we can engage students in learning, using multiple senses, environments, and experiences, the more likely they are to remember it and be able to apply it later. More importantly, toggling allows for the brain to “work around” difficulties like dyslexia or hyperactivity or even personal preconceptions about what students are “good at.” These kinds of barriers can be side-stepped when we employ toggling to reconnect learners to information!

How can you use toggling to help your learner? Go outside and play catch or ride bikes while talking about concepts from school that day. Ask your son or daughter to help you roll out cookie dough and talk about his or her spelling words, science topic or history facts. If you homeschool, toggling can look the same way as I just described or you can employ any of the ideas above. Take a day off from textbook learning to play a math-based board game! Build cities from ancient history out of LEGOs while listening to an audiobook on the same topic! Curricula like “The Story Of The World” and Writing With Ease offer lots of ways for students to practice “learning in the background.” The key to toggling is to downshift learning from the structure of concrete instruction. Allow kids to play more, interact with as many sensory experiences as possible, and use their imaginations!

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