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Gordon Dutton’s Blog (14) Creating conditions for learning

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Creating the Conditions for Learning

Childhood learning is miraculous.

Years ago when our first child was just two years old I was (naively) using threat as a method of discipline.

As he climbed from a chair onto the kitchen table I said: "If you do that I will...".

It didn't work of course, because a child of that age can't anticipate and imagine a negative outcome.

But exactly two weeks later, I was doing something that our child didn't like and hey presto, the words "If you do that I will" were mirrored back to me, with the same intonation and inflection that I had used.

A single iteration of a set of words with abstract meaning had been heard, understood, retained, and identically re-iterated in context, two weeks later by a two year old!

How can this happen?

At a young age, the flexibility of the mind to learn is phenomenal, and this flexibility is pre-programmed during what is called the critical period of development.

A critical period is the time during early development when learning is enhanced.

The brain learns - and becomes programmed - to see, hear, and respond emotionally during early life.

As eye surgeons we learned a few years ago that if a child is born with lenses in the eyes that are not transparent (cataracts), they need to be detected, removed and replaced by alternative lenses very early during the first year of life to get the best results. Otherwise the child will not see so well and will miss out on the pre-destined brain processing and enhanced learning of early life.

Similar but longer critical periods apply to hearing and learning how to socialise.

What this tells us is that early learning is important, and we need to fully recognise and understand, that one can only learn from the visible, the audible and the intelligible, (Blog 1).

In the past deaf children were called 'deaf and dumb'. Dumb meaning that they had not learned language and all this conveys, during the critical period of their first decade, because they could not hear it. This now rarely happens because the need to render language information accessible during early development has been understood, and is acted upon (qv Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks).

But can there be such a thing as 'visual dumbness' too?

The subject of how we learn as children is vast, but let's just briefly think about it, from inside to out, rather than the usual outside to in.

  • The information comes in through receivers (such as our ears, eyes, and taste & touch sensors).
  • It is processed (to reshape the information into 'brain-speak')
  • then remembered in the short term (by the hippocampi)
  • with enhancement in the emotional memory units (in the amygdalae), especially when children are happy and excited.
  • It is then built up progressively and layered into the long term memory banks (in the temporal lobes) to create a vast array of knowledge.

All roads lead to Rome.

On this website all ideas lead back to CVI.

Children with CVI may have visual difficulties only, or they may have additional difficulties related to any of these basic stages of learning.


  • If the input from any of the senses is not typical, learning takes place when the requisite information is made fully accessible.
  • If the processing of information is limited, for example, by lack of attention for any reason, then learning is greatest when distraction is kept to a minimum.
  • If short term memory is limited - which is not uncommon in children with CVI - then motivation and learning are recruited best if the amygdalae are kept 'happy'.

This means that the best learning takes place when the child is not frightened, stressed or anxious, but comfortable, relaxed, and happy, while engaged in completely accessible, enjoyable, engaging and meaningful activities matched to the child's developmental level.

In other words children learn best when they are happily playing, while not being distracted!

I remember that my little boy and I were in a quiet corner of the kitchen; there were only two of us. I was amused and not cross when my little boy learned that complicated language from me all those years ago. Now I know how he picked up that language so easily! I didn't then.


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At CVI Scotland we are devoted to helping people understand cerebral visual impairments, and together working towards developing the understanding of this complex condition.