Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

The Art of Changing the Brain: Interview with Dr. James Zull

Kolb on BrainLearn­ing through a vir­tu­ous Learn­ing Cycle. That’s the mes­sage from Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity, Direc­tor of UCITE (The Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter for Inno­va­tion in Teach­ing and Edu­ca­tion), and Pro­fes­sor of a Human Learn­ing and The Brain class.

Dr. Zull loves to learn. And to teach. And to build con­nec­tions. He has spent years build­ing bridges between neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy and ped­a­gogy, as a result of which he wrote The Art of Chang­ing the Brain: Enrich­ing the Prac­tice of Teach­ing by Explor­ing the Biol­ogy of Learn­ing, which shows how neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal research can inform and refine some of the best ideas in edu­ca­tional the­ory.

Jim ZullIn that book, Prof. Zull added bio­log­i­cal sub­strate to David Kolb’s Learn­ing Cycle frame­work. David Kolb’s Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing: Expe­ri­ence as the Source of Learn­ing and Devel­op­ment book refers to human learn­ing, but Pro­fes­sor Zull tells that today, in his desk, he has cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science papers and research that show that apes go through the same 4 stages when they are learn­ing a new activ­ity, acti­vat­ing exactly the same brain areas than we do.

AF: What is Learn­ing? Can apes really learn in the same way we do?

JZ: Learn­ing is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, connections–called synapses– and neu­ronal net­works, through expe­ri­ence. And, yes, we have seen that apes go through the same Learn­ing Cycle as we do, acti­vat­ing the same brain areas.

AF: How does Learn­ing hap­pen?

These are the 4 stages of the Learn­ing Cycle.
1) We have a Con­crete expe­ri­ence,
2) We develop Reflec­tive Obser­va­tion and Con­nec­tions,
3) We gen­er­ate Abstract hypoth­e­sis,
4) We then do Active test­ing of those hypothe­ses, and there­fore have a new Con­crete expe­ri­ence, and a new Learn­ing Cycle ensues.

In other words, we 1) get infor­ma­tion (sen­sory cor­tex), 2) make mean­ing of that infor­ma­tion (back inte­gra­tive cor­tex), 3) cre­ate new ideas from these mean­ings (front inte­gra­tive cor­tex) and 4) act on those ideas (motor cor­tex). From this I pro­pose that there are four pil­lars of learn­ing: gath­er­ing, ana­lyz­ing, cre­at­ing, and acting.

This is how we learn. Now, learn­ing this way requires effort and get­ting out of our com­fort zones. A key con­di­tion for learn­ing is self-driven moti­va­tion, a sense of own­er­ship. To feel in con­trol, to feel that one is mak­ing progress, is nec­es­sary for this Learn­ing Cycle to self-perpetuate. Anto­nio Dama­sio made a strong point on the role of emo­tions in his great Descartes’ Error book.

AF: can we, as learn­ers, moti­vate our­selves? How can we become bet­ter learners?

JZ: Great ques­tion, because in fact that is a uniquely human abil­ity, at least to the degree we can do so. We know that the Frontal Lobes, which are pro­por­tion­ally much larger in humans than in any other mam­mal, are key for emo­tional self-regulation. We can be proac­tive and iden­tify the areas that moti­vate us, and build on those. In other words, the Art of the Learner may be the Art of Find­ing Con­nec­tions between the new infor­ma­tion and chal­lenges and what we already know and care about.

If I had to select one Men­tal Mus­cle that stu­dents should really exer­cise, and grow, dur­ing the school­ing years, I’d say they need to build this Learn­ing Mus­cle. Learn­ing how to Learn. That might be even more valu­able than learn­ing what we stress in the cur­ricu­lum, i.e., the sub­jects we teach.

AF: Do you think this is hap­pen­ing today in our schools?

JZ: I don’t think so. First, of all, too many peo­ple still believe that Edu­ca­tion means the process by which stu­dents pas­sively absorb infor­ma­tion. Even if many edu­ca­tors would like to ensure a more par­tic­i­pa­tory and active approach, we still use the struc­tures and pri­or­i­ties of another era. For exam­ple, we still pay too much atten­tion to cat­e­go­riz­ing some kids as intel­li­gent, some as not so, instead of focus­ing on how they could all learn more.

Sec­ond, learn­ing and chang­ing are not that easy. They require effort, and also, by def­i­n­i­tion, get­ting out of our com­fort zones. We need to try new things, and to fail. The Active Test­ing phase is a crit­i­cal one, and some­times our hypoth­e­sis will be right, and some­times wrong. The fear of fail­ing, the fear of look­ing un-smart, is a key obsta­cle to learn­ing that I see too often, espe­cially for peo­ple who want to pro­tect per­ceived rep­u­ta­tions to such an extent that they can’t try new gen­uine Learn­ing Cycles.

AF: Fas­ci­nat­ing. Given what you just said, how do you help your stu­dents become bet­ter learners?

JZ: Despite the fact that every brain is dif­fer­ent, let me sim­plify and say that I usu­ally observe 2 types of stu­dents, with dif­fer­ent obsta­cles to learn­ing and there­fore ben­e­fit­ing from dif­fer­ent strategies.

A) Stu­dents who have an intro­ver­sion ten­dency can be very good at the Reflec­tion and Abstract hypoth­e­sis phases, but not so at the Active Test­ing one. In order to change that, I help cre­ate small groups where they feel safer and can take risks such as shar­ing their thoughts aloud and ask­ing more questions.

B) More extro­verted stu­dents can be very good at hav­ing con­stant Con­crete expe­ri­ences and Active Test­ing, but may ben­e­fit from increased Reflec­tion and Abstract hypoth­e­sis. Hav­ing them write papers, maybe pre­dict­ing the out­come of cer­tain exper­i­ments or even cur­rent polit­i­cal affairs, helps.

AF: Very use­ful. What other tips would you offer to teach­ers and parents?

JZ: Always pro­voke an active reac­tion, ensur­ing the stu­dent is engaged and sees the con­nec­tion between the new infor­ma­tion and what he or she already knows. You can do so by ask­ing ques­tions such as “What does this make you think of? Is there some part of this new mate­r­ial that rings a wild bell for you?” To ensure a safe learn­ing envi­ron­ment, you have to make sure to accept their answers, and build on them. We should view stu­dents as plants and flow­ers that need care­ful cul­ti­va­tion: grow­ing some areas, help­ing reduce others.

AF: Please give us an example.

JZ: Well, an exam­ple I use in my books is that mid­dle school stu­dents often have a hard time learn­ing about Mar­tin Luther and the Ref­or­ma­tion because they con­fuse him with Mar­tin Luther King Jr. We can choose to become frus­trated about that. Or we can exploit this say­ing some­thing like, “Yes! Mar­tin Luther King was a lot like Mar­tin Luther. In fact, why do you think Mar­tin Luther King’s par­ents named him that? Why didn’t they name him Sam King?”

AF: Thanks. And what would you sug­gest for us who want to become bet­ter learners?

JZ: Learn­ing is crit­i­cal at all ages, not only in the school envi­ron­ment. We have brains pre­cisely in order to be able to learn, to adapt to new envi­ron­ments. This is essen­tial through­out life, not just in school. We now know that every brain can change, at any age. There is really no upper limit on learn­ing since the brain neu­rons seem to be capa­ble of grow­ing new con­nec­tions when­ever they are used repeat­edly. I think all of us need to develop the capac­ity to self-motivate our­selves. One way to do that is to search for those mean­ing­ful con­tact points and bridges, between what we want to learn and what we already know. When we do so, we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal net­works. We become our own gar­den­ers.

AF: Prof. Zull, many thanks for shar­ing your thoughts through your book, and for your time today. You have changed my brain-and prob­a­bly will change the brains of a num­ber of readers.

JZ: My pleasure!

———————————————————–
For more infor­ma­tion on his Pro­fes­sor Zull’s thoughts and his book, visit the great
New Hori­zons for Learn­ing site.

A final reflec­tion: this Learn­ing Cycle is very sim­i­lar to what peo­ple at McK­in­sey & Com­pany (my first job ever), and other strate­gic con­sult­ing firms, need to develop very quickly, and con­sti­tutes the core for a very suc­cess­ful Per­for­mance Review sys­tem. Inter­est­ing to under­stand the neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal basis for it. Brain Fit­ness starts with Learn­ing. Brain and Mind Fit­ness means being able, and ready, to learn. Not just an Edu­ca­tion issue, but a Health and Well­ness and Fit­ness one.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

21 Responses

  1. […] — The Learn­ing Cycle, includ­ing Con­crete Expe­ri­ence and Active Test­ing: in 1976, when he was a Pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics, he gave a small loan to a num­ber of vil­lagers. He didn’t preach. He acted. […]

  2. […] Fur­ther Links Mind/Body, Emo­tions, and Decision-Making Social Intel­li­gence and Mir­ror Neu­rons Social Intel­li­gence and the Frontal Lobes An Ape Can Do This. Can We Not? “Use It or Lose It” : What is “It”? The Exec­u­tive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civ­i­lized Mind by Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg Brain Exer­cise at the Osher Life­long Learn­ing Institute […]

  3. […] a) Neuroscience-informed Instruc­tion: books such as The Art of Chang­ing the Brain: Enrich­ing the Prac­tice of Teach­ing by Explor­ing the Biol­ogy of Learn­ing, by neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist and edu­ca­tor Dr. James Zull, pro­vide a great overview for edu­ca­tors who want to bet­ter under­stand how peo­ple learn. And, there­fore, how we can bet­ter teach. The core con­cept is that there is an effec­tive Learn­ing Cycle we must prac­tice, with 4 stages: 1) get infor­ma­tion, 2) make mean­ing of that infor­ma­tion, 3) cre­ate new ideas from these mean­ings and 4) act on those ideas. From this he pro­poses that there are four pil­lars of learn­ing: gath­er­ing, ana­lyz­ing, cre­at­ing, and acting.You can read our inter­view with Dr. Zull on Learn­ing, from which we extract the following:AF (me): “Do you think this (Learn­ing Cycle) is hap­pen­ing today in our schools?” […]

  4. […] a) Neuroscience-informed Instruc­tion: books such as The Art of Chang­ing the Brain: Enrich­ing the Prac­tice of Teach­ing by Explor­ing the Biol­ogy of Learn­ing, by neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist and edu­ca­tor Dr. James Zull, pro­vide a great overview for edu­ca­tors who want to bet­ter under­stand how peo­ple learn. And, there­fore, how we can bet­ter teach. The core con­cept is that there is an effec­tive Learn­ing Cycle, or Learn­ing How to Learn mus­cle, that we must prac­tice, with 4 stages: 1) get infor­ma­tion, 2) make mean­ing of that infor­ma­tion, 3) cre­ate new ideas from these mean­ings and 4) act on those ideas. And then back to 1). From this he pro­poses that there are four pil­lars of learn­ing: gath­er­ing, ana­lyz­ing, cre­at­ing, and act­ing. You can read our inter­view with Dr. Zull on Learn­ing, from which we extract the following: […]

  5. […] — The Learn­ing Cycle, includ­ing Con­crete Expe­ri­ence and Active Test­ing: in 1976, when he was a Pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics, he gave a small loan to a num­ber of vil­lagers. He didn’t preach. He acted. […]

  6. […] Fur­ther Links Just For­get It! Mind/Body, Emo­tions, and Decision-Making Social Intel­li­gence and Mir­ror Neu­rons Social Intel­li­gence and the Frontal Lobes An Ape Can Do This. Can We Not? “Use It or Lose It” : What is “It”? The Exec­u­tive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civ­i­lized Mind by Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg Brain Exer­cise at the Osher Life­long Learn­ing Institute […]

  7. […] Brett: The elite per­form­ers are dis­tin­guished by the struc­tur­ing of their learn­ing process. From a rel­a­tively early age, they are engaged in an inten­sive learn­ing process that builds upon their nat­ural tal­ents. They find a niche—a field that makes use of these talents—and become absorbed with a delib­er­a­tive and sys­tem­atic learn­ing process that pro­vides them with con­tin­u­ous feed­back about their per­for­mance. The recipe for suc­cess seems to be tal­ent, skill, hard work, and oppor­tu­nity. In con­trast, many peo­ple who don’t end up per­form­ing at a high level were dri­ven mostly by prac­ti­cal rea­sons to enter that field and are not moti­vated to fol­low the same level of inten­sive and sys­tem­atic train­ing. (What Brett is say­ing reminds me of the Learn­ing Cycle that Pro­fes­sor Zull out­lined a few weeks back). […]

  8. […] Brett: The elite per­form­ers are dis­tin­guished by the struc­tur­ing of their learn­ing process. From a rel­a­tively early age, they are engaged in an inten­sive learn­ing process that builds upon their nat­ural tal­ents. They find a niche—a field that makes use of these talents—and become absorbed with a delib­er­a­tive and sys­tem­atic learn­ing process that pro­vides them with con­tin­u­ous feed­back about their per­for­mance. The recipe for suc­cess seems to be tal­ent, skill, hard work, and oppor­tu­nity. In con­trast, many peo­ple who don’t end up per­form­ing at a high level were dri­ven mostly by prac­ti­cal rea­sons to enter that field and are not moti­vated to fol­low the same level of inten­sive and sys­tem­atic train­ing. (What Brett is say­ing reminds me of the Learn­ing Cycle that Pro­fes­sor Zull out­lined a few weeks back). […]

  9. […] An ape can do this. Can we not? with Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity, and author of The Art of Chang­ing the Brain […]

  10. […] Inter­view with neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist and edu­ca­tor Prof. James Zull […]

  11. […] If you are inter­ested in the biol­ogy of learn­ing, you will enjoy our inter­view with Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity, and author of The Art of Chang­ing the Brain: An ape can do this. Can we not?.   Tags: Bio­di­ver­sity, Biol­ogy, Ency­clo­pe­dia of Life, EO Wil­son, Learn­ing, TED […]

  12. […] The study tells us that apes really learn in the same way that we do through what researchers call the learn­ing cycle. Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity tells in an excit­ing inter­view how learn­ing con­sists of four phases, whether its humans or primates. […]

  13. […] The study tells us that apes really learn in the same way that we do through what researchers call the learn­ing cycle. Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity tells in an excit­ing inter­view how learn­ing con­sists of four phases, whether its humans or primates. […]

  14. […] When we are stubborn, you are enti­tled to remind us that even apes can learn-if you help us see the point. Show us that change is pos­si­ble at any age. Believe it or not, we can listen. […]

  15. joann says:

    inter­est­ing

  16. […] “Learning is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, connections–called synapses– and neu­ronal net­works, through experience…we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal networks.”- Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity: Read Inter­view Notes […]

  17. […] “Learning is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, connections–called synapses– and neu­ronal net­works, through experience…When we do so, we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal net­works. We become our own gardeners”- Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity. Full Inter­view Notes. […]

  18. […] The Har­vard Busi­ness Review just pub­lished (thanks Cather­ine!) this arti­cle on Cog­ni­tive Fit­ness, by Rod­er­ick Gilkey and Clint Kilts. We are happy to see the grow­ing inter­est on how to main­tain healthy and pro­duc­tive brains, from a broad­en­ing num­ber of quar­ters. The arti­cle pro­vides a pretty good intro­duc­tion to gen­eral brain research, yet could have gone fur­ther in the assess­ment, train­ing and rec­om­men­da­tions sec­tions and given voice to actual neu­ro­sci­en­tists (and I can say that because I am not one, but learn much every time I talk to one). In such an emerg­ing field, though, going one step at a time makes sense. The HBR Descrip­tion of the arti­cle: Recent neu­ro­sci­en­tific research shows that the health of your brain isn’t, as experts once thought, just the prod­uct of child­hood expe­ri­ences and genet­ics; it reflects your adult choices and expe­ri­ences as well. Pro­fes­sors Gilkey and Kilts of Emory University’s med­ical and busi­ness schools explain how you can strengthen your brain’s anatomy, neural net­works, and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, and pre­vent func­tions such as mem­ory from dete­ri­o­rat­ing as you age. The brain’s alert­ness is the result of what the authors call cog­ni­tive fitness–a state of opti­mized abil­ity to rea­son, remem­ber, learn, plan, and adapt. Cer­tain atti­tudes, lifestyle choices, and exer­cises enhance cog­ni­tive fit­ness. Men­tal work­outs are the key. Brain-imaging stud­ies indi­cate that acquir­ing exper­tise in areas as diverse as play­ing a cello, jug­gling, speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage, and dri­ving a taxi­cab expands your neural sys­tems and makes them more com­mu­nica­tive. In other words, you can alter the phys­i­cal makeup of your brain by learn­ing new skills. The more cog­ni­tively fit you are, the bet­ter equipped you are to make deci­sions, solve prob­lems, and deal with stress and change. Cog­ni­tive fit­ness will help you be more open to new ideas and alter­na­tive per­spec­tives. It will give you the capac­ity to change your behav­ior and real­ize your goals. You can delay senes­cence for years and even enjoy a sec­ond career. Draw­ing from the rapidly expand­ing body of neu­ro­sci­en­tific research as well as from well-established research in psy­chol­ogy and other men­tal health fields, the authors have iden­ti­fied four steps you can take to become cog­ni­tively fit: under­stand how expe­ri­ence makes the brain grow, work hard at play, search for pat­terns, and seek nov­elty and inno­va­tion. Together these steps cap­ture some of the key oppor­tu­ni­ties for main­tain­ing an engaged, cre­ative brain. The authors do men­tion part of the research done by Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg (our co-founder and Chief Sci­en­tific Advi­sor) on pattern-recognition. You will enjoy read­ing his thoughts directly: Cog­ni­tive Train­ing and Brain Fit­ness Pro­grams: Inter­view with Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg As well as our inter­views with a num­ber of other lead­ing sci­en­tists in this Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series. — “Learning is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, connections–called synapses– and neu­ronal net­works, through experience…When we do so, we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal net­works. We become our own gardeners”- Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity. Full Inter­view Notes. […]

  19. […] 1) First of all, one of key rules for brain fit­ness is learn­ing. In Sharp­Brains I imme­di­ately got to expe­ri­ence what a great learn­ing cul­ture can be all about – from key insights in entre­pre­neur­ship to how to make cre­ative videos and writ­ing for the web. The urge for con­stant learn­ing is both fun and stim­u­lat­ing – and I appre­ci­ate Alvaro’s sug­ges­tion to write this post. […]

  20. […] Over the last months, thanks to the traf­fic growth of SharpBrains.com (over 100,000 unique vis­i­tors per month these days, THANK YOU for vis­it­ing today and please come back!), a num­ber of proac­tive book agents, pub­lish­ers and authors have con­tacted us to inform us of their lat­est brain-related books. We have taken a look at many books, wrote reviews of The Dana Guide to Brain Health book review and Best of the Brain from Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, and inter­viewed sci­en­tists such as Judith Beck, Robert Emmons and James Zull. […]

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Neuroscience Interview Series, Peak Performance, Professional Development

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,