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Teaching is the art of changing the brain

James Zull is a pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy. He is also Direc­tor Emer­i­tus of the Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter for Inno­va­tion in Teach­ing and Edu­ca­tion at Case West­ern Reserve Uni­ver­sity in Ohio. The Art of Changing  the Brain - James ZullThese roles most assuredly coa­lesced in his 2002 book, The Art of Chang­ing the Brain: Enrich­ing the Prac­tice of Teach­ing by Explor­ing the Biol­ogy of Learn­ing.

This is a book for both teach­ers and par­ents (because par­ents are also teach­ers!) Writ­ten with the earnest­ness of first-person expe­ri­ence and reflec­tion, and a life­time of exper­tise in biol­ogy, Zull makes a well-rounded case for his ideas. He offers those ideas for your perusal, pro­vid­ing much sup­port­ing evi­dence, but he doesn’t try to ram them into your psy­che. Rather, he prac­tices what he preaches by engag­ing you with sto­ries, inform­ing you with fact, and encour­ag­ing your think­ing by the way he posits his ideas.

I have read a num­ber of books that trans­late cur­rent brain research into prac­tice while pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions for teach­ers to imple­ment. This is the first book I have read that pro­vides a bio­log­i­cal, and clearly ratio­nal, overview of learn­ing and the brain. Zull pro­vokes you into think­ing about his ideas, about your own teach­ing prac­tice, and ulti­mately, what it means to learn.

Zull doesn’t lec­ture here; rather, he dis­cusses his ideas so you can fol­low their pro­gres­sion. The impe­tus for his ideas stem from David Kolb’s 1984 book, Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing. Kolb’s model con­tains four portions:

  • - engag­ing in a con­crete experience
  • - fol­low­ing it with reflec­tive observation
  • - devel­op­ing an abstract con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion based upon the reflection
  • - actively exper­i­ment­ing based upon the abstract

Kolb’s model, like Zull’s, is a cycle, and there­fore it is pos­si­ble to jump in at any point in the process. Zull takes Kolb’s model and pro­vides the biology.

James Zull David Kolb learning cycleZull’s con­clu­sion is that:

Teach­ing is the art of chang­ing the brain.

Zull spends the bulk of the 250 pages explor­ing the biol­ogy and prac­tice behind “cre­at­ing con­di­tions that lead to change in a learner’s brain.” He pro­vides a list of ten strate­gies (page 129), based upon the biol­ogy of the brain, which can help in mak­ing those changes. These strate­gies apply to par­ents who are try­ing to par­ent, as well as to our own learn­ing process, for ide­ally we are all life-long learners.

1. Watch for inher­ent net­works (nat­ural tal­ents) and encour­age their prac­tice.
2. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
3. Arrange for “fir­ing together.” Asso­ci­ated things should hap­pen together.
4. Focus on sen­sory input that is “error­less.”
5. Don’t stress mis­takes. Don’t rein­force neu­ronal net­works that aren’t use­ful.
6. Try to under­stand exist­ing net­works and build on them. Noth­ing is new.
7. Mis­con­nected net­works are most often just incom­plete. Try to add to them.
8. Be care­ful about res­ur­rect­ing old net­works; error dies hard.
9. Con­struct metaphors and insist that your stu­dents build their own metaphors.
10. Use analo­gies and sim­i­les, too.

From my own teach­ing expe­ri­ence, I know these strate­gies are well worth uti­liz­ing. How­ever, imple­ment­ing them may not always be so easy due to con­straints of typ­i­cal class sched­ules (insuf­fi­cient time) or class sizes (too many stu­dents), or ingrained habits (for exam­ple, view­ing mis­takes through a neg­a­tive lens). How­ever, I believe these strate­gies can aid stu­dents in learn­ing about how they learn and engag­ing in metacog­ni­tion. In the final analy­sis, if stu­dents under­stand how they learn, they can take respon­si­bil­ity for their own learn­ing, thus chang­ing their brains through their own efforts.

This is a book that can be read com­fort­ably, and you will progress through the four stages of the learn­ing cycle as you take in the words and ideas (gath­er­ing data), reflect on how they can impact yours and your student’s teach­ing and learn­ing process (reflec­tion), con­sider how you might alter some­thing about what you do (cre­ate an hypothe­ses), and try out that idea (active test­ing). Of course, try­ing out your idea will lead to a new expe­ri­ence, which you will take in and reflect on, per­haps caus­ing you to make a change … And the cycle continues.

For more about James Zull:

- James Zull in his own words – New Hori­zons for Learn­ing arti­cle: What is “The Art of Chang­ing the Brain?”, May 2003
– Sharp­Brains inter­view with James Zull: An ape can do this. Can we not?, Octo­ber 2006

For more about David Kolb:

- Kolb’s fac­ulty page at Case Western

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it existed as a pro­gram”. She is the K-8 Com­puter Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­ogy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­nizer of Dig­i­tal Wave annual sum­mer pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & The Brain conferences.

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    10 Responses

    1. […] Take a gan­der as to what this Wor­dle is about. It con­tains all the text in my most recent sharp­brains blogpost. […]

    2. Lau­rie, thanks for review­ing Zull’s book. Clearly a boon for those who fol­low lin­ear, empiric mod­els of inquiry.
      How about his thoughts on non-linear empiric or net­work­ing learning?

      M. A. Green­stein
      Found­ing Direc­tor, The George Green­stein Insti­tute for the Advance­ment of Somatic Arts and Science

    3. Hello M.A., I had the for­tune to read Zull’s book too, and am a bit mys­ti­fied by your com­ment. He is a biol­o­gist and edu­ca­tor, so his per­spec­tive (as ours) is brain-based, research-based. Research has lit­tle to do with linear/ non-linear, and net­worked or not. In fact, many of his points, as reflected in Laurie’s review, are non-linear (use of metaphors, analo­gies), and empathize the role of neu­ronal networks.

      Our brain is our brain is our brain. we don’t impose on it our views on how it works/ should work, but we try to under­stand what is in fact going on so we can all ben­e­fit from that knowl­edge. Zull’s is a mas­ter­ful book in that regard.

    4. Alvaro and Sharp­brains com­mu­nity, allow me to clar­ify the point of my question.

      First, I was respond­ing to Laurie’s lin­ear lay­out of Zull’s/Kolb’s cycle, espe­cially in light of sci­en­tific pro­ce­dure. (Ah, the lim­its of dis­cur­sive writing.)

      My under­stand­ing from read­ing deeply in the area of neuro and cog­ni­tive sci­ence is that while mod­els of cog­ni­tive process are still debated, one illu­mi­nat­ing par­a­digm speaks of a non-linear, “emer­gent” pic­ture of learn­ing. In my view, Laurie’s review, while gen­er­ous in cov­er­age, did not address that perspective.

      Sec­ond, my ques­tion stems from years of teach­ing research meth­ods in the arts and human­i­ties. Both stu­dents and I rec­og­nize the value of phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal and empir­i­cal inquiry, though visual and per­form­ing art stu­dents show great lean­ings toward non-empiric, non-phenomenological meth­ods, char­ac­ter­ized by my Cal Tech col­leagues as “fuzzy logic”, i.e., they’ll rely on dif­fused, syn­cretic hunches or intu­itive cross-referential approaches to both deduc­tive and induc­tive inquiry. Please note, by using these terms, I am not sug­gest­ing a return to an old, out­moded rational/irrational pic­ture of human psy­chol­ogy. I’m sim­ply point­ing out what the Sharp­brains com­mu­nity already knows: dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines require dif­fer­ent learn­ing strategies.

      Third, I agree, “our brain is our brain,” but would you not agree, that the pic­tures and the­o­ries we form about how the brain works influ­ences the process of brain research? e.g., sys­tems of rep­re­sen­ta­tion like neural net­work­ing, right/left brain cor­re­spon­dence the­ory? The brain makes cul­ture and cul­ture makes the brain. Oui?

      Finally, Zull’s four stages are quite famil­iar to those of us raised on the brain/mind sci­ence of cre­ativ­ity. I applaud his efforts to update the biol­ogy of the learning/creative process.

      Again, grate­ful for Laurie’s review and for the chance to debate crit­i­cal ques­tions for 21st cen­tury education.


      M. A.

    5. Hello M.A, thank you for that excel­lent clarification.

      Let me first empha­size the value of that cycle: what Zull and oth­ers found out, and he explains very well, is that our brain goes exactly through that sequence of steps while learn­ing (at least with the activ­i­ties that were tested). Judge­ments such as “that is lin­ear” may not help appre­ci­ate that real­ity, that find­ing, and dis­cuss poten­tial implications.

      Now, you are right that brain research (which has been around for per­haps a cen­tury, with neu­roimag­ing only for 10–20 years) can only help under­stand a small por­tion of learn­ing and teach­ing (which has of course been around as a species for a while longer…)

      I also do agree with “The brain makes cul­ture and cul­ture makes the brain”. Sci­ence advanced with hypothe­ses and with test­ing, gain­ing ground cumu­la­tively. The work that Lau­rie reviews is but a step in that direc­tion. There are many others.

      Again, thank you for your thought­ful comment.

    6. I haven’t read the book, but “Teach­ing is the art of chang­ing the brain”? That’s the con­clu­sion, really? I mean, if stu­dents are to learn at all the brain has to change. Indeed, if you’ve read this com­ment, I’ve just “changed your brain”. The con­clu­sion, in other words, is utterly triv­ial given mod­ern cog­ni­tive sci­ence and the com­pu­ta­tional the­ory of mind…

    7. Hi Michael,

      Yes, any­thing and every­thing in which we engage can change our brains. Indeed, most teach­ers are hop­ing for change that lasts and is sub­stan­tive, not super­fi­cial. How­ever, I am will­ing to bet most teach­ers do not con­sciously stop to think about what they do in terms of phys­i­cally chang­ing the brain of the learner.

      Zull’s book does an exem­plary job of explain­ing what hap­pens in the brain as it learns and changes. Teach­ers appre­ci­ate tools and expla­na­tions that are use­ful, under­stand­able and imme­di­ately applic­a­ble. By plac­ing the bio­log­i­cal results of learn­ing front and cen­ter, Zull pro­vides an account of what is hap­pen­ing in the brain, giv­ing teach­ers an insight into the (hoped for) results of their efforts. This may help some under­stand why what they do works, and may pro­vide oth­ers with a fresh tool­box for fig­ur­ing out ways to make an impact on a learner’s brain.

      The con­clu­sion may seem triv­ial to those well-versed in biol­ogy, but to those whose lens is fil­tered by a room full of chil­dren or young adults, think­ing of teach­ing as the art of chang­ing the brain may seem rather empowering.


    8. Laurie’s com­ments seem to align with a quib­ble I had: teach­ing is the art of try­ing to change the brain.

      Learn­ing is the art of chang­ing the brain. Teach­ers (and train­ers and men­tors) can cer­tainly take advan­tage of research to increase the like­li­hood of the change — but the brain mak­ing and strength­en­ing con­nec­tions isn’t in the teacher’s head.

      (Well, okay, the teacher’s learn­ing, too, we hope…)

      In the orga­ni­za­tional and cor­po­rate world, alas, there’s still a lot of reliance on the Lit­tle Red School­house approach to skill and knowl­edge in the work­place. Hav­ing more peo­ple read books like Zull’s may help over­come that.

    9. Michael, Lau­rie, Dave, thank you for cre­at­ing a superb con­ver­sa­tion that reflects our effort to con­verse across sev­eral dis­ci­plines: cog­ni­tive sci­ence, med­i­cine, edu­ca­tion, train­ing. We need many more exchanges like this!

    10. […] I have a feel­ing that if your fre­quent­ing this blog you’re prob­a­bly com­mit­ted to being a life long learner. That being said,  here is a piece on teach­ing and the art of chang­ing the brain. (Click here to skip the intro and read the article) […]

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