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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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