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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!

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