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. These 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.
Zull’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 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.