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.


  1. M. A. Greenstein on October 7, 2008 at 10:59

    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

  2. Alvaro Fernandez on October 7, 2008 at 5:56

    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.

  3. M. A. Greenstein on October 7, 2008 at 10:55

    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.

  4. Alvaro Fernandez on October 9, 2008 at 11:20

    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.

  5. Michael Meadon on October 16, 2008 at 6:14

    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…

  6. Laurie Bartels on October 17, 2008 at 2:57

    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.


  7. Dave Ferguson on October 17, 2008 at 12:35

    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.

  8. Alvaro Fernandez on October 17, 2008 at 1:04

    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!

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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