How learning about the brain can help you teach or homeschool better…


Rebecca Reid writes in her blogpost “The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull” on how learning about the brain is helpful in her homeschooling of her son:

“The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull (2002, Stylus Publishing) is subtitled “Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of the Brain” and I picked it up because of my new role as teacher to my homeschool aged son. As his primary teacher, I want insight and assistance in understanding how to teach. I was intrigued by Zull’s approach to teaching by examining how the brain works. Although The Art of Changing the Brain does get technical in places, in general, it is a fascinating look at how learning is a biological process.

By learning how the brain works, I feel I have a great understanding at why certain teaching methods work and why others may not. The main take-aways I have
from Zull’s book at the following. Some of these are rather obvious, but learning about them in the context of our brain was memorable.

* People can only create new learning by building on past learning. Physically, they must build on existing neuronal networks.

* People learn when they are emotionally engaged in the subject. Ideally,they will be so emotionally involved that they will dream about the subject.

* Being physically engaged in a subject engages the emotions. Reading, seeing, and listening are all ways to become physically engaged, so it doesn’t
just mean moving.

* Learning is more effective when the learner ponders and makes the connections his- or herself. Listening to a lecture is not as effective as
asking the questions and searching for your own answers. Faster is not better!

* Acting on new knowledge, either by writing about it (i.e., this blog post) or discussing it helps to solidify the newly created synapses. The learner will
have learned more effectively by acting on it; it’s a way of reflecting.

* When a learner feels he or she owned the learning process, the learning is much more effective. (That is, creating an environment in which the learner can
say “I did this myself” is much more effective than being told or helped along the way.)

Professor Zull is a college-level biology teacher. As such, the book is technical in places and it does seem geared toward teachers of older learners.
However, as the teacher of an elementary aged child, I still found it helpful and enlightening. In fact, I loved reading it! I hope to be able to internalize
the realities he discussed as I seek to help my young son learn.”

If your interest is piqued, read James Zull’s article “The Art of Changing the Brain” published in the Educational Leadership, September 2004 | Volume 62 | Number 1: Teaching for Meaning,pps. 68-72

Excerpted from The Art of Changing the Brain below:

“Now, however, education research and cognitive science have given us deeper insights into the process of learning. In addition, we are beginning to understand more of the fundamental neurological processes that happen in the brain when we learn and remember. This new knowledge fascinates and tantalizes teachers. Maybe we will actually find out how it all works!

My own experience as a biochemist and teacher for nearly four decades has given me the opportunity to investigate what we are learning about the brain. And to my surprise, neuroscientific research has given me new ideas that have informed my teaching. …

the brain being “plastic,” meaning that the brain changes its own wiring, perhaps almost continuously. Like a piece of silly putty, the brain is molded and reshaped by the forces of life acting on it. Our wiring grows and develops depending on what we experience—even before birth. As we interact with the world, the world becomes internalized, or mapped, in our brain.
The extensive plasticity of the brain continues throughout life.
Experiments have repeatedly demonstrated environment-dependent change in the brain, which happens as the connections between neurons become more extensive, become more or less active, or even extend into new parts of the brain. …

What causes the changes that take place in the brain when we learn? This question has two answers, both of which are essential to understanding the art of changing the brain.

Practice. Neurons, or the cells of the brain, possess biochemical pathways that make them grow and reach out to other neurons whenever they are active. When we practice something, the neurons that control and drive that acti fire repeatedly. If a neuron fires frequently, it grows and extends itself out toward other neurons, much like the branches of bushes in your backyard reach out and touch one another as they grow. Particularly in the cortex, neurons that fire more frequently will also reach out more frequently.
Neurons do more than reach out, though: They actually connect. The branches of our backyard bushes don’t do this. Each bush remains independent, even when many branches touch one
another. But neurons can actually begin to send signals to one another if the places where they touch can transport those signals.These signaling connections are the famous synapses. Synapses convert the isolated neurons into a buzzing network of neurons. The bushes begin to talk to one another. In place of individual bushes, we have an entire hedge of neurons sending signals back and forth through millions of synapses. These networks are the physical equivalent of knowledge, and the change in the connections that make up the networks is learning.

Emotion. To create and change this buzzing network, we need more than just activity—we need emotion. And for the brain, emotion means such emotion chemicals as adrenalin (fight or flight), dopamine (reward), or even serotonin (sleep and peace). When our network connections are awash with emotion chemicals, synapse strength is modified and the responsiveness of neuron networks can be dramatically changed (Brembs, Lorenzetti, Reys, Baxter, & Byrne, 2002).
The thinking part of our brain evolved through entanglement with older parts that we now know are involved in emotion and feelings. Emotion and thought are physically entangled—immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body, and the way we feel always influences our brain.
In his pioneering book Descartes’ Error, Damasio (1994) addresses this idea of the mixture of feeling and thinking. He uses the term somatic markers for specific body feelings that go with specific cognitive experiences. For example, when we solve a problem, we have feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Or when we cannot understand a calculus or biochemistry text, we have feelings of frustration and despair.
This emotion connection has implications for student motivation. As part of the teacher’s art, we must find ways to make learning intrinsically rewarding. Learning should feel good, and the student should become aware of those feelings. To achieve this goal, we need to make two things happen. First, classes and assignments should lead to some progress for students, some sense of mastery and success. Second, students should work on topics and activities that naturally appeal to them.

Don’t Explain

… my examination of brain research has made me think seriously about giving up on explaining as a teaching tool. When I began to understand knowledge as consisting of networks of neurons, it dawned on me—powerfully—that my students’ knowledge was actually physically different from my own. …When I explained biochemistry, I had to use my own networks; and for my students to understand it, they had to use theirs….

I reduced my explanations and instead turned to demonstrations, metaphors, and stories. As much as possible I tried to show rather than explain things. And when explaining seemed inescapable, I asked other students to do it, reasoning that their networks were a better match with those of their peers.
I turned away from explanations for another reason: I realized that explaining negates the emotion needed for changing the brain. Explanation transfers the power from the learner to the teacher. But neuroscience tells us that the positive emotions in learning are generated in the parts of the brain that are used most heavily when students develop their own ideas….

Build on Errors
As I began to explain less, I came up with more ideas that had once seemed counterintuitive. For example, rather than treating student errors as obstacles to learning, I began to welcome them. They became my raw materials for helping students build knowledge. Instead of thinking that my job was to eradicate error, I sought it out.
It was futile to imagine that I could eliminate students’ existing neuronal networks with a shake of my head or a red mark with a pen. Instead I saw student errors as clues for teaching. Errors help identify gaps in student networks and provide ideas for how to build on those networks. …

Engage the Whole Brain
Another way we can become more artistic in our teaching is to develop ways to engage several regions of the brain in learning … 

If teachers provide experiences and assignments that engage all four areas of the cortex, they can expect deeper learning than if they engage fewer regions. The more brain areas we use, the more neurons fire and the more neural networks change—and thus the more learning occurs. 

Two decades ago, David Kolb (1984) proposed a cycle of learning that is compatible with these four brain regions. Kolb asserted that deep learning comes through a sequence of experience, reflection, abstraction, and active testing. If we ask our students to use these four pillars of learning, they will have a chance to use more parts of their cerebral cortex…

Finally, James Zull’s article ends on an encouraging note:

Practice and meaning are the most important parts of this art, but of course students will not practice in a meaningful way unless they care. As teachers, we can arrange conditions and challenges that engage the learner, but still we must have faith in learning itself. Ultimately, the learner is in control.
But never fear. When our students find the right connections, they will learn. They won’t be able to help themselves. Learning—changing—is simply what the brain does. And having faith in learning is part of the art of changing the brain.

Anybody in the business of learning or teaching, must really go out and get his book!

The Art of Changing the Brain
Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

James E. Zull

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