Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Rewiring Student Brains

James Zull's book The Art of Changing the Brain contends that neuroscience can guide our teaching practice by revealing to us how our brains actually learn. I think his insight is reliable, and I'm particularly satisfied that he views the brain as a complex, multi-scale network and learning as changing, extending, and strengthening the connections within those networks. This fits quite nicely with connectivism, which defines learning in similar networking terms.

This definition of learning puts the student/learner at the center of the learning process, unlike traditional education, which puts the teacher/authority at the center of the learning process. Why? Because if learning is the development of new connections within existing neuronal networks, then learning depends overwhelmingly on the engagement of the student. No teacher can directly touch a student's brain. Development of neuronal networks absolutely depends on the student exercising her own brain, and her teachers cannot do it for her, any more than a fitness trainer can exercise her muscles for her. The student must sweat and exert herself and must want to sweat and exert. If the student is emotionally, physically, or intellectually incapable of learning a given lesson at a given time, then there is little the teacher can do. At best, teachers can create an environment that is engaging for a student and that encourages them to exert themselves, but the teacher cannot do it for them.

Then, each student comes with different neuronal networks. We teachers can often rely on rather gross similarities among student perceptions, neuronal processes, and responses, but the multi-cultural, inclusive nature of many modern classes shows how unreliable our dependence on these gross similarities can be. Our brilliant lectures and lessons, then, may engage one student and not the next. Neuroscience tells us why. If learning is a process of developing existing neuronal networks, then learning must start with each student's existing neuronal networks, and they ain't all the same. Some are positively alien, and ALL are different from the teacher's. Ground Zero for learning is NOT the teacher's knowledge, then, but her students' alien neuronal structures.

Traditional education views the teaching/learning process as a teacher writing a concept on the chalkboard of the student's mind. This is a radically false notion of education, and yet it is still the basis for too much instruction, even if the chalkboard is now a computer screen and the lecture involves a PowerPoint. The teacher's job is crucial but not essential to learning. The skillful teacher can create an environment that focuses, encourages, and enables students to stretch their minds to create new neuronal networks, but the teacher cannot create those neuronal networks for the student.

Moreover, the teacher cannot prevent students from learning. Most of the stuff that I remember learning in middle school—dealing mostly with sex—was never taught in the classroom. I suspect that most of what is learned in school is never taught from a lesson plan.

So what's the lesson for this teacher? First, I must start with the student and with their existing neuronal networks. That means that each program of study should begin not with what I know (the course content) but with what they know. I must build in to my classes time to discern what my students already know and do not know. The flipped classroom and just-in-time teaching techniques allow for this, and I use them.

Second, given the variety of neuronal structures I'm likely to encounter in any class, I must create a flexible environment that allows for a variety of engagements, processes, and responses. There is no one-size fits all. I know where I want my students to end-up, but I cannot assume one highway to travel or one vehicle. Some come from the cane fields near Belle Glade, some from the tenements of Lake Worth, and quite a few from Haiti, Jamaica, and Europe. Some take the bus, some walk, and some drive different cars. Some are here in a few minutes, some drive an hour or more each way. Getting everyone to West Palm Beach is a very messy business, and many teachers simply don't want to take that on. I think that's why they focus on simply delivering their content. It's much easier. It's also largely ineffective.

Third, I must monitor frequently, and not only to discern what they are not learning, but also what they are learning. I must check their progress along their different highways, monitoring where they are going and how fast they are travelling. If a particular lesson calls for a very specific destination, then I must be able to encourage those on-track to continue even if they can't see the destination, and I must be able to nudge those off-track to make new turn. If a particular lesson has no specific destination, as is the case with many cMOOCs, then I must delight in learning where they are going and encourage them to share their snapshots with me.
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