Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rewiring the Classroom

In the last 5 chapters of his book The Art of Changing the Brain, Zull suggests the practical implications of neuroscience for the classroom, beginning with the use of sensory experience:

  • SENSE LUSCIOUS: Using the power of the sensory brain to help people learn – The brain is wired for sensory experience, and while sight is the most powerful of the senses for most people, sensory experience involves the total body. In general, the more senses a lesson can engage, the better. Too many teachers seem to believe that their lecturing is a sufficient sensory experience for student learning. Lecturing is, in fact, a sensory experience, but when I think back to most of the lectures I endured, then I realize how displeased my senses were with the experience: a droning voice, dry, dusty chalk smells, drab rooms and lecture halls, an aching ass from sitting too long (I have lower back problems), my bouncing legs, the unexpected discovery of discarded chewing gum. The lecturer's words were seldom engaging enough to overcome all those other sensory impressions. The world simply drowned out the droning don, and god forbid a pretty girl should be in class—then I couldn't even take notes. If the lesson is not engaging the student's senses, then the class will. Fortunately, my writing classes have a built-in sensory experience: writing. Unfortunately, that doesn't work for everyone, so I use texting, drawing, discussing, games, reading, contests, group work, and more to engage students' senses. My classes are noisy, bordering on happy. This has troubled some of my superiors.
  • WAITING FOR UNITY: Helping people comprehend their experience - "Reflection is searching for connections—literally!" Students need time to bounce their experiences around in their heads to build the connections necessary to integrate information into their own neural networks. This is how we create knowledge. Knowledge is not imparted, given, or transferred. That's a harmful metaphor. Knowledge is not even in our brains—that's an even more harmful metaphor. As Diane Laflamme says in her essay Ethics and the Interplay Between the Logic of the Exluded Middle and the Logic of the Included Middle (in Basarab Nicolescu's Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice, 2008), "The body does not contain consciousness" (150).  Rather, consciousness and knowledge are emergent properties, epiphenomena, of the interplay of neural networks. Better: it's what emerges when our brains fire in synchronicity with our body's sensing and acting within a rich ecosystem that is also firing. This bubbling of concepts is called reflection. The brain is looking for useful, recognizable patterns in its sensory data to integrate with the patterns that it already has. Even dreaming is an important part of reflection, but since we can't use dreaming as an instructional strategy in most classes (most of us work hard to counter daydreaming), then we use language for reflection. Actually, we should be encouraging our students to use language through discussion and writing, rather than falling into the easy habit of us talking all the time. Again, my writing classes have a built-in advantage, but only if I'm giving my students time to reflect on a lesson's sensory experience. 
  • THE COURAGEOUS LEAP: Creating knowledge by using the integrative frontal cortex - Though related, short-term memory and long-term memory are not the same, nor are they necessarily linked. We can sometimes hold prodigious amounts of information in short-term memory without transferring that information to long-term, and sometimes we transfer powerful experiences directly to long-term memory, bypassing short-term. Students must be allowed to form their own long-term memory ideas, and this takes time and ownership. Short-term memory is powerful, but limited and easily replaced with new sensory data; thus, we cannot overload short-term with too many facts or too much feedback. To learn, students must hold limited information in short-term memory, and then have time to manipulate and play with that information to form connections in their own minds. Teachers who are in a briskly-paced rush to cover the material seldom allow the time and conditions for students to build the connections necessary for moving raw data from short-term memory into the knowledge centers of long-term memory. Students must have time and activities to attend to relevant bits of info and organize the learning task, task management, for themselves. They must develop a sense of probability, or an innate sense of statistical reasoning. This is critical thinking, and without it, most students don't learn, especially those who do well on the test.
  • TEST BY TRIAL: Using the motor brain to close the loop of learning - Learning is active, action. Learners must be able to test their ideas to see if reality pushes back, or in Nicolescu's terms if reality resists our ideas. Good ideas bump up against something real, bad ideas don't. As Zull puts it: "It is this encounter with the reality of the world that leads to learning. The magic isn't in the action; it's in the testing" (219). What is active learning? "asking questions, drawing, writing, taking notes, checking out a reference, taking a test, and even reading. Anytime a learner tests out her ideas, she does it through action, and that action generates learning" (218). This is a good, educationist way of talking about Deleuze and Guattari's concepts of cartography, mapping, and decalcomania. This is perhaps the weakest part of my writing classes. I need to find ways to incorporate real-world writing into my classes: real writers writing to real readers about issues that are important to them. This is a tough one, and I welcome your suggestions.
  • WE DID THIS OURSELVES: Changing the brain through effective use of emotions – Learning must involve the emotions. Engagement is an emotional response, depending on the learner's feelings about the importance and relevance of the lesson. We encourage engagement through arranging for success. When people repeatedly fail, they disengage; whereas, success (but not too easy) engages people. The balance between too easy and too hard is where the teacher's art comes in. Also, we encourage engagement when we enable a sense of control (emotional base) in students. Self-evaluation and ownership of task engage people emotionally; whereas, loss of control disengages people. When students have no control, then we teachers must resort to extrinsic motivations (which at heart are always violent uses of power) to get them to perform, and the performance is seldom satisfying.
I'm confident that I will refer to Zull's work a great deal in the future, and I recommend it to anyone interested in education.
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