Neurological research helps explain how good teachers increase students’ achievement, reports James E. Zull, Professor of Biology and Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, Case Western Reserve University. Good teaching appears to be an art as much as a science, but cognitive science research is providing insights into the process of learning that are instructive for educators.
As we learn, the brain changes. Wiring grows and networks of neurons develop as we practice skills and learn new things. These networks are the physical equivalents of knowledge, and the change in the connections that make networks represents learning.
Zull contends that research has revealed the importance of emotion for learning. Emotion and thought are physically intertwined. Emotion releases chemicals that strengthen synapses (the chemical connections between neurons). This link between emotions and learning has implications for student motivation. Teachers have long known from experience the importance of both practice and emotional engagement in learning.
It is important to make learning intrinsically rewarding for students. Learning should feel good, and the student should become aware of those feelings. Zull believes that to achieve this, teachers 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.
Zull describes how these findings and reflections on his classroom experience have changed his teaching. He reports that he has reduced the amount of explaining he does. He says students’ eyes often glazed over when he tried to give scientific explanations. He now uses demonstrations, metaphors and stories instead. He tries to show rather than explain as much as possible. When explaining seems inescapable, he asks other students to do it, believing that their reasoning is a better match for other students’ than his own. He speculates that this change in teaching enables students to create their own explanations.
By thinking for themselves and coming up with their own ideas, students are more likely to experience the biochemical rewards of learning. As teachers explain less, students talk more, making errors and revealing their misconceptions. Zull no longer sees errors as obstacles to be overcome by his explanations. Mistakes are the raw material for helping students build knowledge. He uses students’ errors as clues for teaching. Zull also suggests that educators design lessons to activate as much of the cerebral cortex as possible by engaging students’ sensory, integrative and motor functions.
“The Art of Changing the Brain,” Educational Leadership, Volume 62, Number 1, September 2004, pp. 68-72.
Published in ERN October 2004 Volume 17 Number 7