One step further with brain based work, Part One.


I teach an entry level course to mostly first year students called Learning and the Learner. It is a course for students anticipating full entry into the eled program at my university. The goals of the course are to get them thinking more as learners than as teachers, to help them begin to think systematically about their own thinking, and to force (?) them to identify and start to process how they need to work with their own normative reference groups in almost everything they do.

Up to this semester, I’ve used a good but typical heavy (literally) edpsych book – this one by Anita Wolfolk. It is her 10th edition and like all books of this genre, the text is dense, the voice for the most part, impersonal (though I loved it when you actually heard Anita’s voice leap out of the text) and the information, overwhelming. Good stuff for sure, but way too much of to justify the >$100 price tag. Over the ten semesters I’ve used the book, I’ve rarely used more than half of its pages, much less half of its content. I am finally (read: professionally confident enough) to select slimmer texts.

An ongoing goal of mine for this course is to establish a grounded knowledge base for them so as they move through the program, they can critically work with other “have to’s” that come their way. For this reason, in the last few semesters, I’ve resisted the urge to avoid fad and increasingly worked with information coming out of neurobiology figuring if we could establish a firm grounding in how we think the brain works, then that base would be a solid one to accomplish the aforementioned critical thinking.

So, long story short, I started this semester with a reading of James Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain. It has been a fascinating read, both for me and for my first year students. I have to say, for a course that meets 31 first year students at 8am, two days a week, this book – and our learning – has kept them coming. (Okay, they have to come all but three times before they incur a penalty. Still, my attendance records show they are coming because they want to.)

Zull has not spoken down to us one bit as he takes us through the increasingly clarifying picture of how the brain learns. This is not a text that ends with a simplified list of what teachers should do. This is a text that attempts to explain the biology of learning and invites the reader to suppose what this might mean for teachers. I could go on and on, but I haven’t said what I wanted to say with this entry yet so I’ll make one more introductory point and then go to why I’m really writing this note to you. This semester is the first time, without prompting from me, a host of my students expressed with different words, the following realization: I think what I’m realizing is that teaching and learning are different enterprises. That if a student doesn’t learn, that is a result of poor teaching. I always used to think that when I learned to be a really good teachers, that all my students would be learning and those who weren’t it was because they didn’t want to.

Bingo. To have arrived at this thought is huge to me. The longer I’m in the profession, the more I see just how hard it is to change the belief my predominantly white middle or upper middle class students have, a belief deeply embedded in their prior knowledge, that students who don’t do very well in the public school don’t do well because they choose not to, not because they’ve been taught poorly. I have to say, I can stand on my head and teach as well as I can and still, at the end of the day, most of them still believe that good teaching leads to good learning except for those kids who don’t want to learn. Poor learning is the fault of the learner, not the teacher. Until Zull, that is. Deconstructing the process of learning biologically speaking has raised the unsettling issue of teacher fallibility in a way it has never been raised before. That is a very good thing.

The other very good thing is they now have themselves to consider as a really good example of just how conservative prior knowledge is and just how hard it is to change it. We’ve worked on this stuff for fourteen weeks. I hope they remember that when they start to blame a child for not understanding how to use proper consonant blends after they’ve completed two worksheets and one text analysis!

And I”m going to leave what I really wanted to say in this entry for my next entry, One step further Part Two.