The word “teacher” comes from the Old English word “techen” which means “to show.” Just what this showing involves has a powerful effect on the students’ ability to learn. In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain [Sterling, VA:Stylus Publishing], educator James E. Zull explores the kind of teaching strategies most effective in generating neural connections in the brain. Would the “showing” of a lecture or step by step instruction help students learn? Or should the teacher show by providing students with concrete experiences so that they can assimilate new ideas through “living” the learning process? Ultimately, how do these different teaching strategies affect the student’s brain?
Teaching and Neural Selection
Because the human brain produces more synapses than it needs, learning and development are just as much dependent on connecting neurons as they are on deleting neurons. Neural selection is at the basis of learning: students select the synaptic connections that interest them. Synapses that are not stimulated or connected eventually die. The task of the teacher is to stimulate neural connections that can continue to grow and build greater and stronger networks. Unfortunately, lecturing or teacher-centered instruction does not build brain networks. This possibly explains why most lectures are punctuated by silence.
Teaching and Building on Inherent Networks
Which teaching strategies help build neuronal networks? The ones that enable the student to select the right neuronal network from those existing in her brain, allowing her to enhance inherent circuitry while firing new networks from the learning experience.
Telling a student he is “wrong” stimulates the neural connections that are “wrong.” According to Zull, it may be better to ignore an error than correct it. By looking at the error as something incomplete rather than wrong, teachers can motivate the learner to look for the whole story. Very often, the error is a small, but essential part of the total picture.
Teaching that builds on existing networks reinforces the learner’s sense of self because the teacher begins with what the learner knows; it engages the emotions of the learner. What better way to begin a process of learning than validating her sense of ownership?
Teaching and Metaphors
Metaphors are sets of neuronal networks that have been physically linked to each other in the brain by experience. You could argue that teaching becomes kind of brain enhancement. The metaphor “Life is a bowl of cherries” is based on a host of neuronal networks. For example, the actual experience of eating a bowl of cherries network is linked to the experience of finding an empty bowl. These networks are also linked to life events that are both fulfilling and empty. Since these metaphoric connections are physically made in the brain, metaphors become powerful tools for teaching concepts.
In fact, allowing the student to construct her metaphors about what she has learnt can often provide insight into how much she has internalized the learning process. Working to change the metaphor can also change the neural circuitry associated with learning.
Even more significant is that in the process of constructing metaphors, the student builds new networks in the brain. Ultimately, learning does not exist until the brain fuses new and different circuitry. If learning involves changing the brain, then teaching is the art of changing the brain.