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The Art of Changing the Brain

By: James E. Zull

Excerpts from Chapter 8 that connect to HMS' goals of building relationships with students (walking in their shoes), academic student discourse, conferring, and the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model


Novice, Expert, and Details

Whether we are an expert or a novice, our brains basically sense the same things. The difference is that the expert knows which part of his sensory data is important and which part isn’t. The brain of the chemist knows that the prime is important, but the size of the delta isn’t. The chemistry novice, on the other hand, sees every little thing as being of equal value. To him, it is still all just sensory input.


We have known this for a long time. In his 1840 essay, On the art of teaching, Horace Mann wrote, “The removal of a slight impediment, the drawing aside of the thinnest veil, is worth more to him [the learner] than volumes of lore on collateral subjects.” And later Mann noted, “the mind of the teacher should migrate, as it were, into those of his pupils.” This brings us back to the importance of seeing things as the student sees them. We must see through the student’s eyes. This means that we must look back and see our subject as it was at first, when it was just sensory input! It remains a mystery why some teachers do this well and some don’t do it at all. My guess is that many of us have never even thought of it. And it may be that sometimes we are just carried away by our own engagement with our subject, so much so that we almost forget the student. In any case, I can testify that a conscious, persistent effort made a difference for me. I am better at seeing what the student sees now that I have thought about it.


Teaching as Showing

In one of the teaching seminars I recently attended, the speaker described some experiments in which a teacher was helping children learn. The speaker repeatedly said that the teacher provides “support” for the learner. So I asked him what he meant by “support.” What did the teacher actually do? His answer was amazingly simple. He just said, “show them.” Just let the student see what you consider to be a good answer or a good example. This rang a bell with me because I had just discovered that the origin of the word teacher seems to be an old English word techen, which meant “to show!”


A teacher is one who shows. And, of course, it is entirely consistent with what we have said so far about the visual brain. People see what we show, and when they truly see, when their eyes are opened, they will not need our explanations. Some of you may protest that a teacher does more than just show things to his students. It doesn’t seem satisfying to think of teaching that way. Anyone can do that! I think not. If our task is to show, then we must decide what we are going to show and how. Here are some points to consider.


First, we must think carefully about our choices in what we show. It won’t be enough to simply throw something together at the last minute. We have to decide what are the best examples of the things we believe to be most important. For a prize, be the first person to talk, in person, about your weekend with Mr. Wegner. What do we really want our students to learn? We need to choose things that show fine points as well as the big picture. We should show what we hope our students will eventually be able to do themselves.


Second, I think we should stay close to the raw image of concrete experience whenever possible. This is the level where we share the most with the student, where our brains come closest to sensing the same thing. We should give the student opportunities to have concrete experiences directly, if possible. Field trips, internships, research projects, true hands-on experiences, collaborations, role playing, and other active learning methods are effective for this very reason. And we should share these experiences with them. The point is to bring the teacher and the student as close together in their concrete experience as possible. Then they will have the same images, and the teacher can understand “what the student already knows,” as we discussed in chapter 6.


Third, we should point out the important parts of images. In many cases we don’t need to say why these parts are of interest or explain things. We just need to encourage students to “Notice this part.” Or ask, “Did you see that part?” Students must notice the important things in order to have useful images. Often, the kind of things we look for have become second nature to us, but by experiencing how we look at the details and seeing what we think is important, our students can begin to form the habits of observation and study that work best in our field. We can be creative in this “showing.”


We can even show students what happens when mistakes are made. For example, we can show them how important it is to add acid to water rather than water to acid. We don’t have to explain it. They will get the picture themselves. Show more, share more.


Questions to consider:

  • How does this excerpt relate to the Gradual Release of Responsibility lessons I create for my students? (How will you share your Gradual Release of Responsibility lesson plan with other HMS teachers on February 22nd?)
  • How do I make learning as concrete as possible for my students?
  • What am I showing/modeling for my students every day?


Next HMS discussion group meeting for The Art of Changing the Brain is Wednesday, February 17 from 2:45-3:30 in FLIGHT. Here is the pdf of the entire book if you are interested in joining us. We will be discussing chapters 8 and 9.

"Inner Voice" sheet for any content area...

Cris Tovani uses these "inner voice" sheets so that students are able to make their inner reading and/or learning dialogue as concrete as possible.


How could this type of student work be used in your classroom?

What formative information does it provide to you?

How would this information impact your instruction for the very next day?

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