Thursday, March 12, 2015

My brain, their brains, our brains

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I have a secret to confess: my gateway to education was actually through Psychology, not teaching. Yes, I started falling in love with the brain and how it works in the University as a Psychology major. As my love for Psychology faded, I cheated and my mistress: Education, stole my heart. At first I thought "Oh my God, I am straying far from where I started", but soon I noticed the similarities between my marriage and my affair: Mediation. It is common for psychologists to have to defend themselves as not counselors, but as mediators of the change the patient needs. For us teachers it should be the same: we do not give knowledge to kids, we mediate so they can achieve it. That is the theory that supports me, but the real challenge is to actually implement this in the classroom.
Truth is: I love challenges, and the tricky part about this one is that it is neverending, which means that we are always finding answers, but they unveil new questions too. Therefore, I keep trying to think about my work in a critical way. I do trust my abilities and will to teach, but like any other, it is hard not to fall off the wagon (even without noticing it). In order to be more clear, I will give an example. There was mistake I was not realizing I was making, and it had to do with correcting the spelling of my young and very young learners. Pressured by time, I would not help them see by themselves what was wrong, I would just get my colorful pens (with the exception of the stigmatized red one) and would correct their exercises; sometimes in front of them, sometimes not even that. And then it came to my attention, although I cannot quite remember why: I am not giving them the chance of learning from their mistakes!
I was being a traditional teacher, trying to teach them by providing input, but not really letting them participate in this process. Zull preaches that deep learning depends on a cycle that starts by a concrete experience, goes on to reflective observation, abstract hypothesis, active testing and then it starts all over again. Having gone through these steps, my students still were inaccurate in their spelling, which is ok, the real mistake was mine. When I told or showed them the answer, I was not allowing them to go through the cycle again and work on changing their memory for a more accurate one. The cycle may be hard to grasp as something essential, it may seem just a theory, but Zull connects the cycle with the parts of our brain and how they work together. Concrete experience is received by the sensory back cortex, reflection starts at the back integrative cortex and goes to the frontal integrative cortex where the generation of abstractions and hypothesis happen and direct the action that will be taken ruled by the motor cortex. Once again, I was expecting my kids to rely on their back integrative cortex, where new memories are created. But why are these steps important? Because that is how our brains are wired! As Zull said " Some of the most obvious wiring in the brain is designed exactly for this front/back connection". And that is how I found an explanation to my question. But what was the answer? How could I effectively teach them from their mistakes?
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I did not have to out of my way to do it, I just started showing them the mistakes. The input I was providing was "there something to be improved here". Depending on the student and the subject I would point out the problem in different ways, but then came a problem: my kids just looked at me and said they did not know the right spelling and I realised I had to teach them to look for information. Sometimes it is as simple as looking to the question above, sometimes they need to open a book or dictionary, sometimes they can use gadgets. The point is, they are to look for the mistake and the answer, to go over the learning cycle again. Still, kids can get really frustrated. So it is our job to create a safe environment for them. Ensure them that they can do it and you have got their backs is essential. And why do you ask? I must quote Zull again " Cognition, control, fear and pleasure are four things brains use to survive." So, I provided them with cognition, control, and even fear, but were they pleased with the activity?
I started thinking about activities that were simple and known to teachers that could be fun, interesting and provide them a safe space to make mistakes and explore the spelling of the words. I nice game came to my mind: using letter blocks, I would show them a picture and they had to write the word with the blocks. I usually separate them in pairs or groups,so that they will benefit from peer teaching. I usually do it as a competition so that I will provide them with just the right amount of fear. And how it worked amazed me! They were engaged and having fun! But more than that, they were going over and over the learning cycle at warp speed! They were receiving the concrete experience (picture), activating their  previous knowledge by reflection, creating hypothesis, and acting upon it by moving the blocks and forming the words. The formed word would immediately become new input (specially when inaccurate) received by the sensory cortex, sent to the back integrative cortex, then the frontal integrative cortex and to the motor cortex one more time to move the blocks to the positions. And I could go on forever, but I think you got the point.  

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To conclude my ideas, I would like to say that the brain is a fascinating structure that is way more complex than we can grasp. Yet, these little bits and pieces of ideas we have about how it works can really improve the way teach. Not only because we effectively change our activities and lesson plans, but also because we become critical of our work. That basically means we are also going through the learning cycle over and over, even though not at warp speed.






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References:
Zull, J. The art of                                 changing the brain.