Online Blogucation
12Jul/121

Do you teach your subject? Or do you teach people?

x-ray of a brain

This is what you are teaching...

I've just gotten back from a whirlwind tour of the world again. In the past 4 months I've been in 3 countries and presented at 9 conferences, in addition to dozens of other consulting opportunities. During that time I have met with no less than 350 educators, mostly professors or department heads and I have begun asking them a few important questions that stem from something Dr. John Medina challenged me with when he spoke at our CiTE conference last April.

Dr. Medina, a brilliant cognitive scientist who has done nothing but study how the brain works for his entire career (I hope you've already read "Brain Rules" by now...), challenged us in several ways during the conference.  My personal favorite quote?  "As I was writing Brain Rules, it hit me [that] if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you would design something like a classroom."

However, there is another piece of information that I haven't been able to shake after reading it and then, after he said it to me personally before he went on stage... He explained, "I consistently read articles by educators who explain how the brain works in terms of learning, cognition, memory, focus, etc.  And every time I wonder how I possibly missed the research that proves it!  Then, after some digging, I realize that I missed nothing.  You see, cognitive scientists and educators never talk.  We don't have conferences together, we don't share journals, and we don't typically exist in the same buildings on campus.  So, what they observe behaviorally and we observe through experimentation never meet." (This is a pretty close quote - I wrote it down immediately after he said it, although it may not be 100% accurate.)

Does this bother anyone else?  I have to admit, I have read DOZENS of articles by education psychologists, seasoned veterans of the classroom, and even those from trusted educational think-tanks without really questioning the validity or science behind them.  So, as I have gone around the world talking with educators lately, I have simply asked them two questions:

  1. Do you read information about how the brain processes information, how the brain remembers, how the brain works, etc., in regard to learning?
  2. Does your school give you any kind of professional development around how people learn so as to enhance your teaching?

I'm sure you already see where I'm going...

With only a single exception, the answer has been "no" every time.  Typically, I hear that people are too busy keeping up with "their field" to worry about student learning.  However second place has to be that while everyone wants professional development, there are too few places giving it and nobody has the funds to pay for it.

So, for the past several months I have spent some time seeking out brain research.  No, I haven't gotten a subscription to Brain Science Quarterly.  But I have sought out some articles and interviews with some of the worlds leading thinkers and researchers with regard to how the brain works.  (It's also helped that I had 28 hours of on-demand documentaries while going to Australia.  Thank you United airlines...)

To that end, I wish to give you a few resources.  Why a few?  If you watch "Brain Games - Pay Attention" you will know exactly why.  This fantastic introduction to attention and the brain was created by National Geographic video.  It's only 1 hour long, but when you view "the brain" through a filter of the STUDENT brain, it becomes an even more fascinating study regarding how we teach.

What is great about the video is that they quote outstanding research scientists like Dan Simon and Daniel T. Levin who wrote, "Change Blindness."  This is a great article about just how little we can truly focus on and again, has some powerful implications for students of any age.

Then, I stumbled onto a BBC 5 show called, "Make Your Child Brilliant." And brilliant it was.  Even as a person who deals mostly with college students (although also with a 5 year old...) I could not help but be overwhelmed with excitement as Bernadette Tynan illustrated how to help students be creative, focused, and successful, regardless of the environment.  She shows how to take a normal, if not "weak" student and, using brain research and cognitive science applications turn them into a successful, "brilliant" student in an extremely short time.  It was also exciting to see how personalization, creativity, and curriculum integration were crucial to the strategies she employed.  (All things I speak about regularly...whew!)

So that's four great places to start.  (You didn't forget Medina's book yet, did you?  Again, the National Geographic video will help you understand why you might have.)  If you are looking for more, the cool thing is that every resource I just gave you should springboard into 5-20 more resources, etc., etc.

Just remember, you might know more than anyone else about 17th century poetry, the evolution of teeth, or business statistics, but you aren't teaching lit, science, or math.  You're teaching people.  You are teaching brains which have propensities, wants, needs, and abilities that we understand better than we ever have before.  So even if you can't afford the PD at your institution, try these.  They are pretty cheap and/or free.  All it will cost you is some brain power and a bit of time.

Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
VP of Instruction & Academic Strategy