23 March 2012

Connectability, Context and The Brain - Glasgow/IATEFL 2012

Being interested in the mysteries of the brain and learning, it was with pleasure that I attended the online plenary by James Zull streamed directly online from IATEFL 2012, Glasgow

Not wishing to repeat everything that Professor James Zull explained in his talk (which will later be available to all here), I would like to highlight some points which are of particular interest to educators and learners. 

Zull began his talk by referring to a Gary Larson cartoon, which I am certain many will remember. The point of the cartoon is that Ginger understands her name but all else is irrelevant to her. 

When it comes to classrooms, does this cartoon ever ring bells? If so, the immediate reason is that it is essential that an environment and context for learning is created. The best way to create this environment where learning may happen is by providing ownership to those who have a stake in learning. In other words, providing a learning scenario of ownership to students. 

According to Zull, it is the value of ownership that makes people work hard; it is the value people feel when they have ownership of what they are doing. 

To understand the learning process, one needs to perceive the brain as a muscle; and like other muscles,  how the human brain changes while learning. Not only that, but there are actual physical changes in the brain during the learning process. As an example, Zull showed a slide of the cortex with synapses and how they changed over a period of time: one cannot actually see the connections, but rather the image shows the connectability of synapses occurring in the brain. As one can expect, the more branches there are, the more synapses are developed. 

This element of building complexity, of building connectability is an essential part of learning; as most language teachers know, vocabulary, for instance, will only make sense, will only connect to learners if given in a context which learners can relate to. Connectability requires a context for learning. 

An urgent question to all educators is how they can foster change in their learners' brains. Taking a step back, and according to Zull, one needs to remember that for a garden to bloom, it needs fertilizing. It needs care for its branches and plants to blossom.  The same is true for learning. Additionally, one needs to remember  - and even explain to students - how the brain is a muscle and that learning is a physical activity. In other words, just like an athlete training for a sport event, the student needs to practice learning, to actually engage in learning, in order to achieve better grades.  Zull also recommended how teachers need to have their students use more widespread areas of their cortex and making meaning for learning.

The last point I would like to highlight from Zull's plenary, is the four pillars of learning, which include:

* experience/getting information
* reflection/making meaning
* creating/predicting
* emotion

Learning is changing.

Learning makes a difference.

Further reference:

The Art of Changing the Brain - James Zull

Antonio Damasio 

How Our Brains Feel Emotion

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