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An Experimental Classroom

D2B's picture

An Experimental Classroom

Class is itself an experiment in a particular form of education: co-constructive inquiry.

Depends on co-constructive dialogue, being comfortable sharing existing understandings, both conscious and unconscious, in order to use them to construct new ones.  Need diversity of understandings, need to be able to both speak and listen without fear of judgment.  Need to see both self and others as always in process, always evolving. (Paul Grobstein)

In an effort to further understand this Brain, Education and Inquiry course as a perfect example of a connection between neural/cognitive sciences and education, one must explore the several components and dynamics of our class sessions, their content and classroom procedure. Introduced as an experiment of co-constructive dialogue that is in constant motion and transformation, this course has a few principles that are stressed as essential for its accomplishment. The layout of the course supports our academic aim to understand the brain’s role within education and the classroom.

Let’s dissect this notion of the class itself as an experiment. By viewing the brain’s role in educating and illuminating the structure of this course and its requirement, we can see Brain, Education and Inquiry as a prime example of a cooperative learning environment. Also, this approach toward educating has created within our classroom an effective student brain-conscious yet brain-based learning environment where its partakers learn of the brain as their brains are being placed as subjects themselves. Are we experimenting or are we test subjects?

First and foremost, the approach we are instructed to take is that of co-constructive dialogue, both verbal and literal. Such discourses are the union of free-flowing, diverse perspectives and experiences uninhibited by critique. With this type of exchange, inquiry meets personal knowledge for complementary constructions rather than deconstruction. Creating an environment of co-constructive rather than deconstructive learning and inquiry is an essential component of this course and henceforth an indication of a cooperative learning environment. Cooperative, also known as collaborative, learning environments are studied as settings of academic exchange heavily influential in brain-based learning, stimulation and, consequently, knowledge retention and academic engagement.

In this course we aim for collective understanding. This dynamic does two things for our classroom: reduces fear of failure or incorrectness and, acknowledges and works through the issue of “un-learning [years of]…misinformation” (Cassell 7). Being in an academic setting where all opinions and learnings are valued and built upon rather than dismissed and refuted reduces the fear of failure that can be attributed to academic challenges.

Additionally, the added pressure on the brain to rid itself of memories and truths previously engrained is alleviated. Students become frustrated when having to struggle with un-learning the misinformation…and then having to correct the previously incorrect mental programming. [Combating this frustration is important because] the hardest thing the brain does is to forget something it has learned, as distinguished from forgetting something it never learned in the first place or that was never meaningful (Cassell 7). In order for one to unlearn some given material, the brain must be retrained. It is quite an extensive effort to force the brain to deconstruct all that it has learned and perceived in order to witness and retain new understandings. On the other hand, it is easier to move outside our perceptions and see if we can understand, develop and/or create newly constructed understandings. When doing so one can

see the pattern, or the perceptual filter [one uses]… [and] must be able to step outside of…habitual responses and realize that there are other ways of seeing and behaving. If… [one] can step outside…[of one’s self] for a moment as the observer or witness self, [one will] become free…see[ing the] response for what it is, one among many possible ones (Wheatley 1).

With this point, we are treated as owners of our personal knowledge and creators of new understandings.

Creating a room with meaningful social interaction has shown to be essential for brain growth. Having a classroom of collaborative learning has its requirements for effectiveness. As neurologist Judy Willis makes evident within her essay on cooperative learning, “Cooperative Learning Is a Brain Turn-On, the professor must relinquish “tradition autocratic control” (Willis 4). In doing this, the professor allows the students to collaborate and achieve shared goals of the classroom. Such collaboration leads to increased student engagement and investment in curriculum and the overall carrying out of the course.

           Research shows that

sterile, boring environments not only result in significantly less growth, but in actual shrinking of dendrites. The stimulation of an enriched environment results in significant physiological change in the brain – as mush as 20% compared to brains in sterile, boring environments. (Cassell 3) 

Moving away from aimless discussion and lecturing into collaborative work is the best way to hone in on what this type of learning entails. However, when used, group collaboration and discussion must be planned and not just random. In this course, lecturing began as a consequence of necessary educating on the brain, its components and functions.

Lectures in our course have now transitioned to a “speech-and-inquiry” format. No longer is the professor traditionally controlling the room and the floor of speech; the floor is now open to all understandings of what is not only taught by the teacher but what is independently known or researched by the students of the course. This leads to commentary or speeches on the part of the professor and/or students and inquiry following concerning the topics/issues on the floor. That being said, another essential component to effective collaborative learning is that it must be truly interactive and aim to support various perspectives. The students within this course were all selected and represent various academic/disciplinary, social, racial, and geographical backgrounds. Such a group of diverse students aids in the efficiency of collaborative education.

Collaborative learning is defined by the principle that one needs another in order to succeed and learn effectively. Such learning aids in the elevation and increase of cognitive opportunities seeing as “purposeful social interactions can actually change the way the brain works and enable learning to occur” (Cassell 3) Collaborative learning, a learning environment where students work with one another, can be directly seen in this course’s mandated peer-facilitated class sessions. Not only are the students able to teach material and engage directly in inquiry and discovery with their peers, but also gaining the agency to choose course material close to one’s own experience, personally and academically, taps into a student’s emotional attachment to their academic coursework. It is important to involve this emotional, interpersonal aspect into learning. Paying close attention to and accommodating the emotional aspects of learning is essential for students to develop knowledge that can transfer in real world situations. There is a strong relationship between emotion and cognition and understanding this gives teachers and students more control over the design of the classroom.

Furthermore, stressing the importance of immediate feedback is another component of an effective cooperative learning classroom. Sound just like ‘Post early. Post often’? (Paul Grobstein) This course engages the student’s emotional academic response to course material through Serendip posts. Serendip serves as a guaranteed platform to express one’s response to or gathered learnings of material from class time and moreover allowing the professor and one’s fellow peers to give feedback on those understandings.

This course relies heavily on the influence of our own experience of education in relation to other’s experiences. Thus placing a great emphasis on collaborative learning. It is evident that the professor of Brain, Inquiry and Education amidst all of our collaborative learning, seeks to stress and reinforce an environment with brain-based learning that not only helps us to understand the brain as an entity but also as elements of our own existence actively work around us within the classroom.

Experimenters or test subjects? This discourse has uncovered a structure that has resulted as a consequence of the course’s day-to-day experimental beginnings. It has also exposed the students as text subjects in the least seeing as the students have used their experiences and retention of course materials as models and data to study. The students have placed themselves in two roles; the active experimenter and the receptive test subject.

With this, can one say that running a course with an experimental, co-constructive structure will produce such promising results? Not necessarily of course. However this course works with directional experimentation due to the simple fact that what is known of the brain as the center of knowledge retention and reception is key within our understandings and discussions concerning the current state of education and proposed changes. Through the use of co-constructive inquiry, interactive peer-centered learning and discourse, and brain-based guided discussion this course has proven to approach education in general and in a larger sense effectively and more thoroughly. This approach toward learning has opened up new channels of essential understandings and the proven interdisciplinary approach towards understanding and critiquing the classroom and the education system is more than beneficial.

So what is next? So far it seems that this course has effectively experimented with collaborative learning and developed an environment of interactive brain-based learning and doing. What could be next? One suggestion is the integration of what is known as “dopamine-based reward-stimulated learning” within which “research found that the brain released more dopamine into these learning circuits when the individual was playing, laughing, exercising, and receiving acknowledgment (e.g. praise) for achievement (Willis 6). What do you think?

Work Cited

Cassell, William and Willard R. Daggett. “Peer Learner Engagement: Enhancing the

Promise of School Improvement.” LeaderEd. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.

Willis, Judy. “Cooperative Learning Is a Brain Turn-On.” Middle School Journal 38.4 (2007): 4-13. 


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Paul Grobstein's picture

brains, co-construction, classrooms: which comes first

This paper poses an interesting issue that's been on my mind since early in the course.  Yes, the course is an experiment in "co-constructive inquiry."  AND its about research on the brain and education. How do those two relate to one another?  How siginificant is research on the brain and education for the "experiment"?  Does one need studies on the brain, for example, to suggest that  "playing, laughing, exercising, and receiving acknowledgment (e.g. praise) for achievement" would make for a more successful classroom?  Or, for that matter, that co-constructive inquiry would?  Does the research motivat the ideas, the ideas the research, or is there something more complex going on? 

D2B's picture

additional citation...oops!

 Wheatley, Margaret. “ What Does It Mean to Unlearn?” Swaraj. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Nov.

            2010. <>