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Student Brains: Navigating the Jungle of Neuronal Networks

joycetheriot's picture

The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull has been my "brain bible" (so to speak) this year. I keep it with me all the time to help me design strategies. Zull discusses the Neural Networks that our students develop and biologically keep all their lives so therefore teachers can't erase background knowledge. A possible tactic is to find out what they are thinking and how they explain a particular phenomenon and then help them make critical new connections.

The “fun labs” that Kathy mentioned, are the best labs for this strategy. Inquiry provokes student engagement and gives them a focused purpose within a comfortable context since they know that their own thinking is of great importance. A teacher can travel around the class and interview students while they are engaged in the lab. I have a clipboard with names in a seating chart and my method is to write notes below their names. Later I reflect on each while grading the labs. This is very helpful for me to develop some insight on each student and most particularly the student that seems disengaged or lost.

In the beginning of the year I told my students that I’m very interested in their brains and most importantly finding out how they think so I can help them to understand science concepts. (They seem to have taken this as a direct invitation to tell me their stories and on a daily basis if I’d let them. Nevertheless I find them endearing).
The bottom line is that as a result of my “brain interest” the students are very accustomed to my questions and love to be interviewed, (they ask why not me?  if they are skipped).
Zull puts forward the idea that teachers need to know about existing neural nets in order to help build new ones. These neuronal pathways must connect to the old but orchestrate a deeper or clearer understanding of the content.
Zull uses a physics example about the Conservation of Momentum. Within Newton’s Laws this concept is important but simply giving students background about it doesn’t change their hardwired brains. Zull uses the example of allowing students to test paper airplanes. Most everyone has had some experience with them so there’s the neuronal highway that teachers can glide upon to develop students’ critical connections and new learning.