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Brain Education and Inquiry

Final Paper – Rearranging my Understanding


I came into our class this semester, with my mind brimming with ideas about educational theorists like Dewey and Freire, who over the course of my learning at Bryn Mawr College, I had grown to admire. I believed that an ideal education would be based on Dewey’s principle of continuity and interaction – with continuity being the fact that that each experience a person has will influence his/her future, for better or for worse; and interaction being the situational influence on one's experience. [1]


            According to Dewey, educators need to organize their subject matter based on his theory of experience, in a manner that takes into account students past experiences and then provides them with experiences which will help them open up rather than shut down. And I supported his claim entirely. I came into class, in the beginning of the semester, extremely skeptical of the role understanding the brain can play in teaching or learning. It seemed like just another ploy by scientists around the world to get people to pay attention to their subject matter.

            Clearly, I was naïve and mistaken in my understanding. As this paper progresses, we will see how in my blind support of Dewey, I was already intrinsically, going against everything he had preached.


If the function we are interested in is learning, we should look for the structure that produces it, and the place that we should look is in the brain. Ultimately, the structure of the brain should explain learning. It’s only natural.[2]

            In his book ‘The Art of Changing the Brain’, Zull does a masterful job of bringing together concepts outlined by previous educational theorists like Dewey and rooting them in Biology – thus giving more substance to the theory preached and allowing educators around the world to understand the importance of these theories.

            To summarize his book in a few lines, he tells us that the cerebral cortex of our brain has three main functions, and these are: sensing, integrating and motor functions. These three functions together do the key things for the functioning of any nervous system- they sense the environment, collect and add up what they sense, and then generate appropriate actions.

            He takes this basic outline of the structure of the cerebral cortex, and connects it to Kolb’s learning cycle ( learning takes place in a cyclic manner, which is dictated by experience, reflection, abstraction and active testing), thereby using it to explain learning.  

            Kolb’s learning cycle tells us that learning starts with raw experience, which the brain reflects on and relates to other experiences which are stored in its memory. The brain then formulates how the new material, combined with existing learning might be useful (abstraction). Finally, it applies its new hypothesis in a physical act, thus testing it. Kolb tells us that the process is cyclic, because the fourth phase automatically becomes the first – my active testing of something gives rise to a new experience, which then needs to be reflected on and so on.

            Zull, in his book, explains this cycle, and then connects it to the simplified structure of the cerebral cortex he had provided us with earlier.


            As demonstrated in the diagram Zull shows us how Kolb’s cycle of learning fits in perfectly with the structure of the brain. The sensory information we collect is our concrete experience, the process of reflection takes place in the temporal integrative cortex, the process of abstraction takes place in the frontal integrative cortex (to integrate means to add up), and the motor reactions that are generated is our active testing of the hypothesis that is generated.


 What this means for teaching:

            Zull’s bringing together of the learning cycle with the structure of the brain carries important messages to teachers everywhere. For one, it stresses on using material in the classroom that is stimulating to the senses – allowing kids to learn by doing things, by bringing in material that can be touched, smelt, moved or is visually stimulating, teachers are grabbing children’s attention more than a black and white text book ever will.

            It also tells us that passing from phrase 1 (experience) to phase 2 (reflecting on experience and relating it to what we know) – takes time, which is often unavailable under classroom pressure. But, by showing us that the learning cycle is more than a theory, it is the manner in which the brain works, Zull stresses on the importance of reflection, telling us that reflecting on their work is the only way children can establish deep connections between the new material and memory, and it is this connection that gives way to understanding a concept fully, in a manner that goes beyond learning it for a test or exam.

            This understanding of the first two phases, gives rise to a lot of implications for teaching. It tells us that perhaps, instead of asking children to pay attention, we could ask them to look at things from different perspectives, instead of sitting in their chairs for hours, we could ask them to move around and interact with and reflect on the material. These implications connect directly with what educational theorists have been preaching for years. Dewey has always said that children should be allowed to move, to interact, to engage fully with what they are studying – and in his book, Zull tells us why Dewey was right.

            Just as the passage from phase 1 to phase 2 takes time, Zull tells us that the passage from phase 2 to phase 3 takes encouragement. In phase 2 new data collected by the senses is coupled with old data already stored in the brain. In phase 3, this collection of data is used to make a plan of action – the front of the brain asks questions of the material it has and uses it to integrate the information so as to make decisions, solve problems and develop strategies.

            Phase 4 then, is when this plan is put into action, when the hypothesis created in phase 3 is tested – because, as Zull states, without the chance to apply our knowledge, all we have is surface level learning, that is rooted in no real understanding.

            Once again, this understanding has direct implications for teaching – stressing on the importance of using motivation (for the development of phase 3) in the classroom in a manner that creates a safe space in the classroom where strategies, decisions and mistakes can be created, accounted for, and built on. It also asks teachers to play games, and have workshops that allow students to test what they already know (phase 4). This is different from the process of testing in which the teacher decides what the student knows and doesn’t know – before the teacher has a chance to interfere, the students themselves should be aware of what they know and what concepts they still need to play with.

            Once again, this connects directly to what theorists like Dewey have been preaching for years – the importance of making mistakes, of playing, of making learning interactive and fun. And once again, Zull, through his explanation, is able to give Dewey’s theory a scientific base.


What problem in education it addresses and how

            By pointing out how the learning cycle is directly connected to the brain, Zull managed to make another important connection. He showed us that most classroom emphasize only phase 1 and phase 4 – the two phases that play out physically. Even the progressive classrooms that have found a way to make subject matter exciting, and incorporate games in their schedule, have yet not found a way to make place for connecting and questioning. Phase 2 and phase 3 which are both internal processes, are left out of the process of teaching. And Zull, through his work, calls for the legitimization of these two processes by stressing on their importance.

            Once again, this has a direct implication for teaching. It tells us that teachers need to use shared common experiences (all students know what a dog is, all might not know Clifford) when presenting new information, as this makes the process of reflection easier and faster. Without it, the teacher risks the fact that all his students will not connect to the material and learn in deeply.

            By stressing on the need for teachers to create space for the implementation of phase 2 and 3, Zull is not asking for the educational system to be uprooted, he is suggesting that instead, we take a new approach, and make a little time for students to ingest the knowledge they are taking in.

            He thus shows us that the neurosciences do in fact have a role in helping solve some of the problems the educational system is facing today. A better understanding of the brain undoubtedly allows us to create a base for the theories we already know, and shed light on the importance of concepts we might ignore. He shows us science can help back up educational theory and hence, improve its practice.


How this changed my understanding

            Learning about the brain throughout the semester had a profound implication on the way I look at the educational system – I understood the importance of knowing how the brain works and the manners in which it affects what we learn, and therefore should affect how we teach.

            I also finally understood that connecting scientific understanding to the educational theorists I had learnt to admire, only fueled my respect for them. This time around, in my struggle to understand the functioning of the brain, I had doubted, fought with, and reassessed my undoubted love for their theories. In trying to understand the brain, I had better understood what they were trying to teach, and so, their theories were not only grounded in research now, but for me they were grounded in firmer understanding.









[1] John Dewey, Experience and Education

[2] The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning, James E. Zull, 2002; page 14