Brain Science and the Art of Teaching

brainresearch_imageThis summer, the Bush faculty in all three divisions read Mariale Hardiman’s The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools[1] as part of their professional development for this year. Dr. Hardiman’s book offers strategies for translating research on plasticity and neurogenesis into effective practices for educators. Our faculty spent part of this fall, before classes began, examining the neural systems that underlie emotions, and considering how teachers can connect with children to improve the emotional climate in the classroom and student learning. We will continue to use Hardiman’s brain-targeted strategies going forward to explore ways to inspire creativity and innovation, develop meaningful assessments, teach content mastery, and create dynamic physical learning environments.

Much like Hardiman, James E. Zull, a professor of biochemistry and biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, uses research in neuroscience to inform pedagogy. In Zull’s book The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning[2] he offers thoughtful ideas that merge teachers’ intuitive practices with neuroscience to improve teaching and learning. Dr. Zull is also the Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education. While Zull admits that his lack of background in education and pedagogy made him an unlikely candidate for the directorship—in truth, no one else wanted the position—he found that his background in science, and biology in particular, gave him an opportunity to approach the task in a very different way.

Instead of focusing on student motivation, families’ demographic backgrounds, and merit pay for teachers as ways to improve student learning, Dr. Zull focuses on the system that he knows best and the one that is most responsible for learning: the brain. He developed an approach based on three functions of the cerebral cortex: to sense an environment, to integrate what is sensed, and to generate the appropriate action.

Simply put, by creating teaching practices and learning environments where sensing, integrating, and acting are at the center, schools can take advantage of the brain’s basic functions to improve learning.  The book reminds me of Bush’s goal to leverage our students’ natural curiosity in order to stimulate their interest in learning.

Zull describes specific functions of the brain and how they affect learning in a way that makes complex ideas applicable and practical. While schools of education and teacher education programs are beginning to adopt these scientific principles to train the next generation of great teachers, many of these ideas are inherently part of the teaching philosophy mapped out by Helen Talyor Bush 90 years ago. Bush faculty are accustomed to creating learning environments in which sensing, integrating, and acting are at the center of their work. Such efforts have helped dispel the notion that good teaching is simply an “art” or an innate talent, when, in fact, we now know much of it is scientific, and good teaching practices are confirmed with robust research. Today, brain research confirms what Helen Taylor Bush knew 90 years ago.