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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Three Lessons from Neurology to Science Teachers

Transition from “I do not know it” to “I know it” is  memorizing
Transition from “I cannot do it” to “I can do it” is  training
Transition from “I do not understand it” to “I understand it” is thinking

Three Lessons from Neurology to Science Teachers

There is no need for repeating again and again that the ways of teaching must be improved, that memorizing only is not enough and teachers have to develop students’ problem-solving skills, etc. Today the question is what specific changes must be done in teaching techniques in order to help developing students’ problem-solving skills.
Neurology can offer at least three sources for rethinking the structure of teachers’ action (also: “What does a Teacher Need to Know about a Brian?”).
Neurologists know that learning is always resulting in some changes in a brain (for example, see 1,2). These changes can be: changes in the state of brain cells, or in the connection between the cells - but there is always some kind of physiological change which happens as the result of learning.
Any change in a brain structure is always the result of a certain brain activity (“The Second Law of TechOlogy”). 
Without acting a brain cannot achieve a learning effect. Educational constructivists interpret this in the following way; every specific knowledge must be constructed by a person while performing a specific learning activity.
If we believe in constructivism (and we have to because of the neurology), we have to rethink the way we prepare our lessons. The common old-fashioned way of teaching is “first a teacher has to tell this, then this, then this”, etc. We can call this type of teaching as “knowledge representation”. This type of teaching excites the least amount of neurological activities in students’ brain. From neurological point of view  the way to teach should be based on guiding students’ activities: “firs students must perform this action, then that action”, etc (of course, at first, all the main/unit/elementary learning actions must be discovered, described, classified). We can call this type of teaching as “designing and guiding students actions” (which requires from a teacher designing his/her own actions).
After rethinking the teaching strategy, we have to rethink the time needed to study a subject. The current way of timing an educational process is based on the “knowledge representation” teaching approach; i.e. the elementary units of time are the time periods needed to a teacher to tell the elementary units of the information. The use of the other teaching strategy leads to the necessity for using a new basis for the timing of the educational process; now it must be a time needed to perform a unit action (which might be different for different students).
A teacher alone cannot reconstruct the whole learning process of his/her students and completely redesign his/her teaching process, but at least he or she can change the ratio between his/her lecturing time and the time his/her students can use for conducting their own leaning activities. 
When learning physics acting means solving problems (theoretical or experimental). If the circumstances allow to do it - a teacher should  try keeping at least two hours of problem-solving per each hour of lecturing.
Now we have come closely to the next educational problem, i.e. developing students’ problem-solving skills.
We are starting our reasoning by saying that problem-solving skills can be developed only through solving problems. Creating the solution to the given problem involves a specific process usually called as critical thinking.
In order to perform critical thinking one needs to use a very sophisticated biological tool, which is called a brain. There is no critical thinking without a brain (the opposite is not true).
We can say that the level of the development of a brain defines the quality of critical thinking, which in turn defines the quality of problem solving skills.
The development of problem-solving skills is closely connected with the development of a brain.
For example, if we wanted to develop the students’ ability to run we could work on the development of students’ lungs (e.g. by making a student hold the breath as along as possible), but first of all we would need to work on the development of students’ legs, because
LEGS are the main instrument for RUNNING.
When we want to develop the students’ ability to think critically we have to develop first of all the main instrument of thinking, which is a brain. A brain is the physiological basis of critical thinking.
It is well known fact that a well-trained/developed brain is capable to solve difficult problems.
But there is also an opposite connection.
Solving problems systematically helps to the development of a brain.
Let’s use an analogy.
Let us assume that students have been doing for years one type of physical exercises only, which are squats. Then at the end of education, they can squat many times without any difficulties. However, all the other muscles, which are not involved in squats, would be highly underdeveloped. Students would not be able to perform any other exercises effectively.
A brain works the same way (it is kind of a muscle, at least it consists of cells which can change – neurologists tell us this, and it is the important lesson for us, teachers).
If for many years the majority of school lessons have been based on memorizing and reproduction, other types of intellectual activities would be difficult for students to perform.
An underdeveloped brain can deal with only easy tasks. At the age of 14 – 15 the human brain – as “a muscle” – needs to be exercised or it will not be developed to the maximum of its abilities. If that is not a case, if students leave a school with an underdeveloped brain, later in life to make even moderate progress in a brain development, significant efforts and time will be needed.
If we want to significantly increase the total nationwide number of school students who are well prepared to a college or to the demands of the contemporary technologies, we have to increase the number of school students having a well-developed/trained brain. To achieve this goal, we have to start at preschool and elementary school levels and reorganize them making accent/stress/effort on the students’ brain development (this is what the early childhood education must be about!).
We do not have to pour into children’s heads a large volume of knowledge, but rather the structure of knowledge should be changed to support learning activities of students. A head is a storage for information, but at first it is the place where new thoughts are being created (BTW: the best way to store information in a one’s memory is to deal with it, use it, but not just to memorize it). We have to exercise/train the children’s brain by using different tasks/problems/exercises to help it (brain) to become as developed as the Mother Nature allows do this.
It is very important to note that focusing only on math, or only on reading is not effective because it will lead to the development of only certain parts of a brain. Students need to practice as many different activities as possible, and that includes reading a writing, math, and science, but also sports and arts, and music, and theater.
One of the consequences of the lessons we – educators – take form neurology is that one of the most important problems of educational science is the problem of the influence of the training/teaching methods on the functioning of a students’ brain. I personally consider Math and Physics as the subjects which are best suited to serve as a brain developing tool (“brainbuilding”).
To develop a one’s body, we can exercise it by using a special technique, which means using a specific exercise for developing a specific muscle. Or, we can just keep doing a heavy/difficult work, because after a while the one’s body becomes strong enough.  One will not become the second Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ones body will become strong and developed.
The similar approach will work for developing a brain.
In order to become developed
a brain needs go through prolonged, regular, and different exercises.
Even if a teacher does not know a special technique for developing a students’ brain (which don’t really exist yet), her or she can keep students busy with solving different and complicated problems.
Here we need to turn again to the difference between two different types of teaching (this approach represents the simples classification/model of teaching types, which is completely sufficient for any practitioner).
Based on two different types of teaching we have two different sets of teachers.
The first set contains “introducers”. An introducer concerns only with extracting knowledge from his/her memory and presenting it to students, plus about giving some illustrations.
Imagine, for example, a teacher who teaches a class how to play basketball. “It is a ball. You may bounce it off a floor; you can use your left hand or your right hand to bounce the ball. You may throw it out in a basket (not in your basket!), or you can throw it to each other. Who wants to touch the ball? Do not kick it! Perfect. I think my job is done. Have a good game.”
This type of teaching will not help much to develop a students’ brain because a teacher does not provide any influence on a mental process happening in students minds during listening to a teacher.
The second set of teachers can be called “coachers” (but not as just described before). A teacher’s responsibility as “a coach”/”guide” is to help every student to become capable of “to play physics” (or other subject). It means, a teacher’s work does not stop with presenting a problem; presenting a problem is just the beginning of a teaching work. A teacher has to find the way to help students to build/create the solution of the given problem, but in such a way that the solution was their (students’) solution, not teacher’s (because it is their brain that needs to be developed during the solution of the problem).
If the problem is too easy to solve, there is no any developmental effect. If the problem is too hard, students just give up, and again there is no any developmental effect. But if the problem is hard enough, students get stuck. If a teacher reveals the solution right now, students will learn how to solve that particular problem, but again there will be no any developmental effect on a brain. However, if students will not make any further progress in creating a solution, no developmental effect will be achieved again. It seems like without help students cannot advance in creating the solution to a problem, but with  help the developmental effect is absent. What is the resolution of this contradiction? The answer, in principle, is simple; do not give students the solution, give them a clue. A smart hint can help students to make a step ahead toward the solution (this is basically just a brief description of the Zone of Proximal Development approach).
At this instant (when students get stuck) the most important question a teacher needs to answer is: what clue to provide to students?
An experienced teacher knows the answer to this question based on the numerous successes and mistakes he or she done in the past in these situations.
However, nowadays, the search for efficient clues can find some clues (J ) in neurology.
We know that any reaction starts from the recognizing an action.
When a brain receives unknown signals it gets confused, and the first thing a brain is trying to do is matching the incoming signals with the signals stored in its memory.
A very common first reaction a student gives when offered to solve a problem is “I ‘ve never seen that a problem before”, which means that the student cannot recognize the situation described in the text of the problem.
Analyzing my own long and successful teaching experience I discovered several main obstacles students have to overcome in order to recognize in the given problem a specific physical situation which had been studied before.
More on the correlation between learning and brain development, and my approach to helping students with overcome those obstacles is describe in the following papers:

"Modelling Instructions, Design Thinking, and Productive Thinking for a Science Teacher"

"Deliberate Thinking v. Digging a Trench"

"The Importance of Early Exposure To Thinking"

“Teaching tools for fostering understanding of physics learners”

1.Carole Wade & Carol Tavris, Psychology, Fifth Edition
2. Melanie V. Springer et al., The Relation Between Brain Activity During Memory Tasks and Years of Education in Young and Older Adults, Neuropsychology, 2005, Vol. 19, No. 2, 181-192

Thank you for visiting,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Education Advancement Professionals

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