The Brain and Teaching and Learning: Pt 1
Some of the most revolutionary ideas in teaching and learning have occurred over the past few decades.
Those ideas come from a deeper understanding of the organic brain, cognitive psychology, and neuropsychology.
Studies in those fields have confirmed many things we’ve known (intuitively and through experience) about teaching and learning.
And they’ve debunked other things we thought we knew about how people learn.
This five-part series will focus on two aspects of brain-research-informed teaching and learning: (1) effective teacher behavior in classroom instruction and (2) insights about learning from research on the brain and learning.
I’ll share insights from the brain and learning course in the next several blog entries.
Today’s entry: the brain functions as a whole.
Although we can identify the parts of the brain and are gaining a greater understanding of the particular function of those parts, like anything organic, it’s more appropriate to understand the brain as more “whole” than “parts.”
For instance, the amygdala has a great deal to do with emotions and the hippocampus with memory; although each part or region has its own function, the brain still operates as a purposeful whole and dynamic entity, with memory and emotion influencing each other.
The brain shares some characteristics with many organic systems:
- The brain (as a system) seeks to survive and protect itself (in fact, “Job 1” for the brain is its survival)
- The brain grows and adapts to its environment within the constraints of its potentiality
- Small incidents can have vast and unexpected ramifications some of which can lead to long-lasting consequences.
- The brain is immensely resilient and plastic, it can absorb relatively large inputs from the environment without noticeable consequence, and it is more multifaceted than people tend to appreciate. In addition, the brain displays amazing resilience from trauma.
- Stress can weaken the brain and relaxation and laughter can strengthen it (as with the immune system).
The concept that the brain is a “whole” means that integration is the key to the brain’s functioning.
It seems that the brain tries to integrate everything: children who learn to play the piano or sing in a choir improve their spatial reasoning; learning to read enhances students’ ability to think in abstractions.
Everything that happens to us has both a direct and indirect effect due to the nature of the interconnectedness of the brain.
This is partly why I like reminding students about the importance of being selective in reading: “Smart books make you smart. Stupid books make you stupid.”
**Implications for teaching and learning: **avoid overfocusing on individual “learning styles,” thereby robbing the brain of challenges for integration. The brain is more resilient and plastic than we tend to give it credit for. If the brain feels threatened, it cannot learn.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).