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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

The Brain and Teaching and Learning: Pt 3

Some of the most revolutionary ideas in teaching and learning have taken place over the past couple of decades.

Those ideas come out of 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 (this is post #3) 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.

In the next several blog entries I’ll share some insights from the course on the brain and learning.


Today’s brain and learning concept: the brain makes meaning through patterning.


The human brain is not a formal logic machine.

It makes sense of life experience by finding patterns and order, mainly through making connections.

At the heart of patterning is categorization finding similarities and differences and comparing and isolating features that the brain needs to create taxonomies and categories is a helpful fact for teachers and educators.

It highlights that the most meaningful learning happens when teachers focus on teaching concepts.

The brain interprets the world and experiences by sorting its countless characteristics into categories.

For example, we observe and sort lines, edges, and curves; light and dark; up and down; basic smells and tastes; and degrees of sound.

(One phenomenon is that our brains are prewired with a basic “number sense” that gives infants a rudimentary awareness of the relationship among the numbers one through three).


Taxonomies and categories create one type of cognition and memory (taxon memory).

But the brain is also innately equipped with the ability to develop “maps” of where we are in space and time (locale memory).

In fact, we also build a life map or story, more accurately a “narrative” of our experience through space and time, which is how we maintain a sense of who we are (our concept of self).


Ultimately, all this patterning helps us construct mental models of reality.

The result is that we perceive, relate to, and act on the world around us in terms of those categories, maps, and mental models we construct over time.

The educational philosophy of constructivism is effective because it approaches learning by focusing on the creation of such perceptions and relationships.


Patterning is grounded in the physiology of the brain.

Groups of brain cells combine into neural networks that fire in the same ways consistently.

Learning is required when an entrenched pattern is challenged or disrupted, and new answers are needed.

New experiences, meanings and understandings reconfigure these automatic patterns.

Such relearning often takes time because the changes are not just mental; they are physiological and emotional.


Implication for teaching and learning: intentionally address both memory systems when teaching: taxon and locale. Use overt patterns in both what and how you teach.

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).


Dr. G. & Friends