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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

The Brain and Teaching and Learning: Pt 5

Today’s brain and learning concept: the brain perceives and creates parts and wholes.

This is the final entry in this “The Brain and Teaching and Learning” series.


The brain has two separate but simultaneous tendencies for organizing information.

One is to reduce information to parts.

The other is to perceive and work with information as a whole or series of wholes.

These simultaneous tendencies spring from the brain’s organization and have important implications for teaching and learning.


One dilemma is that what constitutes a part and a whole is not always immediately obvious.

For example, throwing a ball to a child may be a whole activity in one context, yet just part of a game in another.

Reading a book may be a whole activity by itself, but reading a book as a requirement for a course is one part of a larger whole.

The key is to realize that life experiences seem to be organized according to some natural wholes that the brain recognizes very easily.

These include stories, projects, puzzles, games, social events, relationships, and concepts (and what is one of the most important focuses of teaching? Teaching concepts!).


You’ve experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever worked on a jigsaw puzzle.

You perceive a whole puzzle even though you are focusing your attention on only one piece; conversely, you can look at an entire puzzle and see the individual pieces that make it up.


Every event is processed in the brain as a complex experience that consists of larger wholes in which the parts are embedded and integrated.

The brain is designed to perceive both separateness and interconnectedness.


Implication for teaching: continually help your learners see the parts and the whole of what they are learning. Sometimes, you may need to help your learners identify which is which. For example, in a philosophy course, you may need to help your students capture the concept of microcosm and macrocosm—and to be able to identify which is which and what belongs in one category or the other. Another example: if the course you teach is foundational to the curricular program of study, you’ll want to indicate and remind students how your course (a part) fits into the larger program of study (the whole).


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