Teaching and the Brain

Although I am still firmly committed to my research on medieval literature, particularly the book I am writing on The Canterbury Tales with the inestimable John Sexton from Bridgewater State University (See the blog “MASS Medieval” that John writes with Kisha Tracy for more information), I also have a long-standing interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Lately, I have been especially interested in exploring brain-based learning theories, a relatively new area of research that has its roots in cognitive neuroscience.  As a result, I recently made a presentation at the Lilly South Conference on the role played by the brain’s amygdala in the learning process.  The amygdala has a significant degree of responsibility for conditioned and unconditioned fear responses, and I argued that when a student is confronted with new or challenging or difficult material for the first time, his or her amygdala becomes activated and impedes learning.  As instructors, if we can understand this and learn a few basic techniques for reducing amygdalar activity, we may be able 1) to recognize that what may seem to be a lack of comprehension or other cognitive difficulty on the part of our students may actually be physiological, and 2) to help our students learn more effectively.

I am currently in the process of transforming this presentation into an article, and at the same time I am working on a larger project tentatively called Narratives of Alterity:  College Teaching, Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Necessity of the Humanities.  I am intrigued by what happens in our brains when we study the humanities and the arts, what changes these subjects cause in our brains, and–ultimately–what neuroscience might reveal to us about the ways in which these subjects are necessary for the development of our cognitive processes.  Because our brains break information down into metaphors and stories, it stands to reason that those fields in which narratives (textual, visual, etc.) are central would help to train the brain to do so.  It is definitely a hypothesis at this point, but I want to see where it goes.

I think brain-based learning theories fascinate me so much because good teaching can too often seem like a magical art or an arcane text with hidden meanings.  In other words, even if we are consciously using every best practice we can think of in the classroom, we can still wonder if what we are doing is working or if any of the material has stuck with our students.  Understanding the brain, then, helps me to see that learning is a physical process as much as anything else, and if we know what happens in the brain, then we can figure out what to do to help our students learn in a much more concrete way.

There are some great resources out there for brain-based learning theories.  My favorites so far are those by James E. Zull:  The Art of Changing the Brain (2002) and From Brain to Mind (2011).

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2 thoughts on “Teaching and the Brain

  1. Captain Tim!
    Great new blog. As luck would have it, I’ve been slowly becoming more interested in cognitive approaches to literature, and would love to trade reading lists with you.
    Babwe

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