Tip #803: The Biology of Learning

Learning is about biology.” James Zull

I have been reading an intriguing book, The Art of Changing the Brain- Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, by James E. Zull. Professor Zull is a Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at Case Western University and the Director of The University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Brain

Zull correlates David Kolb’s experiential learning model with how the brain physically functions.

Kolb’s experiential learning model is a cycle of learning that begins with concrete experience. The cycle then moves to reflective observation, abstract hypothesis and active testing, which starts the cycle again.

The passage below is drawn directly from Zull’s book, pages 18-19:

“…concrete experience comes through the sensory cortex, reflective observation involves the integrative cortex at the back (of the brain), creating new abstract concepts occurs in the frontal integrative cortex, and active testing involves the motor brain.”

Zull concludes that “…the learning cycle arises naturally from the structure of the brain.”

You can see a graphic depiction of the brain and the learning cycle at this site.

Zull elaborates on the important functions of each part of the cerebral cortex and how it matches with each stage of the learning cycle (pages 21 and 22):

The Sensory Cortex and Concrete Experience

“The sensory cortex receives first input from the outside world in the form of vision, hearing, touch, position, smells and taste. This matches with the common definition of concrete experience, with its reliance on direct physical information from the world.”

The Back Integrative Cortex and Reflective Observation

“The back integrative cortex is engaged in memory formation and reassembly, language comprehension, developing spatial relationship, and identifying objects, faces, and motion. In short, it integrates sensory information to create images and meaning.

These functions match well with what happens during reflection, for example, remembering relevant information, daydreaming and free association, developing insights and associations, mentally rerunning experiences, and analyzing experiences.”

The Frontal Integrative Cortex and Abstract Hypothesis

“The frontal integrative cortex is responsible for short-term memory, problem solving, making decisions, assembling plans for action, assembly of language, making judgments and evaluations, directing the action of the rest of the brain (including memory recall), and organizing actions and activities of the entire body.

This matches well with the generation of abstractions, which requires manipulation of images and language to create new (mental) arrangements, developing plans for future action, comparing and choosing options, directing recall of past experience, creating symbolic representations, and replacing and manipulating items held in short-term memory.”

Motor Cortex and Active Testing

“The motor cortex directly triggers all coordinated and voluntary muscle contractions by the body, producing movement. It carries out the plans and ideas originating from the front integrative cortex including the actual production of language through speech and writing.

This matches with the necessity for action in completion of the learning cycle. Active testing of abstractions requires conversion of ideas into physical action, or movements of parts of the body. This includes intellectual activities such as writing, deriving relationships, doing experiments, and talking in debate or conversation.”

An Example

Zull provides a simple example that illustrates the relationship between the learning cycle and the sections of the brain:

  1. Hear or see words = concrete experience (involving the sensory cortex)
  2. Remember related words, images or ideas = reflective observation (involving the back integrative cortex)
  3. Generate new words or ideas = abstract hypothesis (involving the frontal integrative cortex)
  4. Speak or write new words or ideas = active testing (involving the motor cortex)
  5. Hear or see new words = new concrete experience

If we want to be better at generating learning, Zull believes that we need to understand how the brain functions and find ways to encourage learners to use all parts of their brains in the learning cycle.

This treatise on the brain completes our Tips for 2019. We will resume on January 6, 2020.

We send our very best wishes that the new year bring you good health, joy and success in a humane and peaceful world.

May your learning be sweet.


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