Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Better Teaching Through Brain Biology?

The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

By: Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D.


If we knew more about how learning occurs in the brain, if we could superimpose the steps of the learning process on a map of the brain, would we be better teachers and learners? Yes, claims James Zull, professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University and director of its Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education. In The Art of Changing the Brain, he has taken a crack at the job by suggesting how David Kolb’s popular four-phase model of the learning cycle maps onto four major brain processes. Writing for all educators, his theme is that better understanding of brain function will promote a more flexible and varied approach to learning. The results offer a refreshing clarity.

Behavior is the form in which our biochemistry manifests itself in the world. To make any headway at all, Zull had to simplify the mind-boggling complexity of this process. Possibly to the dismay of some brain researchers, he has grouped hundreds of brain attributes into four primary processes; possibly to the dismay of educators, he has chosen, among dozens of different learning-style models, the one that best fits our current understanding of brain function.


In Experiential Learning (Prentice Hall, 1984), Kolb proposed that learning starts with raw experience, which the brain relates to its prior experiences, stored as memories. The brain then formulates how the new material, combined with existing learning, might be useful. Finally, it applies this new hypothesis in some act of demonstration or communication, which constitutes active testing of it. Kolb labels these four phases

(1) concrete experience, (2) reflective observation, (3) abstract hypotheses, and (4) active testing. I read a book, relate its contents to my memory, speculate on how I might use the book's new information to build on previous learning, and then communicate my hypothesis to others through writing, graphing, charting, or some other means. 

The process is cyclical; the fourth phase becomes part of a new first phase. By making a chart to communicate my new learning to someone else (Phase 4, active testing), I provide him with a concrete experience (Phase 1), and so we bounce among the four phases. New data connect to old, becoming something different from either, and we communicate this emergent creation, or learning, to others. Arthur Koestler called this process bisociation—combining two or more ideas or objects in a way that produces a new idea or object. For example, Johannes Gutenberg is said to have encountered a grape press (Phase 1), then connected it to his memory of a coin stamp (Phase 2), with the resulting mental construction of a combination of the two (Phase 3), which he then built into what we know today as the printing press (Phase 4). Blaise Pascal connected the game of chance in a gambling session to his prior knowledge of mathematics and ultimately formulated probability theory. See, connect, construct, test.

Kolb is not the first to describe this process. Graham Wallas, an ardent socialist and leader of England's Fabian Society, advanced a four-phase model of creativity (The Art of Thought, J. Cape, 1926) that still dominates our thinking about the creative process.  As Wallas described them, the four phases are: 1) preparation (similar to Kolb’s concrete experience) 2) incubation (similar to reflective observation) 3) inspiration (similar to abstract hypothesis) 4) evaluation (similar to active testing).


This recurrent four-phase description of learning seems to map nicely onto four clearly differentiated brain processes. In The Art of Changing the Brain, Zull locates Phase 1, concrete experience/preparation, in the activity of the sensory cortex, where we receive and begin to process visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. Phase 2, reflective observation/ incubation, seems to characterize an activity of the “back (or temporal) integrative cortex,” which connects sensory images to prior experience in one's memory banks, neural networks, or schemas. Phase 3, abstract hypothesizing/inspiration, suggests the efforts of the “front integrative cortex” in creating plans of action. Phase 4, active testing/ evaluation, takes place in the motor cortex, where the thought is made flesh, so to speak, becoming written, spoken, and enacted.

Passing from Phase 1 to Phase 2, relating new experiences to what we already know, takes time, often unavailable under classroom pressure to get through the syllabus. As Zull writes, “Even the quickest learner needs time for reflection. She must let her integrative cortex do its thing. If she doesn't, her ideas and memories will be disconnected and shallow. They may be adequate for the moment (to pass a test, for example) but still transitory and ultimately unfulfilling.”

What about students who are adept at memorizing lecture notes long enough to do well on a test, but who, for lack of connecting this new information to prior information—the deep learning of Phase 2 —completely forget the information after the test is over? Zull recalls one student who got A’s in his class, but who saw him in the hallway six months later and did not even remember what course she had taken with him. He urges the teacher to allow time for the learner to make the deep connections. Without establishing a connection between a new concept and the learner's past experience, only memorizing without understanding is possible. It is the connection that enables understanding, or deep meaning.

Recently I was exploring the collections of the Piti and Uffizi palaces in Florence. I lingered before the paintings that struck me. With this concrete experience (Phase 1), I chose to focus on only these selected paintings with the hope that, somehow, the images would connect to the images in my memory. I found that something about the paintings of Andrea Del Sarto was attracting me; I was spending more and more time examining their color, perspective, characters, and brush technique. What was drawing me in? Finally, it hit me. The reds, greens, and blues had a contemporaneity for me that was striking. Then the next revelation hit me: The blues and greens matched the colors of the Hornets NBA team. I was flabbergasted. Now every time I see a painting by Andrea Del Sarto, I recognize that quality. When I point it out to others, they usually agree.

Making such connections takes time, and, as Zull points out, the teacher, to foster deep learning in students, must allow that time. The student needs the leisure to inspect, review, and muse.  Zull relates this experiment:

It seems then, that instead of asking people to pay attention, we might ask them to look at things from many different angles. Instead of sitting still, we might ask them to move around so they can see details. In fact, [Ellen] Langer experimented with this approach. She asked students to study a famous painting by walking back and forth in front of it instead of sitting still....The outcome seemed good for this theory. Students who studied this way remembered more about the painting than those that sat still in front of it and “paid attention” to it.

Whether trying to learn history, art, or physics, we need time to allow new sensory data to find their way into the neural networks our experiences have created. When those connections are made, our brains have changed; the network has been enlarged or altered in some way—thus Zull’s title: The Art of Changing the Brain. I find this title, by the way, strongly reminiscent of Gilbert Highet's twentieth-century masterpiece on learning, The Art of Teaching. As Zull points out, “teacher” comes from the Old English t'can, or Middle English techen, meaning “to show” or “to demonstrate.” Teaching is changing the brain, and we start that process by showing the learner new data.

If the passage from Phase 1 to Phase 2 takes time, the passage from Phase 2 to Phase 3 requires encouragement. This is the transformational part of the cycle, in which present and past data become something new to the learner. In effect, Phase 3 is like formulating a plan, using the front part of the brain—the so-called executive center of the brain—that integrates information in order to make decisions, solve problems, and develop strategies. Phase 3 asks questions that invite the learner to explore the utility of all the connections made in Phase 2: How can this new information explain an event? How can I use this new information to improve something? How does this new information affect my priorities?

But without applying our new knowledge (Phase 4), all we have is knowledge for its own sake. Here Zull would do well to incorporate the work of Craig Nelson, William Perry, Mary Belinky, and others, who have contributed to the development of strategies for teaching critical thinking. For example, Nelson, a biology professor at Indiana University, emphasizes teaching students the tools of a discipline—the procedures, taxonomies, matrices, charts, graphs, protocols, outlines, tests, drawings, and methodologies by which an expert sorts through the mountains of data in his field.  Without such tools, one has only data: names, dates, places. With them, data become truths, best choices, plans, and explanations.


The traditional classroom tends to emphasize Phases 1 and 4: memorize and perform or test. Both phases play out in public, whereas Phases 2 and 3—connecting and questioning—take place inside the student’s head. Zull calls for teachers to legitimize these two private phases. Discussing motivation, he asks: what causes a student to remain actively engaged in learning? He answers: not extrinsic motivators, such as grades, rewards, and pats on the back, but intrinsic ones.

Now things get murky; motivation is a slippery concept. Zull equates being motivated with activation of the brain’s pleasure centers, which I can accept as a sufficient, but not necessary, operational definition of motivation. At any rate, Zull points to the pleasure centers of the brain that must be stimulated if the learner is to remain intrinsically motivated; these centers are activated when the learner is actively involved in the learning process. The role of the teacher is to ascertain what the learner brings to a new experience, help him relate that existing knowledge to his new experience, and then explore ways he can use the new knowledge. Obviously this does not suggest teaching via lectures, but formats such as interviews, coaching, small group work, cooperative learning, and dialogue.

All students bring both shared and unique mental schemas to the classroom. All know what mud is; not all may know what caviar is. The teacher can assume that students share certain common experiences that can be used as a foundation when presenting new information. If the students do not share a necessary experience, then the teacher needs to provide it. If they have not seen the Hornets and their teal and purple jerseys, the teacher can display photographs of a Hornets player and other photographs showing blues and greens of differing hues and intensity. Then the way has been prepared to ask which photo has colors most like those in the Del Sarto painting. (Can’t you just hear that eighth grade art student? “Cool, man! That dude Del Sarto is okay!”) 

When a teacher simply assumes that all students can relate to a new concept or experience, he takes the risk that some will be unable to learn the new material deeply. Without this step of converting new learning to long-term memory through repetition and elaboration, students are unlikely to be able to use it for a lifetime. If all they do is Phase 1 and Phase 4, they are just taking notes and taking tests—short-term success, long-term failure. This is myopic teaching.

In an article in American Psychologist in 1994, Seymour Epstein reviewed several dozen models of “information processing” and concluded that people basically process information in two ways: experiential/ narrative and rational/expository. Think of the teachers, preachers, rabbis, and writers you find most captivating. They are likely the ones who balance every conceptual point with an illustrative story. In fact, Zull begins each chapter of his fine book with a story about a student or colleague that illustrates the concept he wishes to discuss. In terms of Zull’s model, Epstein is saying that the term “concrete experience” for Phase 1 is perhaps a misnomer. New data are not necessarily concrete. If I introduce the term extraversion to a class and define it as “one’s degree of sensitivity to sensory stimulation,” that is a basically rational/expository way of introducing the concept. Epstein says some people prefer this more expository treatment of new information, while others prefer a concrete, narrative approach: they want to hear a story. If, in presenting new information, we use both narrative and expository elements, we are most likely to make connections with all our learners.


Zull has done a remarkable job of simplifying both brain function and learning processes. In so doing, however, he has left out some relevant information. For example, he has erred on the side of the behavioral tradition that says who we are is mostly learned. He appears to give short shrift to recent findings of behavioral genetics suggesting that as much as 60 percent of individual differences in behavior are attributable to inheritance.

Not all students are born with an equal predisposition to the four phases; we are not a tabula rasa that the behaviorist can shape into anything: tinker, tailor, soldier, spy.

My colleagues and I have conducted research suggesting that any personality can be understood as a combination of five broad traits or dimensions: need for stability (how we handle stress), extraversion (how we handle sensory stimulation), openness (how we handle novelty), agreeableness (how we handle power), and conscientiousness (how we handle goals). These traits will vary greatly from person to person (that is, analogously to a trait such as height, they are normally distributed throughout the population). This complicates our thinking about Phase 4 of the learning cycle, because the more extraverted a student is, the easier it is to “active test” with spoken language. It also affects Phase 3: What if, as I hypothesize, levels of openness are associated with levels of dopamine? The lower a student’s dopamine levels, everything else being equal, the harder the imaginative effort that will have to be expended in forming new hypotheses.

It appears that two of the five factors of personality—extraversion and openness— can be correlated with Kolb’s model, but that leaves three major dimensions of personality unaccounted for in this four-phase model of the learning cycle (need for stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness), each with implications for how we learn.

While Zull covers much of brain structure and function, he focuses on a narrow segment of the current models of learning and mental ability. One major work that he should have referenced is the National Research Council’s How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000). I would also like to see him integrate the work of Epstein, Robert Sternberg, Elliott Jaques, and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.

In particular, Zull’s section on motivation would be strengthened by bringing in Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.” According to Csikszentmihalyi, people in flow—immersed in the task at hand—tend to lose their awareness of time, place, and temperature, and feel that they have at least a 50-50 chance of being successful at their task. Csikszentmihalyi identifies two factors influencing the flow state: the resources or skill level brought to a task and the difficulty of the task itself. High skill meets difficult task and is in flow. Low skill meets easy task and is in flow. Higher skill meets easier task and is bored.

Lower skill meets harder task and is frustrated. Thus boredom and frustration are symptoms that a learner is not in flow. The teacher can help the student return to flow either by increasing or decreasing skill (as in training or handicapping) or by increasing or decreasing the difficulty of the task. Tapping into these cues and strategies will boost the teacher’s ability to keep learners engaged.

Zull’s book is relevant for all educators, at all levels. A growing body of research (for example, Douglas Detterman and Robert Sternberg’s Transfer on Trial) demonstrates that much training fails to transfer back to the job. A primary cause of this failure is that the typical learner cannot translate classroom or textbook examples into the realities of the work world. It would have been useful if Zull had enumerated specific strategies for addressing all four phases in the learning cycle across all subjects and grade levels. 

In the final analysis, little in Zull's fine work is absolutely new. It is a synthesis of what we know about the brain and about learning, a synthesis that simplifies both fields to draw a usable map of the terrain of learning. I encourage educators at all levels to grapple with Zull’s model and, by active use of Phase 3 strategies, to integrate his insights with their own experience and understanding of the learning process. A work like The Art of Changing the Brain has long been needed, but clearly is not the last word.


From The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning by James Zull. ©2002 by James Zull. Reprinted with permission from Stylus Publishing, LLC.

THE CEREBRAL CORTEX AND THE LEARNING CYCLE The brain cycle, then, provokes us to think about the sensory input that students get in our classes. But it doesn’t end there. It also suggests that we should look at its implications for other parts of learning.

However, before we can do that, we need more details about what happens in the four parts of the cerebral cortex we have identified and how these functions match up with the learning cycle.

I have tried to summarize this match by lining things up in the two lists [at right]. On the left side, I have listed a few things that our four parts of the cortex are known to do, and on the right side I have tried to show how a particular stage of the learning cycle seems to fit the capabilities of its matched region of cortex...

The point of the list [on the following page] is that the four parts of the cortex do things that are qualitatively different from each other. When we look at those things, we see the many ways they fit the four parts of the learning cycle. 

Important functions of each part of cortex: 

The sensory cortex receives first input from the outside world in 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 is engaged in memory formation and reassembly, language comprehension, developing spatial relationships, 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 is responsible for short-term memory, problem solving, making decisions, assembling plans for action, assembly of language, making judgements 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 manipulation items held in short-term memory. 

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.

EXAMPLE: LEARNING A NEW WORD THROUGH THE LEARNING CYCLE Let’s go through a specific example of how the learning cycle meshes with the functions of these different parts of the brain. Then we will examine an actual brain imaging study, which seems to support our proposal directly.

Suppose my task is to learn a new word from another person who knows its definition. Let’s say the word is flabmonk. When I see or hear flabmonk, I have concrete experience. This is the visual and/or auditory sensory event for my brain. When I reflect on the word flabmonk, I remember other words and images that seem related or similar. I may recall that flab suggests fat, monk could be a religious person, or it could be an animal. This is the reflective brain at work; it primarily involves memory. As various possibilities come to me, I begin to develop an abstract idea for the meaning of flabmonk. I may think, for example, that a flabmonk is a new species of animal, or it may be a fat religious person, or a pompous fundamentalist. This is my abstracting brain at work. It is converting past images into new images, and then into new words—new symbols for the real thing. Finally, I test my hypothesis. To do this I must act; I must speak or write. So I ask, “A pompous fundamentalist?” This requires activity by my motor brain. Instantly, my teacher responds. “Yes!” she says and laughs out loud! I have tested my idea.

Or he says, “Sorry, good guess! Try again.” I have tested and my test failed, but now my sensory brain has new input and the cycle can start again.

Here is a summary of this example:

  1. Hear words or see words = concrete experience
  2. Remember related words, images, or ideas = reflection
  3. Generate new words or ideas = abstraction
  4. Speak or write new words or ideas = active testing
  5. Hear or see new words and teacher’s response = new concrete experience 

Our hypothesis about the brain would say that number 1 involves the sensory cortex, number 2 involves the back integrative cortex, number 3 involves the frontal integrative cortex, number 4 involves the motor cortex, and number 5 re-engages the sensory cortex.   

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Bill Glovin, editor
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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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