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Using the Motor Brain to Close the Loop of Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Reluctantly, he began to do the problem on the board. I watched the board carefully at first, but then my attention wandered for an instant, and I saw his face. And as I watched, his face began to turn pink and then bright red. Contrasted with his jet-black hair, the image was unforgettable. Samuel had seen his error-an experience that was new and powerful for him.


The posting below offers a look a the role of connecting "action" with learning. It is from CHAPTER 2: Test by Trial Using the Motor Brain to Close the Loop of Learning, in The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, by James E. Zull, Baldwin-Wallace College. Published in 2002 by Stylus Publishing, [] LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive. Sterling, VA 201666 Copyright ? 2002 Stylus Publishing, LLC. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Using the Motor Brain to Close the Loop of Learning


Samuel was brilliant. I could tell that from the first. He seemed to understand everything instantly. And he was motivated. If there was ever a promising student, it was Samuel.

It probably won't surprise you to hear that he was also pretty cocky! He was used to being right. His thoughts and ideas were always better than those of his peers.

My moment of crisis with Samuel came after the first test. He hadn't done well with one of the problems, and I suspected that he would not like his grade much. It was no surprise when he showed up in my office, graded test in hand.

"What is wrong with this answer?" he challenged me directly. "I understand this problem exactly, and I know that I have done it right!" He looked at me defiantly.

I took a deep breath. "Well," I said, "let's work it through and see what we can find."

I don't have to work it through," he said. "I never do. I understand it without all that. I never work them through. It is a waste of time for me!"

"Well, then," I answered. "Would you do it for me? Show me what you are thinking?"

Reluctantly, he began to do the problem on the board. I watched the board carefully at first, but then my attention wandered for an instant, and I saw his face. And as I watched, his face began to turn pink and then bright red. Contrasted with his jet-black hair, the image was unforgettable. Samuel had seen his error-an experience that was new and powerful for him.

"I see what happened," I said quietly. "Of course you know how to do the problem. You just forgot something. What you actually wrote it out, you saw it instantly."

I hoped that he would overcome his embarrassment, but it was too much to ask right at that moment. Without a sound, Samuel picked up his test and bolted from my office.

* * *

What Samuel discovered was something obvious but at the same time often ignored by learners. He found that there is a great difference between imagining that we have done the problem and actually doing it. No matter what ideas our front cortex has created, we cannot know if they are true until they have been tested in a concrete and active way. Until we do that, as Sophocles said, our knowledge is "fanciful."

Testing our ideas through action is how we find out if we are on the right track. But there is another reason that action is a key part of learning. Action makes the learning cycle a cycle. Physical movement is needed to link our abstract mental notions with new concrete experience. Biology backs up this dual role for action in learning. This is one place where the connection between body and brain, which we discussed in Chapter 5, is obviously relevant. The brain gets ideas so the body can act. At the same time, the action of the body provides sensory feedback to the brain. It is through action that the biological wholeness of learning becomes apparent.

What Is Action?

As we have see in earlier chapters, the doing part of learning is the natural last step in the biological sequence that characterizes nervous systems:

Sense - Integrate - Act

In fact, action is why nervous systems are useful and why they evolved. Thinking of actions that might help us survive is important but useless unless we carry through, unless we act. Biologically, action is what happens whenever the muscles in our body move, either contracting or relaxing. When this happens, some part of our body must also move. This is a broad concept, and it may not fit well with some of our preconceptions. For example, we may think of action as something dramatic and obvious. But, according to this biological definition, people can be active while appearing quite still.

A good example is reading. To read, we must use the muscles in our eyes for focusing and for following the words on the page or screen. Each eye contains a small lens that is continually adjusted by small muscles in the eyeball, allowing us to focus on what we see. And, each eyeball is turned up, down, or sidewise, by other small muscles, thus allowing us to follow the words along the page. The lens changes shape, and the eyeball moves as we read. Reading is an intense, focused use of the motor brain. Reading is action.

Ideas Without Action

Like my student Samuel, we often have great confidence in our ideas. This is certainly true for me. When I have some new experience and develop some ideas about it, I automatically believe I have learned something and I am quite sure that I know what I have learned. So I often put off, or simply ignore, the testing part of learning. "That was really interesting," I think. "I really learned a lot!"

But as my life has gone on, I have noticed that this kind of learning doesn't work out well. If I never get around to actually doing something about those ideas, they seem to die. They may rest in my brain for a while, but ultimately the life goes out of them.

Since I am writing in the fall of 2001 following the terrorist attacks of the United States in which the two towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed, let's use that historical context for an example of ideas without action. Since the Taliban in Afghanistan supported the terrorist attacks, you feel that you would like the understand more about the reasons behind this terror. You decide to read Rashad's book, Taliban. As you read and as you reflect on the book, you find yourself getting some ideas about the Taliban, Afghanistan, and maybe even America. You may decide that even though you now understand things better, there is nothing in this book that can in any way justify the terror. Or you may arrive at a different conclusion. But whatever you begin to think about terrorism, you have arrived at that point by going through the learning cycle, including the experience of reading, your reflection on what you have read, and developing your own ideas.

So what happens now?

You might argue that this is enough. You have learned some things you value. You might use this knowledge sometime, but for now you will not do anything in particular about it. It is nice to have. You feel enlightened and even enriched.

But I would argue that you can't claim you have learned, just yet. Rather you have what Alfred North Whitehead called inert ideas, "?ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or throw into fresh combinations." And your learning will remain inert, without life, until it is tested.

Forms of Active Testing

You may resist this. "Of course I learned something!" you may protest. "I learned a lot about Afghanistan!" And if you do protest, then I would immediately feel better. In fact, I would drop my argument completely, because the minute you rise in defense of your learning, you have begun to test it.

Active testing can take many forms. Defending your inaction is a form of active testing. Even just reading another book on a related subject would be active testing. Any action that is inspired by your ideas qualifies as active testing. This is true because that new action will produce new experience, and learning can then continue.

How else might you test your ideas? You might talk to someone about the book. In conversation you would have many chances to explain what you learned and to hear what another person thinks of it. Of you might test your learning more directly by checking out what you could find about the Taliban on the web. And if you were very determined, you might seek out a friend from the Middle East to ask some questions.

If you are inclined to be more analytical, you might develop active testing to an art form. You might set up controlled experiments, so that you could be assured of the outcome. You might plan your actions in careful and rigorous ways, and you might repeat the testing many times to be sure that the results are statistically significant. You might actually revel in this part of the learning cycle. You could also "live out" your active testing. The Taliban book might raise your awareness of the importance of education or of women's rights, and you might take up one of those causes. That could be the most rigorous test of all.

In fact, it seems that life is a continual process of active testing of our ideas and hypotheses. Learning comes from those continual adjustments that we make in our actions as we have new experience and new ideas.