“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 21: Where Brains Learn

Some cognitive particulars about learning in the real world

shewhowatchesby Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

T3he crack, a river, flows from the upper left corner of the wall, spreads into branching riverlets as it nears the window. That sentence was written in metaphor. The next sentence has no metaphor, but carries the same information: There was a crack in the wall which branched as it neared the window. Which will you remember? Which brings recallable pictures to your mind? This is like engaging in science inquiry in the real world. Compared to reading about the results of science inquiry in the real world. Each gives a visual clue, but which will come most easily to mind?

This is like science made vs. science in the making. The place of Assimilation is learning for understanding. When you engage your students in the real world, it acts like a metaphor, clarifies concepts and rectifies them with experience.

When you use the conceptual structures which underlie learning, they act as metaphors to clarify what you and your students are doing and learning. These structures are like the mirrors in a kaleidoscope which always generate the underlying structure of the image you see, and the pieces, ordered by that structure, are what you respond to. Can I add a little more to this?

We’ve been examining the conceptual structures that underlie learning, and how concrete experience in the real world encourages our brains to engage those structures. They reside in the architecture and processes of the brain. A picture of how they work to build understanding began to clarify itself to me during my teaching years. The brain is the organ of learning, and its structure and function does facilitate learning, especially when the delivery of the learnings recognizes how the brain works. Just as knowing the structure of color facilitates painting with water colors. When you dip the brush and apply it to paper, you know and anticipate what will happen. The underlying structure determines, to a large extent, what emerges.

Many of us carry an image of the human mind as an entity disembodied from our brain, an ethereal thing that goes where we go, and does our thinking for us. And no wonder. We can’t see the brain work, even in our classrooms. It doesn’t move the way muscles do, and it makes no sound. The best we can do is to know what the work of the parts of the brain are, and look for evidence of what they do in the things our students do and think.

Take Assimilation. The concept of Assimilation has varied descriptions, depending on who’s doing the describing. They generally carry this piece: What the learner personally experiences in the world about is incorporated into the world within our mind or brain. Its strength lies in the interaction between our brain and objects in the world outside ourselves. These are concrete interactions, and they work perfectly with the way our brain is organized to learn. Our brain learned to learn in the real world, where engaging concrete objects led to the kinds of abstractions that emerged as spear throwers and paintings on rocks, sticks, and cave walls. That is what makes metaphor such a powerful writing and rhetorical vehicle. It clarifies a subject with visual, tactile, olfactory, aural, and taste details that engage our senses, and make complexities open to understanding. A brain which developed in a concrete world is able to soar. Marvelous!

I often mention concrete vs. abstract referents. You can do the following as an experiment if you teach the same thing to two classes. When we are presented with new material in an abstract form, like a paragraph of information, we can put it into long term memory by using the information several times. Think of the end-of-section questions, where students answer questions by reviewing what they have read about particulars. Like Procedural Memory, which helps us carry out actions, it may stay with us, but different but related pieces won’t be stored as one concept. When we actually engage concrete referents, a thermometer in a stream, we engage Declarative or Distributed Memory, episodes and facts that can be brought to mind consciously, where new learnings are incorporated into concepts already residing in the brain. Let’s look at some of the parts of the brain involved in these processes.

When a student holds a thermometer in her hand and immerses it into the cold waters of a glacier-fed stream, her eyes send visual information about this to the visual processing areas in the Occipital Lobe of her brain, at the very back of her head. The Parietal Lobe, between the Occipital Lobe and the middle of her head, processes the feeling and temperature of the water on her hand. It also keeps track of where her person ends and the rest of the world begins, then gathers the visual, tactile, and coolness information, and passes it to other parts of the brain which carry memories of all these things.

You can get a sense for how this functions when you sit down to enjoy your favorite beverage, say a latte. (Now, you have to tell yourself that you’re here to learn. That sets things up in your brain.) As your fingers move toward the cup’s handle, you become very aware of the shape of the handle just outside your skin, and the round shape of the cup. You may have brief perceptions of other cups, perhaps a favorite that is still in the dishwasher. You can see the foamy latte part of the beverage near the top of the cup, and anticipate its flavor. Certainly you’ll be aware of its texture, fine bubbles, color, pieces that your tongue loves to discover. And the coffee itself. You’ll know what kind it is, where it was grown, color, anticipated taste, texture, and the bouquet it always leaves in your mouth after you’ve sipped it. You may even be aware of the brands of the latte and coffee, and other facts of these ingredients of the beverage. You may have brief recollections of other places you’ve had this particular blend, who was there, and what you were doing.

These things happen very quickly, but they are perceptions perceived. Each piece of information came from specific parts of your brain, and these were processed together in your prefrontal cortex, at the front of you head, as what is currently called Working Memory. The prefrontal cortex is also the place where you engage critical thinking. Nice.

So, by doing something when you’ve told yourself that you’re doing it to learn, you suddenly have all of the things you’ll need to help you learn brought together in the part of the brain that can do the learning. Why shouldn’t we use the structure and function of the brain to enhance the delivery of our curricula? Let’s take this idea back to the young woman immersing her thermometer into the waters of a stream.

As she picks up the thermometer, positions it in her hand so she can see its graduations, she becomes very aware of its shape, its use, her expectations for what it will tell her, the particular reason she is picking it up, the memories she already has about streams, and thermometers, and, because she’s here to learn about salmon, some thoughts about how salmon like the temperature of their water.

She is on the first hour of a one week unit on watersheds, so doesn’t know a great deal about water temperature, salmon, and watersheds. None the less, what memories she does have of these things come together with all the rest in working memory, ready to learn.

So, she measures the temperature of the water, and it’s twelve degrees celcius. Her working memory doesn’t know where to fit this in, what I call a Need to Know. So she looks for the reference book that is part of the contents of the box she helped carry down to the streambank. Finding it, she looks for information about salmon and temperature, and finds they prefer waters with a range of temperatures between 4.4 and 14.0C. Then her prefrontal cortex, the site of critical thinking, begins to use the information she has gleaned and memories stored, to engage the prefrontal cortex’s functions of perseverance, self-monitoring and supervision, problem solving, orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals, compare and contrast, working toward a defined goal, expectation based on actions, extract and reconstruct sequences of meaning from ongoing experience.

That’s a long list, a partial one, of the functions of this site of human learning that current US curricula generally overlooks. Contrast this with the teacher telling students about salmon and water temperature, the student reading in the text about it then answering questions in the back of the chapter about these things. Compare and contrast (using your prefrontal cortex!) this with the rich texture of meaning in the young woman with the thermometer.
Next time we’ll look some more at this underlying structure of learning.

jimphotocroppedThis is the twentyfirst installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”