Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"What" and "Where" Enable Learning and Higher Thinking

While their research and associated technology can be complicated, the discoveries of neuroscientists often reveal simple principles of brain functioning.

For example, neuroscientists recently traced the flow of auditory data through the brain. As sound waves spark our nervous system into action, auditory data gets sent from lower functioning areas of the brain to higher functioning areas via two “routes.” One route, the “low road,” carries data through the temporal lobe and enables us to identify what we are hearing. Simultaneously, data traveling the other route, the “high road,” moves through the parietal lobe and enables us to identify where the sound was produced.1

Visual data follows very similar routes. The “low road” flows through the temporal lobe and extracts information about what is being seen. The “high road” flows through the parietal lobe and extracts information about where objects are located.2 What and where precede deeper thinking about new data.

What does this have to do with learning? If students are asked to think critically about or apply new information without an opportunity to establish what and where, their efforts will likely yield poor results.

For example, I often observe teachers presenting a sequence of steps that students need to follow to achieve some result. As students practice, the teacher roams the room and checks student work. A student with an incorrect result is often reminded that the steps “are listed on the white board,” and directed to look there to find his mistake. But whose brain processed what and where as the teacher wrote the steps in order on the board? The teacher’s. The student’s brain focused on the what and where of the teacher’s movement and voice, not the material. As a result, the student still lacks the processing of the material necessary to enable higher functioning, such as using the sequence of steps to achieve a result.

However, if the teacher has the students write the steps of the sequence onto index cards and then arrange them in the correct order, the students process the what and where of the new material. Additionally, the teacher can assess the students’ knowledge before they begin making application. Instructive feedback at this point prevents incorrect practice.

Professional literature often refers to this processing of what and where as comprehension (not to be confused with reading comprehension), and some instructional design models recognize its role in effective teaching. Including opportunities for students to identify and sort new instructional material—to identify what and where—enables the higher functioning, such as constructing understanding and engaging in critical thinking, that we’re pursuing.

A simple principle of brain functioning; a necessary element of learning.

1. How Brain Processes Speech. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2009/05/090526140733.htm
2. Berns, G., Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008).