I walk into my “Foundations of Language and Culture” class eagerly anticipating the last two student presentations on the brain and learning. The groups who spoke about brain structures and the male brain two days ago set the bar high, and the buzz of focused activity in the “female brain” group and the contrastingly calm demeanor of the “how the brain changes as you learn” group both suggest they feel they will be up to the task of meeting that standard.

It turns out the the group speaking about the female brain has only just solved the issue of how to merge four separate PowerPoints together (we had agreed each student could hook up her own netbook to the projector in turn if need be), and they ask for just a few more moments to double-check that the animations still work properly. While we are waiting, I pass out the evaluation forms the class designed and answer random student questions as they arise. Finally, nearly everything is ready – “Could you please turn out the lights?” calls out a student – and the audience looks expectantly toward the Smart Board around which the female brain group has gathered. By the end of the presentation, according to the evaluation forms, members of the class will have learned “about how females use more of their emotional sides and are more prone to depression,” that “girls are more likely to focus on facial expressions as infants,” that “empathizing tendencies means they’re [women] better at communicating with each other,” that “women are better at language and understanding emotions,” women have more white matter in their brain and “more balance,” and many other things including the fact that “women are at more risk for Alzheimer’s,” the vocabulary term “mentalistic tendencies” and “the importance of connectedness.”

Once the last assessment form is turned in, the next group begins to speak. Like the other groups, they speak with a confidence they may or may not feel, judging from their self-assessment sheets, about how the brain changes as you learn. They begin by acknowledging that their research suggests there are differing opinions on whether or not the brain can grow neurons after you are born, give and explain their personal opinion, and continue on to make a remarkable presentation on the plasticity of the brain. Assessment sheets tell the story of what the other students learned: that “the brain has white and grey matter,” that “when you learn, neurons… come together to share information and make a pathway,” that “learning takes place when neurons connect to each other,” that “you MIGHT be born without all your neurons,” and more. Although the group mentioned the role of myelin in learning, in “smoothing the path for learning to occur” as they put it, I am not 100% certain the importance sank in with other students, so I make a mental note to come back to that point sometime very soon. In general, as skillful as these presentations were and as clear as it was that the students understood the importance of what they were doing, I know that we will need to revisit much of this information if the students are to retain it over the longer term. Those new neural connections and thickened myelin sheaths will return to their former states if I don’t!

To start that process, and to tie the presentations back to our year-long textbook project, I ask the students what they have learned that will help them write a good textbook together. They come up with the following principles:
1. We can review things to help create a strong pathway with a thick myelin sheath.
2. We can fully immerse people in a language, such as having a chapter entirely in the language.
3. Make information clear so that it can be processed and stored in an organized way in the brain.
4. We could explain how the brain works – so they know how they learn (and because it’s interesting).
5. Include pictures and visuals.
6. Create a movie, perhaps a skit for each language, a mini-documentary for each culture.
7. Include appropriate background information.
8. Keep in mind that different people learn different ways – there are multiple ways of communicating such as information, text, visuals, more.
9. Add links for follow up and clarification.
10. Compare our culture to other cultures (relates them…. connects new information to an existing neural network).
11. Speak from multiple perspectives.
12. [a content-related comment: explore stereotypes and where they come from.]
13. Make it appealing and fun – connect emotionally.
14. Pace it appropriately… not too much too fast, but not too slow either.

Of course, as I’d imagined they would, their ideas apply to good learning/teaching techniques in general. If I am explicit with them about not only what they are learning but also how I am setting up the course to help in that process, it should help create a number of connections, not just within neural networks and not just from areas of the brain most closely associated with emotion to other areas of the brain used for learning, but also between the students and me as well as among the students themselves. This group of students is already among the most metacognitive with whom I have worked, and they have strong potential to become even more self-aware about their learning. What an amazing year this promises to be!

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