Friday, March 17, 2017

Thomas Innovation Mentors: Project Kick-off

Last Friday, March 10th, we launched the Thomas Innovation Mentors Project. We are a team of eight highly motivated and curious teachers eager to reflect on our students’ classroom experience. The idea is to look at everything that takes place within the classroom from the student’s perspective. We want to tap into the perceptions and emotions that our students experience during their time with us in order to gain new insights into possible paths to innovation.

We are adopting a Design Thinking (DT) approach, since its very definition reflects how we want to go about the project: DT is a human-centered design process. Therefore, in our first face-to-face session we facilitated a DT crash course put together by Stanford’s Throughout the session, team members worked with a partner to redesign a gift-giving experience. In the process, they were able to go through the DT cycle and apply the ‘mindfulnesses’ necessary to successfully engage in the co-creation process.

The 5-stage DT cycle  (Image by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford)

The DT ‘mindfulnesses’  (Image by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford)

Team members worked together to understand their partner’s profile and needs in order to design a new and impactful gift-giving experience for their partners. Massive interaction and dynamic collaboration naturally took place, and the energy level was high up throughout the session. Each team member then prototyped their ideas in order to see how their partners interacted with it. Every stage of the DT cycle was timed, which made the creative process challenging and quite fruitful.


It was a very successful kick-off session! We reached our goal of getting primed for applying the DT process, both in practical terms as well as in mindful terms. We are now engaging in understanding the challenge ahead of us. The next step will be to empathize with our “user” - our students - in order to more clearly define the direction we are headed. We are certain that this is going to be a very rich (and fun!) learning experience for all our project collaborators - teachers and students.

Team members proudly exhibiting their prototypes.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The Learning Cycle
The human brain is designed for learning, but how do we learn? In the book The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning James E. Zull defines learning as “change, growth, and pruning of our neu­rons, connections–called synapses– and neu­ronal networks, through expe­ri­ence. There are four stages of the Learning Cycle:
1) We have Con­crete expe­ri­ence,
2) We develop Reflec­tive Obser­va­tion and Con­nec­tions,
3) We gen­er­ate Abstract hypoth­e­sis,
4) We then do Active test­ing of those hypothe­ses, and there­fore have a new Con­crete expe­ri­ence, and a new Learn­ing Cycle ensues”.
In an interview with Alvaro Fernandez, James E. Zull summaries the learning cycle  as such: “… we 1) get infor­ma­tion (sen­sory cor­tex), 2) make mean­ing of that infor­ma­tion (back inte­gra­tive cor­tex), 3) cre­ate new ideas from these mean­ings (front inte­gra­tive cor­tex) and 4) act on those ideas (motor cor­tex). From this I propose that there are four pillars of learn­ing: gath­er­ing, ana­lyz­ing, cre­at­ing, and acting” (
Thus, the cycle is based on the idea that knowledge cannot be acquired from zero; learning originates in concrete experience which Zull calls experiential learning. But experience isn’t everything. Zull informs that “learning also requires reflection, developing abstractions, and active testing of our abstractions” (p. 18). According to Zull, learning also requires effort and get­ting out of our com­fort zones.  Learners must be motivated and self-driven and maintain a sense of ownership.  Zull further states that in order for the Learning Cycle to self-perpetuate,  the learner must feel in control (ownership) of the process and that progress is being made.

The process of changing data into knowing is what Kolb calls “transformation of experience.” (See David Kolb, Experiential Learning, Experience as the Source of Learning and Development New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983). Zull divides this process of transforming into three parts: 1st – transformation from past to future (connect from our memory); 2nd – transformation of the source of knowledge from outside ourselves to inside ourselves; and 3rd – transformation of power (from weakness and dependence to strength and independence). “If we bring our entire brain into the process of learning, we will find control passing from others to ourselves.” (Zull, p. 33)  Learning is about power and control.  If you want your students to learn, you must give them control of learning. Students choose to learn. If students are not engaged in the process, literally doing something with their brains (i.e. using their frontal lobes to analyze data, producing, having fun, etc.), and if they don’t have power, they won’t learn. Teachers must try to identify what’s already motiving students to learn, and then guarantee that students believe in their ability to learn.

Set the stage
Teaching is about creating conditions that lead to change in a learner’s brain. Teachers need to find and create con­nec­tions between the new infor­ma­tion and chal­lenges, and that which learners already know and care about. Set the stage for neural pathways to be changed! Teachers need to create a positive, comfortable atmosphere and environment. We must engage our students so that their brains decide to cooperate and take in the information we are teaching through the sensory pathways, and make sense of that information through the integrative processes by the neurons transmitting messages to one another. If we want to create long-term memory, we must create new synaptic connections which are made as a result of experience and learning. According to Piaget, the brain can change as a combination of nature and nurture. They are not separate processes. Therefore, at a cellular level, one realizes that the brain can change because of experience. Long term memory alters the gene expression in nerve cells. Consequentially, a genetic disease, for example, can be changed, perhaps by eating differently or doing different things.

Neurons and  synapse
Learning means making connections from existing neural information to new information. Synapses is a structure that  regulates intercellular communication in the nervous system and provides information flow within neural networks. Neurons are nerve cells which make connections in the brain. There are three basic parts of a neuron: the dendrites, the cell body and the axon. Neurons are specialized to transmit information throughout the body, and they communicate information both in chemical and electrical forms.  According to Kendra Cherry “There are also several different types of neurons responsible for different tasks in the human body. Sensory neurons carry information from the sensory receptor cells throughout the body to the brain. Motor neurons transmit information from the brain to the muscles of the body. Interneurons are responsible for communicating information between different neurons in the body”. (Kendra Cherry in The Structure of a Neuron. (
Either existing connections between neurons get stronger, or new connections appear between existing neurons.  Neurons have specialized projections called dendrites and  axons. Dendrites are the extensions of the cells with many branches, like a tree. These fibers transmit impulses to the neuron cell body.  So, dendrites bring information to the cell body. There’s only one axon that projects from each cell body. It is usually elongated and carries information away from the cell body. (To see this in action:
Information from one neuron flows to another neuron across a synapse. “The synapse contains a small gap separating neurons. For communication between neurons to occur, an electrical impulse must travel down an axon to the synaptic terminal. The synapse consists of:
  1. a presynaptic ending that contains neurotransmitters, mitochondria and other cell organelles
  2. a postsynaptic ending that contains receptor sites for neurotransmitters
  3. a synaptic cleft or space between the presynaptic and postsynaptic endings”.  (
Neurons firing ideas and images.
To give you an idea of the grandiosity and intensity of the neuronal network and the brain’s capacity for growth and change, I would like to share information I came across which forms a  comparison of a neuron in the brain to a webpage in the internet. The information below is a summary of this fascinating comparison which can be watched on From Neurons to Networks (  The video explains that a human at about any age has about 100 billion neurons in the brain. The internet has 10 times that: 1 trillion web pages. So, with this analogy the internet is bigger. But, which is more complex? According to the video, we could say a synapse in the brain, a connection point in the brain between two neurons is like a hyperlink, a connection point between two webpages.  The internet has 1 trillion links, and an adult brain has three hundred trillion links, or 10 times the connections of the internet.  These human connections are the framework for the foundation of the  building blocks of the development of the brain.

Magic Middle
Both Piaget and Vygotsky most likely would teach from the “magic middle”, which is the zone of proximal development , ZPD, where, according to Zull,  students are neither bored nor frustrated; where they need to actually work to learn, but have the support system there to guide them, be it the teacher and/or other peers.   Perhaps Vygotsky’s best known concept, the ZPD describes the learner’s level of independent performance (what he/she can do alone) and the learner’s level of assisted performance (what he/she can do with support). Once the student, with the benefit of scaffolding, masters the task, the scaffolding can then be removed and the student will then be able to complete the task again on their own. Vygotsky believed in the importance of keeping students interested and thinking by themselves; therefore, students are challenged, but  not threatened.

Engaging and creating memory
Similarly, teachers must be careful to engage students without bringing in anxiety or trauma. The brain hones in on two fundamental survival  goals: safety and happiness.  The amygdala is involved in processing emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure and is responsible for storing emotional memories.  The amygdala like the hippocampus helps in transforming our short term memories into long term ones, but the amygdala focuses on the emotional based memories. The amygdala is an almond shaped mass of flesh located deep inside the brain, which, via electrical impulses triggers our fear system of survival to freeze, flee or flight.  Because the brain is an organ of thought and emotions, we as teachers must ensure that students are in control of their learning in the classroom,  and that they don’t  panic and become fearful under our tutelage. Stress interferes with neurotransmitter function. We want to make sure that the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area of neurons adjacent to the amygdala and that is the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing memories, works in together with the amygdala: Human emotion linked and acting with memory.  
On the other hand, to enact the learning process, we need to turn on our students’  pleasure system by making learning fun and engaging. Students must want to learn if they are to learn. People learn what is important to them. So, part of teaching is learning the motivating factor that brought your student into your classroom. What is it that he/she wants to learn?  Ultimately learning must be meaningful in order to engage the diversity of learners. You must connect with what students already know (knowledge cannot be acquired from zero). The more personalized the better for material related to real life activates student’s neural networks and therefore adds to existing knowledge.  Thus, teachers need to find ways of teaching that connect to prior knowledge and build on that data. Therefore, as teachers we must help our students make connections to prior experiences, knowledge, and learning—and associations to other areas of their experiences and life. 

Developing a Lesson Plan based on the Learning Cycle
As a concrete example of the learning cycle in action, I have attached  a 50 minute lesson plan where I have incorporated “blue bullets” to signalize the use of elements of the learning cycle and process in each component of my lesson. The objective of my lesson is that by the end of the class, my students  learn to use go phrases by talking about places they go to and when or what day(s) of the week they do so. I am focusing on three new chunks of information (go, places and days of week), so as not to overwhelm learners cognitive capacity, which recent neuroscientific findings have determined is actually just three to four new  items of information at a time.
My  lesson begins by reviewing information from the last class and ensuring that their brains were rewired and made the necessary connections.  I am also engaging the students and activating their  experiences  and knowledge of the topic of the new vocabulary (activities and days of the week). I’m doing this by incorporating associations of places that my students  already know in my lesson plan. Thus,  I am  helping students make the connection with prior knowledge. What is happening, however, is I am  physically altering my students' brains by creating and strengthening neural pathways. The know the types of places, but not their names in the new language. According to Wendi Pillars in Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning, by engaging a range of sensory pathways, I am providing my students with opportunites for implicit and explicit opportunities to recognize and make connections.
Furthermore, we all learn differently because everybody owns a variety of reception models. Therefore, during the 50  minute lesson, I’ve tried to incorporate diverse sensory perceptions (PPTs with pictures, slips of paper, pictures in book, audio for listening, music). And, I am consistently and constantly bridging old and new information in my Lesson so that they can keep making connections and keep their neural pathways clear.  
I make a considerable effort to teach in the magic middle, the “zone of proximal development” so as to interest my students, while at the same time finding a common denominator to build their confidence and knowledge. By doing this, I am activating  their schemata and building the thinking process and putting learning in their own hands; as they are consistently talking about personal things, experiences and life. I know not only what the learners developmental level is at each time of my lesson, but also what skills and concepts will develop next. By working in the  ZPD and scaffolding, I am ensuring and engaging, albeit in a non-threatening environment and format where students feel comfortable, in control and in power. This will help them  get out of their comfort zones and try  new things without the fear of failure. I have set the stage. My students work individually, in pairs and in  small groups, where they’re more comfortable and whereupon I hope they  feel safer, can take risks, speak , share thoughts, ask questions.  Throughout my lesson, I am giving them pieces of a puzzle, but they themselves are putting it together by discovery patterns and putting them into practice via production, oral and written. Within the lesson, I have built up and built upon the four architectural pillars of learn­ing: gath­er­ing, ana­lyz­ing, cre­at­ing, and acting.
Learning involves making connections: teachers must “fire until you wire”. If you don’t use the brain, the tissue dies. The brain needs to be exercised to keep “fit” just as other parts of our physical body. And, learning takes effort.  The old adage: “Use it or lose it” applies to memory. People who  are engaged in mentally stimulating activities make more synaptic connections in the brain. Just as we’re concerned for our physical well-being, and therefore eat properly, get enough exercise and sleep, maintaining a healthy brain is equally fundamental and rewarding. Exercise oxygenates the brain which is important for synaptic formation and growth . “Fire until you wire”. Drill until you’ve built the neuronal networks that made the connection and “learned”. Repeating and reviewing so that you, Dear Reader, create the neuronal network necessary to grasp this concept: Make connections: fire until you wire.

 Betsey W. Neal