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University Communications

January 7, 2003

How the Human Brain Learns is the Basis for New Teaching Text By La Salle Professors, Takes Advantage of Cognitive Science Findings

Scientists and educators have made huge strides in understanding how the brain works and how human beings learn, but despite these advances most teaching methods are based on outdated and limited techniques. Now, two La Salle University education professors have written a textbook that focuses on newer ideas and concepts based on the science of learning.

Preston Feden and Robert Vogel spent the past 15 years understanding how findings from cognitive science can be applied to teaching, and helping students and teachers learn to apply the techniques derived from these findings. They have worked with 32 schools across the country helping teachers implement their methods with success.

Robert Vogel
"We know a great deal more about how children learn than we did years ago, and we have the tools to help them learn better," says Vogel, who studies instructional methods.

They have distilled the essential ideas from their findings down to nine concepts (see Add Two of release) that form the core of their newly published textbook, Methods of Teaching: Applying Cognitive Science to Promote Student Learning, published by McGraw-Hill.

It includes numerous ideas and strategies derived from cognitive science that can be used in classrooms from elementary school to
university level. (The authors also pointed out that they received important feedback from teachers using their findings, and incorporated that information into their text.)

Feden, who studies human cognition and learning, brought his specialty together with Vogel's to create "thinking tools" to help even experienced teachers organize and implement lessons using tenets of cognitive science. The 'tools' are based upon their work with more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and their work with teachers all across the country.

Says Vogel, "First and foremost among these concepts is the need to change the ways we teach. While virtually everything in our society has changed, schools and teaching methods have not changed substantially in over 100 years. Technology has changed everything. Students today have easy access to lots of information, and that change has to be recognized."

New Education

Another core idea is the need to learn together with one another. According to Feden, research shows that "human beings learn best by interacting with one another about things that that they find personally meaningful."

According to research, the human brain, when learning, strives to make connections. "The brain does not learn in isolation," says Vogel. Lessons have to be taught in a way so that the new knowledge connects to something the student already know, he says.

Preston Feden
Adds Feden, "Students have to do something with information they learn, and then they can process information more deeply. Students need to use what they have learned to reinforce it."

The professors also note that not everyone learns the same way. "Everyone comes 'wired' differently," says Vogel. "Some people are better at communicating through writing, others by speaking. Both Feden and Vogel agree that rather than subverting individual differences, teachers should exploit them to their fullest advantage to make for a better learning environment.

One controversial concept that they include in their textbook is that, in their view, students with disabilities are not as different from other children as most people think they are. Conversely, children in regular classrooms, even though they may be the same age, are not so similar to one another as people assume they are. Teachers need to use these differences to their advantage, say Feden and Vogel.

Another major idea is that student testing needs to find a happy medium between "objective, norm-referenced measures" on the one hand, and more authentic, subjective measures on the other hand.

An important concept that they believe is that "less is more." Americans think that more is better, but study after study shows that human beings can process only so much information at one time. According to one study, math textbooks in the United States cover 175 percent more topics, yet German students outperform American students in math achievement. Why? The answer is that the human brain can only absorb so much information at a time. By concentrating more on less information, students are better able to retain and use knowledge.

Finally, Vogel and Feden reiterate that schools have not changed very much over the years. "Now is the time for such change," they write.

New Education

The nine core concepts of instruction Professors Feden and Vogel devised based on cognitive research findings are:

1. Change: What we know about how human beings learn has changed, say Feden and Vogel. That information must be used when teaching.

2. Human beings learn best in cooperation with other human beings by actively using the information they learn to be personally meaningful. The authors suggest having students communicate using email, instant messenger and chatrooms to encourage working together and using each other's expertise to check homework and prepare for tests.

3. The ability to retain and understand knowledge is greatly enhanced when students make connections to what they already know. A real-life example is how a class studying the human cell compared its components to soccer: the nucleus was represented by the referee, because he controls the game, like the nucleus controls the cell. The cell wall was represented by the goalie, because he doesn't let things in, etc.

4. Deep rather than surface learning promotes retention, understanding and the ability to use knowledge. Feden and Vogel write that instructional strategies, such as identifying similarities and differences, summarizing, generating and testing hypotheses are some methods of promoting "deep" learning.

5. Human beings learn in different ways, and those differences should be exploited, not rejected. Some people perceive information either concretely or abstractly, and order that information either sequentially or randomly. Some people are introverted, and some are extraverted. They all bring important abilities to each other and to the classroom.

6. Students with special needs are not so different from other students; therefore, when instruction is properly adjusted, all students can benefit. With students who have short attention spans, the authors recommend varying the tasks, or providing compelling visually stimulating props.

7. There should be less emphasis placed on objective, standardized tests (such as the SAT) and more emphasis on subjective methods to indicate a student's understanding of content. An example would be to have students make presentations in class. Using visuals, such as maps, or taking questions from other students, can demonstrate what a student has learned from lessons.

8. Less is more. The brain can only learn so much. One method of "less is more" is, rather than teaching about individual wars in history, study the concept of "conflict," and what are its causes and outcomes.

9. Everything Changes. Society has changed, technology has changed, people change. Now is the time for Schools to Change!