Most beginning teachers quickly discover that they don’t completely understand all the curricular material they’re expected to teach, and many of the noteworthy events the mass media constantly report. Professional pride and the questions and confusion of our students tend to nudge us to try to develop at least a functional understanding of such issues.

Involve your students in a collaborative search for understanding when you find yourself in such an instructional fog. Don’t be embarrassed to admit that you don’t understand something, and to seek their assistance in studying it.

I was a 6th grade teacher in 1957 when Russia launched the first satellite without advance notice. Space travel had arrived over the weekend, and I believed that my students and I needed to learn about it. I knew practically nothing about rockets and satellites, but we worked together without textbook support to plan and then to explore the phenomenon as it unfolded daily in the media. We made and fired rockets several weeks later — something many classes do now, but we did it during the month the space era began!

Today’s teachers work within an explosion of new developments in science and technology that almost makes the flight of Sputnik seem primitive. They thus must maintain both student and teacher mentalities. For example, teacher education programs didn’t (and typically still don’t) include what is known about the development and operation of the human brain — but even teachers with a limited understanding of brain processes and discoveries have the same obligation to explain new research developments to their students that I had to explain rocketry and satellites decades ago.

In last month’s column, I suggested several readily available external resources that would increase your understanding of brain processes, but one of the best research resources is right in your classroom.

How To Begin
If you’re a teacher, think now also of yourself and your class as brain (or at least mind) researchers with a couple dozen or so subjects to study — about 100 pounds of encapsulated brain tissue floating several feet above floor level. You and your students can create many fascinating mind explorations (that future columns will explore), but begin your search for a functional understanding of brain processes through our brain’s remarkable introspective properties. For example, you probably ask students to translate many of their studies into tightly focused written documents that they hand in for you to evaluate. Insert an intermediate step.

Most students’ speaking capabilities are superior to their writing, both in the ease of transmission and in the depth of meaning. When your class has completed and turned in a written assignment, use a few minutes of class time to gather and discuss data on their mental processes. Use a simple 5 point scale (5 = high, 1 = low, and 2-4 indicate intermediate values) to quickly gather information on such issues as level of interest, difficulty, and feelings of success. Ask students raise one hand to register their vote as you count out the 1-5 values. Graph the response pattern on the chalkboard or an OH transparency.

Note how the class arranges itself along the 5 point scale, and discuss the results. For example, why did those who found the activity interesting or uninteresting feel as they did? How could the task have been made more interesting? What strategies did students use to complete the assignment, to overcome a lack of interest in the task?

Compare elements of the assignment that required considerable reflective thought (such as solving a novel challenge in the assignment), that required less thought (such as looking up a word in the dictionary), and that were processed almost automatically (such as writing out or typing the words they wrote),

It’s probable that no great insights into brain processes will emerge the first few times you attempt this, but stay with it. K-12 students are curious about their mental processes, and they’ll soon begin to ask about brain correlates of their thought processes as such discussions make them more conscious of mind/brain connections. Then let the collaborative search for biological explanations begin.

These 5-10 minute discussions will take on a life of their own as you and your class get caught up in them. Teachers who regularly do this report stimulating discussions that gave them insights into their students thoughts that they never would have gained otherwise. The educational enterprise is currently so obsessed with assessing final products that we’ve tended to ignore the process of learning — and these periodic discussions are a simple satisfying way to get back to these important process roots.

Think of the power of your students’ realization that their teacher is giving them a chance to orally and freely express how they feel about what they were asked to do, and how they arrived at their response. Think of adding that dimension to your growing study of brain processes — to tie what you’re now reading in cognitive literature to what you’re learning through student introspection.

When Sputnik was launched, I didn’t immediately decide that my class would make and launch rockets. My plan was to blow up balloons and observe their erratic flight. My 6th graders raised the issue of how to control the trajectory, and this led us from balloons to our rocket launch. Similarly, you won’t initially know where your students’ collective 100 pounds of brain tissue will take you when you begin to ask it how it feels about what it’s doing. It may respond like an uncontrolled released balloon or like a controlled rocket — but it will certainly take you well beyond where you are now. So try it.