Daily Archives: September 26, 2008

Neuronal Networks – James Zull

The single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.   –David Ausubel

I have seen this quote, from Zull’s book, verified time and time again, not just in my classes but also in my own learning. In part two of his book, James Zull writes about building on existing “neuronal networks” and making connections. As connections are made, the neuronal networks grow, and this growing of networks is the creation of knowledge.

This process of expanding connections very much reminds me of the game of word association, where the idea is to say the first word that pops into mind upon hearing an initial word. Each subsequent player responds to the word uttered by the previous person, and it can be quite entertaining and illuminating to see where you wind up, especially if someone is writing down all of the associations. If you feel like playing, you can play online at word association or Funny Farm puzzle.

Zull uses this section of his book to provide some biologically based practical suggestions for teachers. In his words:

What We Have Learned about What We Already Know

  • All students have prior knowledge that affects how they respond to our teaching.
  • The prior knowledge of students is not an ether; it is physical, real, and persistent.
  • If we ignore or avoid prior knowledge, it will hinder our teaching.
  • Prior knowledge is complex and personal.
  • Students are not necessarily aware of all their prior knowledge. 
  • Writing assignments are helpful in discovering prior knowledge of students.
  • Prior knowledge is likely to be concrete; teachers should begin with the concrete.
  • Concepts and broad principles should be developed from specific examples.
  • Teachers should expect and respect the tangles; it is not our job to set them in order.
  • Prior knowledge is a gift to the teacher; it tells us where and how to start.

Learning is the process of constructing new connections from existing networks, and this process causes actual physical changes in the brain. Zull concludes part two with a list for teachers of ten strategies, based upon the biology of the brain, which can help in making those changes in the brain. I would add that these are equally applicable to our own learning process, for ideally we are all life-long learners.

  1. Watch for inherent networks (natural talents) and encourage their practice.
  2. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
  3. Arrange for “firing together.” Associated things should happen together.
  4. Focus on sensory input that is “errorless.”
  5. Don’t stress mistakes. Don’t reinforce neuronal networks that aren’t useful.
  6. Try to understand existing networks and build on them. Nothing is new.
  7. Misconnected networks are most often just incomplete. Try to add to them.
  8. Be careful about resurrecting old networks; error dies hard.
  9. Construct metaphors and insist that your students build their own metaphors.
  10. Use analogies and similes, too.

So what word associations and connections do Zull’s lists bring to mind?