How we learn pt 3: Empathy in the classroom

To join the conversation it might be helpful to read the other posts in this series.
How we learn pt. 1: Neural anatomy and the 15 minute teapot
How we learn pt. 2: Expanding the super highway of your mind

Before I go deeper into the methods I described in the last How we learn post I want to mention an area of teaching that can be challenging. As the more experienced partner in a student/teacher relationship it can be difficult to empathize with my student's lack of understanding. At times I find myself thinking "How does this not make sense to you? Is my explanation sub par? Are you working hard enough?" An idea that seems rudimentary to the teacher can appear intellectually out of reach to a student. A closer look at the learning process can help ease the gap between teacher and student.

As neural pathways are created information becomes accessible for recall. Unless these connections are eroded by inactivity, or brain injury (click here for a brain map and corresponding injury deficits), the information is stored with little effort. Knowledge that originally was a struggle to learn becomes intuitive and the learning process can easily be taken for granted. Part of connecting with students is being conscious of the difficulty inherent in every learning process. In the brain all new ideas are equally hard to grasp. The experience the brain has when a child is learning to spell is no simpler, or harder, than a PhD student working to master an advanced physics proof. While these examples happen under different durations both learners are attempting to make basic neural connections. Being reminded of this helps me be more patient when my students are struggling with a topic. To be an effective teacher I have to deliver information while trusting the natural evolution of the educational process. Students need time and space to make their own connections. It is good to remember that learning happens on the student's timeline not the teacher's.

When working with struggling students it is helpful to retrace the steps of my own learning. Working backwards from a point of understanding to the beginning of the learning process helps me rediscover instructional steps that I often overlook. (Do you tract your learning process while you learn? If you are like me probably not very often because it is a completely different thought process than simple recall.) I never know which part of my explanation will lead to an educational breakthrough. I have watched students have eureka moments with small pieces of information that seemed inconsequential at the time. 

The last post in this series takes a deeper look at teaching techniques that strengthen neural pathways. I hope to post it in the next few days. Enjoy the day.

The series How we learn was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting, and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org.

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