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Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind: A Conceptual and Practical Guide
Date Reviewed: March 7, 2016
Neuroscience is a burgeoning field, and Kathleen Taylor and Catherine Marienau mine it skillfully to craft Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind. This book is not structured like many teaching books – it begins, after all, with a drawing of “The Theater of Knowing,” to which the authors refer throughout. But to write it off because it is unfamiliar would be a mistake – this is a valuable book for any teacher of adults, no matter the subject.
Taylor and Marienau had been searching for a book that would “describe in language accessible to non-neuroscientists… how the adult brain works and also how to use this understanding to construct more brain-aware approaches that help adults learn and perform more effectively in diverse settings” (ix). Eventually they discovered that “the book we wanted to read was the one we would have to write” (x). Readers are the beneficiaries here; the research is fresh, the applications diverse, and Marienau and Taylor model brain-aware approaches in how they structure the book.
Part One distills brain science for the lay reader. For example, we learn that anxiety and curiosity function simultaneously in the brain, and good teaching should both stimulate the curious brain and reassure the anxious brain. “The science in Part One is grounded in brain research; however, we frequently use stories and metaphors to illuminate technical ideas. In similar fashion, we often describe the brain and its functions in analogical rather than anatomical terms,” the authors describe (xv).
Part Two sets forth an array of practices – embodied, metaphorical, verbal, theoretical, and more – to enhance adult learning. Taylor and Marienau interviewed a number of practitioners whose best practices are illustrated here. Part Three brings theory and reflection into dialogue with both the neuroscience from Part One and the practices introduced in Part Two. “Rather than begin our book with theory, which is typical, we first illuminate practice in part Two because… theories are more meaningful when the brain can connect them to concrete experiences” (xvi).
Key ideas are reviewed at the end of each chapter; visual illustrations and boxed examples enhance and expand on ideas introduced in the main text. The authors suggest additional reading at points, rather than devoting too much time to subthemes. They also provide opportunities for reflection at the conclusion of the chapters, encouraging readers to draw or sketch reflections as a way of accessing different brain functions. At various points, the reader will experience recognition: “Ah, that’s why this happens.” Other sections will inspire new approaches to try.
“Without necessarily identifying them as such, many experienced facilitators use embodied, analogical activities in their workshops, classes, or coaching and consulting settings because they have found them to greatly enhance adults’ grasp of key concepts as well as their own practice” (175). Many college and seminary professors, by contrast, were never trained in teaching. Sections on multiple intelligences and Kolb’s model of experiential learning, then, offer an added boon to readers with less experience in educational theory.
Parenthetically, reviewing this book was so influential that it has now become assigned reading for all adjunct faculty in a department to which I recommended it.
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Changing Minds and Brains: The Legacy of Reuven Feuerstein Higher Thinking and Cognition Through Mediated Learning
Date Reviewed: May 15, 2015
Until his death at ninety-three in 2014, Reuven Feuerstein was a leader in the fields of cognitive development, cognitive assessment, and education. His theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability through the application of mediated learning experience (MLE) is widely applied in the context of educational and personal remediation for children and adolescents (but also adults) with deep learning disabilities as well as those with cognitive and affective impairments. “Much of Feuerstein’s professional life was spent – working with children and youth who were culturally different or culturally deprived – in Feuerstein’s own terms. These clinical experiences led him to focus on the developmental consequences of sociocultural disadvantage and atypical development” (xiii).
The essays in this book were chosen to reveal the evolution of the theory of mediated learning as developed by Reuven Feuerstein. The objectives of the book, according to the editors, are to expose readers to the writings of Feuerstein, to show the organic nature of the theory he developed and its implications for humankind, and to highlight the influence of Judaic culture in the formation and development of the theory (xxiii).
MLE is defined as “the interposition out of initiated, intelligent, goal-oriented individuals who interpose themselves between the world of stimuli impinging on the [learner] and interpret what one is supposed to see; not only this, but the mediator must be interested in and concerned with certain elements that the [learner] has to learn” (5). The goal of mediated learning is change, primarily change in the ways in which individuals approach learning and problem-solving situations (xiii).
Feuerstein claims there are two main theories that explain the modalities by which individuals learn and develop; one is through direct exposure where no awareness and consciousness is needed, primarily emphasized by behaviorists, and the second, postulated by Piaget, conceives learning as a sole product of the maturational process which makes the interaction with stimuli possible, according to the age and the maturational level of the brain. Feuerstein did not think these two theoretical perspectives really explained the way human intelligence develops. He proposed a third way, which requires the function of the human mediator, hence, his theory of Mediated Learning Experiences (19).
The majority of the book reviews the theory and methodology of MLE in great detail and deep explication. Chapters 1 through 8 will be of interest to those desiring to understand the theory and practice of MLE and its application to situations of remediation and work with particular populations.
Chapter 1 reviews the development of the concept of modifiability and how MLE’s foundational concept differs from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and its assumptions. Chapter 2 describes the universal parameters and relevance of MLE and addresses why many do not receive adequate mediation. An important treatment in this chapter is Feuerstein’s differentiation between cultural differences and cultural deprivation in terms of the theory and its application.
Chapters 3 to 5 review MLE in greater depth, considering its application in education and other contexts, and review the concepts of the nature of change, behavior, and structural cognition related to mediated learning. Chapter 5 reviews more contemporary and emerging sources in behavioral and scientific fields that support and validate the theory and practice of MLE.
The later chapters of the book are of more specific relevance and interest to the readers of this journal. Chapter 6 describes Feuerstein’s search, in his later years, for the genesis and the development of spirituality (morality, ethics, religious belief) in the material and structural aspects of role development and cognition. Chapter 9 provides a very helpful review of how three pedagogies of questioning – Socratic dialogue, collaborative learning, and Talmudic pedagogy – are applied to mediated learning. Chapter 10 brings MLB into the modern context of digital communication and rapidly available information through technology. It provides a very challenging and articulate treatment of the implications of the changing nature of epistemology and pedagogy in the digital age.
While MLE tends to be a pedagogy applied to remediation with particular populations, understanding its theoretical basis for understanding cognition is of great value to any educator. In this volume, the later chapters reviewing cognition and spirituality and pedagogy related to the epistemology and cognition in the digital age are well worth reading.
Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education
Date Reviewed: February 26, 2015
The purpose of higher education is widely debated, both inside and outside of the academy. The major contribution offered to these discussions by Robert Thompson, a professor of psychology with much experience in administration, lies in his summary and synthesis of findings from the fields of psychology and neuroscience as they relate to the cognitive development of students.
In Beyond Reason and Tolerance, Thompson focuses on students within the age range of “emerging adulthood” (late teens to mid-twenties), and he summarizes recent scholarship on this group in Chapter 2. He argues that colleges and universities have a civic responsibility to emphasize education that assists student development in three areas: personal epistemology, empathy, and self-authorship. Separate chapters are dedicated to discussing current research in each of these areas, and they form the core of the book. For example, in Chapter 3 Thompson argues that humans’ attitudes toward knowledge change as they age. First, they see knowledge in absolute, black and white terms. Around the time of emerging adulthood, most move to the opposite extreme, and see knowledge as mostly contingent, and based upon one’s perspective. Thompson says that higher education should work to help students reach the third stage, in which they recognize the contingency of knowledge but still understand that there are better and worse arguments, and better and worse forms of evidence one can use to validate one’s ideas.
The need to help students develop metacognitive skills about their own knowledge-making is related to one of the main themes of the book, which gives it its title. This is the notion that colleges and universities should be working to help students develop the skills needed to approach difference – ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious – in a more nuanced way than the uncritical position best exemplified by the now-common expression “It’s all good.” Giving students the opportunity to take positions and defend them with sound, rational arguments is essential for them as they develop their epistemology, empathy, and self-identity, all of which correlate strongly to increased levels of post-college success.
This book does an excellent job arguing for the continued relevance of higher education in society, and its summary of current work on cognitive development is stimulating. That said, the recommendations it gives on how to help students in their cognitive development are generally aimed at larger questions of university structure. Chapter 6 focuses on campus culture, especially in terms of diversity and the modes of diverse connections that most positively impact students’ development. Chapter 7 focuses on developing new curricula and the new degrees they may support. This chapter also emphasizes the positive benefits of undergraduate research, study abroad, and service learning. Beyond pointing to studies showing the benefits of these kinds of programs, little is said that is applicable at the level of the classroom. This was the greatest missed opportunity in the book. I would have liked to see more concrete suggestions about activities and strategies that could be incorporated into existing courses to encourage cognitive development. Classroom instruction does not appear to have been his primary target, however, and he should be praised for what he does do: give faculty and administrators useful ways to speak about the importance of education in terms of current cognitive science.