Enhancing Cognition

I found Writing Comments on Student’s Papers, by John Bean, (From the book entitled: Engaging Ideas. The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom), to be a very juicy read.



Ok, that sounds totally nerdy. But I am entirely intrigued by theories of learning and how to access the brain. I love to investigate ways to help people, myself included, understand things and receive information more thoroughly and efficiently. Or framed a different way, what are the things that keep someone from being receptive to what is being taught. In the past ten years, I have simultaneously been a mother responsible for the learning/ learning challenges of three kids, an undergrad adult student back in school after 25 years and a teacher in the theater department at New York University, with anywhere from 20-60 students a semester. This article was both a feast of new information as well as a validation of my explorations and understandings.

Immediately on the first page of Bean’s article, I was drawn in. He states, “The best kind of commentary enhances the writer’s feeling of dignity. The worst kind can be dehumanizing and insulting.” (P317) These thoughts have become common in many learning environments. The jargon of positive reinforcement is superficially everywhere, from preschool on up. The execution of these ideas varies on such a huge level depending on the teacher’s ability to embrace what goes into the learning process truly. In my experience, the wrong kind of praise as “positive reinforcement” can be equally as destructive. I appreciate that Bean takes the time to unfold strategies for reframing and bringing out the strengths of students. He is not offering praise before work ethic. He describes techniques that encourage effort.

Bean goes on to quote James Zull regarding The Amygdala and the Teacher, laying a scientific foundation for his theory. According to Zull, “A learner will be quickly and subconsciously monitoring the situation through the amygdala (the primitive fear center or danger center of the brain).” Fear-based resistance is something I have experienced repeatedly in my work at NYU. The department I work in is movement-based theater. The focus is on generating original material with an integrated approach to physicality and text. My success as a teacher in that environment depends on identifying what makes each student uncomfortable and sharing tools for calming their nervous system so they can be receptive to what I have to offer. Any art form is likely to make the artist feel vulnerable when revealing their work. Whether it is writing, theater, dance, music, painting or anything else, the work is an extension of the self. As Zull states, the primitive fear/danger center of the brain will be on high alert.
Curiosity led me to investigate more of Zull’s work. Here are some fabulous nuggets from
The Art of Changing the Brain, by James Zull that illustrate the foundation for Bean’s statement:

“Positive emotions enhance cognition.”

Click to access el200409_zull.pdf

“Don’t Explain. Build on Errors. I (Zull) began to welcome errors. They became my raw materials for helping students build knowledge. Instead of thinking that my job was to eradicate error, I sought it out. Engage the Whole Brain (See figure 1 below). Two decades ago, David Kolb (1984) proposed a cycle of learning that is compatible with these four brain regions. Kolb asserted that deep learning comes through a sequence of experience, reflection, abstraction, and active testing. Learning Is the Brain’s Business. Practice and meaning are the most important parts of this art, but of course, students will not practice in a meaningful way unless they care. Have faith in the process.”

(fig. 1): sensory cortex (getting information); integrative cortex near the sensory cortex (making meaning of information); integrative cortex in the front (creating new ideas from these meanings); and motor cortex (acting on those ideas).


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Along these lines, Bean encourages coaching writing rather than judging it, which requires a consistent philosophy and a plan (p322). As I have observed my children move through different learning environments, I have been struck by how often both harsh criticism and flimsy praise have been used to hide mediocre and lazy teaching. A good teacher has a balance of praise and challenge, no matter what they are teaching.
I found many helpful tips in the reading.
As the teacher, your role changes throughout the process: Early drafts: coach. End phase: Judge
“The best strategy is to limit your comments to a few problems that you want the student to tackle.
Establish a hierarchy of concerns:
Higher Order of concerns: ideas, organization, development, and overall clarity
The lower order of concerns: sentence correctness, style, mechanics, spelling and so forth
Proceed to lower order concerns only after a draft is reasonably successful

It seems like it should be so simple.
“Positive comments build confidence and make the writer want to try again. Negative comments, no matter how well-intentioned, tend to make students feel bewildered, hurt or angry.” Bean clarifies, “HOWEVER, there is a trick to writing good positive comments: They MUST be truthful, and the MUST be specific.” Theis such a helpful distinction.

I also loved the focus on the process, what I consider the heart of the work. Bean establishes the importance of guiding revision. “Revising doesn’t just mean editing; It means “re-visioning”- rethinking, reconceptualizing, “seeing again.” This is hard work (p321). It is helpful to be reminded that good writing takes work.

I loved the way Bean approaches grammar and the “lower order concerns.”
The “knotty problem” of lower order concerns such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. (p330) Make students responsible for their editing. I like his distinction regarding minimal marking.
“I am not advocating being soft on error. I am arguing that students’ errors should be noted emphatically and that some stick-and-carrot strategy should be applied to motivate students to find and fix them.” (p330)
Bean’s top three peeves: (P332)
• Wordiness: “I prefer a succinct, plain style unclogged by deadwood or circumlocutions.”
• Broad Reference: Lazy use of “this” as a pronoun. Some writers try to create coherence by using this as a pronoun to link backward. Sometimes this refers to a noun in the preceding sentence, but more often it is meant to stand for a whole idea.
• Choppy sentences/Excessive coordination: beginning writers often string together a sequence of short sentences or simply join them with coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, so, or but. Excessive coordination creates a choppy effect that fails to distinguish between more important and less important material.

There were some additional readings that this article led me too:

Writing as a Mode of Learning, by Janet Emig


Descartes’ Error. Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, by Antonio R. Damasio

Click to access descartes-error_antonio-damasio.pdf

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