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  • Writer's pictureJane Powel

JBOP - The Importance of Learning from Experts

Jane’s Brain on Pedagogy - Understanding the black box, aka, the brain.

In this series I discuss various pedagogy perspectives and what makes the OmniLearn model so effective. Humans are social animals and our brains are hard-wired for learning. Multi-sensory learning across disciplines is more than a pleasant experience. It leads to the formation of long-term memories and fosters new questions. But the greatest outcome of all of this experimentation and social interaction is becoming a self-motivated, life-long learner whose cognitive and affective skills are well-honed! 

Emulating the Experts

I once saw Oliver Sacks giving a lecture and somebody asked how do you encourage creativity? And he said “copy the masters”. This took me aback. It sounds like a paradox. “Copy” sounds like the opposite of creative. But he had a point. Newton even said “we stand on the shoulders of giants”. If we can learn from the experts, look at what other people have done, get the tools in your tool box, then you have that ability to say “I like that part, but I think I would change this.” That is the jumping off point for creativity.

I have never discovered a thing in my life. But I have become a conduit between the experts and my students.

I never did research on DNA. But I worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. And as I learned what the Nobel Laureate scientists were doing there, I brought that to my students. I learned a lot from James Watson. What a powerful thing to be around a person like that! He was a biologist from the University of Chicago. He goes to Cambridge because he's an anglophile. He looks around and he hooks up with Crick because he knows he doesn't love chemistry. Then he goes and looks at Franklin's X-ray crystallography. Now he has three aspects of science: physics, chemistry, and biology. He puts together a one page paper on the structure of the double helix.

Now I didn’t make the discovery of the structure of DNA. But as soon as I see it, my mind is off to the races on how to get kids to understand this. Not only what is a double helix, but the importance of form and function. And wouldn’t it be great if you could edit DNA. Students all know what cut and paste is from using word processing. I can say “What if we take something out and replace it with something else? Wouldn't that be powerful technology?” and they go silent. Middle schoolers!!! When I start telling them the power of science and how these advances are going to be their lifetime and how great it is and they're just like “I didn't know that. I learned something new.”

Our gift at OmniLearn is communication. Many times experts are not great at communicating and I think It's not always just their verbal skills. It's their sense of the audience. They're not always able to read an audience and tell that they're not getting it. A lot of what their genius is is subconscious. Trying to put it into an explanation when they don't even have a conscious recollection of what their thought process was is difficult. But when I listen to them and I read their stuff and I go to their lectures, I am constantly thinking of metaphors and analogies that come from our audience's experience. And that's how you can communicate what the experts are saying to audiences in a way that provides context. And that is powerful.

There are so many experts out there to learn from. I learned about memory and learning from Dr. Tim Tully and Dr. Alcino Silva, which allowed me to design a new model for education. Tully exposed Drosophila (fruit flies) to two odors in a T-maze. Administering mild shocks to the flies choosing the pleasant smell revealed the diversity of learning abilities, effective teaching techniques, and the genetics of long and short term memory. He discovered the relationship between stimulators and repressors in the brain, which informed my insistence on less talk and more action. Varying tasks, moving around, and working in small groups are powerful ways to increase learning and memory. An added benefit is pleasant socialization and peer teaching.

At the end of the day, if we can present role models for children by highlighting experts and we watch what it is that they did? How did they challenge an assumption? How did they use the six creative behaviors? What is the knowledge base that they added to? What are the shoulders that they stood on? That’s when students can see how creativity and knowledge and practice come together to form expertise. They can then decide what kind of experts they will become one day.

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