“If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces…”

I love books with quotes, and the fact that this book has one for each chapter makes me like it a lot before even starting to read it in earnest. Chapter 1, The Sweet Edge, has a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and you will feel its sweet edge dividing you through your heart and marrow. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” This is from Walden, a classic I confess I have not been able to finish reading yet. But Thoreau is one of my heroes, and this particular quote is part of a longer passage where he says: “Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance … till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake…” Indeed, this first chapter of Zull’s book establishes where is he coming from: a scientist who became involved with education, and decided to explore learning from a physical perspective, the science of the brain. And as a scientist, he started from his field of expertise (cell signaling in neuroscience), and went on “prying” open new doors. As he advanced in his exploration, he tried to find a practical application of each finding to teaching. And he states: “Teaching is the art of changing the brain.” Not by controlling it, but by “creating conditions that lead to change in the learner’s brain.”

He goes on elaborating on the physical nature of learning, which is based on a physical nature of meaning. He touches on the physical metaphors of learning, such as the student being a blank slate, or learners constructing their understanding. Thus, the need for metaphors in the future of teaching, which can be framed as tools for changing the brain.

One section is dedicated to the inevitable conclusion that placing the workings of the mind on a solid physical foundation is equivalent to a philosophy. He refers to the book Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson, and their statement: “The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly conscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

Personally, I thought that little section was masterfully written. I mean, the phrase, “these claims have not pleased all the philosophers of the world,” is a vast understatement. Lots of people, philosophers or not, do not believe that our mind’s workings are physical. However, in a few paragraphs, Zull states his philosophy, arguments for it, mentions that it may be a controversial view, and then moves on quickly to the description of the structure of the book. Part I is dedicated to the foundations for learning, basically the structures and wirings of the brain; Part II is dedicated to how teachers can use the existing networks of the brain to enhance learning, and Part III connects the regions of the cerebral cortex to different aspects of learning, plus an Appendix called enrichments.

As I finished reading the chapter, I noticed a note regarding genes that I have missed before. It goes with the statement of the physical nature of the brain, and adds that we can even go as far as saying that our brains come from the information coded in our genes (which is a result of the structure of DNA). Considering the recent results of how the environment is able to alter the way the information coded in the DNA is actually expressed, that adds an extra layer of complexity to the statement that learning is changing the brain.

The beginning of the chapter touches on the feelings of many educators that teaching is a mysterious process, and can sometimes be almost a religious experience. And the final paragraph states: “I do not deny the mystery. I only want to solve it.

Next chapter, the second, deals with the natural relationship between brain structure and learning. Until then!