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September 28, 2006

Professors can sign up for book discussion

Professors, it’s your turn to be students. The assignment: Read and discuss “The Art of Changing the Brain, Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning,” by James E. Zull.

“Faculty do not have many opportunities to join together and talk about teaching,” said Joanne Nicoll, associate director for instructional design and faculty development at Pitt’s Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education (CIDDE). “We just want to facilitate that.”

Three faculty book discussion sessions are scheduled this fall in the second year of a three-year program funded by the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence (ACIE).

The program, a joint initiative of CIDDE and ACIE, began last year with discussions on the book, “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School,” by the National Research Council committee on learning research and educational practice. Those sessions drew about 30 faculty members to discussion groups in the fall and a similar number in the spring term.

“We wanted to keep it in small groups so there could be discussion,” said Nicoll, noting there was a waiting list last year.

This year’s discussions are scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24 and Nov. 2, and noon Oct. 25. Additional sessions will be scheduled in the spring. Sessions on Pitt’s regional campuses also could be added if there is interest, Nicoll said.

For faculty, the process is simple and books are provided: “Here’s the book, read it, come to the session and have a discussion,” Nicoll said. “It’s interesting, fun and they get something out of it,” she said, adding that the sessions are designed to be quick and practical, because organizers recognize that faculty are busy.

Nicoll said at first she was unsure such a program would fly at Pitt, given faculty members’ busy schedules. “I wasn’t sure they’d have time to read the book,” she said. But she was pleased to see the response and is expecting similar participation this year.

Responses from last year’s readers show most found the program helpful and were interested in participating again.

“They liked the interdisciplinary aspect of the group,” Nicoll said, noting that the discussions draw faculty from a variety of departments and schools across the campus.

“The goal is to get the teachers talking about their teaching,” she said. “We hope that faculty are encouraged more to think about their teaching,” something Nicoll said already is occurring, given the response to the discussion group.

Zull’s book was chosen for this year’s discussion thanks in part to suggestions from last year’s participants. It also was read by a CIDDE instructional designers’ literature review group and selected in cooperation with ACIE.

Zull is a biology professor and director of the Case Western Reserve University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education.

In the 2002 book, Zull states that because brains operate on physical and chemical principles, learning is a physical change and therefore, when teachers teach, they actually create change in the brain.

“I don’t mean controlling the brain, or rearranging it according to some ‘brain manual’. I mean, creating conditions that lead to change in a learner’s brain. We can’t get inside and rewire a brain, but we can arrange things so that it gets rewired. If we are skilled, we can set up conditions that favor this rewiring, and we can create an environment that nurtures it,” Zull writes.

For information or to register for a discussion group session, contact Melanie Fox at 4-2896 or Enrollment is limited.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 3

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