MAC presentation at N.J. Art Conference

by Marilyn Arons (Adapted from Neuroscience and Education-The Time Is Now, Arons, New Jersey Art Education Conference, October 3, 2001.) © Arons, 2001


Neuroscience is a field that keeps being redefined because of discoveries that lead to new and unanswered questions about why we are and who we are. It is a science that is far more than about the labeling and understanding of brain parts and of the strings of cells protected by the vertebrae of our spine. It includes some understanding cells and that the brain is their receiving and processing site, sitting on top of our neck like the roundhouse for all of the trains and train tracks of incoming and outgoing, conscious and unconscious information. It is a science because strict scientific methods are required in the gathering and analysis of information. It emphasizes objective measurement obtained under rigorous controls, as well as the ability to repeat a study and come up with the same results. If neuroscience is reduced to its lowest comic denominator, it might look like this for teachers, and like this  for students.


Both teacher and student brains have four things in common based upon the humor of P. Kagel in Brains, (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989):
  1. Teachers and students have brains.
  2. Each has a left side and a right side.
  3. Both have lobes.
  4. Information presented about the brains of teachers and students is entirely wrong.
Such is the status of the basic knowledge and assumptions about our brains shared by both educators and the general public. One of the problems in understanding neuroscience is the vocabulary used in even the most basic discussion. Here are six vocabulary words, mixed with cartoons and humor, to assist teachers in understanding that teaching and learning is, in fact, a brain process- a neurochemical exchange between each student and instructor.


This word sounds like the "Hem is Fur", but it isn't. Hemisphere. Hemi means half. Sphere means any rounded body whose surface is at all points equidistant from the center, or a rounded body approximately in that form. Your brain is in the approximate shape of a sphere. The top part of it, like a mushroom cap, is divided in half down the middle.


A lobe is a roundish projection of division. Think of the ear lobe. The mushroom cap of the brain has four lobes in each hemisphere, the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital. Here is the picture again.


Look at the old man at the bottom of the picture. We’ll call him Old Ron. He is holding a neuron. That name comes from a word meaning “sinew” or “tendon”. It is believed that there are as many neurons in each brain as the number of stars in our galaxy. Here is a New Ron.


Every neuron has incoming and outgoing information through two different structures. The axon sends the information out over long distances to other brain parts and to the nervous system. If you use the ax on the axon, there will definitely be a problem.


Dendrites receive information and take it into the neuron through tube-like extensions that tend to branch around the cell. An example of incoming information would be “First go left, den drite.


“Syn” is a Greek combination of “with” and “together”, “Apse” means circle or arch. The linguistics of the word suggest the essence of two cells, circular or arched shape. They transfer information from one to another at a specialized point of contact. The space between those cells is called a synapse. The “snaps” your fingers and thumb make when you click them represents this. These two fingers, like cells, come together with energy that creates an explosion symbolized by what you hear when your fingers snap.

Anna Axon and Danny Dendrite Teaching and Learning Together

Anna Axon is the teacher giving out information. She is the sending neuron. Danny is the student receiving neuron. The pearls of wisdom that Anna sends out to Danny and the class flow out of her and across the boundary of her teaching space and into the students’ learning space. That space between teacher and student is conceptually similar to a synapse. Danny is an odd looking kid. His receivers are all on the surface of his face. Each receptor, or eye, ear, hand, foot, etc. is different. Each receives only the information it is designed to receive. As Danny receives Anna’s lesson, his axon is sending Anna and the others all sorts of incoming information. Teaching and living is a constant dance of energy, back and forth, input, output, in ever changing forms and variations.

Anna Axon and Danny Dendrite Teaching and Learning Together

The sending and receiving of information goes two ways at the same time. As a teacher you are transmitting your smell, the sound of your voice, your size, your dress, your touch, your facial expressions, the way you move in space, how you behave with boys as different from girls, how well organized you are, the kinds of activities you select, how you transition from one activity to another, and whether you like or dislike students in general, or a few in particular.

Anna Axon and Danny Dendrite Teaching and Learning Together

Remember- the message you think you send may not be the message that is received. Reception depends on how Danny’s individual receptors are coded. His reception of the teacher and the lessons depends on where he is developmentally, his culture, socioeconomic level, intellect, health, likes and dislikes. It depends on his comfort and goodness of fit with the teacher, the other students in the class, numbers of students in the class, his home life, curriculum demands, and his sense of self, self-worth and mastery. If there is goodness of fit, his receptors take in what is sent and education grows each day. Transmission passes the surface barrier of the dendrite and enters the system of billions of encoded and intertwined networks of cells that electrify the air in the excitement we call education.