How Do You Flip A Zombie?

It is almost Halloween and I can forgive you if the title makes you think about this type of flipping zombie.

I want to talk about flipping the zombie learner. Since about 2000, I have been implementing various techniques to engage students in the classroom. Initially I used a great number of relevant problems…modeling data to solve real world problems. This evolved into full blown project-based learning and eventually the happy place I now live and teaching in. The projects helped to add relevancy to the course and counter the “When am I ever going to use this?” question. The problem was that I was still lecturing on very basic algebra and calculus problems. And I had to lecture to cover the amount of material required by the syllabus. In my mind, the content had to come out of my mouth for me to hold them responsible for it and to assess them on it. When I look back on this, I realize that students were often absent or not paying attention. Even though it was coming out of my mouth, they were not tuned in. In effect, it was not coming out of my mouth for a large number of students.
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As I described before, John Medina plans his lectures around four principles.

  1. Emotions get our attention.
  2. Meaning before details.
  3. The brain cannot multitask.
  4. The brain needs a break.

With these in mind, he plans each class meeting in ten minute segments. That is about the maximum amount of time that the brain can pay attention before it wanders off on its own. This ten minute segment covers one core concept. The core concept is chosen so that it can be fully explained in one minute. Then the other nine minutes in the segment may be used to explain how the detail relates to the core concept in simple, direct way.
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Slay the Beast!

If we can’t keep the attention of the zombie learner, we have no hope of getting off the shot to the head. Brain Rule #4 is critical for all teachers.

4. We don’t pay attention to boring things.

If our students are texting, sleeping, or otherwise occupied, there is no hope that we will be able to transmit the information in the course. Without their attention, the communication channel is broken.
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It's All About the Brain

So what are we to do about zombie learners? Are they a lost cause or can we reach them?

Movies and television tell us that there is no hope. Shoot those walkers! I don’t think that would be an appropriate teaching strategy. But that is what happens in many classes when we drone on for 50 minutes or more. They either get it or they don’t.

Just as “real” zombies are killed by a shot to the head, zombie learners are best dealt with by a different kind of shot to the head. We need to arm ourselves by examining how the student brain works to process information.
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They Want To Eat Your Brain!

Over the past few months, I have been watching episodes of “The Walking Dead” on AMC via Netflix. Like many people, I found the story interesting and the evolution of zombies fascinating. Over the past few years, the use of the term “zombie” has gone way beyond the undead popularized by George A. Romero’s film “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). We have zombie computers, zombie systems in the brain, zombie apocalypse, zombie walks, zombie agents…you name it. The word “zombie” is no longer simply a noun. It is used to describe things that work automatically without our conscious knowledge. In my profession, teaching, a few educators have applied zombie to a certain class of students they call “zombie learners”.

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