ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Process for writing a research narrative (for Dr. E's course)
(1) Browse very current magazines and journals.
“If we knew what it
was we were doing, it would not be called ‘research,’ would it?”
A cover story in
Time last May grabbed my
attention. Claudia Wallace's “Secrets of the Teen Brain” completely
surprised me with some of its facts. First, researchers have discovered
that the brain doesn’t fully mature until people are in their
mid-twenties. Second, even though the brain continues to develop until
that age, it actually contains its maximum
number of brain cells before birth.
Pre-natally, there’s a wild proliferation of brain cells,
followed by an actual pruning of cells.
Third, it has been discovered that the brain undergoes another
sequence of growth-and-pruning before it fully matures, during childhood
and adolescence. In this sequence, however, the things that grow wildly
and then get thinned out aren’t cells
but the connections between
them, the synapses. The synapses multiply like crazy between the ages of six
and twelve; they get “bushier,” growing the “branch-like”
projections (the dendrites) that connect them to other cells. The
pruning of dendrites starts at about age 12, and as the connections are
thinned out, the surviving ones become more efficient. Their coating or
insulation gets thicker, establishing fewer but faster pathways.
One last surprising thing in Wallis' article is that this final
phase of brain development moves from the back of the brain to the
front. The forming of fewer
but faster pathways starts in the so-called sensory cortex, then
proceeds to the motor cortex. The very last region of the brain to
mature is the frontal cortex, site of the so-called executive
functions--the ability to plan, to organize ideas, to prioritize, to
curb impulses, and to weigh consequences. Wallace ends her article with
advice to parents of teens: stay involved with them and keep in touch!
While I learned new things about brain science while reading this
article, it also left me wondering if these new findings contain any
messages for educators, specifically for teachers of academic writing
(like me). So I accessed
the ProQuest database and searched under the terms neuron,
axon, teaching and writing. Although I didn’t find any articles applying this research
to my own field, I did find an article by Debbie Craig called “Brain
Compatible Learning: Applications to Athletic Training.”
This article seemed really informative, so I read it carefully
and enjoyed learning more.
First, Craig explains that “[i]n the past decade, new
brain-imaging techniques have allowed us to observe the brain while it
is learning,” but the job of applying these findings to education has
just begun. Second, she
gives a quick overview of how the brain acquires new knowledge. Put very
simply, each brain cell, each neuron, has projections (called dendrites)
that receive information from another cell, and a projection, called the
axon, which passes that information on to another cell. “Frequent
transmissions of information between particular cells can establish a
permanent relationship between them.” In other words, simple
repetition creates neural pathways. The obvious message in this for
teachers and students alike is that repetition is a powerful tool for
the creation of memory; in the words of one researcher, “Practice
doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent.”
A third important point made by Craig is this: the brain is
“designed” to create these pathways, or patterns of connectivity
within itself, and it’s also designed to perceive patterns in the
outside world. But it resists absorbing patterns that are meaningless to it, patterns that don’t relate to pathways it has
already created within itself. The major implication for teachers, then,
is the necessity of tying new knowledge to whatever a student already
Reading Craig’s article gave me a good review of a few of the
basics of neuroscience, but I wanted to know more about learning
capabilities, especially in the adult
brain. So I went back to ProQuest and used the search terms neuron,
axon, adults, and learning.
Immediately, I found an article by Sharon Begley called “Survival of
the Busiest” originally published in the Wall
Begley examines the conventional wisdom that the brain hard-wired: that it doesn’t
change, so if an area is damaged, the cognitive losses are permanent.
This old idea is being questioned questioned in recent research.
“The brain is much more adaptable and renewable than previously
thought," she writes, "and that’s true throughout life.”
The first clues that the brain might be able to change
significantly even in adulthood has come from experiments with monkeys.
“When lab monkeys practiced--and practiced--the trick of using a
single finger to reach into a tiny dish and grab a morsel of food, the
brain region devoted to fine motor control of that finger grew liked
suburban sprawl. And these were grown-up monkeys.”
Even "the adult brain is ‘plastic,’ able to forge new
connections among its neurons and thus rewire itself….
Regions that get the most use literally expand…. [Y]ou can call
it survival of the busiest.”
After describing several experiments that have shown brain
rewiring in human subjects,
Begley closes her article with the most dramatic new finding of all. We
can rewire our adult brains not only with physical activity but merely
by thinking of that activity.
In a study at Harvard, “one group of volunteers practiced a
five-finger piano exercise, and a comparable group merely [thought]
about practicing it.” Researchers found that “[m]erely thinking
about moving produce[d] brain changes comparable to those triggered by
Begley concludes by saying “The brain is dynamic, and the life
we lead leaves its mark in the complex circuitry of the
brain--footprints of the experiences we have had, the thoughts we have
thought, the actions we have taken.
The brain allocates neural real estate depending on what we use
most: the thumb of a videogame addict, the index finger of a Braille
reader, the analytic ability of a chess player, the language of a
linguist. But the brain also remakes itself based on something much more
ephemeral than what we do: It rewires itself based on what we think.
This will be the next frontier for neuroplasticity, harnessing the
transforming power of the mind to reshape the brain.”
To sum up, here are the main things I learned from these
searches: first, it takes a much longer time for people to mature
neurologically than I thought possible; second, the chemistry of
learning is an important subject for educators and students; and third,
learning itself is a life-long adventure. In George Elliot’s words,
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
Begley, Sharon. “Survival of the
Street Journal 11 Oct. 2002: B1.
Craig, Debbie I. “Brain-Compatible Learning: Principles and Applications in
Athletic Training.” Journal
of Athletic Training 38.4 (2003): 342-350.
Wallis, Claudia. “Secrets of the Teen Brain: What Makes Teens Tick.” Time 10 May 2004: 56-65.
What if YOUR second article DOESN'T answer the questions raised by that first article?
Well, just RECORD that fact. Such an essay might read
''Last Saturday, in Newsweek, I saw a short article about [such and such] by [so and so]. [Here, you’d give a summary of the article’s main points.]
Wanting to know more about [such and such] , and using the search terms ______, _______ , and ___________ , I went to the ProQuest database and found another article about [such and such] which revealed the following: . . . .
Then, wanting to know still more, and using the search terms _______ , _______ , and _______ , I searched once again and found out these other factors . . . .
Now, I’ve begun to conclude that . . . .'' [Or, you might say something like this: ''The main points I've learned from these searches are three: ______ , _______ , and ______.'']
To sum up, your narrative should record your own search experiences, so I can't forecast or dictate how that will go for you. Don't feel that you have to spend a hundred hours finding exact answers to the questions that your original article might have raised. If you CAN'T find answers, then say that, and just tell your readers what you DID find.
One last point: Notice that your thesis will come at the END of your essay, not the beginning. Most academic papers START with the thesis or main idea and then support it. I'd like you to use this essay to experience the way an academic thesis GROWS out of the data collected in the research.