Application of interpersonal neurobiology to the KAFU classroom

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019

Author: Louis G. Foltz, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology, Warner Pacific University, USA

Participating as a colleague with the faculty of Kazakh-American Free University on an annual basis since 2014 has provided me with a deep appreciation for the dedicated efforts of KAFU instructors to present a thorough and precise learning experience for their students. The faculty works extremely hard, investing great amounts of time and effort in course preparation, class presentation, and student evaluation. Their dedication to the task of teaching finds its reward in witnessing the changed lives of the graduating students.


The KAFU faculty, as do all teachers, find themselves facilitating two separate tasks with their students: 'instruction' and 'education'. These words are frequently used interchangeably; with little attention paid to any significant difference in the processes to which they refer. While the common and casual application of these terms rarely causes confusion, there is value in distinguishing their use to identify different sets of classroom objectives and learning experiences. What is asked of KAFU teachers and their students in these two categories gains greater appreciation when the difference is recognized. Once is identified, the faculty's charge to remain up to date on research addressing their particular academic subject is viewed separate but linked to their equally significant charge to remain current on research regarding the nature of the learner.


The term 'Instruction' shares the Latin root: 'structus' -t o build - with the English word 'structure'. In the same way that a building or a bridge is con-structed, in the process of instruction a body of interconnected concepts is transferred to the cognitive structure or psychomotor development of the student. Formative and summative instructional success is commonly measured through the students' thoroughness of concept retrieval or motor task correctness, and often by their facility in interrelating cognitive concepts (or motor techniques) in multiple permutations. Frequently measured as well is the student's capability to generate novel products. Overall success among the student body in meeting evidence-based 'instructional' outcomes is one of the primary measures of the worth of the university itself.

Taxonomies for targeting and evaluating instructional success are many in number. They provide a valuable guide for directing student manipulation of the identified course topic. One useful and well-known configuration commonly employed is the Taxonomy for Learning and Teaching (Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R. 2001). For psychomotor skills, Gentile's Taxonomy of Motor Skills (Gentile A.M. 1972) is one of many examples presenting maps for designing courses and lessons. These taxonomies assist the curriculum designer in clarifying the cognitive and or motor processes expected in student summative performance.

Therefore, pure 'instruction' may be considered, in a sense, a technical skill which is practiced by the 'instructor'; requiring the teacher's expertise in the dissembling of a body of contemporary understanding within a designated subject or in the identifying and sequencing of a set of motor movements, compartmentalizing them into ingestible components, and transferring them to the student in a systematic order which facilitates the learner's 'scaffolding' (Vygotsky, L. 1962) of a cognitive structure or of a progression of motor skills. 'Instruction' begins its focus with the structure of the subject matter and then goes forward to strategize a complete and accurate transfer into the mind and life of the learner. Measures of ultimate success are mostly external and held by agreed-upon structures within the society: employer qualifications and legal statutes being two. Can they do the job well and not break the rules/law? However, the teacher's technical ability necessary to instruct the student represents only one segment of the classroom task. Besides practicing the technical skill of 'in-struction', the KAFU teacher must also practice the art form of 'education'.


The term 'education' is derived from the Latin word 'Educare'- to draw out. Education does not focus upon the subject matter, but upon the abilities and life history of the student. The educator assists the student in drawing out the value of their own life and applying their experience of personal meaning to the pedagogical encounter with the assigned academic subject. Education places the classroom experience into the learner's expanding recognition of individual and corporate purpose, inserts the student's personal interaction with the material into individually-held and group values, and clarifies the student's metacognition of their overall ethical practice.

The 'instruction' of subject matter demands a conformity of understanding and skill of practice which meets external mandates. But simultaneously, the personalization of the curriculum, and the classroom experience itself, allows the 'educator' to be a choreographer; inviting the student into an intimate dance with the course material and coaching the development of a unique relationship with the skills acquired.

Where assessment of 'instruction' is objective and must be standardized, assessment of 'education', by its very nature, limits the value of standardization and calls upon subjective and personal perspectives of satisfaction. The learner's value of living a 'good life', and appreciating the KAFU educational experience, is a teacher's goal which does not lend itself to objectivity.


It must have been a battle-scarred and wise professor who once said: 'Teachers can only be teachers when students want to be students.' It would be negligent to rest still and comfortable in the subject matter when the curiosity of students is thereby equally stilled.

It is critical that the university professor be able to 'instruct' students- i.e., to effectively take apart and parcel out the current body of knowledge in their discipline and then to be able to thread it in sequence into the welcoming cognitive structure of the pupil. A university 'instructor' must be thoroughly familiar with contemporary material in his/her field and well-practiced in de-constructing subject matter for scaffolding into a lesson plan.

Instruction begins with concern for the particular dynamics and contemporary status of the subject matter. While instruction is brought into the classroom by the instructor, education comes into the classroom through the unique history and cognitive orientation of each student. And the teacher's blending of these two skills- the techniques of instruction with the art of education- is the gift to the student found at Kazakh-American Free University.

The perpetual intake of contemporary research is the oxygen which sustains life for the university professor. Adequate opportunity is to be provided for acquiring an understanding of, and for practice with, the ever-increasing body of knowledge which is geometrically expanding. This rapid development is experienced in both the teacher's academic subject and, also, in the comprehension of the neuro-biological/emotional makeup of the learner. On-going refinement with both 'instructional' material and 'educational' understanding is critical to maintenance of the university. Contemporary instructional ability without up-to-date familiarity with the psychology of the learner would lead to professional blind sight (technical term) and student alienation. Contemporary understanding of the learning process without currently relevant course material would lead to a student's naïve illusion of professional efficacy and demonstration of incompetence.

Adequate in-service training for KAFU faculty in their separate academic subjects will continue to require unique expenditure in each department. Keeping current in the discipline requires subscriptions to many subject-specific research journals and websites as well as faculty participation with topic-related seminars and workshops- either by travel or by electronic dialogue. This considerable expense is an essential investment in student career success.


In-service training for KAFU faculty in 'education'- addressing developments in student cognitive processing and emotional disposition- may be an easier task to sustain. The texts and journals concerning social dynamics and interpersonal neurobiology can be utilized by all KAFU faculty. On-site workshop and symposium experiences with theories of learning generate cross-institutional dialogue and deepen faculty inter-personal relationships; generating guided collaboration across disciplines.

KAFU teachers, as 'educators', are gardeners working in step with the educational philosophy of Fredrich Froebel (Froebel, F. 1887). They cultivate a learning environment in which students are able to awaken to their own unique identity. Self-understanding can become increasingly clear through the pursuit of the university curriculum to develop professional self-certainty and interpersonal skills which appreciate and utilize the uniqueness of their own personality, family histories, and their Kazakh and Russian cultures.

In this role, the KAFU 'educator' must be given the opportunity to acquire the skills essential to nurturing student self-awareness, emotional safety, and intellectual curiosity. Research in the area of interpersonal neurobiology rapidly provides new understandings into emotional and cognitive growth patterns, as well as identifying roadblocks found in individual development. KAFU faculty continue to be provided workshops to refine professional skills which recognize student affective dispositions as well as various levels of mental sophistication. This ability facilitates the construction of a safe learning environment and the diminishment of student counter-productive behaviors.


There are four areas of articulated research which have been presented to the KAFU faculty in seminar form over the past four years to increase understanding of what is happening inside the mental and emotional environments of their students. The topics of these seminars do not address the subject matter of the participating academic departments, but rather the mental, emotional, and environmental circumstances found with all KAFU students. Continuation of these seminars over the next several years will provide faculty with increasing insight into the mental processes (emotional first, cognitive second) which students exhibit during a lesson. Faculty understanding of interpersonal neurobiology will also offer a more effective process for curriculum design and implementation.

Informal interviews with KAFU faculty completing at least some portions of past seminars has informed the re-structuring of future offerings. An updated and modified series of four seminars is proposed, possibly one per year to be held on the KAFU campus with invitations to colleagues at neighboring educational institutions. This set parallels topics which were introduced, one per year over five years, at Lily Conferences on University and College Teaching in the United States. The sequence begins with an introduction to an appreciation of life-long brain development and progresses to investigate the mental and emotional elements found in cultural and social structures.

Below is a suggestion for development and support of a four-seminar series providing KAFU 'educators' with an experience investigating the influence of 'interpersonal neurobiology' in their own classroom:


Diamond, M. C. (1988), Eagleman, D. (2011), McGilchrist, I. (2009), Pally, R. (2018), Seung, S. (2012), Zull, J. E. (2011)

' The influences of family dynamics and sensory exposure by home and school upon the structure and function of the brain.

' The brain as a symphony.

' The necessity of movement and sleep.

' The value of boredom.

' Brain chemical setpoints and the challenge given by two-dimensional screens and sound volume.

' The detriment of multi-tasking.


Cozolino, L. J. (2006), Dweck, C. (2007), Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011), Panksepp, J., Bivens, L. (2012), Porges. S. (2017), Siegel, D. J. (2019)

' Neural pathways of sub-conscious emotional disposition formed through progressive or traumatic encounters in life history.

' The value of play and its contrast with the process of searching.

' Subtle expressions of rage.

' Conditional emotional acceptance.

' Growth mindset.

' Identity development.

' Expressions of fear vs. psychic numbing.

' Designing a subconsciously safe classroom environment.


Bruner, J. (1996), Gardner, H. (2011), Goleman, D. (1997), Morra, S. (2008). Newberg, A.B.; Waldman, M. (2017), Piaget (2011),

' Indicators of student ability to engage in increasing levels of sophisticated thought.

' The limited set of identifiable mental operations.

' Roadblocks to sophisticated thought.

' Genetic predisposition toward specific learning preferences and forms of resistance in activity engagement.

' The role of affect in generating curiosity.


Kerr, M. (2019), Erikson, E. H. (1993; 1950), Havighurst, R. (1972), Minuchin, S., Fishman C. (1981),

' The role played in the family system and its contribution to the dynamic of the classroom environment.

' The manifestation of self-protective behavior.

' Effective choreography of interpersonal relations within the classroom and the lesson.

' Recognition of variation in signifiers between students in subconscious and conscious (verbal and ineffable) interpretation of meaning.

Kazakh-American Free University faculty demonstrates a dedication to student learning which must be continually applauded and supported. As both instructors of challenging subject matter and educators of pliable students, their mission continues to be refreshed through in-service opportunities- on-line, off-campus, and at the university. Continuing interaction with the ever-expanding knowledge of the processes of mental and emotional development will empower the KAFU faculty to provide impactful learning experiences in their classrooms. Hopefully, seminars such as proposed above will contribute to that empowerment.


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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №11 - 2019

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