Brain, Learning & Applications ’09

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at the Brain, Learning and Applications 2009, a conference from Greenleaf Learning and CAIS CPD – the commission on professional development of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools (Disclosure: I’m chairman of the commission this year).

Chairman awareness: Attendance was way down this year.  A lot of schools cited the economy and declines in revenue to explain their decisions not to send delegations this year.  On the public school side, more than 1200 fewer teachers will be in Connecticut schools this fall compared with last June.  So, fewer teachers doing continuing professional development, and fewer teacher in schools generally.  Not good.

General hammer-to-the-forehead Ideas: I get more brain science and philosophy out of this program every year, and that informs my teaching and my classroom practice.  But I think that the content frightens my colleagues at many schools, a lot.  It often scares me, even though I look forward to learning it.

First of all, ADD and ADHD brains age more slowly than regular human brains, maybe about 30% slower or more.  So a 90-year-old with ADD is really more like a 60-year-old.  And a nine-year-old is mentally about 6.  A fifteen-year-old (my students) is mentally ten. The data’s not conclusive, but they seem less at-risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.  The kids we’re teaching now are going to live longer, and so their brains are beginning to compensate, by aging more slowly and staying young for longer. That means that if you’re having trouble reaching high-school age kids now as a teacher because you’re dumbing down your material, you should switch up to college, and in another few decades you should think about graduate students.

Video games make teenage brains stronger, and keep them flexible/plastic for longer.  When 12-year-0ld girls were exposed to Tetris, and practiced it for three months, certain structures associated with spatial processing and analysis grew larger and denser and more active.  Build the right suite of games, and you could improve the brain’s general functioning in a much shorter time than twelve years of school.  Moreover, though the girls got really sick of Tetris, they did get better at certain kinds of geometry.

Brain development is not a linear process. There’s at least 30 executive function areas in the forebrain that develop non-linearly, and can be identified and trained… but we teachers mistake the slow or non-development of some of them in the teenage years as character flaws “he’s lazy” (no, actually, he doesn’t have a well-developed initiation function); “she’s obstinate” (it may be that her ability to interrupt one task and move to another is underdeveloped)’; “he’s always lost in his own little world” (No, really, it’s OK – he’s working on improving time-space awareness).

Autistics are people.  Possibly with neurological disorders, possibly as a result of being exposed to toxins or vaccines; maybe it’s genetic miscodings. But they’re still people, and they need love and they need love explained to them in literal language. (Oh, and given the right training, nurturing, and kindness, they make WAY better scientists and mathematicians as adults that your average middle school math teacher… like Sandia National Labs better).

These are threatening ideas. It’s part of the reason why every brain scientist I’ve ever met starts out by saying, “First of all, let’s start by saying no one has any idea how the brain works.” It makes it seem like there’s a lot we don’t know.

Yet underlying that disclaimer is the truly terrifying possibility that schools as we know them are working exactly the opposite of the way the brain learns… that schools shut down learning, rather than arouse it.

A lot of my colleagues were clearly eager for these ideas, but I hear the same thing every time I go to these conferences: “I really wanted more of a takeaway idea,” from teachers leaving early. Or an administrator asks me, “what did you take away from the conference?”

What did I learn?

I learned that men and women in their mid-forties are at their most intelligent, and least creative.  They’ve got the maximum intellectual and willpower to keep family, career, extracurriculars and schedules in operation.  Yet they’ve got the greatest difficulty opening up to new ideas or changes in the system, or to coming up with new ideas.  Because it was the creative ideas they had in their 20s that made them successful as 40-year-olds. It works.

I learned that the most creative, and the least constrained, are teenagers and seventy-year-olds. It’s when the brain cells’ myelin sheaths are thinnest, and the brain areas seemingly associated with creativity are the strongest.  Getting students to do creative, original work in their teens results in a capable and competent 40-year-old, and a very capable 70-year-0ld.

Training a teenage brain to be creative requires that the teenager have a sense of safety, security, and a mentor with whom he or she is very closely aligned and works for an extended period every day.

I learned that deeply powerful and symbol-laden multisensory experiences leave a lasting impression on the mind which boost both creativity and intelligence. Exposure to theater, varieties of religious experiences, museums, workplaces, studio and artisanal efforts, musical performances, social gatherings, adult conversation, well-made food of high quality ingredients, athletic exercise, and challenging natural environments increase blood flow to the brain, rapidly connect previously non-existent neural pathways, and do all the things we expect school to do that it doesn’t: increase love of learning, form responsible adults, mould good citizens, create thinking human beings.  Put humans in beautiful places, to experience beautiful things, and they will copy and mirror that beauty.

I learned that a relaxed, at-ease brain which is instructing the face to smile because it’s happy or pleased is ten times more likely to store information in long-term memory than a stressed, unhappy or angry brain; and that the human brain is happiest when it it takes in non-threatening multi-sensory novelty every five to eight minutes, or engages in complex, emotionally satisfying work for more than 2-4 hours at a time.

I learned that brains take in as much information on a subject as they want at a sitting, and then they shut down to that subject until beautiful or dangerous novelty re-engages their brain on that subject.

What’s the takeaway, teachers and administrators?

Toss out schedules and textbooks.   Get kids work on projects for days at a time; don’t get upset when they don’t ‘finish’.  Encourage every single interest a kid has, and let them drop it when they’re done being enthusiastic about it — they got from it what they needed right then.  Put books in their hands; don’t be upset if they don’t finish them.  Give them high quality materials to build, play, dream, construct, design with, and don’t get upset when the students ruin them while trying to make art. Give them time to play video games and hang with their friends.  Give them the time and materials to repaint their classrooms, hallways and gymnasia.  Let them e-mail anyone they can find on anything that interests them at all.  Grades have nothing to do with whether they “got it” or not.  Computers, computers, computers: teach them to search, to build, to program, to design, to be digital citizens.

How do you build a school that does all that?

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One comment

  1. Thanks very much for posting this, these are great thoughts. I don’t agree with all of implications you’ve drawn by any means, at least initially, but they are certainly thought-provoking and worth exploring further.

    I guess the main thing I would add is that science is cumulative, with great effort needed to incorporate new findings into existing science because of the tendency to work within speciallizations.

    The natural tendency in our information age is to see the next shiny thing that comes along as some sort of “paradigm-busting” new idea. In the long run, most of the new findings incorporate into existing theories once you’ve processed the data deeply enough considering the right previous work.

    My perspective is that I find new ideas fascinating and look for ways to understand them in existing theories rather than trying to jump into a new world right off the bat. Yes, it’s a form of cognitive conservatism in a sense, and we have to be open to new models, but my honest experience is that it still works more often than not.

    Ok, so given that intro on the spirit of my thoughts, the specifics that I was thinking about:

    1. Tools like video games are extremely powerful because they hook into exploratory reward and immersion systems. This almost certainly means that using them as tools will have severe tradeoffs. Yes people’s brains are adapting to them in some ways, that’s why they are so effective as military simulations as well. But don’t forget what you are losing in terms of deeper processing. People are not thinking when they are immersed in a game. Just because the brain is changing and people are immersed doesn’t mean it is all good. Investigate and be mindful of the tradeoffs.

    2. Don’t throw out textbooks, just don’t rely on them so heavily. When children actually start to think for themselves, they need to have stable reference points that represent the accumulated intellectual legacy and hard fought consensus in each field. They cannot just start thinking from scratch with first principles and intuitions, they must also have some source of reliable information about the models in each field and how they are understood to work. This only happens if they have sources that are credible and have legitimacy. One of the reasons why science literacy is so abysmal in the US is that we’ve allowed ourselves to de-legitimize accumulated textbook science in favor of superficial streams of shiny new ideas.

    3. Don’t get too impressed with the benefits of pleasurable states on learning. They seem to be real but short term and limited and they have the opposite of the desired effect when you want to learn something difficult. Expertise requires a long effort and overcoming serious challenges that are often uncomfortable and the main reason people don’t achieve it is that they are not resilient enough to get through the times that aren’t fun. The skills of resilience are more important in the long run than a fun environment. There’s a complex balance between enjoying learning and learning the skills to get through the parts that aren’t fun.

    For the most part, I really like the rest of it.

    Thanks again!


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