Learning and the Brain 2009

This conference actually wasn’t last week.  It was in mid-August.  I apparently dropped the blog entry into a “drafts” folder rather than publishing it, and then forgot about it.  As a bonus, here’s my piece on Learning and the Brain – unfinished, unedited, and forgotten for a month.

I went to the Learning and the Brain conference at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, CT this past week.  The CAIS CPD, of which I’m the chairman this year, is one of the sponsors of the event.  I think it’s one of our most successful offerings, although this year the attendance was down substantially from last year — the economy seems to be the reason.

A lot of private schools are cutting back on professional development and teachers in general these days; much like public schools. My father sent me a news item that 1,200 k-12 teaching jobs have been cut in Connecticut for the coming school year in the public schools. though I  do wish they’d also publish how many adminstrators lost their jobs — then we’d have a MUCH better idea how much it’s really about the kids).  A colleague of mine reports that at his private school, a prominent and much loved adminstrator was laid off, and when there were complaints, the head of school responded sadly, “I can have a beloved adminstrator or I can have a math department.”  Losing ten students at a school of under a hundred can have that kind of effect, I guess.

Anyway, the conference!

Every year now for several years in a row, a group of brain researchers come to talk to teachers, and every year I come away with a dozen ideas that are easy to talk about in theory and substantially more difficult to translate into practice on a daily basis.

I sat next to an administrator from a Virginia school who lauded and praised to high-heaven those clickers (multiple choice selectors for classrooms with SMARTboards or Promethean systems) I thought so awful at NECC 2009.

I learned that playing video games actually causes some parts of the brain to grow larger and more dense; pick the right video game, and you substantially increase your spatial recognition capabilities (Tetris) or your ability to pull a real rifle or pistol trigger for the Army (Doom, Quake, other FPS’s) and hit the target.  Digital word and number games like crosswords and Sudoku can decrease your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s in later life.  The brain contains around 24 day-to-day executive functions like MONITOR, CORRECT, TIME, GENERATE, SELF-OBSERVE, and more.  These are connected to five or six long-term functions like planning and calendar-keeping, and two connected to space-time awareness and cosmic consciousness.  But there’s NO ONE EXECUTIVE FUNCTION. There’s a lot of them, and they start developing at birth, and they develop throughout life.  Some remain undeveloped, because the brain doesn’t know they’re there, or the part of the brain that controls the function is miswired, or it’s correctly wired but it’s not fully operational in this particular brain yet.

There’s no part of your brain that sits there, and rules everything else. There’s no king, no president, no tribal chief, no Indian in a headdress, no swami with a turban that rules everything.  No pilot in a jump suit, no steampunk engineer in a tophat and goggles pulling levers and getting burned by steam jets or pinched by the brain’s mental cogs.  Just a bunch of processes.  There’s no ‘there” there.

Does it change how I teach?

Well, yes. No. Maybe.  I could teach kids how to use and manipulate the 24 day-to-day functions.  I could try to connect them to the five or six long-term functions.  I could teach them “palace of memory” techniques from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that are designed to work with and counteract the fragmentary nature of the executive functions of the brain somewhat.

I could ignore this data, and do ‘drill and kill’ exercises with them until my eyes bleed and theirs cry.

But here’s the thing.  Two things, actually.  First: if a kid has a learning disability, you can diagnose it pretty clearly with the right diagnostic test.  “oh, this is dyscalculia.  This is dyslexia.  This is non-verbal disorder… ” Whatever it is, you can find it.  But if a kid has an untrained Executive Function, like “doesn’t know how to MONITOR what his hand just wrote” or “doesn’t know how to INTERRUPT one activity and REDIRECT to another”… it looks like a character flaw: one child is too careless to go back and correct his work; the other is obstinate.  Yet both are connected with developmental processes in the forebrain, that develop at their own pace.

Second: The first time you teach a kid to use one of these frontal lobe executive function skills, it requires a MASSIVE amount of brain power in the portions of the brain where sensory information is processed — which means it’s going to use a lot of stored energy all at once.  But each time that the frontal lobe does the same task, the sensory lobes are less involved, until after about 5-6 times they become almost quiescent.  Then all the processing happens in the front of the brain.  The sensorium goes back to processing sensory data, and not running a 2-way communications channel between the forebrain trying to get something done, and the hind brain trying to watch what’s going on.

Keep in mind, this is what some neurologists and neuroscientists are thinking is happening.

Thirty fore-brain processes is a lot. Each of them is almost a separate personality — except that’s the wrong word, because personality may be something else completely.  The whole point is that we don’t know how the brain works to generate us. And getting good data is phenomenally expensive – wiring me up to get CAT scanned or MRI’ed or PET’ed could run $500 to $2500.

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