Sunday, September 30, 2007

Teaching with Brain in Mind

Over the years the metaphor for the brain has changed from blank slates, to a mechanical model ( each piece doing special job), to 'left' and 'right' brains, to being compared to a computer, even the Internet - and in all this there is the difference between the brain and our mind. And, actually who is in charge of our thinking nature or nurture?

While over the past few years we have become more aware of the workings of our brain, adapting our teaching to match this understanding is another thing.

In the Industrial Age schools were modelled on a factory transmission analogy. Today our schools, all too often, still reflect this dated idea with students passing from standard to standard to achieve defined 'bits' of learning.Today the brain is seen as a self evolving learning organ, learning both consciously and unconsciously, for the life of the person given the right circumstances.

Scientifically the brain weighs about 1200 grams, is about 2% of our body weight but uses 20% of our energy - energy it gains from circulating blood. The brain is 78% water. A living brain is so soft you can cut it with a butter knife but ironically it doesn't feel pain! The brain is the critical centre of our body wide data collecting nervous system and produces chemicals to reward itself for positive learning experiences. Divided into two large hemispheres it also has three levels, the cortex, or 'thinking' part, and two earlier evolutionary levels relating to emotions and instinct.

Our life success relates to how we learn to use our conscious thinking ability to our advantage - but, unfortunately, we can also learn self defeating habits.

The 'old' view was that we lose our brain cells once in adulthood but, thankfully, the 'new' view is that this doesn't matter, as learning depends on the new neurons, or connection, 'we' make. Active 'open' minds build active neurons until late in life and, even if damaged, new 'circuitry' re-routes the missing function to other sections of the brain. You can , it seems, learn 'new tricks' even if you are an old dog.

Unfortunately many students have 'lost' their learning ability and have become locked into self defeating patterns, or habits, which are then applied as if stuck on repeat. Students fall into these habits unconsciously because they worked in earlier situations and their minds have become 'closed' to new possibilities

To complicate matters some researchers believe it is the unconscious brain that is more 'in charge of us than we are of it'. For humans, who value ability to reason, or rationality above all, this is disconcerting. But, if we accept this, then how 'we' influence the unconscious become very important.

Aspects of behaviour are picked up unconsciously by the 'brain'. The brain/mind somehow selects and stores 'messages' from experiences. It seems that the mind has a mind of its own! Our consciousness is, at best, only a limited 'dashboard' for the unconscious mind, and not aways trustworthy. We have to learn to reflect, pause, to consider options, so as to juggle the demands life places on the brain. Many of our young people have not learnt to do this and rush in without thinking , making use of ingrained habits. By doing this they creating learning 'problems' for themselves and behaviour 'problems' for teachers.

So it seems we all are a complicated mix of our conscious ( 'stop and reflect' ) and our unconscious minds ( 'where did that come from?' ). All people, it seems, are 'deeper' than they like to think. Our imagination, creativity, originality and intuition come from 'beneath the surface' and are continually 'shaped' by our experiences. Brains develop best in a non threatening but challenging environments.

There are obvious lessons in all this for teachers.Teachers need to create safe moral cultures that value all students; cultures that hold everyone responsible their own actions. Our learning 'minds' are always weighing options before choosing any action -it is over to the culture of expectation teachers create to ensure students learn appropriate behaviours.

To change 'bad' habits students need support, training, practice and encouragement so as to be able to 'rewire' themselves - to build new neural pathways. They need to be helped to avoid 'premature articulation', 'right answers', or 'hit first think about consequences later'. They need to learn to wait and ponder, to make use of feedback, and sometimes, to do nothing and accept ambiguity and confusion as the best option. It is at these times the subconscious mind through, dreams, imagination and meditation provides the insight to solve issues - often at unexpected times.

Appreciating that the brain is capable of creating new structures is a positive step. Teachers can help their students develop more positive habits, or patterns of behaviour . Students can learn to 'change their tune' and 'sing a new song' and break out of their fixed 'one track minds'.

Students can, with help, begin to rethink who they might become. They can be helped to learn to think through new situations armed with the idea that there are always options and choices available to them. Even to do nothing is a choice

When they learn to use their brains wisely their minds are working for them rather than leading then down the failing track of unexamined habits. A 'learning' brain driven by curiosity is always constructing the best sense it can. This 'mindfulness' is a long way from the previous simplistic transmission of knowledge approach.

We now know enough about how our brains work, and how our minds develop, to ensure all students develop 'enriched' brains 'turned on' to learning, but only if, as teachers, we change our own minds first. We need to teach with the brain in mind!

As Henry Ford once said, 'If you think you can or you think you can't you are both right'.


Anonymous said...

Great to learn old dogs can learn new tricks. We need more of Henry Ford's, 'I think I can', people.

Anonymous said...

Who is the little man in the brain sorting out all the connections - is he the 'mind' in the brain, or is he the 'minder'? And where abouts does he live in the brain? Perhaps he lives in the ground floor out of sight( the sub-conscious)? If he fails to do his job, and makes faulty connections, all sorts of strange behaviors will result. If kids are to be 'rewired' to develop positive habits he has an important part to play! Teachers ought to understand his connecting role and get to know him.

Bruce Hammonds said...

The 'little man' possibly represents the unconscious brain that stores all the ideas the brain 'gathers' and then sends them up to be used as necessary. To work well the 'thinking brain' needs to 'vet' the ideas to avoid trouble!