Monday, August 04, 2008

The learning brain

What does your class know about their brains? Their theories or 'prior' knowledge. Run off this photo and ask them about what they know and their questions.Then research their questions.

It is said that we are entering the 'age of inner space'; the great challenge for the future is to explore what 'lies between our ears'.

As teachers we ought to at least understand how our brain learns and what exactly is our mind; is it different from our brain? Weighing about 3 pounds, or 1400 grams, it looks like a rubbery convoluted fungus and contains up to 100 billion cells and, strangely, feels no pain. Today the brain is appreciated as an integrated mix of chemical 'soup' and electrical neural 'connections' which absorbs up to 20% of the bodies energy to keep it active. Learning is truly about being 'turned on' to make new connections!

Two excellent books are available for teachers 'The Brain and Mind' by Eric Jensen and 'The Human mind' by Robert Winston. The book that has really impressed me however is the 'Wayward Brain' by Guy Claxton.

Although the structure and how the brain works are interesting to learn about what is more important is to consider how we can create the conditions, or the environment, to ensure we develop all the potential that lies within each individual brain. The brain is now seen as a open system that is continually learning, for better or worse, through continual feedback. And, to make teaching challenging, no two brains are alike.

This growing brain, continually evolving and adapting to experiences is a different metaphor from the 'blank slate' ( Locke's tabula rosa ) mind, or the 'factory brain', or even the 'computer brain', all to be stocked up with knowledge to be learnt and measured.

The metaphors we choose are important - we now need to 'see' the brain as a continually evolving 'learning brain'. A 'learning brain' programmed by evolution to make the best meaning it can, continually changing in response to the challenges 'it' is exposed to.

Although basic 'building blocks' are provided by genes ( 'nature') the full potential of this genetic heredity cannot be fully realised unless the right experiences are provided ( 'nurture'). Interestingly our personality style is established before birth but not our character.

We know know enough about our brains to transform education as we know it if we, as teachers, changed our minds first.

We know that optimal learning occurs best when: it is active; when learners are challenged; when their attention is captured; when their ideas and questions are valued (a 'constructivist' learning model); when students feel good ( when positive emotions mediate learning); when they learn with others ( collaborative brains) ; when they get feedback; when they are given time; when their personal mix of talents and learning styles are tapped; when learning is intrinsic ( to develop a love of learning); when teachers and learners have respectful relationships; when plenty of practice is given ( to establish 'groovy' neural connections); and by the experiences of life they are exposed to. Students, it seems, need to be helped to 'make up their own minds'; to retain the innate capacity to be 'life long learners' they were born with.

If schools do not provide these 'personalised' conditions then many students will 'disengage' from school learning, and are. Failing schools will need to change dramatically; the problems of failing schools is how they treat students.

The most important and neglected aspect is the hidden power of the unconscious mind and this is where Guy Claxton comes in.
The important part of the conscious brain is the frontal cortex which allow us to stop and consider before acting, it acts as a brake, or an internal policeman, to dampen down impulsive behaviour. We may not have 'free will' but we all need to develop 'I won't'. These conscious processes are important but are best only half the story.

As an aside autistic individuals are seen as having an over emphasis on male chemistry and thus are poor at relationships, ADDHD individuals having attributes that might be valuable in a hunting situation but problematic in formal schools, and dyslexic individuals as slow processors who get easily confused with the pace of learning. Tourettes Syndrome students have no ability to think before talking and over careful students can 'freeze' facing new learning situations. Savant individuals ( like the character Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rainman) have one strength taken to an extreme while other areas are neglected. This proves that a brain can develop mathematical genius, for example, through its own actions without any teaching. All these differing individuals can be helped if we had a greater understanding of their brains.

The unconscious brain, Claxton writes, has had bad press over the centuries. Conscious reason, in the West in particular, has been given pride of place since the replacement of unquestioned religious beliefs by scientific thinking. As a result the unconscious brain/mind has been largely ignored, or at best useful only for dreaming, for mood swings, for being lost in our thoughts, or, at worst, a place full of Freudian fantasies ( the 'beast in the basement').

It is as if the conscious brain has a hidden mind of its own that wanders off while we are trying to concentrate. This unconscious mind dreams at night - processing the days adventures. It brings things to our conscious mind at the strangest of times; it provides intuitive answers to difficult problems by providing insightful creative connections without conscious thinking, and it allows us to go into 'automatic pilot', lost in the 'flow' of things.

These less obedient qualities are too important to ignore, according to Claxton. Claxton believes we have over emphasized the rational rather than the reflective brain in Western culture. This false division provides conflict for the creative amongst us and those from different cultures and provides a clue as to why so students are failing in our rationally orientated academic schools?

The slower conscious brain is but the tip of the iceberg. The unconscious, according to Claxton, is far more important. The ideas from the subconscious, occurring to us in 'a flash', are absorbed from our culture and the institutions ( such as schools) we live in. As educators we ought to give more thought to the 'messages' our schools are unconsciously giving their students about life and learning. We urgently need to consider the ideas we want our students to absorb and then how can we ensure our actions match up to our intentions?

These unconscious thoughts enable us to 'know what to do when we do not know what to do'( Jean Piaget). It seems 'we know more than we know we know' ( Michael Polanyi). It is in our subconscious where our beliefs, memories and desires are to be found.It is in our subconscious where hunches, intuitions and creativity arise. Unfortunately the creative advantages provided by our subconscious are too often lost by the premature judgement imposed by our overly trained rational 'risk averse' brains and the pressure to prove or plan things before acting.

Creativity arises between the relationship between the two brains. Creative people value the insights offered for free while rational people distrust whatever cannot be observed and measured and inhibit such thinking. Ironically thinking too hard, or articulating what has been learnt, or worrying about imposed criteria, all limit creativity. Too much 'focused', or 'intentional' teaching, pre-determined goals, and linear problem solving, may be creating, via so called 'best practice', the mediocrity we currently see in our classrooms!

The unconscious brain provides answers without stopping to think making 'priming' this 'under-mind' so important. Strong cultures provide this 'priming' through literature, stories , myths and art - weak culture open young people up to ideas provided by the mass media.

Well 'primed' creative people are able to put their inhibitions to one side and trust their hunches and intuition. Students are inveterate eave droppers copying what they see going on around them. Students to be 'primed' need to be exposed to a wide range of creative thinking. This requires creative rather than compliant teachers and principals.

We all develop an identity of ourselves as learners for better or worse. As educators we need to focus on encouraging our students to 'be active seekers users and creators' of their own learning. The core of our identity largely lies hidden in our subconscious and is the heart of of who we are. How 'smart' we become depends on the 'stuff' we are surrounded. Our subconscious is continually interpreting and informing our choices. When we are not consciously thinking we are, according to Claxton, at our 'most grooviest'. The conscious mind, he says, may be seen as 'a dashboard for the mind' only able to provide limited information. This is a relationship similar to schools tests which can only ever measure a limited aspect of each students learning capacity.

It is time, writes Claxton, to overturn the reliance on the default rational model of the mind. All intentions arise from the depths of the subconscious if they are allowed to be actioned. 'How can I tell what I think until see what I say', to quote E. M. Forster.

We all have 'invented' ourselves from the experiences we have been exposed to. The more relaxed about who we are the more we are able to absorb new experiences and create new ideas. If we learn unconsciously then, as teachers, we need to be thoughtful about the stories and messages we share with our students.

What we believe as a society and what is accepted as 'right and wrong' needs to be embedded in our students brains/minds to allow them to act automatically. The subconscious, if primed positively, acts as a internal 'moral compass' allowing students to say 'I wont' without thinking. Such students are then in a position to be held accountable for their own actions even when in situations in which they do not know what to do.

Perhaps the thoughts hidden in our powerful 'under- mind', if fully valued, might provide time for reflection thinking and, in turn, provide the 'wisdom' missing in our fast paced information age?

Thinking about the best ways to cultivate thoughtful unconscious brains is a worthy ideal for all educators to consider?


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your interpretation of thinking about the brain - the mind - and the need to develop a postive 'undermind'.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I guess it all suggests how important the all too often hidden assumptions, in the 'warp and weft', of any culture are. Our students minds are shaped by the experiences they have; the learning behind the learning.

Unknown said...

Dude the learning Brain totally ROCKS. the brain is one cool organ isnt it?


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Bruce!

"The learning behind the learning". I like it. Could it be restated, "the learning behind the teaching"?

"Shaped by the experiences they have," is another gem. How the brain operates in learning as opposed to how we see the mind functioning is an ongoing debate that I won't get into here.

Curiosity is a human trait that is often not recognised and harnessed by the teacher or learner. It is undoubtedly one of the most powerful human characteristics that assists learning. Being ready for that moment when curiosity could be optimised in learning is the conjunction often missed by teacher and learner, for example, when a student simply asks a question, not necessarily relevant to the topic. The 'teaching moment' some call it. I'd call it the 'learning moment'.

From my own personal experience, I'm often fascinated by how much I do learn when I'm not necessarily aware of it happening and the relevant stimulus is stroking my mind. Obviously I have a lot to learn about learning.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Bruce Hammonds said...

'Learning behind the teaching' - I like that. Some call it the shadow of teaching. Teaching moments are gifts for a perceptive teacher. Elwyn Richardson call it 'the bluebird on the window sill'.

Angela Maiers said...

Bruce-what a great call to action for teachers- I have linked to a recent lesson I did on this topic with HS Students-love to get your feedback!