Category Archives: Neuroscience

You can’t sell what people already have

The 36th Learning and the Brain conference is happening this weekend in Boston.  Amazing messages about the future of the educational model are coming out of it.  Here is a good, virtually realtime analysis of a couple of the keynotes and some of the themes:

Rethinking Teacher Roles in a New Networked World by Liana Heitin of Education Week

The pace of the education revolution that is underway is inspiring.  Things ARE changing.  Finally.  The leading educational thinkers are talking about the research, not the fads.  They are talking about the changes wrought by the information age and a networked world, and what they mean for schools – not what they hope they mean.

The best minds in education right now are talking about a model of schooling that is different than the one they experienced.  That is key.  The first trap educators fall into is in promoting a model of schooling that is exactly like the one they experienced – regardless of whether it works for students.  “It worked for me,” the argument goes.  Teachers tend to teach in a way that mimics their own schooling, which goes a long way toward explaining why change occurs so slowly in education.  Imagine if doctors practiced medicine the way they experienced it growing up.  Imagine any industry, profession, or craft that had such a built in mechanism for resisting change and growth.

Some highlights coming out of Boston this so far weekend:

  • The new PBL = place based learning = real projects of real relevance with direct and permanent impact on real communities that are local to the learner
  • Richard Louv on the deep and complex value of nature to student learning and well-being
  • Will Richardson says, “Stop asking questions on tests that can be answered with a Google search.”

If you – or more likely someone you know – has any doubt that things have changed and school has to change with it, consider just Google.  If everything else in our society, economy, and global community were the same, Google alone would change schooling.  Every one of us (with a smart phone) carries the entire internet around with us.  We have the complete curriculum of 90% of traditional schools literally in our back pockets.  What does that do to schools that are built on the notion of a discrete curriculum?  You can’t sell what people already have.

This is what they are talking about at the Brain Conference in Boston.

Change by Necessity or Faith

“Sometimes … reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations.  Sometimes … it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance.  And sometimes … it means walking away from  the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.

“Ultimately, the question is always going to be, ‘What price are you willing to pay?’  The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking, p155.

Not just throw-away advice, it seems to me, although, unfortunately it has the ring of platitude.  In fact, I think all great advances, in whatever field and whatever context, were revolutionary – tending to turn things around or upside down, demanding sacrifices and causing anxiety.

What’s deceptive about Sir Ken’s words, what seems platitudinous is how easy it is to accept in hindsight.  The “of course” factor is huge, as it is in all platitudes.  But there is no “of course” when you are turning your world upside down, swimming up stream, making sacrifices, and causing anxiety.  There is no “of course” in the moment.  Still, that is what people tend to say.  “Of course, it was hard.  Of course, there were sacrifices.  That is part of the deal.”  But that belies the severity, the pain, and the difficulty experienced.  The great and noble stories unto myths we pass around the family of relatives who gave up everything to follow a dream, uprooted their families to reinvent their lives, faced the fear of failure for the chance to greater success, don’t include the reality of the pain, don’t allow the experience of the anxiety and the difficulty.  What we experience in stories like that is the the inspiration and the success.  As if the price paid for change is somehow a little less relevant.

And it is so much easier to go with the flow, to make lemonade, to take it easy.  But those aren’t the stories we tell.  The story of uncle so-and-so who “was never particularly satisfied with his lot in life, but he made it work.  Day in and day out he just got along, kept on.  Sure, somewhere deep down he had something like passion, a dream that he always said he couldn’t remember, but what he was really good at was going with the flow, taking it easy, playing it safe.”  We don’t tell that story – because success depends on adversity.

Weird, eh?  Why should that be?

And great advances are always perpetrated out of necessity, not luxury or privilege.  It is too hard to swim upstream – unless you have to, unless there is no other option.  Think of pacific salmon that die after struggling to invent the next generation.  (And listen to the inspiration in that: struggling to invent the next generation.  It gives you chills.  But I wonder whether if the salmon had a choice, they still do it?  Would they still swim up stream?)

Looking back we say it was all worth it, but in the moment, how can we know?  We can’t.  In the moment, we trust.  Change requires either necessity or faith – which is belief without support, believing in something despite the evidence (not purposefully believing in something that is contradicted by evidence – some people do that and that practice is perverse.)  But, you don’t always need evidence to know something is true.  Or right.  Or apt.  Or necessary.  That’s intuition.  And as the poet Rumi says, “There are many ways of knowing.”

Why I Teach – A Personal Philosophy of Education

What one does and how one does it is the product of what one believes and one’s orientation toward the future.  Upon that premise, I set forth now, as a classroom teacher and an experiential educator, my personal philosophy of education.  Let it be known that this I believe:

What is education?  What is teaching?

I believe that the true goal of education is the realization of human potential, that one’s personal human potential is the full expression of authentic self in relation to truth in community, and that realizing one’s personal potential depends on a reliable foundation of accurate self knowledge.

Therefore, education is the system by which we strive to realize the heights of human potential through the practice of teaching and the process of learning.

Teaching is the day-to-day endeavor to inspire and bring about learning in students. Its goal is the acquisition of knowledge, the advent of insight, and the development of personal capacities through live encounters with matters of real concern and the processing of experience. All knowledge is self-knowledge by virtue of the subjectivity of the knower; what is known, and even the act of knowing, is not independent of the knower, and, ultimately, what is experienced by the knower is a manifestation of self.

Self-knowledge is that collection of relevant and comparative information that a student uses to form a conception of self in community others and with truth. Furthermore, self knowledge allows the identification of passions and empowers the pursuit of happiness in moving forward with the uncertain business of living a life.

Fundamentally, teaching is the judicious practice of managing experiences to make them useful to students in interpreting the world and in pursuing their passions. Interpreting the world means making meaning of history and the human condition and understanding one’s place in both human and natural contexts. Pursuing their passions means identifying their talents and affinities and feeling empowered to develop them in community with others.

The individual and the community

The individual and the community coexist in collaborative interdependence, the two thriving on each other in measured balance. Human potential can only be realized in community with others because it is dependent on a human social context for its value. Individual expression in isolation has no effect, no benefit, and no real-world value. As such, it is a feckless and impotent gesture, incapable of either improving or diminishing the human condition. Self expression is made real when the effects on other people are manifest.

Community only exists to the extent that it recognizes and celebrates individuals and their free and personal expressions of self. Oppression is the curtailing of free and personal expression of self, and an oppressed community is diminished in capacity and human potential by the lack of expression. A community without a vibrancy of distinct and striving individuals working in common cause does not advance or progress and eventually collapses for lack of original thought and new ideas, both of which come only from free and personal expression of self.

The questions students ask

While they might not always be consciously aware of the questions they are asking, and even if they have come to give themselves automatic and pat answers, I believe students always ask three big questions about themselves while learning:

    • Is this about me?
    • Can I use this?
    • What am I compared to this?


These are the questions that compose the student experience of learning.

Is this about me?

This is the fundamental question that determines a student’s level of engagement in the learning process, and engagement is the primary modulator of lasting learning. Engagement engenders experience, and experience causes and necessitates a change in one’s perception of the self in relation to truth and the world. In reaction to experience one changes one’s mental models of the self and of the world, and from there one moves forward into new experiences with a new set of expectations and understandings.

So, “Is what is happening around me about me, of me, for me?” becomes the primary question, often tacitly asked and tacitly answered.

The degree to which a student feels able, invited, and compelled to participate in the content or material being learned is the degree to which it has an influential effect on his or her mental models of the world, of truth, and of the self. Enduring mental models are most of what we call knowledge, and a mental model that includes a conception of self with an active agency in the world is the foundation for citizenship in a community.  To create a sense of citizenship, of vested interest in a community, schools have to succeed in engaging students and instilling a sense of effectual participation. To do that, students have to feel that what they are learning is essentially and in some way about them.

And so, the content of what is taught should be relevant, first and foremost.

At risk is the alienation and anonymity that comes from the perception that this community or this experience or this world is not about me or my people, and there is nothing at stake for me here.

Can I use this?

The human brain forgets far, far more than it remembers, and thankfully so. Actually, it doesn’t forget so much as it sifts and filters experience to identify relevant and useful information to store in memory. The vast majority of what perceived through the senses is never even stored for future recall – because it is deemed irrelevant and has no identifiable bearing on health or well being.

Those things deemed relevant and useful are acquired, stored, recalled, and applied to new situations effortlessly. And incidentally, it happens all the time, within school and without, in every situation. The brain never “turns off,” it is always acquiring and evaluating information for relevance and utility, and the information it stores as relevant and useful are accessed without trouble.

So, the critical question that is asked, usually unknowingly, to determine whether content material is stored for later use or not is Can I use this and how? For learning and memory, utility of what is learned is critical. If we want students to remember and use what we teach them, we need to be very clear about how they are going to use what they are learning to interpret the world and their place in it and to navigate their pursuit of what they find most meaningful in life. That is what the human brain has evolved to do; there is no other way.

And so, the content of what is taught should be useful.

At risk is the notion that what is learned in school is not necessary, static and dead, already known by other people who do other things, and that learning is simply a short-lived torture of memory.  At risk is the notion that there is nothing new under the sun.

What am I compared to this?

Learning leaves a mark on the self. Everything we experience goes to creating a conception of the self that is dynamic and constantly changing with new experience. The brain is the seat of selfhood, personality, character, affinity, truth, beauty, and passion. Everything that is perceived comes through the brain and is affected by the mechanisms of thought, memory, consciousness, and emotion. Content material exists in and of itself, but what is experienced and learned is a combination of the thing itself and the self.

So, everything that is learned serves to define the self who learns and chart a path forward.  In this sense learning is always an act of comparison.  Students work to understand a concept or master a skill and then through the questions of relevance and usefulness come to some conclusions about themselves in comparison to what is learned.

Reading and studying Macbeth,for instance, coming to know the play through experience, can bring a sense of identity, as in – I know Macbeth. I am the one who knows Macbeth. Of course, other conceptions of self in comparison to Macbeth are possible, too, as in I am one who does not understand Macbeth. Any conception of self that comes from an experience with Macbeth serves to define the self who moves forward into new texts and new learning. The anticipation of a reading of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, will be influenced by the conception of self that was changed by reading Macbeth.

And so, learning should empower further learning.

At risk is the notion that I am nothing compared to this. Powerless before knowledge, incapable of growth, students who come to see themselves as inadequate in comparison to content will choose not to learn, not to express themselves in community with others and the human condition, and the human social context will be the poorer for it.

The bottom line

Through the brain-intensive process of learning, students actively redefine their conception of who they are in the human condition. In answering the questions Is this about me? Can I use this? and What am I in comparison to this? students gain self knowledge and insight into themselves as individuals, capable of self expression, in community with others and in relation to truth.

Because of that, the experience a student has while learning is far, far more important than the material learned.

This I believe.

Cognitive Flash Flood

Sometimes there is so much to say, so much to write.  I get caught in moments like that, like a flash flood in the desert, when the days of desiccation give way in an uncontrollable flow of ideas, connections, and indelible truths.  Everything seems relevant, germane, and interconnected.  In those moments, my mind swells and I think there isn’t time enough to say it all, to write it all, to live it all.  (I carry a notepad around with me, one of various accoutrements that seem crucial to have within reach at any given moment because who knows when the flood will inundate me, and memory is an imperfect tool.)

If I don’t scribble a frantic note down in the moment of thinking it, I fear (and trust) it will be lost forever.  And how often I have been right!  How disconcerting it is to remember the feeling of inspiration but not the spark of it later, the effect but not the cause.  It is a study in brain function, really: emotions are lodged more durably (or more simply, or more easily accessed, who can say?) than facts.  Details are simply cues for emotional reaction, which spur the brain to motivate the body to act.  So, it is right and proper from a biological perspective that the feeling of an event be remembered (or recalled, really) more easily than the details, because it is feeling upon which we act.

And in that way we understand sensations like déjà vu, which are not visitations from some other realm.  They are the brain and its natural functioning, remembering a feeling more than the details which sparked it.  Like so much in the brain, déjà vu is an incomplete memory, a sensation seemingly without causal precedent – which is not to limit the wonder of the brain or to relegate its profound mystery to mere science.  In fact, understanding a portion of the intricacies of the brain, and that such wondrous phenomena as dreams, memory, learning, and the holy grail of neuroscience, consciousness are human capacities and not supernatural makes human beings and the human brain all the more astonishing.  These fantastical abilities are us!  We are what astonishes us.  There is nothing more amazing in the universe than the human brain – and that is what I find a few turns of the screw more astonishing than déjà vu or even the fact that nightmares are a common human experience.  What I find truly mind-bending is the fact that astonishment is experienced in the brain: our own brains astonish themselves!  Illeism at its best.

In the short-lived moments of cognitive flood, writing becomes a process of elimination, an uncovering, an act not of adding words, but of taking them away.  It is a simplification, an untangling to lay bare an idea that exists plainly and simply, regardless of words or thoughts or even human brains. Like the sculptor of marble who sees the image, fully formed, in its own terms, inside the stone and simply labors to remove the unnecessary material.  Writing, too, is about removing the unnecessary material.