Have Brain, Will Travel

What if the superiority of our human brains lies not in their complexity but rather, in their plasticity?

As it turns out, our species actually has very few genes – even less than a rice plant. Human genes don’t even give us step-by-step directions for how to get things done, like they do in a rice plant.

But our genes do enable us to interact with our environment. Human brains are always functioning in a context, adjusting and readjusting to the specific conditions at hand. It is this flexibility that enabled us to rise above all other animals and plants. This same adaptability also explains how learning occurs, and presents a critical opportunity and responsibility for education.

“Children learn by trying to make sense of the world around them, and learning shapes brain development,” says neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Wang. “Since brain development is directly tied to surroundings, our children’s’ growth depends on emotionally safe, cognitively stimulating environments.”

Neuroscience, Relationships and Emotion

At the heart of neuroscience research findings, we are social creatures driven by emotion. Environments may differ, neurology between kids is very diverse – but they’re all grounded in interrelationships. Kids learn things in the context of wanting to express themselves to others.

“The reason why we’re capable of forming bonds, to love, to be intensely interested in things, is not separate from our ability to do scholastic work,” said Immordino-Wang to a packed audience at her plenary session of the 2019 Schools of the Future conference. “The girl who loves her baby brother learns about planetary science using the same parts of her brain.”

Likewise, how kids feel matters a great deal, because patterns of feeling are what teach the brain. Emotions determine how we view things and thus, how much we will learn, because it is neurologically impossible to learn without emotion.

“Emotions activate the same brain systems that keep you alive,” she said. “Moral disgust, awe, appreciation of beauty – these rework the same parts of the brain as digestion. Actual learning comes from the feeling in our guts. Emotion is literally teaching the brain how to organize itself.”

Wow, That’s Cool!

How can teachers take advantage of neuroscience and help students develop – without adding more tasks to everyone’s day?

According to Immordino-Wang, the key isn’t doing more work. It’s about making the subject more emotionally interesting. For example, this could mean rediscovering your inner scientist, and sharing that curiosity with students.

“If you think like a biologist, you’re literally teaching the students’ genes how to grow in biology,” she says. “When they exclaim, ‘Oh, that’s how it works!’ you’re integrating that emotion, that joy of discovery, into learning. That’s how people grow up to be doctors.”

Or, construct stories in which you share a personal learning experience. Storytelling is inherently ‘emotionally interesting’ and can help students imagine how they would make sense of a similar situation. The stories you tell yourself are what drive learning.

Project-based learning is another option. Choose a topic the kids are already interested in, such as music or basketball shoes. Start small, and focus on creating excitement. This method might sound a lot of work, but it’s actually much easier than trying to coerce kids into learning a subject that isn’t intrinsically interesting enough to learn by itself.

“If we can make it emotionally interesting, we’ll help students develop,” says Immordino-Wang. “And isn’t the main point of school to help our young people become something they weren’t capable of becoming before?”

The Journey, Not the Destination

Once kids understand and care about a subject, they’re more likely to wonder, “What might be a long-term outcome? What if other factors were introduced?” and pursue in-depth explorations beyond the class assignment. They’ll take ownership of the learning, allowing teachers to shift to a facilitator role.

“Let’s say the student wants to make an abstract prediction over time. To do so, they’ll need to understand exponential modeling. So, they’ll be open to learning calculus,” says Immordino-Wang. “This need to solve the first problem sets them up for more complex disciplines. They learn along the way, and so the payoff is the process itself.”

Finally, learning is not an end, she adds. It’s in the service of developing the child, so that he or she can grow into an adult who can think in new ways, engage in problems, be skeptics and full of wonder. Teaching a child how to be interested will grow those parts of the brain that will empower them to be successful.

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