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NCLB Outrages

Kids' Brains , Not Teacher Imperatives, Dictate How They Learn

Ohanian comment: Send this to your Congressional representative who voted for NCLB.

The presumption of education is that one informed, presumably older brain trains an uninformed and, in the case of K-12, assuredly younger brain.

And yet we never discuss the brain. Researchers do. Psychiatrists do. Arcane journals do. But to my knowledge, educators don't know much about and rarely discuss the very organ that is both the object of education and the principal asset of the educator.

Increasingly, I find this bizarre.

These days when I'm asked to speak in public -- unless I'm specifically asked to interpret data, which I'm happy to do -- I only want to talk about the brain. I manage to refashion my ever-evolving rap to suit any audience, so I can find out which parts of it click with people and which are too obscure.

Since I started to understand the basics of how the human brain evolved, education as we currently practice it doesn't really seem doable to me. Oh, we'll still have to face the myriad realities of funding, reading disabilities, old heating systems, charters and the like, but I no longer think we know what we're talking about when we speak so confidently about improving education.

It's like saying we're going to improve the performance of a car without ever lifting up the hood.

So what makes a kid hum? I'll tell you right now that the reason I've only done my brain rap in speeches is because just getting the basic evolutionary story takes a lot more than the length of this column will allow.

Still, it's worth being absurdly reductive just to get a little information on the table for the purpose of discussion. Clearly educators and the public generally believe that it's not their job to worry about the kid's interior at all -- humming or otherwise -- but about how to jack up his performance at the end of the testing cycle.

When I was writing about math, I got vicious e-mails from people screaming that math and feelings did not belong in the same sentence. But since the years of school reform haven't jacked performance nearly to the degree we'd like, we really have little to lose by listening to the kid's interior hum.

The human brain has three basic evolutionary layers -- though not all researchers agree -- each of which I will delve into at another time. The oldest is the reptilian brain, located at the top of the spinal column, which coordinates voluntary movement through a messaging system called nerves. Wrapped around that is the mammalian or limbic brain, wherein reside feelings, mood, memory, a sense of belonging -- or alienation -- and such. Lastly comes the neocortex, which occupies about three-fifths of the human brain, and while it is way, way more complex than a computer, it resembles one in that it specializes in perceiving, sorting, storing and retrieving information. But its greatest power, which has given humans dominion over the known world, is its capacity to use all that information management for problem solving.

Normally, I focus mostly on the limbic brain and its implications, but today, facing the new year, it seems like rediscovering the pleasures of problem solving is the most important direction for education, when brain-informed.

Learning, especially in the service of solving problems that you've identified as interesting or life-improving, is a pleasure. Look at the face of a kid -- or an adult, for that matter -- having a big ah-ha! experience. The palpable pleasure of neocortical joy, if you will, is potentially a powerful education tool. Of course, the Summerhill, hippie extreme of the educator spectrum has certainly recognized and fashioned school around the pleasures of learning, but gone on to mistake undisciplined, structureless freedom to explore for purposeful education.

As a result, the pleasure of learning is often associated with flakiness and lack of rigor. Taxpayers and bureaucrats -- who themselves enjoy problem solving with crossword puzzles, civic debates and home-improvement projects -- don't want to hear about pleasure in publicly supported schools. But they also don't enjoy hearing about disaffected, unruly students who dislike school so much they drop out in droves.

Kids would better tolerate school if they were fed nourishing information in a kind, but highly structured environment -- letting a kid be a rude brat is no favor to him -- with clearly delineated goals toward which the kid and his teachers can problem solve.

This means not only that the kid is lured along a learning path with the pleasures of problem solving, but also that the teacher enjoys -- as well as models -- the giddy ah-ha of finding the right strategy from her own neocortical bag of tricks, to connect the kid to the concept. Merlin, Socrates, Anne Sullivan and all great teachers always knew that several approaches would be necessary depending on the pupil's mood, developmental phase, level of distraction that day and so forth. But with persistence, teachers can meet their own problem-solving challenges. And feel the delight of having done so.

For students and teachers alike, this pleasant problem-solving sensation occurs at school only rarely, if at all. Kids more commonly have an ah-ha at recess, during games or in a social interaction. The nerds, of course, revel in school problem solving, but partly as a way of walling off from seemingly insoluble social issues. School would be more pleasant for everyone if more often kids were allowed to define problems they'd like to tackle and teachers expected to support them in so tackling. From the get-go, show the kids that all this education will lead to every greater dominion over the problems in their own lives.

Yes, of course, there's a whole canon of information we want implanted in their neocortex, and education is expensive, a serious business that seems to have absolutely no room for experiment or failure these days. But critical thinking, AKA problem solving, is not a separate curricular goal from math and social studies.

If you think of education as training the brain, it's the whole enchillada. Like reproduction -- which no one has to promote -- problem solving comes with built-in attendant pleasures. Use it or lose a large proportion of the kids. Help kids identify and get addicted to, if you will, the high sensation of problem solving. Encourage them to seek it out. Then harness their pleasure-loving impulses and gently direct them to the very canon we're currently teaching so many of them to hate. Instead of having kids wake up to a make-it-or-break-it state test, invite them to test their mettle and, in so doing, score a big one for the academic home team, AKA, the school.

If you understand the brain, the current effort to punish, sanction, name and shame schools and kids is just not going to produce a big, sustainable leap forward in test scores. Our goals may be right, but how we think about education just doesn't honor how the human functions. How learning feels to grownups and kids makes a huge difference.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at juliasteiny@cox.net or c/o Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

— Julia Steiny
Kids' brains dictate how they learn
Providence Journal


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