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“The Neuroscience of Teaching and Learning” – David Eagleman

David Eagleman

The next talk was presented by Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author of the book Sum and Incognito. He was also featured on the Colbert Report – you can see that clip here.

His talks focus was on the ideas of neuroscience, the biology of the mind, an learning:

If the conscious mind — the part you consider you — accounts for only a fraction of the brain’s function, what is all the rest doing? This is the question that David Eagleman has spent years researching, an he’s come up with some surprising answers. Our behavior, thoughts, and experiences are inseparably linked to a vast, wet, chemic-electrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us. Eagleman takes us into the depths of the subconscious to answer some of our deepest mysteries, and to illuminate what this all means for students and teachers. How do children learn best? How do we teach students creativity rather than memorization? What are the effects of growing up digital? Eagleman charts new terrain in neuroscience and helps us understand how our perceptions of ourselves and our world result from the hidden workings of the most wondrous thing we have ever discovered: the human brain.

He began the discussion talking about the power of unconscious thinking on our lives – unconscious influences are powerful. There is a gap (a large one) between what the conscious mind knows and what we have access to. However, that’s not a bad thing – we don’t want the conscious mind meddling with what’s going on ‘under the hood.’ In fact, when we overly focus on unconscious activities, we mess them up – be it playing a piano piece, serving in tennis, or mimicking ‘every day activities’ (like changing lanes).

Yesterday, Pat Basset, the President of NAIS,  touched on the importance of creativity. I highlighted that in my post yesterday: “Difficult, Courageous, & Fierce Conversations.” Eagleman’s discussion also focuses on the importance of creativity in learning – that is a necessary component in helping students to work through problems and challenges – not just ‘memorizing’ information or regurgitating material. Rather, we want them to make associations and connections.

He gave us an exercise: think of a beach scene at sunset. He pointed out that most of us left out the details: coconuts, swimmers, smells, etc. Instead, we produced a simple scene. He argues that the brain does this because its “wired” to take the path of least resistance and producing a complex scene was too consuming and our brain avoids it.

Primary Areas of the Brain

He moves on to discuss the plasticity of the mind (neuroplasticity). The human brain is immensely malleable and plastic – it is constantly wiring and re-wriing itself. Our brains change based on experiences, stimuli, and trauma. What we do ultimately matters in how our brains end up looking physically.

Our physical brains can be made more resilient based on the concept of cognitive reserve. Constantly challenging, stimulating, and working our brains helps them to be more resistant to natural degenerative ailments as well as trauma.

“I don’t ever trust my first intuition.” – Leonardo da Vinci

We need to consistently question our minds, our determinations, our conclusions – re-question our ideas and re-examine our notions. We can train creative thinking by teaching our students to go back over and re-examine our thoughts and productions. We can actually practice creativity this way. As someone who has never considered herself particularly creative, I like the idea that I can work at it to become more creative. However, perhaps he’s also arguing that creativity isn’t just reserved to the realms of art.

He provided examples of this with convergent vs. divergent thinking; giving a ‘right’ answer vs. giving a myriad of ‘correct’ responses. The latter helps you to form connections and ideas rather than focusing on a single concept or idea. As instructors, we can guide students on a path, for example: “Think of an apple. You have that in your head? What color is it? What about the skin? What’s its texture, is it smooth? Are there bruises on it? What about the stalk… is it there?” This can allow us to help guide and train our students.

Making errors is okay! In fact, schools should be a place where they can make errors. Focusing on things like effort rather than achievement is the best motivator for children. If kids are in an environment where they can make errors so long as they exert effort is conducive to their developing creative skills and thinking. We need to fight against the standard, linear concepts of teaching. On example he provided was the concept of “Idea Quotas.” If a student comes to you with a problem, you tell them to come to you with 7, 10, or even 30 “ideas” about how to solve the problem. Enriched environments are also key – they need to physically and mentally stimulating. The room itself needs to be engaging – colorful, engaging, interactive, etc. Neuroplasticity requires emotional investment.

Digital Natives

The next topic he tackled is the notion of the world in which our students are growing up. They live in a digital world with multi-functional devices. They live in a world of instant stimulation, answers, and interactive elements. Does this shane the way their brains are wired? Of course! They’re products of the environment in which they grew up. He terms them “screen-agers.” They grew up in front of screens, cell phones, etc. They are digital natives. Because they grew up in this environment, their brains are wired differently. In this generation, technology is steering the plasticity of their brains.

As he put it, we are from the “just in case” arena of learning – we learned things “in case we needed them.” Students today live in a world of “just in time learning.” They get a flat tire, they take out their phone and look up how to change the tire. If they need to know something, they go and find it. Is it a bad thing? It’s akin to Einstein’s Quote:

“Never memorize something that you can look up.”

With technology, students can look things up as they need to know it – it’s always in context and it’s always related at the speed they need (faster, slower, or a mix). The world around us is changing rapidly and we all now have to work outside of our comfort zones – it’s a different world than what we grew up in and how we learned as students.

He also tackled the issue brought up by the previous speaker, Tony Schwartz, who argued against multi-tasking. Instead, he argues that kids today are being wired for multitasking that it is the reality. It’s not ADHD, it’s how they grew up and their contextual world.

A specific teaching example that he brought up is: “Is it cheating for a child to use Google to answer a question?” Most teachers said no, but expressed frustration that their students were taking the ‘easy route’ of googling the world. However, he argued that we need to rephrase our questions so that they can use Google to explore the answer. I know that I’ve succeeded in writing an essay question when students say “I can’t find the answer. I tried googling it and the answer didn’t pop up.” Then, they have to formulate their own answer.

He ended his talk by re-emphasizing the importance of encouraging creativity in teaching, lesson design, and consistently pushing our own comfort level.

Also, see Jonathan Martin’s post.

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