Friday, November 21, 2008

The brain and other interesting stuff

Today was the first day of the conference. I spend 2 1/2 hours this morning in a class called Brain 101 by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. It was a good intro to how the brain works, though if I hadn't had some prior knowledge about the topic I would have been hopelessly lost (as some people were), so perhaps it wasn't really an intro.

The main point of her lecture was that there aren't certain parts of the brain that "do" certain functions. Rather, the whole brain works on everything and recruits certain specialized sections to help in a particular way on a task. Moreover, she taught us that the brain isn't task-oriented but process oriented. So, there isn't one particular part of the brain that does music, for example. Instead, there is a part of the brain that is in charge of hierarchical organization (typically used for language but used for anything that "nests" into categories, e.g., notes, chords, phrases, songs) and another part that is specialized for spatial reasoning (music becomes a spatial task when we use relative pitch to determine which note to sing or play against a harmonic background) and our proficiency with music and processing preferences will determine which system (if not both) we'll use while performing.

She also compared the brain and the process of synaptic pruning to caring for a garden. Some people argue that we want bigger brains, but she said that we need gardens (brains) that are well-tended with clear pathways so that we can enjoy them. Often, we prune back plants and even get rid of some plant types to make our garden more beautiful.

She stated that, "as educators, we are interested in training functional, efficient networks for particular skills." But she also cautioned that we need to think about the balance we want to strike in the classroom between efficiency (e.g., learning the times tables to automaticity) and flexibility (e.g., being able to analyze why the times tables work that way and understanding how we arrive at answers). The more efficient our brains are, the less flexible they tend to be.

Another interesting thing she talked about was how learning styles and multiple intelligences are, in fact, related to processing preferences (how our brains prefer to handle information once it's been given). So it's not about what you teach, it's about how students process it. Therefore, we should our students' their preferred methods to teach and also use those as a springboard to train them to use other process. Learning to use multiple processing methods is called "flexible critical thinking skills" and is invaluable for students.

She also talked about mirror neurons. The basic idea is that when we see someone doing something we are familiar with, our neurons fire as if we were participating. The lesson for education is that, in order for kids to engage with the purpose of instruction, they have to engage with the goal of what you're doing. We have to show empathy for their goals and interests and help them understand the goal of what we're trying to do - aligning it with theirs - so that they, in turn, will be empathetic.

Next, she talked about memory. I had thought that memories were "stored" in the hippocampus, but that organ is, in fact, a processor. Memories themselves are distributed in the systems that did the original thinking about it (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc.). Therefore, we as teachers need to supply our students with rich experience in particular contexts to help them better store knowledge. Additionally, we do not "pull up" memories. Rather, we recreate them every time we think about them. Thus, memories are fallible because of the role of perception (every sensory experience is filtered by our previous experience) and interpretation (we may remember events differently at different times in our lives).

So, all of this led me to think about how I currently teach Ed Psych. I want it to be more engaging for the students and it was really reinforced for me today that I need to tap into my students' goals. One way that I thought of doing that was to allow the students to explore the four major learning theories in an analytic way - comparing and contrasting, figuring out how to apply them in the classroom - rather than teaching them sequentially in the classroom. I need to think more about how this would work, but I think it might be exactly what I've been looking for to make this class more learner-centered and engaging.

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