Learning and the Brain: Keeping that Goldilocks Balance

Learning and the Brain: Keeping that Goldilocks Balance

I wrote a little while ago about Andrew Watson’s excellent book, “The Goldilocks Map.” I had an opportunity to attend a Learning and the Brain conference, which was what sparked Andrew’s own journey into brain research and learning to balance openness to new practice with a healthy dose of skepticism. In fact, Andrew was one of the keynote presenters at this conference – and I think his trenchant advice provided an important grounding for consideration of many of the other presentations.

I think there’s something in the nature of presenting to a general audience of educators that compels researchers to attempt to derive generalized implications of their research that can all too easily overstep the confines of their very specialized and specific domains.

For example, Mary Helen Immordino-Yano gave a powerful keynote on her ongoing research into emotions and their relation to learning. There were intriguing implications for education from brain scans and surveys of individual children, such as the insight that emotional engagement activates the same part of the brain (the brain stem) that keeps us alive at a subconscious level. This reflects a deeper form of learning that changes consciousness and is only accessed when attention is directed internally, rather than outwardly. Furthermore, and counterintuitively, such emotional engagement is most activated by admiration for others based on the nature of their virtue, rather than merely by a demonstration of their ability.

Her talk was accompanied by useful and trenchant guiding questions for us to consider as implications for education:

  • What might this mean for emotional well-being? Character development?
  • What might it mean for how we use technology?
  • How might this change how we think about productivity? critical thinking?

Yet there was a moment – a very small moment that was more of an aside – when Immordino-Yano drew out themes around “meaningful learning” (i.e. personal connections to ideas, rather than emotions related to outcomes) to make a critique of our entire system of education. There is plenty to critique in our motley assortment of localized systems in the U.S.– but it was a moment that activated my own skepticism, as it must be remembered that Immordino-Yano’s research involves individual kids at a clinic watching a video and responding to questions, and then receiving an fMRI while rewatching the video. Hardly the conditions of a classroom, and extrapolating from such findings to the education system at large may be overstepping those specific findings.

To be clear, I found Immordino-Yano’s keynote to be the most intriguing and powerful of the entire conference – but thus I found it all the more instructive to attempt to maintain that “Goldilocks” balance of a healthy mix of openness and skepticism when considering how findings from research may apply to schools and classrooms.

Another presentation from neural scientist Andre Fenton also made me reflect on the lines between specialized research and extrapolations to classroom practice. Fenton provided a very detailed overview of his research into cognitive control training with mice in a laboratory, and to his credit, he did not make many general extrapolations beyond a few analogies, such as the quote, “What we think we become,” and some general advice such as considering how labs in science class can give kids an opportunity to “discover what is salient and ignore what isn’t” — to give “kids an opportunity to be judicious in how they process the information given to them.”

Relevant to such findings, Andrew Watson warned during his presentation to “never change your practice from research based on non-human animals.” There are indeed intriguing aspects of executive function and cognitive control training as it relates to mice we can consider from Fenton’s research, but until we have psychological studies with humans related to such findings, there may be little we can yet extrapolate on to classroom practice.

As I grappled with this, I realized that this was perfectly OK. We don’t always NEED to immediately overgeneralize specialized findings to classroom practice! We can be intrigued, we can be provoked, we can learn about the specific conditions and findings in relation to the research, and ruminate on what they might mean – but we must resist jumping to overzealous conclusions, and instead maintain our thirst for further research and learning.

Speaking of zealotry, in his keynote, Steven Pinker acknowledged that humanity et al. seems to be losing its collective mind, and provided a call for a cool-headed commitment to rationality and that “cognitive tools should be at the fingertips of every kid.” Pinker doesn’t believe people are irrational; he believes we are “logical about content relevant to our own lives and subject-matter knowledge,” but that we “have more trouble with formal rationality,” the “abstract rules and formulas that can be applied to any content.” We therefore need to make the tools of rationality “second nature,” and ensure the norms of rationality are upholded by our organizations and institutions, including educational ones. How we do this, however, wasn’t entirely clear beyond perhaps explicitly teaching concepts such as confirmation bias, systems of logic, and game theory.

There was something tucked into his talk that I found echoed in other talks as well, including by Andrew Watson, Ulrich Boser, and Jonathan Gottschall, which is that rather than seeking confirmatory evidence for our beliefs, we must acknowledge our own fallibility and instead seek evidence that challenges our thinking. We must seek to falsify our own beliefs to rationally interrogate their veracity.

In Jonathan Gottschall’s talk, he presented the paradox of stories for our species, which is that we possess a unique power that we can harness to expand our perspectives, knowledge, and empathy, but that there is a dark side to storytelling in that we are all too easily captivated by them on venues such as social media, and these seemingly innocuous stories often promote in-group and out-group dynamics through the casting of a villain. To combat this negative undertow of stories, Jonathan Gottschall urges us to maintain skepticism towards our own narratives, not just “the other side’s.”

With that wise advice in mind, I should note that my narrative account of the conference leaves out some truly insightful and compelling insights and information that I gained from talks such as from Carolyn Strom, Daniel Willingham, Ulrich Boser, and William Stixrud, not to mention some further implications from Immordino-Yano’s research findings.

There’s always more to learn! I hope I get an opportunity to attend another Learning and the Brain conference in the future.

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