EDU 6655: Human Development & Principles of Learning Week 3

Human Development–Week 3: Brain Debates
I found this week’s readings in Chapters, 4, 5, and 6 from the Jossey-Bass Reader to be at once enlightening and surprising. Over the years, I have taken many classes and workshops I have been especially intrigued with the topic of of learning styles as it relates to differences in individuals of all ages—both in and out of the classroom. In the process, I have naturally come across materials addressing the idea of “right hemisphere vs. left hemisphere brain functioning” as well as “global vs. analytic” thinking, etc. Additionally, having earned each of my undergraduate degrees in special education and psychology thirty years ago, having two family members who have sustained traumatic brain injuries, and a variety of extended family members being diagnosed with ADD and “spectrum” disorders—I have been eager to take a course addressing some of the latest “brain research” ideas. I couldn’t wait to read Chapter 5, In Search of Brain Based Education by John T. Bruer, however, I was somewhat disheartened to learn that many of my previous understandings are now being referred to as “folk theories”.

It took me more than a few minutes to reframe my thinking and to realize the truth of the not-so-surprising statement later in chapter 5:
The fundamental problem with the right-brain versus left brain claims that one finds in the education literature is that they rely on our intuitions and folk theories about the brain, rather than on what brain science is actually able to tell us. Our folk theories are too crude and imprecise to have any scientific, predictive, or instructional value. What modern science is telling us—and what brain-based educators fail to appreciate—is that it makes no scientific sense to map gross, unanalyzed behaviors and skills—reading, arithmetic, spatial reasoning—onto one brain hemisphere or the other (Jossey-Bass, p. 61).
Truly, as the Psalmist says, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14)

Currently, in my position as a special education teacher in a high school that is largely “inclusive” in terms of service delivery, much of my work with students is conducted in the context of individual appointments in my office. One of the tools that I regularly use with my students is a self-evaluation process—involving both written and verbal responses to a weekly progress report which includes detailed listings of assignments, scores, current grade-to-date, attendance, etc. for each of their six classes. An overarching purpose of the use of this tool is to assist students with developing self-advocacy skills as they strive to succeed in high school as well as prepare for post-secondary endeavors. The exercise guides the students through the process of reading information that is pertinent to their day-to-day life as a student, requires analysis of their current progress as well as the development of strategies for establishing and reaching both short and long-term goals, and encourages students to take ownership, responsibility, (and credit) for their actions and efforts.

If I were to build a bridge of “connection” to a “brain research bandwagon trail master”—I would begin with the concept that many teenagers (in my experience) are self-absorbed and live with an on-going, high degree of stress surrounding issues pertaining to their grades, performance in school, and interactions with teachers. Undoubtedly, he/she would agree. As stated within the Jossey-Bass Reader in Chapter 4, “It is increasingly recognized that efficient learning does not take place when the learner is experiencing fear or stress….inappropriate stress has a significant effect on both physiological and cognitive functioning….stress or fear also affect social judgment, and responses to reward and risk (p. 44).
(At least this is what I would have emphasized—before reading on within the same paragraph where the authors state, “To date, however, neuroimaging studies of the developmental effects of stress on cognitive function are sparse or non-existent”.)

Still, however– based on my informal, anecdotal research, I would maintain that in my weekly appointments with students, I am often able to establish a connection with my students where we can together examine their academic progress, problem-solve as needed, and create plans for success. In my office (which is specifically set with incandescent lamps rather than harsh fluorescent lighting) I offer a calm setting in which students can “desensitize” so to speak, with regard to their grades. I discover that this is often a very different approach what many of them experience at home.

Not always, but often, these fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year-olds are motivated to improve and are surprisingly “teachable” in this context. As cited in the Jossey-Bass reader, “As the developmental neurobiologist Patricia Goldman-Rakic told educators, ‘While children’s brains acquire a tremendous amount of information during the early years, most learning takes place after synaptic formation stabilizes.’ That is, a great deal, if not most learning takes place after age 10…(p. 68).

I believe a discussion along these lines would open the door to further discussion and investigation for myself and my principal as we together find the balance between “what the research supports” and “what works” to improve student motivation and performance. “Call this …’Brain based’ if you like; the key factor is motivation”…While the activities in my office may not be “fun, interesting, (or) even exciting to a child (student)”, they do “provide challenge and stimulation while requiring active involvement (Jossey-Bass, p. 87).

I would additionally note that, “The CRISS training introduces teachers to the CRISS Strategic Learning Plan, which is intended to guide selection of content, setting of learning goals and objectives, assessment of student learning, and planning of instruction….The training also addresses ways teachers can help students become more reflective (metacognitive) about their learning processes” p. 2-3.

Jossey-Bass Inc. (2008). The Jossey-Bass reader on the brain and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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