Thursday, June 4, 2009

Brain Rule #2: Survival

In this next installment of my discussion of Dr. John Medina's fabulous book Brain Rules, we'll take a look at how we survived by using our brains. Dr. Medina's rule is "The human brain evolved too." You might think of this chapter in the book as a lesson in "Survival of the Brainiest".

This chapter has a ton of good information about the brain, how it is structured, and how it works. I personally find it fascinating, but I know it's not for everyone. And it's probably less relevant to teachers than some of the other content, so I'll focus on just two aspects of this chapter that really have something to say about teaching and learning.

First, the best theories of human evolution and survival indicate that human beings evolved in a challenging world of environmental change, and the reason that we prospered (where other species went extinct) was that we adapted to deal with variation (change) rather than adapting to a single, stable environment. The adaptation that allowed us to deal with the unpredictability of the world was the development of two separate brain systems: one that stores a fund of knowledge (a sort of database of everything we know about the world), and the other a capacity for improvising off that knowledge the way a jazz musician improvises off a musical score. The first system allows us to know when we have made a mistake, and the second allows us to learn from that mistake and try something different.

In classrooms, we need to deal with both systems if we are to tap into our learners' best abilities. It's not enough to transfer some information from teacher to student; the students need to apply that information in a creative or novel way. They need to solve problems that are relevant and interesting to them by making use of the new information. It's in this application stage that the new information is really integrated into the learners' fund of prior knowledge. It's not enough to just do the creative application and problem solving work, either - learners need their teachers to provide the information to build up their database.

In order for teachers to communicate information to learners, they need to be experts in another uniquely human adaptation: the Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind allows us to understand - to intuit - the emotions and inner lives of others. Dr. Medina uses this example:

Read these two sentences:
The husband died. Then the wife died.
How much do you know about these two people?

Now read these two sentences:
The husband died. Then the wife died of grief.

Everything that you can now intuit about these two people, their relationship, and their emotional lives comes from your skill in Theory of Mind. We use Theory of Mind constantly to navigate our complex human relationships. It comes so naturally and is so pervasive in our thinking that it affects everything we do, including teaching and learning. Everything we learn and everything we know is colored by how we feel about it and how we think others feel about it.

As every wise teacher knows, teaching and learning are rooted in relationships. Learners need to feel safe and feel connected to (understood by) their teacher. Without the feeling of safety, learners don't take the intellectual risks that allow them to improvise off new information (and thus truly understand it). Teachers need to be able to gauge and react appropriately to the emotional state and emotional needs of the learners: they need to be experts in Theory of Mind.

You'll see more of why Theory of Mind is so important for teachers in the next chapter. For now, I'll summarize by saying that the human brain evolved to be an efficient learning machine, because learning new things kept us alive in an unpredictable and dangerous world. Our mental software gives us several powerful tools for learning, but our ability to use them is dependent on human relationships and emotional connections.

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