Interactive Brain Map

Click below to explore OpenColleges’s interactive Brain Map. Filled with facts about the brain as well as strategies for leveraging those brain features to take ownership over learning. Enjoy.

Open Colleges Presents Your Brain Map: 84 Strategies for Accelerated Learning

An interactive infographic by Open Colleges

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Your Brain on Childhood — An Evolutionary History

 

TimeLapseWe love Gabrielle Principe’s book, “Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan.” Not only is her storytelling engaging and creative, it is also peppered with so much research that one almost needs an organizational chart to keep track of it all.

While it is largely geared toward exploring the cognitive development of younger children, her framework for thinking about brains offers a compelling contrast to the current paradigm for understanding learning (performance on academic focused standardized tests) for all youth, and even adults.

In chapter 1, Old Brain, New World, she sets the stage for what will be an book-long theme.

When humans first appeared on the scene about two million years ago, families lived in small, nomadic bands and made their living hunting and gathering. Children spent their days roaming in packs and playing on their own in the out-of-doors. They improvised their own fun, regulated their own games, and made up their own rules. Children’s education was informal, and new skills were learned ou tin the world. such was childhood for more than 99 percent of human existence.

Today, childhood is different. Infants find themselves strapped into bouncy seats and plunked in front of television sets. Toddlers are put away in play yards to listen to Baby Mozart and use learning laptops. Preschoolers are given talking dollhouses, robotic pet dogs, and battery-powered frogs that teach them their ABCs. Older children sit in front of computer screens with earbuds connected to their iPods, texting thir friends on their touch phones to see if they can come over and play video games. They spend their weekdays inside classrooms, seated in rows of desks, reciting times tables, drilling word banks, and memorizing state capitals. Their weekends are filled with activities that are organized, supervised, and timed by adults: sports leagues, private tutors, music lessons, math camp, dance instruction, karate classes, and Cub Scouts.

She goes on to establish the similarity of the human brain with those of our most recent ancestors (such as orangutans) and our farther back ancestors (such as reptiles and fish). She explains the history of the brain through the evolutionary advances of other animals, concluding that “the human brain is merely vintage parts from brains that came before us.”

She goes on,

What does this recognition of the deep evolutionary history of our brains mean for children today? It means that their brains were not designed with modern life in mind; rather, they evolved for life in a very different world. At different times in teh brain’s evolutionary history, it developed in deep seas, freshwater streams, tropical rainforests, and the grasslands of the savannahs, not in classrooms, living rooms, manufactured playgounds, manicured ball fields, or minivans. These sorts of evolutionary novel environments have changed the way that children behave and develop, but today’s children still enter their respective worlds witha brain that never expected to find itself in any of them. It is this disconnect between childnre’s evolutionary past and their human present that makes parts of the modern world challenging and even damaging to the development of their brains, bodies, and behaviors. But the better we understand the long history of the human brain, the better able we are to raise happy, healthy, and successful children.

So what is the point here and what does it have to do with youth, students, and education? Well, everything.

While we would encourage you to read the entire book (because it is a great read all the way through), the main point is that we need to keep a perspective on the history of the brain and in what conditions it thrives best. Doing so may help us all better understand . . .

  1. Why school can be so challenging for so many students. (Most learning in human history was done “on the job” not in formal schooling, and the brain evolved as such.)
  2. What conditions may better facilitate more holistic learning.
  3. The dichotomy between the current reform effort and the cognitive needs of all students.
  4. As Gabrielle Principe  states in chapter 10, “Given that schooling is an unnatural experience, it’s best to keep in mind that education can be best achieved when we take children’s natural dispositions and abilities into consideration.”
Image: Paul Thompson, UCLA School of Medicine

Memory, Social Cognition, and Predicting the Future

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A recent article in Harvard Magazine reports on the research of psychology professor, Daniel Schater, who is delving into  memory, social cognition and how the mind imagines the future.

From the article:

During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.”

In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past.

Of course, this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the brain utilize its resource of past experiences to anticipate the future and to imagine possibilities? Schater and colleagues began to wonder if these processes applied to social cognition and how individuals might predict other people’s behaviors.

They developed and implemented an experiment to determine what parts of the brains were activated when participants were tasked with thinking about how a person might behave in a variety of different situations.

Again, from the article:

The researchers concluded that memory and social cognition therefore work in concert when individuals hypothesize about the future behavior of others. The brain regions responsible for forming “personality models” and assigning them identities are intrinsically linked to the memory/imagination systems that simulate the past and future.

While it is too premature to draw any conclusions about possible implications for education and learning environments, it is worth noting that students, who are deeply embedded in dynamic and sometimes quite challenging social situations, are employing a number of cognitive functions throughout their day. When considering the complexity of the mental processes being utilized, it is no wonder that so many students find the kind of schooling that focuses primarily on fact memorization to be mind numbingly boring.

Perhaps this vein of research can lead to a better understanding of empathy and what types of experiences might build up students’ brains with the sorts of memories that help them better predict and imagine the future they want for themselves.

Photo Credit: Flavio~ via Compfight cc

Superhuman or Normal Variation?

This fascinating infographic highlights a few seemingly superhuman feats of the mind. While we do not disagree that they are amazing, we can’t help but think, “But, of course. With over 7-billion people on our planet, such variation is expected. Spend any time in a classroom and you will see such brains in development!”

Which leaves us wondering two things:

1. How many more savants (defined as “a learned person, esp. a distinguished scientist”) might we have if we all intentionally cultivated students’ strengths?

2. Where are the profiles of women?!

superhuman

Infographic source: Smarter.org

Storytelling’s Impact on Empathy (and the Architecture of the Brain)

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 9.00.18 AMPaul Zak, who TED Talks describes as, “a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics,” shares his thoughts and insights on the power of storytelling to affect change in the architecture of the brain in the below video — a collaboration between him, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, and animator Henrique Barone for the Future of Storytelling conference.

He opens with a powerful story that will pull at your heart strings, and uses these emotions as a gateway to reveal the complex workings of the moral and ethical brain. He concludes from his research that stories, with the right narrative arc, have a powerful impact on the brain, and the actions and behaviors that follow.

The implications for education in the design of learning environments and experiences cannot be understated. While we often put skills at the center of learning, what if we put people at the core — students’ well being and the stories that matter to them?

For more information about the collaborators of this video, check out:

  1. Paul Zak’s research.
  2. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” website.
  3. Animator Henrique Barone’s website.
  4. The “Future of Storytelling” conference.
Image Source: ScreenShot from above video

Brief Review of L. Todd Rose’s “Square Peg”

“Behavior isn’t something someone ‘has.’ Rather, it emerges from the interaction of a person’s biology, past experiences, and immediate context.”

L. Todd Rose, from his book, Square Peg

6301560117_fa8f4c16b9_bFor students with learning differences schools can be (and often are) incredibly trying places. Imagine being a kid who wants to do well — motivated, eager to please, and enjoys interacting with other students — but struggles with attention and working memory. Rather than reep the joys of learning, the student finds herself labeled, removed from her classmates and made to do the things she struggles with for a significant portion of the day. Other subjects, like PE, Art, the Humanities, are sidelined, even though they may be areas of strength for her. Her resulting behavioral expression of the dissonance between her and her learning environment is seen as misbehavior and disciplinary actions follow.

At the end of a day, month, year, or decade, what has she concluded about her “smarts” or her potential as a student? More importantly, what is her assessment of her value as a human? What does she see when she looks at herself through the lens of a school experience that focused, almost solely, on her deficits?

w_2115_smallerL. Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Project Variability, offers a glimpse of a similar experience in his part-memoir part-neuro-education book, Square Peg. His story goes something like this:

  • Classic case of boy with ADHD
  • Struggles in school — discipline, academics, friends
  • Suspended, fails, becomes wholly disenfranchised
  • Drops out
  • Works minimum wage job to support wife and baby
  • Ends up on the faculty at Harvard (after a lot of hard work)

In the telling of this incredible journey, he shares insights from his experiences and from research into the needs, challenges, and value of the “Square Pegs” in our lives. The anecdotally academic weaving together of personal tales and studies from the field of neuro-education (he teaches Educational Neuroscience at Harvard Graduate School of Education) creates numerous access points for a compelling narrative arc as well as enlightening examples of applied theory. In short, it is a book that is hard to put down.

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8While he maintains a child’s sense of wonder and fascination about his own turnaround throughout the book, he also plays the role of scholar, unpacking the theories and ideas that became leverage points for capitalizing on his strengths and accommodating for his challenges. In the prologue he suggests the field of complex systems offers the best possible explanation for his story, and by proxy, the story of many others. He describes his application of complex systems as such:

To put it simply, the study of complex systems looks at how different parts of a system influence each other collectively to produce various outcomes. Nowadays, scientists have been holding up this lens to a range of traditional disciplines, from physics to biology–and, most recently, in centers like the one in which I work: Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program–to the study of human learning. As this effort matures, it is offering a radically new and useful way for parents and teachers to understand the often bewildering behavior of children in their charge.

Throughout the book he uses complex systems and neuroscience to flesh out four ideas to help us be “much more understanding and effective parent(s) and teacher(s)” for the square pegs in our lives. But in reality, the ideas apply to myriad human systems. They are:

  1. Variability is the rule: As humans, our ways of perceiving the world and reacting to what we perceive are much more diverse and dynamic than we might ever have imagined.
  2. Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior. Parents and teachers need to learn to tune in to children’s emotional states to help them make the most of their education.
  3. Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances. Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.
  4. Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure: Remember those flapping butterfly wings, and keep in mind that small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.

Taken together, these four ideas create a mosaic of factors playing into students’ lives, influencing and affecting their choices, decisions, and behavioral outcomes. They demonstrate that the only silver bullet is in not accepting there there is a silver bullet. No juggernaut exists for all people in all situations. Rather, we must be champions of the individual, unwavering advocates for the well being of each child, and Loraxes who speak for the square pegs.

We highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and clinicians working with square, triangular, and / or round pegs. Not only will you glimpse what the world may look like through their eyes, you will learn a bit about yourself, the science of learning, and, ultimately, the anecdotal and neurological value of caring.

Photo Credit: Mario Inoportuno via Compfight cc
Todd Rose portrait: HGSE
Square Peg Book Image: Hyperion

John Cleese Explains the Brain

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Below is a video from John Cleese’s very “informative” brain podcast (actual content begins around 35 seconds). You’ll notice, of course, that nearly every sentence is almost entirely gibberish.

It is humorous to us in large part because . . .

  1. John Cleese is a masterful humorist who can make gobbledygook sound sensical, and . . .
  2. It is a low stakes environment. None of us will be held accountable for his 1.5 minutes worth of “content.” We’ll watch, marvel and share it, and then go on with our lives.

However, the video offers an instructive peek into the daily experience of scores of students who struggle to decipher language — either because of receptive language challenges or immersion in a new language such as English. We know that stress inhibits learning, so the question becomes, how can we alleviate/manage our content delivery to minimize student stress so as to best capitalize on their learning potential?

If we needed to truly understand this information, how might Mr. Cleese revise his methods? How would you deliver this “content” to ensure students understood it?

 

 Photo Credit: Adrian J Wallace via Compfight cc