by Kathryn Muller with Jacob Hoffman
When I was at school my teachers had a repertoire of brain-damage related threats to manipulate us into cooperating with them. I don’t want to write about how these myths still operate in classrooms (even though they do) but rather how they are being steadily over-turned by powerful alternatives that really value the human brain (and the child’s brain) for what it is worth.
One of these school-day myths was that we only use 10% of our brains if we’re clever and less if we are dumb. Another was that if you hit your head you would instantly lose brain cells that you’d never get back. A bit later on (when the research had trickled down from the academy) we were told about being left-brained or right-brained. If you were left-brained you were logical, good at maths and at organizing things. If you were right-brained you were creative and good at seeing ‘the bigger picture’. Sometimes you could be a mixture, I think, but this seemed to complicate matters so it wasn’t emphasized too much.
If these pearls of wisdom aren’t familiar to you, you must have grown up in a hole. Or perhaps you were told other brain stories…like that the human brain is the most complex entity in the known universe. Or that every time you see, hear, touch, do or think anything (yes, anything) the neurons in your brain make more connections or strengthen existing ones and that in fact you use your whole brain to do this, every time. Or perhaps you were told that no matter what age you are, you can learn something new, or relearn something lost as long as you can commit to an education.
What is particularly depressing about these oppositional views on what our brains are like is that the latter has actually been scientifically validated for decades, whereas the former is mostly drivel, probably conceived to scare people into submission and obedience during their time at school.
Submission and obedience is inextricably tied up with schooling but the truth is that learning does not actually have to involve manipulation or domination to be successful at all. Proof of this can be found all over the place, including in learning environments that are far from ideal. The truth of it can also be found directly in the brain, with the help of increasingly sophisticated brain-imaging technologies.
Working in foundation phase classrooms (grades R – 3) I have been excited to find that scientific understanding about how learning works is prominent all over the place: in the curriculum, in schools, on the internet and also at teacher training centers. These ideas are rooted in an improved understanding of what learning looks like neurologically as well as developmentally and the way these ideas are manifest in the foundation phase offers some valuable examples to other streams of learning. Crucially, these ideas are also rooted in creativity – a value that has long dominated art classes – only to stagnate there.
The foundation phase is different from later phases of education which are subject focused and steeped in hierarchy with maths, science and language at the top and the arts perpetually given the least school time. In contrast to this regimen, the foundation phase is rooted in interdisciplinary learning with emphasis placed on utilizing alternative intelligences such as visual literacy, kinesthetic intelligence and concrete experience in order to enhance children’s learning capacity. But what is the neurological picture behind this kind of education? What does this kind of learning look like on a neurological level and perhaps more importantly, how does this translate to real learning experiences in schools?
All learning is rooted in how the brain perceives and processes stimuli, how it encodes this information and how it makes it available for us to use again and again. Learning often (and in the foundation phase always) starts with experience – what educationalist call ‘the concrete’. Our concrete experiences are encoded into our brains. With repeat experience the neuronal connections or “synapses”, formed as a result, get stronger and more robust. Concurrently, weaker or obsolete connections fade into obscurity and this “synaptic pruning” streamlines brain activity, helping neural networks to operate even more efficiently. Synchronous firing between different neurones is known to increase the strength of connection between neuronal groups, and increases the likelihood of the same neurones firing together in the future. This concept is immortalised in the phrase “if they fire together, they wire together”. Therefore, utilising multi-modal teaching techniques will increase the number of neurones called into action during the learning process, and therefore will also increases the likelihood that a concept will be remembered and recalled in the future.
The process of learning whereby useful connections are strengthened and obsolete ones are faded out can be seen all over the foundation phase. Children start the journey to representation by drawing scribbles. Then they discover the circle, the human face, the human body. Text as representation comes early too, but discovering the relationships between squiggles, sounds and meaning is a tremendous intellectual feat that involves coordinating visual, auditory, motor, executive and planning areas of the brain, all of which fluent readers easily take for granted. With extensive, painstaking repetition and perseverance, early literacy develops and children leave their scribbles behind and start to develop purposeful form. Sooner or later the neuronal connections that oversee letter-formation (and other kinds of representation such as drawing) have become so strong that they appear to be ‘second nature’.
What is even more exciting about this is that the strengthening of neuronal connections is also linked to dopamine – a neuro-transmitter involved in reward and motivation. Dopamine is released in the brain in greater amounts when you experience something novel or pleasurable. Simply put, this means that the more intrinsically rewarding, novel and captivating an experience is, the more likely you are to internalise and recall it. This means that by creating learning opportunities that involve novel experience, motivation and intrinsic rewards new concepts can be wired into the brain even more effectively than if they are hammered in by harsh words and manipulation.
So if meaningful learning is about infusing so much creativity, novelty and reward into a class – what is the role for artists in education? I have heard it said too many times that teaching stifles creativity and that artists can’t afford to teach because it will negatively impact on their work. Now I am not advocating that all artists should drop everything and become teachers but I do want people to just think about the idea and what it could ignite – in schools, amongst children and amongst artists.
In contrary to old-fashioned perceptions that you might have grown up with, good, effective teaching is inherently creative. It might be the most creative act a person can do because it is not only productive, but also collaborative and it can set off reactions that the original instigator could never have predicted. People who grow up identifying as artists are fortunate to see themselves in this way because to recognize oneself as an artist requires a firm belief in the value of art – which is not always shared by society at large. Being an advocate of art indicates to the world that you believe in art and what art can do. Simply put, creative teachers are more likely to produce creative students. Creative students are less likely to grow up telling everyone that they aren’t creative and that it was all their schoolteacher’s fault. What would our education system look like if people at the helm built their identities on creative, artistic output, and were inspired to pass this on to others? I think Chris Olivier might know what I am talking about here… readers, read on!