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Implications for schools
Q: What does it mean to build schools for learners rather than for teachers?
Principles to consider:
- Schools must make room for the self of the students.
- Learning depends in part on mirror neurons and our ability to simulate.
- The goals of teachers and students must be aligned.
- Motivation to take moral action may derive from engaging in meaningful reflection about others' situations in relation to one's own.
"I just need a place where I can be myself." This was Jill's assessment of what was missing from her life in school, her feeling that school had nothing to do with her interests or goals. She spent hours in classes and doing homework that felt alien to the "real her." Experience suggests that she speaks for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of students. School is not typically a place for the self, at least not the self of the student.
For example, during a department meeting, William, an English teacher, sneers at the fuzzy notion of the self, smelling the suspicious odor of low standards and "nonsense" like self-expression and self-esteem ("self-of-steam," as one former student humorously heard it). "What on earth is this self?" he asks as though holding it by two fingers at arm's length.
"Well," responds a colleague, "it's rather like your affection for Hemingway. You tell me he speaks to you, he touches some core of truth within you, and you love to read and teach his books. It's like that wonderful scene in The History Boys when Hector (I think that's his name), the old English teacher, is explaining the moment when you read a truth that you thought you were the only one to feel. Hector says something like, 'At that moment, the book reaches out and takes you by the hand, and you know you are not alone.' The book speaks to your self, speaks to that jumble of emotions and beliefs and memories and understandings that you experience as you. The book matters to you, and you feel it in your body and mind. When what you study and who you are come together, your education starts to matter to you."
Neuroscience seems to suggest a powerful case for making room for the self of students in school. The self is the platform on which we construct an understanding of the world and of others. We internalize our interactions with the world—whether with people or concepts—and give these meanings based on our experiences and our sense of how to thrive in this world. Our mirror systems—our innate ability to simulate and imagine, our sensitivity to the emotional responses of our body and our ability to make sense of these emotions by feeling them and reflecting on them—are critical tools for survival. Schools that take seriously their responsibility to help young people become skillful at using these tools might look very different from our current institutions.
They also might feel very different to students. One difference could be that students' studies come to matter to them so that learning becomes more important than merely amassing grades for a college résumé; learning becomes emotionally relevant. But the most dramatic difference might be that students become attuned to physical and mental changes that signal the presence of an emotion that needs to be felt and understood. Perhaps the emotion is the result of skilled intuition, a gut feeling that is guiding a student toward a solution to a problem. Perhaps it signals a response to someone else's tone of voice or a look that needs to be reassessed. Schools that take emotions seriously as indispensable to and inseparable from cognition and learning might well achieve their lofty claims to "teach the whole student."
Our brain's mirror systems and our ability to simulate experiences are powerful allies for learning. "If" is the "open sesame" for the imagination.
More than 100 years ago, the Russian actor Constantin Stanislavski created an entire system of acting based on "the magic if," a system of training actors to improve their skill at imagining themselves in the situations of characters they played. The goal was to induce the proper emotions within themselves and more powerfully move the audience. In an interview, Marlon Brando, a great American actor who was trained in the Stanislavski method, was asked by a skeptic how he could portray a murderer if he had never murdered anyone. He responded that he had killed a fly. His answer suggests that once we have experienced the irritation that results (top)
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in squashing an insect, we can imaginatively induce the emotion necessary to kill a person and communicate that emotion on stage.
This is the same technique English teachers have used for years to get students to imagine the lives of fictional characters—to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes," as Atticus Finch advises in To Kill a Mockingbird. Some great scientists also have stood on the platform of the self and felt their way to solutions to problems that mattered to them. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, said, "When I worked on the polio vaccine, I had a theory. I guided each [experiment] by imagining myself in the phenomenon in which I was interested. The intuitive realm ... the realm of the imagination guides my thinking." Einstein imagined riding a beam of light and discovered relativity, and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman imagined himself floating among electrons and discovered new insights into physics. Such imaginative role-playing (imagining you are a character or an object) is likely to trigger mirror systems and help develop empathy and learning.
Too often, schools treat imaginative ability as "nice," perhaps something for the arts department, but as secondary to the real business of rational, rigorous, intellectual work. The evidence suggests that this point of view is not likely to produce large numbers of creative, effective thinkers.
Teachers' and students' goals must be aligned for meaningful learning to occur. Although more and more teachers over the past few decades have taken this responsibility seriously by stating their goals or writing them down for students to read, understanding the goals of someone else requires an emotional, not just an intellectual, recognition. Therefore, teachers cannot assume that stating a goal means the students have understood or internalized it. In fact, they may well have internalized an entirely different understanding than the teacher intended. In addition, aligning goals also requires teachers to understand students' goals, for it is the teacher who is ultimately responsible for creating the circumstances that bring the goals together.
Of course, it is easier to align goals if students and teachers occupy the same classrooms for similar reasons—if the students have come because they want to learn chemistry or film or how to write poetry or how to work with special needs children. At the moment, most schools are not designed with this idea in mind, so teachers must work much harder to lasso the social goals that interest most young people (like figuring out who they are and who will accept them) and pull them into the corral. What if we imagine new ways to design schools based on a new understanding of how people learn—new structures, new practices, and new policies to support the imaginative work that many teachers are doing despite being hobbled by the old ones?
It may be that to develop the sort of morality that motivates us to take socially significant action requires that we reflect on events and people that inspire us. Perhaps schools need to help young people become more skillful at directing their attention inward in order to feel this inspiration—a process that requires more time than schools often allow for deep thinking or reflection. Schools constantly claim that their mission is to produce good citizens, yet so many of the motivators remain external—grades, college readiness, pleasing parents, and the ubiquitous fear factor. And conditions in the classroom tend not to foster meaningful reflection. Perhaps our ends and our means are not aligned. What do we mean by "good citizens"? Is neuroscience offering insight that might be useful to achieving this goal? Could it be giving us a glimpse into the survival and self-related processes underlying social behavior and creativity?