I’ve always been the kind of person that asks “Why.” I heard I asked a lot of questions as a little kid, then as a teenager, I questioned everything via some teen rebellion. As an adult, I’m somewhat of a nonconformist, refusing to go with the status quo. I embrace the “Growth Mindset” that is a buzzword in education today. We all have things to improve upon and it doesn’t matter what we do, if we aren’t moving forward, where are we going?
In college, when we studied all of the theories of Maslow, Pavlov and Piaget, I honestly viewed it as fluff because I didn’t see the application of the theories at the time.
Since then, we have seen the information age explode with the internet, which gives you a rough idea of how old I am, but, my friends, that is a discussion for another day.
The traditional way of thinking in regards to learning and academic ability and it is very one dimensional. This way of thinking asserts that the parts of the brain are indistinguishable in regards to their role in learning and knowledge acquisition. Using this paradigm, a person’s intelligence can be measured accurately with a similarly one-dimensional assessment, such as an IQ Score.
In 1983, Howard Gardner came up with the Multiple Intelligences Theory and we have since learned more and more about what that actually means in a classroom. Gardner’s theories asserted that some students are more apt to learn with different types of teaching, such as musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic as well as existential and moral intelligence. We learned this in college as ways to make our lessons more engaging and to speak the language of our learners. It’s good stuff…. but why is this relevant right now?
In education today, if it’s not research-based and data-driven, it’s not something that’s recommended. So how do we collect data on kids whose learning styles are so different? One can reasonably infer that if a person’s learning style is dramatically different than the person sitting next to them, the way they express that knowledge is going to also be dramatically different than the person sitting next to them. So why, oh why, are we forcing these diverse kiddos through standardized testing? We are struggling, as teachers, to teach to the multiple intelligences but measure the effectiveness of our teaching on a standardized basis. That doesn’t even make sense.
What we are learning now about brain research (that matches earlier theories, it just wasn’t originally thought of in terms of special educaiton) is that when a student has a profound print disability, they may not be all around low-achieving. In fact, they may have a profoundly exceptional gift in another area, but if we only measure the student’s ability on printed materials, we will never know that and that student will probably never reach their full potential. This same student could look quite skilled and capable in a graphics or video-based environment.
I’m only going to describe the most basic parts of neuroscience but I hope to help forge connections in why this matters in modern education.
When we see pictures of the brain, what we are seeing is the cortex. It contains about 1 trillion neurons and are linked by 10 trillion connections, creating an extremely complex network. In this large network, there are many smaller networks, the three most relevant to teaching are the recognition network, strategic network, and affective networks.
What we will learn about this relationship is that even before all of the technology that gleaned this information, Vygotsky had outlined these in 1962 when he said we had three prerequisites for learning, which are the recognition of information to be learned, strategies to learn the information and engagement with the learning task. Vygotsky got this before functional brain scanners could give us clear pictures of which areas of the brain were stimulated in different situations.
Recognition networks are physically located in the back of the brain. They enable us to identify and interpret patterns of the five senses which help us to recognize everyday things like voices, faces, letters, sounds and words, but as our brains become more complex, we can also recognize more complex ideas like author’s style. We can recognize objects, but also that the same object can look slightly different in a different setting and provide a different purpose. For example, a chair in a Doctor’s office looks very different than Dad’s old recliner, but they are both chairs. Conversely, you don’t stretch out and relax on the Doctor’s chair like you could with Dad’s chair. Everyone’s recognition network is very different. Albert Einstein had a hard time making sound-symbol connections in reading, but obviously is infamous for his genius in physics.
Strategic networks are what we use to plan, execute and monitor our thoughts and actions, from being as simple as washing dishes to choosing a college. In this network, we develop a goal, design a plan, execute the plan, self-monitor, and correct as necessary. How could a student’s challenge with the strategic network impact classroom performance? In more ways than any of us can count. I experienced this in my classroom yesterday. The student was working on a review sheet that was a series of sentences that they had to identify noun, verbs, and adjectives and then circle them with a different color of crayon. I know that this student has a pretty good understanding of noun, verb, and adjective so this was supposed to be independent work. However, this student lacked the ability to process the multiple colors involved in color coding the parts of speech. This simple task was completely overwhelming because he was unable to develop a plan of action for this. I explained to read the sentence, and circle all the verbs in green, read the sentence again and circle the nouns in purple, and then on the third read to circle the adjectives in gray. This helped, but then the student was unable to self-monitor. When an error was made, the student saw it but couldn’t develop a plan to correct it. The lesson was a mess, to say the least. However, my point is that the student still understood noun, verb, and adjective, but the lesson was not delivered in a way that was logical to them. Needless to say, I scrapped that activity and we did a simpler one later. My objective was not that the student stimulated all the processes in his strategic network. My objective was that he was able to differentiate the parts of speech.
Students who struggle with their strategic networks often are “word guessers.” These are the kiddos that will look at the beginning of a word and impulsively guess at the end, without using problem-solving strategies like looking for context clues and using phonics skills. These kids are often described as having “Executive Function” challenges, or even working memory challenges. Sometimes, when given a written assignment they spend so much time on the mechanics of the written portion that they miss the content. For example, if the assignment is to create an essay on the civil war, they are overwhelmed with the task of writing that much that they aren’t even thinking about the civil war. These kids may be able to better communicate via an infographic and oral presentation, possibly.
Affective networks are the emotional part of the brain, to over simplify it. I’ve looked for it and now can’t find it, but there is a video of a walk through nature and in the first part there is relaxing music and you feel like you are really enjoying a virtual walk through nature. In the second part the music changes to something you may hear at the beginning of a horror film, or possibly even approaching the climax. Suddenly the beautiful woods doesn’t feel relaxing. It feels terrifying, but the visuals didn’t change. This is the affective network. We have kids that come to school from safe and secure homes. Those kids are looking for good and are ready to learn. Then we have kids that come to school and Mom and Dad fought all night because Dad bought drugs with the money he was supposed to use to buy supper. That kid is feeling like the scary music. The wiring in his brain is different than the other student and although they could encounter the same situations throughout their day, the way they interpret their meaning is going to be dramatically different.
We often have students that are wired in such a way that they don’t recognize the emotions of others. Sometimes they can read emotions of others but they can’t express or regulate their own. This is common in autism, but certainly not exclusive to students on the autism spectrum.
However, if a student has a strong emotional tie or interest to a subject, the affective network will be stimulated in a positive way that inspires them to become deeply engaged in that subject area.
On the other hand, students who are suffering from abuse or childhood depression are less likely to make an emotional connection to content, which is why they are at higher risk of failure and are more likely to be high school dropouts.
One major problem with this is that the affective network is often viewed as the most powerful, yet the least focused on piece in curriculum.
So what does this all mean? I think it’s a fascinating reminder of what we learned in college. Back then we didn’t have the experience we have right now, so our recognition networks were not as activated as they would be now. We didn’t have emotional connections to really cool kids so our affective networks weren’t triggered like they would be today. If you were a good student in college, you were probably activating your strategic networks to get your assignments finished. In reading this, did you think of a student that was previously a puzzle or a challenge to you? In anything that I shared, did you, even once, assign a name to the story? I encourage you to think about that. Who have you taught that you thought was impossible? Is there any chance they struggled with one of these three networks in the brain?
So what do I do about it? This is my favorite part. This is why technology is so cool. Recognition networks are addressed with the curriculum, like teaching vocabulary and posting objectives for students to see. Strategic networks, or executive functioning challenges- this is for creative problem solving. This is where we analyze where a student is struggling, like in the lesson that I shared. When a student is struggling, look at specifically which step they are struggling with and think about different ways they can share their knowledge. I will have more blog posts about differentiated assessments and activities, so be sure to subscribe. The affective networks- this is the relationship piece to teaching. Build relationships with each student in your care. This makes thinking about activating the other areas of the brain much easier, actually, because when you really know your students it’s really easy to see exactly which area they struggle with.
When we have a student that is struggling, it’s easy to admire the problem and say things like “If only he had a better home life… If only she would use the phonics skills we work on in class….” The “If only” syndrome could go on forever, but those are typically not comments that are made in such a way that brings about a solution. The school has no control over their home life and we can’t prevent, necessarily, a student from guessing at words. However, if we reframe our challenge to say “This student really struggles with executive functioning tasks.” then our statement can be changed to find a solution, such as “Maybe we can help her by providing extra visuals or prompts to remember to use the phonics skills.”
Stay tuned… I have a lot more to share on this topic, but this is already a super long blog post!
Most importantly, no matter how many struggles a student has, they always have strengths. Find the strengths and build on them and the rest will come much easier.