Thinking Critically ~ Brain-Based Learning and Teaching

“If we learned to use our brain the way it was naturally designed to work,
we would astonish ourselves everyday.” Eric Jensen

We humans are remarkable! I’m convinced we often take ourselves for granted as to how complex we are. Let’s begin with that marvelous unique computer called the brain. It’s roughly a three-pound organ that is the center of thinking, intelligence, interprets the senses, initiates body movements and controls behavior. It’s the source of all the qualities that define our humanity.

As a young novice teacher, the brain was seldom mentioned as connected to teaching and learning. We were told to share with parents, as part of our PR mantra during parents conferences, that we as teachers did not only teach the A-B-Cs of content, but that we were “working with young minds.”

So early on in my career I began to focus on one word – “the mind.” Ok – so we were working with minds. Sounded good and right but . . . what the hell were we talking about? Did we as educators and parents really know what that meant? Teachers promoted working with minds but never defined “the mind.” It was taken for granted that what we were talking about was “the brain” and that we knew what it was all about.

So, I began to research that 3 pound organ nestled inside our skull. Let me pause to emphasize that during late 1960s and 1970s we did not have the internet (debatably fully operable in the 1980s and Google in the 1990s.) Therefore, research was tedious with lots of visits to professional libraries and arduous note-taking. But the more I discovered about our human matrix, the more I was intrigued by its ability and capacity to learn and of course, its connections to teaching.

What became evident was that I had to stop thinking about teaching and learning as vertical events and processes but think horizontally with shifting dynamic dimensions, connections and intersections. While in Ed classes, we were told to be creative, imaginative and think outside the box. Can’t tell you how many times we were told to do this. But, upon researching the brain, it was apparent that I was entering a space where there were no boxes and I had to rethink my thinking.

This was a new landscape that was foreign to me. So what to do? Go to the Science teachers who would know, right?

Technical explanations were provided via diagrams of basic brain functions based on established research. But I was told that from the 1960s on, there was an explosion of neuroscience research due to advanced technology, collaborations between medical fields of biology, physics and genetics. Imaging and mapping of networks of the brain were being discovered with chemical pathways being deciphered.

WHOA Nelly! I was a second language novice teacher, not a tenured science guru! All of this was new and overwhelming. My brain was short-circuiting! I thought at the time, perhaps this is why teachers use the word “mind” rather than “brain.” Maybe it’s a little like using the words “equality” and “equity” – “opportunity” and “opportunity of worth.” By the way, most women can explain the differences without pausing. But I digress . . . blame it on my unfocused brain.

The complexities of the brain were evident but what about the relationships with teaching and learning? Those questions dealt with more layers and entanglements. It all seemed overwhelming and impossible. But I persisted. Why?

Because each day some 120 students entered the classroom with their backpacks along with their magnificent, awesome brains. The more I researched, the more I saw not only their faces, but their brains looking back.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, there were rumbling by the business world and colleges that high school students were graduating without 21st Century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, research-based knowledge, creativity and imagination. The concern was based on the reality that American students were falling behind within and outside of the USA.

Teaching methods were criticized as lecture-based, boring, lacking imagination and creativity. Classrooms were defined as being teacher-based rather than student-based, with students asked to memorize for standardized tests.

On the other hand, corporations and colleges were looking for candidates who knew how to pursue knowledge, research and did not fear change. Schools responded – at least most did – by implementing critical thinking skills and critical pedagogical methods across the curriculum.

But “the brain” remained somewhat confined. This was unfortunate because 21st Century Skills dealt with observation, processing, analyzing, comparing/contrasting, synthesizing, perspectives, perceptions, evaluating and solving real life social issues. All such processes were impacted by brain functions.

From what I could tell, traditional teaching theories and methods were putting carts filled with content in front of the power engine that was central to driving the learning process.

So could we – would we – allow the brain the freedom to do what is was meant to do? Yes we could and should! We had some 86 BILLION NEURONS to do it all!

It was the emphasis on Critical Thinking Skills that provided me with the compass and bridges to begin understanding the influences of the brain on – not only learning – but teaching. But I had to first backtrack. It was at a workshop on 21st Century Skills that I first heard the term Brain-Based Learning and Teaching and its connections to Critical Thinking Skills.

WHOA Nelly! Brain-Based Teaching and Brain-Based Classrooms?! I was intrigued. The speaker was Eric Jensen. He was one of the leading authorities on the subject along with Leslie Hart, Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine. Jensen had the ability to approach the depth and breadth of the brain scientifically and apply its complexities to learning and teaching. As with all good teacher’s, he simplified, provided examples, similes and reasons why. All he asked of us was “to teach keeping the brain in mind.”

It all made sense and from that point on I was hooked. I began reading everything I could on Brain-Based Learning and Teaching and then applying the knowledge to 2nd language learning.

Every lesson plan, every homework assignment, every quiz and test was constructed by way of how the brain would learn the information and how to teach it. Critical Thinking fell right into place along with the value of asking critical questions, then allowing our brains to fathom out the answers.

One significant comment by Jensen that shook me was that “each brain was as unique as a fingerprint.” This connected with researchers that presented new findings about differences of learning styles; Visual/Spatial, Auditory, Logical/Reasoning, Reading/Writing, Music/Art, and Kinesthetics. What about our discernment of language skills – dyslexia, Meares-Irlen Syndrome and eye movement reading across a page? Yes, all involving the wonders of “the brain.”

What became evident and dramatically challenging to all educators, across all age groups and grades, was substantiating that each student was unique, highly diverse, approaching each subject with individual styles and that learning could also be impacted by the affective domain – feelings and emotions – each student carrying their personal identity in their backpacks.

Regrettably, but fully understood, there was push back from teachers who already felt overworked, underpaid and unappreciated for all that they do on a daily basis. Brain-based learning and teaching was going to take professional development, curriculum mapping, rethinking thinking, introducing new methods and ongoing research that kept pace with science. This was a huge ask for the noble profession that is ever trying to remain noble to a society that at times seems capriciously fickle on prioritizing education and children.

But for some of us, there was no going back. We had no boxes to think out of. We had become dedicated to not only brain-based learning and teaching but brain based living. The key question being, regardless of how and why, we as human beings have a brain, how could we use it to enhance our lives for the better? How could we, and would we, use it to solve our most complex problems?

What could the brain teach us about our diversity, inclusivity, equity, justice and respect for all life? Was it fair to ask the brain such critical questions or was this about the brain providing pathways to such answers?

I guess that the brain can’t do the work for us, right? At some point it has always been up to us, with our brains ready and able to deal with the questions, curiosity, imagination, emotional intelligence and moral courage.

Oh by the way, the students because brain-based aficionados. We talked about that marvelous brain of theirs often. My job was to keep it energized, curious, hungry for knowledge and of course . . . critically thinking.

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