The art of rewiring your brain

Dr Ann Farley, Director of Cross Faculty Initiatives

In Year 7 Philosophy of Learning classes, we investigate some of life’s big questions: why do I respond the way I do under stress; what can I do when I do not understand new ideas or concepts in class; how can I maintain a positive mindset when faced with challenges? Students are not the only ones who need to consider these questions. Teachers must continually evaluate their own practice and approach to rise to the challenges of the profession. This article examines some of these questions from both student and teacher perspectives.

Philosophy of Learning is different from other subjects. There is no assessment, instead personal reflection and insights form the basis for learning. Students are encouraged to respond to their thinking in order to gain an understanding of themselves. Hopefully, this type of thinking will help them to develop insightful strategies for dealing with the inevitable disappointments of life. During Term 3, classes have focused on developing some understanding of the neurobiology of the brain, the brain’s function, and its ability to be rewired through practice. Through a discussion of both theory and real-life experiences, students gain insights into the responses that can occur when they encounter high stress situations. Simply put, do they respond with a reflexive fight, fright or freeze response, or a calmly planned response based upon reasoned thought?

We can all identify with the ‘wish I had handled that differently’ feelings that sometimes confront us at the end of a stressful day. It is important that students learn from their responses and that they develop strategies informed through conscious reasoning and considered thought. These strategies can provide a ‘cooling off’ period and valuable thinking space. It is vital for students to understand that as they are maturing and learning to manage their emotions, their activities and their time, that it is not uncommon to sit in a zone of confusion and uncertainty on the route to problem solving. They need to feel confident that they are capable of developing alternative behaviours from those they may have already established. Thus in Philosophy of Learning, we discuss the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to grow and change in response to repetition and practice. Students easily relate this to learning, unlearning or relearning skills in music, physical activity or even their alphabet and tables from early childhood. However, it seems more difficult for them to accept that this also applies to what is happening in their subject area classrooms and in their life more broadly.

Teachers are aware that students come to their classrooms with prior knowledge and understandings or misunderstandings. These, right or wrong, form the basis for new learning and  Lucarello and Naff (2018) discuss the problems that occur in learning when students attempt to build new concepts on ‘erroneous, illogical or misinformed knowledge’. Sometimes students are unaware of their misconceptions and genuine learning requires ‘radically reorganizing or replacing student knowledge’. That is why it is vital that teachers partner with students in the challenging process of unlearning incorrectly learned concepts and processes. Over the term, the girls have come to understand very clearly the importance of practising their way to improvement. What they do not always accept is the danger of reinforcing neural pathways based on faulty thinking and bad habits, nor the effort involved in forming new thought processes that will serve them better into the future. Research and experience suggests that students will often default to naïve misconceptions when faced with difficult problems (Taylor & Kowalski, 2014). Successful students assume responsibility for recognising and acknowledging that what the teacher is saying is not making sense for them. They feel confident that they are capable of developing an alternative understanding and they have the confidence to ask questions.

Philosophy of Learning strengthens these skills. The value of both student and teacher questioning is recognised as an essential strategy in developing the ability to self-reflect and modify thinking and behaviour. Questions demonstrate what students understand, and that they can articulate their location in the learning process. They allow teachers to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ student thinking so that they can gauge possible areas of misunderstanding, while also offering teachers the opportunity to model their own thinking for students. Clarifying questions are an indispensable part of classroom communication and students should always feel confident that teachers value their thinking and feedback.

Complementing the work occurring in Philosophy of Learning classes, during 2018 a number of teachers have been participating in Inquiry Action projects grounded in Harvard’s Project Zero, Cultures of Thinking. Richhart (2015) describes a culture of thinking as ‘a place where the group’s collective thinking as well as each individual’s thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular day-to-day experience of all group members’. Each teacher involved in an Inquiry Action project has developed and refined a question designed to encourage more effective thinking and collaboration within their classes. Those involved have been challenged to rethink previously held beliefs, to question their own default behaviours and to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of taking risks and experimenting as they renegotiate classroom interactions. As expectations change, all learners, both teachers and students, may find themselves experiencing some brain rewiring as new norms emerge that help create the most effective thinking environment for everyone.

As they move into the holiday, students are encouraged to reflect on, and celebrate the successes of, the past term.  It is also an opportunity for all of us involved in learning to reflect on our default behaviours and patterns of thinking. Are there areas that would benefit from scrutiny, rethinking and some conscious brain rewiring? Can we produce outcomes that are more beneficial to achieving our goals? Perhaps this will even allow us to free ourselves from the past, and take small positive steps toward a less stressful, more relaxed and happier approach to life.

 

References

Lucariello, J. and Naff, D. (2018). How do I get my students over their alternative conceptions(misconceptions) for learning? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/education/k12/misconceptions.aspx

Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating cultures of thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, A. K., & Kowalski, P. (2014). Student misconceptions: Where do they come from and what can we do? In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 259-273). Washington: Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

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