Only the Brain that Thinks, Grows Dendrites
Greetings Fellow Educators,
As Understanding is Student-Constructed, Concept Memory is Brain-Constructed
Under your guidance and through the opportunities you provide for students to use and transfer learning, their neural circuits expand the range of interconnections. As understanding builds, students’ brains construct concept knowledge networks they will be able to apply to solve problems, adapt to new information, and collaborate successfully beyond the classroom and school itself.
Your support will be needed along the way. Just as learning how to walk, speak, and read does not emerge fully proficient, the construction of understanding and concept networks is not a smooth pathway to perfection. Going from the unknown to the known involves detours through uncertainty and mistakes. Help students understand that setbacks provide opportunities for them to revise their brains’ erroneous circuits and working through periods of confusion strengthens the accurate networks their brains ultimately construct.
This newsletter suggests ways to help students build their flexibility as a powerful support system for their emerging cognitive, emotional, and social mindsets and their tolerance for the growing pains they’ll experience along the path to adulthood.
First Response – Limited Perspective
Take a look at following examples and see if you can find a mistake in either.
There are mistakes in both! Perhaps you did see them, but most people do not see either the second “the” or the incorrect color of the 4 of hearts until they are pointed out. These are examples of inattentional blindness. Although the errors are clearly evident once they are pointed out, they are not initially perceived. Inattentional blindness regarding these examples is well within normal limits. However, the focus on single correct responses and specific “right” ways to solve problems has narrowed the perspectives of a generation of students.
When the brain repeatedly uses mental processing geared to rapid efficiency and single responses, it grows increasingly “successful” at this response to information and experiences. Students build the cognitive habits of accepting the first retrieved response as correct and the only accurate response.
Learning experiences need to go beyond single answers and applications to push students to resist their first response as correct or as the only correct response. Brains that have become habituated to unthinkingly following direct instructions and memorizing single right answers may be restricted beyond inattentional blindness. Students without more expanded experiences interpreting data and developing solutions will not have adequate preparation for the rapidly expanding information pool in the globalized, technological world awaiting them when they leave school.
With accelerating quantities of information today’s students face higher education and career challenges of interpreting, reasoning, communicating, and transfer of knowledge to novel applications. The repetition of facts is no longer adequate for being “smart”. After years of passivity and limited responsibility for evaluating ideas, considering multiple options, or supporting their opinions, students must build the skills of constructing understanding, formulating ideas and clearly supporting their opinions or solutions with reasons.
Building Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is one of the executive functions developing in the prefrontal cortex, especially during the school years. It is the capacity to be open and receptive to considering all aspects of an experience, sources of information, a variety of interpretations, or approaches to problems. With well-developed cognitive flexibility students will have greater capacities to consider alternative points of view, predict a variety of outcomes, and assess changing data or new information from multiple perspectives. Cognitive flexibility could increase the likelihood of being open to multiple interpretations, even when asked to respond with only one – such as finding the two errors in the sample diagrams.
Students can be paired with classmate(s) who have the same opinion on comfortable, interest-related topics that do not require formal evidence. They share reasons for their opinions and select one or two that they feel are most convincing. Groups then expand to four to bring together student pairs with their different opinions and reasons to discuss with each other.
Topics, depending on student age, could include might include opinions about the best: bedtime story, breed of dog for a house pet, time to do homework, or Internet search engine.
Active listening would be appropriate to include if students are not experienced in supportive and productive ways to exchange different opinions. (Active listening involves listening silently without interrupting, and then repeating back what one thinks the speaker said and inviting corrections of any misinterpretations.) As students build their opinion sharing flexibility, they can extend the discussions by each listener selecting one of the speaker’s support reasons that seemed most convincing or reasonable.
Cognitive flexibility can be expanded in regard to media in a number of ways. In literature, students can reflect on reasons that an “evil” character in a story might not be fully to blame or deserves sympathy. Students can develop several different interpretations of art, music, a historical event, or an author’s choice of literary devices. Even cartoons can provide opportunities for students to build cognitive flexibility when they are asked to think of several possibilities for, "Why do you think this cartoonist selected cows to be the talking animals with all the other animals silent?"
Beyond having students develop multiple interpretations, they can be challenged to find more than one solution to a problem. The goal would be for them to build the habit of not stopping at the first “answer” that comes to mind. The problems could include historical disputes, ways to divide odd amounts of supplies equitably, several different endings for a story, improvements in rules for playing or scoring a sport, multiple ways to solve a math problem, or several ways to test a scientific hypothesis.
Teachable moments will become evident when you have cognitive flexibility in mind. When a student, novel character, politician, economist, critic, or analyst acknowledges a change of mind or opinion in response to considering alternative points of view or assessing new information, that can be an opportunity to acknowledge that person’s flexibility, open-mindedness, fairness, or even courage.
Basketball legend, Michael Jordan said, “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” As students develop cognitive flexibility watch for additional expansions in their habits of mind. Making mistakes will be recognized as an opportunity to increase understanding and not an indication of failure. You’ll see them build increased perseverance figuring out problems, improved skills of collaboration, and greater responsiveness to corrective feedback and making revisions.
Best of all, consider the impact your efforts will have on your students’ tolerance, ethics, and citizenship far beyond your classroom.