Education is not about learning to make a living, but rather about learning to live a life. In neuroscience terms this means that we need to transition from the left-brain qualities of rigidity and control to the right-brain qualities of flexibility and attending to the uniqueness of each individual student. Here are three ways in which this can be accomplished:
From knowing about the brain (left brain) to operationalizing such knowledge through the way we manage our relationship as a caregiver (e.g., teacher, counselor, administrator, sports coach) with a student
It does not help a student for caregivers to be able to know about the brain if “when the rubber meets the road” the information is not operationalized through “right-brain-to-right-brain” (Schore, 2002, p. 7) communications within a “two-person psychology” (Schore, 2012, p. 436). Thus, we are at a point where caregivers need the tools to transition from “knowing” about the brain to “being” a different type of person based on this information. This requires an embodied way of attending (McGilchrist, 2019) that shields oneself from the societal dynamics that might be working against us being able to do just that (Courtwright, 2019).
From expecting the child to fit “the road” to helping the child create his own “unique road”
Traditional education appears to not fit the needs of children that are deemed highly reactive (15-20% of the population) (Boyce, 2019); and who are smarter, more creative, and sensitive. These children require a different learning style that requires hands on applications (e.g., design learning), working with the hands for an adequate balance of “here and now” neurochemicals and dopamine (Lieberman and Long, 2018), and going at the child’s own individual pace of knowledge acquisition reflective of the new field of educational genomics (Gaysina, 2016) – the equivalent of individualized medicine. Pioneers in this area include Boston College’s professor of Education Peter Gray (Gray, 2015) author of Free to Learn; and Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. These highly reactive children due to their sensitivity are highly creative, and we know from a creativity resident study conducted at The University of California Berkeley in the 1960s by Frank X. Barron that “the average creative writer was in the top 15% of the general population on all measures of psychopathology”, but also “scored extremely high on all measures of psychological health (Kaufman, 2015, p. xxiii).
From expecting children to self-regulate to accepting that many may need to be co-regulated by consistent and reliable caregivers as part of their educational experience
In 2010, Jelena Obradovic from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and her colleagues published a study suggesting that how teachers engage with and relate to classroom dynamics influences the effect of social hierarchy on social inequality (e.g., health disparities) (Obradovic et al., 2010). Based on an observational study of 29 kindergarten classrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area, a social hierarchy was developed for each classroom based on social dominance resulting on the more highly reactive (i.e., orchid) children being placed at the bottom of the hierarchy.
The study found a correlation between the place on the hierarchy and depression-like symptoms (e.g., lower grades, more depression, more problems paying attention, lower positive peer relations). However, this relationship did not exist in all classrooms. Children at the bottom of the hierarchy only showed measures of lower outcomes if teachers ignored and/or fostered social dominant relationships. In classrooms in which teachers used more child-centered egalitarian practices (a measure developed at Stanford), the students’ place in the hierarchy did not have an effect on their socioemotional, behavioral, and academic health.
In other words, the association between social position and health starts to disappear as the classroom becomes more egalitarian through the leadership of the teacher. What this study is suggesting is that people (in order to have a fair chance towards personal and professional development) are not necessarily bound by their social standing so long as their emotional wellness is attended to. Thus, we might not be able to quickly upgrade people’s social standing, but by attending to their unique sensitivities at a very early age we might be able to provide them with a chance towards optimal development.
In his recently published book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, Thomas Boyce states that “Orchids subjected to the exigencies of steep competition for dominance positions may also be substantially more jeopardized and undone by the difficulties that accompany such competition. Thus orchids relegated to low-ranking roles, where marginalization and social isolation prevail, may more often experience subjugation, stress, and symptoms of despair, leading to psychological and physical duress. On the other hand, orchids achieving high social ranks may be more visibly rewarded with the strong mental health and developmental achievements that such ranks engender” (Boyce, 2019, p. 148).
Adapted from IAAN’s 1st International Conference of Applied Neuroscience Round Table Discussion: Applied Neuroscience in clinical practice and education. What difference does it make? on May 23, 2019, Sydney, Australia.
Obradović, J., Bush, N. R., Stamperdahl, J., Adler, N. E., & Boyce, W. T. (2010). Biological sensitivity to context: The interactive effects of stress reactivity and family adversity on socioemotional behavior and school readiness. Child Development, 81(1), 270-289.
Schore, A. N. (2002). Advances in neuropsychoanalysis, attachment theory, and trauma research: Implications for self psychology. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 22(3), 433-484.
Schore, A. N. (2012). The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Boyce, W. T. (2019). The orchid and the dandelion: Why some children struggle and how all can thrive. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
McGilchrist, I. (2019). Ways of attending: How our divided brain constructs the world. London, England: Routledge.
Lieberman, D. Z., & Long, M. E. (2018). The Molecule of More: How a single chemical in your brain drives love, sex, and creativity – and will determine the fate of the human race. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.
Gaysina, D. (2016). Educational genomics: Tailoring teaching to our individual DNA. Retrieved from: https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/11/17/educational-genomics-tailoring-teaching-individual-dna/
Gray, P. (2015). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted: Intelligence redefined. New York, NY: Basic Books. Courtwright, D. T. (2019). The age of addiction: How bad habits become big business. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.