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Opportunities to Learn

October 18th, 2009

I have just attended a symposium in Washington DC that was designed to provide a conversation about the kind of education that would be most likely to provide young people with the tools they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The conversation drew on perspectives from educational theory and practice, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and the wisdom of the contemplative traditions. So what did I learn that might help us as we think about shifting our thinking ­ and that of our students’ ­ to 21st century thinking? The first thing that struck me was that there were few new insights from the educators.  On the other hand, the importance of positive relationships and the need to actively support the social and emotional well-being of young people ­ as a necessary condition for cognitive achievement ­ was reinforced again and again. This is not new knowledge but it is useful to be reminded how important these factors are if young people are to actually have the opportunity to reach their potential. These are qualities also needed by 21st century educationalists, as argued by Christopher (May 18).

There were two ideas that I thought might contribute to our discussion, both of which focus on the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy.  I will begin with the first idea which I think of as “opportunities to learn”. In this context there were two areas raised that gave me particular food for thought and I am sure many of you will be able to add insights that will extend the points made.

Drawing on current research into brain development, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, argued that as the brain is plastic, and will change in response to experience, education literally changes a child’s brain, its function and structure. This is particularly true in the early years but is also true during adolescence (and as we now know, it is actually never too late as brain cells continue to make new connections throughout life). However, an early investment is healthy brain development is better! In this context Davidson argued that a very important skill to learn was that of self regulation; the ability to regulate emotions. There are times where having  negative emotion is a helpful response but not if it persists beyond the point it is useful. He gave the example of a student having an argument between classes and suggested that if the negative emotion is still lingering in the next class it will interfere with the ability to learn. If these kind of disruptive events happen frequently then the opportunity to learn will be seriously impaired. He also pointed out that in the last 100 years the average age for the onset of puberty has gone from 16 to 11 (in some cultures). However, one of the parts of our brain – the prefrontal cortex ­ is not fully mature until early 20s. So this gives a lengthy time in which the capacity of the brain to regulate emotions is not as well developed which led Davidson to pose the question “can we teach our children to better regulate their emotions, to recover from adversity more quickly”? His research suggests that a productive avenue to pursue is interventions derived from contemplative practices which can assist regulate emotions and make for more steady attention (this might be as simple as having quiet times during the day or taking a more formal approach such as meditation). He also suggested that qualities such as empathy, calmness, and cooperation are best seen as skills that can be taught and learnt and not as fixed personality characteristics. Other speakers also cited research that showed that practices that support social and emotional learning have a positive impact on academic achievement. The point was made that there is a need to practice these ways of being, as the state a mind is in on a daily basis will become its “normal” state.

The second area was also one related to supporting the opportunity to learn. One of the other speakers, the psychologist Nancy Eisenberg, apart from also reinforcing the importance of young people being nurtured through positive relationships, explored the importance of emotional regulation as well – and ways educators might support learning to self regulate. Her research indicates the importance of adults modelling such practices and using reasoning to talk through issues and emotional responses as this helps young people to learn to manage themselves positively. A negative practice, she argued, was to take a punitive approach as then the young person only focuses on themselves and their punishment and doesn’t learn about the consequences of their actions on others.

Both these examples reinforce the importance of an education that is holistic ­ that provides the opportunity for students to be educated as cognitive and emotional, ethical and social beings whose lives are deeply interconnected with others. It is a reminder that developing particular habits of mind are just as important as developing cognitively, well in that these are intertwined.  Educators have long understood the importance of educating the whole person and this is an approach that is evident in curricula that emphasise knowledge and competencies (as described in the New Zealand curriculum). It is interesting to see the growing evidence from other disciplines of the importance of these competencies for any learning. It is also an ongoing challenge to develop ways of supporting students to actually develop their competencies so they are truly prepared to deal with, learn, and thrive, in the complex world in which they live. I know there are many schools that are already supporting students to learn “habits of mind” and that they have been doing so for many years. It is a timely reminder that such learning is just as important – and perhaps more so ­ in the context of a 21st century framework.

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  1. | #1

    Robyn! So great to read your first blogposting on ShiftingThinking – thanks for summarising some of the talks from your conference, it sounds like it was worth the long trip?

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