Neuroplasticity and the Classroom

Ever since reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, I’ve been fascinated by the science of neuroplasticity and the truth that our thoughts and choices actually change the physical structure of our brain. I’ve been applying this science to my own life in developing skills I once thought inaccessible to me, in addition to working to overcome unhealthy mental habits.

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Gratitude in Education

In the video below, Dr. Kerry Howells talks about the way gratitude practices (beginning with acknowledging and repenting of our resentments) are transformative in educational contexts and are at the root of all the other virtues teachers try to cultivate. Everything she says also applies to families. Her notion that it is impossible to fix other people’s problems without an inner attitude of thankfulness reminded me of St. Seraphim of Sarov’s oft quoted words, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

Educational Reform and the Forgotten Virtue of Focus

In Part 3 of my interview with Graham Taylor on brain fitness, I talked about educational reform. I pointed out that sometimes our educational efforts are focused so much on content that we neglect to give adequate consideration to the skills that go into being an effective learner. For thousands of years thinkers have been developing techniques of memory and learning, yet modern education tends to neglect these techniques to focus exclusively on content. Here’s one of the points I made about this:

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Strange Times

We live in strange times when to think critically about emerging technologies, and to ask difficult questions about how to harness our technologies towards the ends of making us more human, is to invite the criticism of being a Luddite. It should be an axiom of the examined life that as new tools and art forms become available to us, they should be the subject of deep reflection, and that the intellectual life should admit no boundaries to the scope of it’s reflections. Sometimes the willingness to ask questions is more important than the answers we arrive at. But not so in the anti-intellectual climate of today. I am increasingly finding that certain questions are taboo, and that caricatures like “Luddite” and “old fashion” are functioning as substitute for genuine refutation.

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Memory is the Mother of Creativity

From ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 3)‘:

In Greek mythology, the Muses were the offspring of Zeus’s union with Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.

“People argue that the computer has diminished the need for humans to exercise their memories as much…. but I think it is an oversimplification. …if we don’t learn and remember things—perhaps because we think we can always look up the information online—then our brains will never have the opportunity to form schemas out of what we’ve learned. Our brains will be little better than a computer which is able to retrieve lots of information but isn’t able to sort the information out into schemas that are meaningful and wisdom-imparting. Also, it shouldn’t be overlooked that memory is closely linked to creativity. As our personal and collective memories are being outsourced to machines, we forget (no irony intended) that humans have always understood there to be a reciprocal link between memory and creativity. The Muses in ancient Greek mythology were the goddesses of inspiration for literature, science and the arts, yet significantly they were the offspring of Zeus’s union with Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. I don’t think that was a coincidence: the Greeks understood that memory is at the heart of both creativity and wisdom. As the Greek playwright Aeschylus put it in Prometheus Bound, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” That’s why teaching the techniques for memory and learning ought to be at the heart of education. But because we aren’t teaching these techniques, what happens is that there is a vacuum in which numerous false ideas about memory arise.”

A Different Approach to the Classroom

Growing up in the modern West, most of us have been conditioned to think that the best students are those who don’t struggle. Successful people are those who easily achieve straight A’s, who can get their homework done as quickly as possible, and who rarely have to deal with unpleasant realities such as frustration, struggle, confusion or failure. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned and permeates the culture of the classroom.

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The Politics of Imagination

From my earlier post “Killing the Imagination (Common Core, Part 3)“:

In cultivating the imagination, great literature helps to keep us free….the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of all great totalitarian regimes in history, for it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences and to see the infrastructures of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things. The poetry of life, and the sense of wonder that keeps the imagination vivid, fresh and restless, remains the constant enemy in the prosaic utopias that aim to convince citizens that there is nothing beyond this life to live for. Accordingly, for collectivist and totalitarian regimes to truly work, the first books to go must be those that have no obvious functional value in a work-based economy but which feed the imagination, and enable us to see the world in a fresh and wonder-filled light.

Beauty and the Sacramental Vision

From my article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts‘:

“Being able to just be in the presence of beauty is central to coming to know God and to participate in the sacramental life. As students come to appreciate beauty for its own sake—independent of utilitarian goals—their souls are prepared to receive God at a deep, pre-cognitive level.”

The Spiritual Vision of J.S. Bach

In April 2009, British atheist A.N. Wilson shocked the world by announcing that he was returning to the Christian faith. When asked later in an interview what was the worst thing about being faithless, the writer and newspaper columnist replied:

When I thought I was an atheist I would listen to the music of Bach and realize that his perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than my own. . . . The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story. J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music.

A.N. Wilson is not alone. In his Introduction to the book Does God Exist? Peter Kreeft noted that he personally knows three ex-atheists who were swayed by the argument, “There is the music of Bach, therefore there must be a God.” Of these, Kreeft informed his readers, two are now philosophy professors and one is a monk.

Even the God-hater Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), upon hearing a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, was compelled to admit that “one who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

Bach would certainly approve, for he once remarked that “music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.” To underscore this point, he wrote the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) at the end of most of his scores.

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Self-Acceptance and Repentance

As a conservative Christian, I used to shy away from the message of self-acceptance, seeing it as mere psychobabble. I was also concerned that too much self-acceptance might stifle personal growth and improvement. Worse, it might even block us from being humble. So I took this concern to a number of pastors, priests, monks, scholars and Christian psychologists throughout the world.

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