First, engage the correct brain…

There are times when one has to stop being a subject teacher and just be a teacher. When concentration is lagging, or pupils are whingeing about the lack of Fun, I’ve found that they seem to resonate somewhat with a ‘three brains’ model. I’m not claiming any credit for it since it just grew from my reading of basic psychology, notably the work of Daniel Kahneman.

Silently, I just clear part of the board, and draw a simple side-profile of a head, with a brain inside. I put three asterisks at the back, middle and front and number them one, two, three. Curiosity has often been aroused by this point. I either label the diagram, of give a simple verbal explanation along the lines of 1) primitive (rear) brain, responsible for metabolic function 2) mid-brain, responsible for emotions and 3) front brain, responsible for higher thought.

Two and Three correspond to Kahneman’s two modes of thought. I explain that people’s minds ‘naturally’ reside in Brain Two, where emotional responses rule, whereas learning requires the use of Brain Three, higher thought. I  explain that Brain Three also requires most ‘energy’ and one has actively to move one’s mind into that mode.

It’s over-simple – but in the last month I have had three occasions when pupils have bounced the idea back at me in subsequent lessons. It’s something they seem not to know, which is odd when one considers how much effort has gone into meta-thinking about the educative process. I think this also helps to explain some of the issues I’ve raised in my previous two posts: a life of indulgence has the effect of pampering Brain Two, while reducing the need to activate Brain Three. While people can aspire on the grounds that Brain Two is unhappy, it requires Brain Three thought to figure this out – and pampered people have little reason to make this effort.

But I think it is a mistake to imply that Brain Three is the only important one. People need to be able to leave Brain Two in good hands in order to be able to put themselves in Brain Three mode, without the self-fulfilling worry that Brain Two will reassert itself. It’s why people can’t think when they are afraid, or when their basic needs are being threatened. That is why I’ve always considered that building good relationships with pupils is paramount, and far more important than any teaching techniques that one subsequently chooses.

My current reading is Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, which despite its glib title, is a thoughtful critique of economic theory. As a South Korean (now Cambridge professor) he has an interesting position from which to comment on the way Britain runs its affairs, including education. It might suggest that we have been guilty of running our society too strictly along the lines of economic Brain Three, while ignoring the costs of neglecting welfare Brain Two.

Thing 5: Assume the worst about people and you will get the worst.

People are not rational economic beings, motivated only by self-interest. If you assume that, you will contaminate people’s evident other motivations, and spend inordinate amount of precious resources checking up on them to make sure they aren’t cheating. You will also add pressure that will make them more likely to cheat for self-preservation.

Thing 9: We do not live in a post industrial society.

The salient point is that you cannot increase productivity in services the way you can ramp it up in manufacturing. If you do, it will be at the cost of quality.

“In some cases, the very attempt to increase productivity will destroy the product itself. If a string quartet trots through a twenty-seven minute piece in nine minutes, would you say that its productivity has trebled?”

School managements and government ministers take note.

5 thoughts on “First, engage the correct brain…

  1. Is it worth extending this line of thought into why people can have seemingly conflicting regards for traditional & progressive ends in education…?

      • I think it could be either. I suppose I’m interested in the different levels upon which we simultaneously think – what could be described as a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’. We simultaneously entertain different ends to education – consonant with our different ends to society and the means for getting there – and this opens up scope for simultaneously entertaining different means to getting to those different ends. (Many of us) can’t help but entertain co-existing, yet somewhat contradictory rationals/yearnings regarding what we really want from education – both ultimately and along the way – and perhaps this is most simply explained through the different brains model.

        This is probably a philosophical backwater which probably wouldn’t affirm anything other than a vague ‘anything goes – because at some level it resonates with what we want’ approach, but it still feels worth investigating!

  2. I’m sorry – I’ve realised that the above comment is clear as mud with a barrel of gravy granules mixed through it with dynamite! 🙂

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