Squeezing the Brain


Yesterday at our weekly Management Team meeting, Heather Clayton, our Director of Learning, handed out to us little gray “squeeze-ball” models of the brain, in recognition of Brain Awareness week, which is happening on campus next week.

A truism you will hear thrown around in educational circles is that science has learned more about the brain in the last thirty years than was known in the entire previous history of research. When these observations about new research on the brain first circulated, I would share them with Board members and parents and teachers. Often I would get an indulgent look, as if I would get over this particular educational fad. After all, hasn’t learning always been about the brain?

Among the early brain discussions was the theme of left brain/right brain – the left side as the home of analysis, and the right brain the home of creativity. Not too long after that, the Multiple Intelligences model of intelligence appeared, a result of the discovery that various intellectual functions associated with music, mathematics, physical movement, pattern-identification, language, intrapersonal and extrapersonal thinking can be isolated in different parts of the brain. This was an expansion of the traditional notion of intelligence, which used to focus purely on logical and linguistic abilities. Academic debate continues on this question, but in education the model is congruent with the experience and mission of a school like ours: that students learn in a variety of ways, and so that in addition to Mathematics and English they are also going to have meaningful experiences of the arts, athletics, service to others, and the outdoors. The Multiple Intelligence criterion for an “intelligence” is that it be provably useful in a culture. Therefore, far from being an ivory tower, academic application of research, it encourages connection between what happens in the classroom and what happens in life outside the classroom. This emphasis is consistent with another evolution in education, supported by brain research, that learning should be more “experiential” than it used to be; in other words, less book-learning (which can be theoretical and disconnected from living consequences) and more hands-on learning (where ideas get tested in the laboratory of the real world).

Perhaps by now you get my drift. I have just skimmed the surface here. We have a whole new vocabulary about the brain these days: it is plastic, it is not fixed, and more. The biggest single transformation resulting from brain research is that it puts the student at the centre of the learning experience, not the teacher or the system. Come out next week, read our website – dip your toe in the water: information on the School website.

Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.