Written By Ellen Weber, PhD and Robyn McMaster, PhD
Higher Education and Brain Based Benefits
Challenges of Change
Renewal is to the university community today what Renaissance was to the Middle Ages. Both encompass a resurgence of learning. Both tap into more potential from the human brain. To reconfigure university teaching for a rebirth of brainpower would be to lead innovation for the emerging global higher education movement. Traditional university communities, on the other hand, remain in crisis when they resist mind-bending changes to connect learners with 21 st Century advances. One dean at a large research university put it this way: We pretend to teach them, they pretend to learn.
Brain based tactics highlighted in the ebook MITA Strategies in the Classroom and Beyond, inspire leaders to learn again, while igniting learners to lead at times. Have you seen it happen?
No magic bullet can offer surefire solutions to every learning setback seen in this YouTube video. Have you considered though, how information technology, distance education, and other biotech inventions generate changes in academic arenas? Innovation shapes enormous challenges and yet offers advantages with significant results. At their best, higher education learning communities are integrating across isolated silos of isolated pasts. The University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, for instance, collaborates with diverse fields to create new windows into learning with the brain in mind. The result? They invented Elekta Neuromag, a non-invasive way to observe brains in action.
Without such integration of talented minds from different backgrounds, universities remain in crisis and will continue to cling to traditions that fail the young. George H. Douglas said it best in Education without Impact:
One significant shift underway - brain based approaches - moves university learning from; delivery to engagement, from isolation to collaboration, from hierarchy to mutual accountability, from bureaucracy to flexibility, from tenure to risk-taking and from delivering facts to inspiring curiosity. Time has come to appeal to the university community’s collective genius to return authenticity to the college campus in ways that reconnect learners and leaders to more current frontiers. The challenge presents both problems and possibility to a modern campus.
At MITA International Brain Center we ask: How will higher education transform neuro-discoveries into brain centered practices that propel higher education into a new era?
While 25 years have passed since advocates of brain based practices suggested connections between brain functions and learning practices, disconnects continue to separate content delivered at university, from innovative outcomes leaders require for a fast-changing world.
Challenges come more from facilitating applications and growth, than from any lack of solid science about the brain. Brain science discoveries should lead to improved learning. Does it? We know from works of MDs such as Dan Siegel, at UCLA’s School of Medicine, that we can draw on recent science to harness the brain’s circuitry for engaging and enriching learning experiences. Normal brain activity is now observable to show how humans acquire insights and use knowledge to construct authentic solutions. The same neuro discoveries that inform higher education approaches, will also determine how successfully universities transform broken or tired practices into scholarly advances.
Surprisingly, challenges within the brain itself can cause university communities to resist even the kind of innovations that thriving entrepreneurs model. How so? People’s basal ganglia, or the mental equipment for safe routines - creates a sort of tug-of-war with their working memory, the brain’s tool for change. When Aristotle said, We are the product of what we repeatedly do - he likely did not know the brain’s basal ganglia retains and repeats each move we make.
Think of a wine glass as working memory, with limited capacity, briefly held new details, yet it displaces facts easily since new details pour in to displace data already there. In contrast, see a backpack as basal ganglia, that holds habits, stores routines and sustains comfort levels with well worn facts.
Challenges also come through lack of widespread consensus. A shared vision for innovative change requires extensive discourse across diverse backgrounds, and often involves risk. Brain based approaches negotiate roles and reward quality results, using two-footed questions that spark curiosity for solutions, and multiple intelligences as tools for productivity. Campus communities also increase their productivity as a result of hidden or unused talents that emerge. With smart skills, for example, learners integrate hard and soft skill strategies to address contemporary problems that require both sides of their brain.
Brain based communities rely on tone skills for harmony to engage voices on the other side of controversial topics, while avoiding mental toxins that come from cynics ‘ demands to dominate. Brain based smart skills shield university learners from dominant shout-outs on either side. Tone for instance, melds together two sides into shared benefits for wider communities. Have you seen it happen?
The term brain basedlearning or intelligent-fair evaluations, tend to evoke a wide range of responses from both leaders and learners. For some, it signifies the death of education in exchange for a preferred dawn of learning within caring communities. Supporters speak of mentors and facilitators who approach all topics with learners’ brainpower in mind. For opponents, it suggests fear that traditional lectures will be lost in the hobble, and traditional leaders express concern that quality learning along with deeper understanding will flee in favor of a soft project-oriented settings. Where do you stand in the active learning debate?
Brain Based Approaches for Innovative Change
In the YouTube video here, a mental tug-of-war is seen to pull between working memory and basal ganglia. Working memory risks innovative changes or brain based approaches, and basal ganglia clings to traditions for safe practices. Methods that block benefits of emerging brain discoveries, but have also survived multiple fads. Not surprisingly then, breakthroughs come first to a campus community that remains engaged, involved, and inspired. In one class you’ll catch students actively involved in social media tools that enhance content presented in class. In another class, you’ll observe weblogs that stimulate literacy skills and higher cognitive thinking. Blogs are a means to enhance many math skills in practical ways. “In math the emphasis has shifted from teaching rules and procedures,” reflects Jamie Tubbs, “to helping students create their own understanding of the mathematics they are learning.
Obvious by its absence in brain centered learning circles, is student boredom or faculty frustration that limits learning and teaching through bureaucratic barriers. Nor does one encounter delivery of facts through canned lectures. Instead, classes such as business administration, political science, journalism and philosophy jump start new relevancy through student experiences with weblogs. According to recent research in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, it works wonders for learning and motivation. For 30 years, and across many countries, leaders at the MITA International Brain Center sought answers as to why some college communities run with renewal while others stagnate in routines and ruts.
Change comes easier to robust faculty roundtables, while healthy risk-takers rarely survive in a toxic workplace. Most agree that before change takes root, alterations shift, swirl and reconfigure within re-examined beliefs. How so? It takes mental agility, for instance, to facilitate silenced voices. To inspire others or to hear and move on beyond previously excluded views, also takes certain sense of daring. How so? Bullies may insist that one way only suffices, and brain based facilitators draw on mental tactics to address disagreement strikes. They might distribute memos ahead to tell people what is coming, or solicit feedback that asks what people expect back from a change related project.
In healthy learning communities, beliefs align with a shared vision for growth. In contrast, flawed beliefs may lead faculty to lecture under the assumption that for one person to speak is for another person to learn, yet scientific studies now affirm how learners retain far more by doing, than by listening. In fact it is said to be more effective for learners to teach their dogs than listen passively to lectures. Similarly, the notion that intelligence is fixed, once determined people’s destiny in traditional colleges. We now know however, that intelligences grow with use.
The human brain is hardwired for overcoming challenges and seeking solutions to complex puzzles that show up at times of change. Certain problem-solving skills change the brain’s chemical and electrical synapses, and in so doing, create entry points for mind-bending opportunities. Possibilities in this era of the mind, yield solutions that will also be a driving force behind higher marks that learners achieve. Alongside, watershed marks earned also by emerging global higher education itself, for facilitator roles that engage caring communities.
No longer is mental growth seen as the elixir for youth alone. Research suggests that brain cell regeneration benefits also extend to senior community members. Until recently, it was strongly held that adult brains cannot grow new cells or regenerate old ones. Until now that is. Elizabeth Gould’s dynamic discoveries in this area recently created an entirely new field of neuro-genesis, a discipline that shows how the adult brain generates new cells.
In future, more members in higher education communities will trade traditional notions of mere gracious living, for a far more robust and risk-taking lifestyle. Equipped with adjusted mental thermostats and brain based tactics, seniors can choose curiosity, and expect developing minds to help them live voraciously. Have you ever wondered how Jacques Barzun, the highly respected emeritus professor from Columbia University, could publish his finest masterpiece, From Dawn to Decadence,” in 2000, at the age of 92?
Amazingly, science now shows why the brain’s plasticity remains so vital, to university communities of every age. Brain strategies offer practical tools to explore flexibility insights from science, while implementing practical tasks for life. Practices that draw from solid learning theories as well as from a wide rage of cognitive and neuro sciences stand learners with one foot in research, and one foot in practices.
What do brain based classes look like at university? Faculty who teach and assess with the brain in mind differ in their teaching approaches and use techniques and tactics traditionally not used on higher education campuses. Twitter can transform teaching for those who come to class with an interest in social media. Students in brain centered classes set up #hashtags and engage in Twitter chats that apply class content through their communications with peers and experts. Learning in this class may require sharing personally constructed videos on Twitter to explain a complex concept, or following an approved author to exchange literary insights. Or it may pose two-footed questions that spring from faculty and student curiosity related to a new frontier.
When my book MITA Strategies in the Classroom and Beyond, first published with Pearson Publishers in 2005, fewer faculty agreed that brain based practices would impact learners positively at secondary schools and universities. Over time, I have remained in contact with amazing leaders with experiences very different from mine, who use and model powerful approaches to capitalize on their own and their students’ brainpower in ways that differ from the MITA approach. Rarely does one-size fit all, nor should it in academic communities. Having made that point, clear advantages come to university communities that create a brain based vision together, and engage their collective intelligence to roll tasks into action, that benefit most learners.
The model for implementing brain based teaching and assessment, that I developed, and tested across many cultures, began MITA’s work 30 years ago. Then, fifteen years ago Dr. Robyn McMaster joined the International Center, with offerings from a distinctly different background. Our rich collaboration experience inspired us to integrate diverse capabilities in ways that will soon become a practical book, about learning and leading with the brain in mind. After implementing brain based practices across many cultures together, we sense it is time to combine both our personal backgrounds and objective scientific understandings, as part of the extended conversations we have with communities such as yours.
Learning Theories Embedded in MITA Brain Based Learning and Assessment
MITA ’s higher motivation and achievement awards at university, secondary school and business workplaces, came from well-respected leaders who support different global theories. Theories rooted in problem based learning, multiple intelligences, authentic assessments, inquiry based learning, reflective thinking, differentiated learning, constructivism, socially constructed learning, evidence based assessments, performance based learning, and brain research applications from related discoveries.
Rather than emphasize any one theoretic pillar, this brain based model acts as a conduit that opens opportunities, based on leaders and learners’ unique background experiences with representative theories, and on the shared goals that learning communities identify.
In addition, the MITA brain based model draws from direct interactions across diverse cultures in the High Arctic, China, Mexico, Canada, United States, South America, Europe, and most recently from higher education and business approaches in the West Indies. In addition to theories and best practices, learning and leading acumen develops differently across different cultures, genders, disciplines, and experiences. Built on the belief that no brains need be left behind, this work fosters global interactions with innovative leaders from many strengths.
MITA Response to Critics of Brain Based Education
MITA methods consider brain based critics such as John Bruer - who question any translation of brain facts into specific learning and assessment practices. More effective responses to opponents include opportunities to emulate best practices and draw on well-respected learning theories, within substantiated brain facts. While we hear and learn from all reasonable positions on the other side, we would be remiss to ignore the implications from what we learn daily about the human brain’s plasticity. At MITA, evidence of effectiveness comes more from motivation and achievement in practice, and proven innovations, rather than from on-going debates about the authenticity of scientists’ latest mental breakthroughs.
Inclusion lies at the center of brain based practices. Because research suggests that cynicism shuts down creativity in the brain, for instance, the International Brain Center chooses to seek solutions that leave no brains behind. We tend to collaborate and work more with innovators, entrepreneurs, and inventors, rather than merely discuss problems with naysayers or debate brain credibility with cynics. To collaborate and move forward makes better use of brain center resources, and allows leaders at the center to learn from others as well as lead from strengths.
To acknowledge experts on the other side of brain related approaches, is not the same as resisting brain research that informs teaching. Some psychologists suggest that no proven relationships exist for either educational practice or policy. MITA approaches, in contrast, draw from alternative learning and assessment approaches that relate to neuro discoveries that can guide theory research and practice in education. While critics continue to respond with interesting polemics, MITA brain based approaches concentrate more on transferring scientific results into brainpower opportunities that improve the way faculty teach and enhance learners’ takeaway tools.
Brainpower expands with challenge, and one way to turn criticism into shared visions together is to provide answers to even unfamiliar problems. Limited thoughts can create limited results and tend to add toxins that prevent caring communities. MITA leaders conclude that in all learning and assessment fields, the brain promises to be the next grand research frontier, and therefore deserves continued consideration. What few critics know is that human brains hold miraculous flexibility to build goodwill even with those who disagree. Serotonin, the natural drug for calm and well-being, leads to collaboration, while cortisol can lead to skepticism or pessimism through panic and anxiety.
Just as practice in science tends to change when new facts surface, so practice in higher education evolves when people come together to expand notions of mental possibilities. University settings that too often perpetuated misconceptions about learning, begin to inspire facts about the brain that unleash real capabilities and increase intelligence. Rather than draw from jargon to diminish one another’s efforts, faculty discover the key to mental success is less about memorized theories, and more about rethinking possibilities, potential and life targets. Cognitive and neuro sciences along with psychology can help college communities to build together a finer art and science of learning by rewiring mind to co-create ongoing change for a finer future.
In an uncertain economy, with higher competition for fewer college students, brain based approaches offer one way to distinguish a campus’ contemporary eminence. Learners gain incentives to thrive in future eras, and leaders achieve refreshing tools to collaborate and expand innovations with competitive advantage. Few deny that even in its infancy, brain research holds opportunities for pacesetters from formerly competing fields, to harness brainpower that could construct renewed university relevance. MITA continues to invite measurement through research processes where experimental groups, taught and assessed through brain based tasks, compare to control groups with traditional teaching and assessment approaches. Further investigations and on-going renewal ventures ensure learning and leading gains from within emerging brain facts. Analysis of pre-tests and post-tests, continue to reveal significant advantages in settings that favor brain based approaches. Simply stated, learners and leaders accomplish things never before accomplished by using parts of the brain never before used.
References in Addition to Hyperlinks used in Text to Illustrate Brain Based Terms
Bruer. J.T. (1997) Education and the brain: The bridge is too far. Educational Researcher, 26, (8), 4-16.
Douglas, G. Education without Impact: How our Universities Fail the Young (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992)
Gardner, H. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983);
Hanna, J. “Mind, Brain, & Education: Linking Biology, Neuroscience, & Educational Practice,” Harvard Graduate School of Education News, 1 June 2005, available at www.gse.harvard.edu/news/features/mbe06012005.html.
Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Mountain of Love Publishing, 2005); and Ernest Rossi, The Psychobiology of Gene Expression (New York: Norton, 2002).
McEwen B. and John Wingfield, “The Concept of Allostasis in Biology and Biomedicine,” Hormone Behavior, January 2003, pp. 2-15.
Marco Iacoboni et al., “Grasping the Intentions of Others with One’s Own Mirror Neuron System,” PLoS Biology, 22 February 2005, available at http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/j.
Sousa,D.A. How the Brain Learns, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin, 2005)
Sylwester, R. (Dec. 2006) The School Administrator, “ Cognitive Neuroscience Discoveries and Educational Practices, ” retrieved from http://www.aasa.org/publications/saarticledetail.cfm?ItemNumber=7814&snItemN =
Weber, E. (2005) MITA Strategies in the Classroom and Beyond (New York: Pearson Publishers originally printed) Available currently at http://mitaleadership.com/index.html