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Implications for education
Q: How does this research apply to teachers in the classroom?
For educators, certain principles arise from the study of Nico and Brooke, principles that provide useful lenses through which to consider many fundamental, time-honored school assumptions, designs, and practices:
- All brains are different.
- One teaching style, one approach, one design will not succeed with all learners.
- What a teacher imagines will be easy can be very difficult.
- A child's brain is remarkably plastic (malleable) but inefficient; an adult's is less plastic and more efficient.
All brains are different. They develop, adapt to, perceive, and interpret the world differently. So, it's hardly surprising that learners learn in different ways. Although the recent interest in ideas like differentiated instruction reflects this truth, many people continue to cling to a view of the brain as modular (for example, kinesthetic, visual, spatial learners) and draw a distinction between "normal" and "learning-disabled" brains. This creates an impression that most people have the same brain, except for the group of students getting special services and untimed testing—this despite the insight from neuropsychology that everyone is learning-disabled to some degree.
Research suggests that our experiences, our emotional goals, social context, and particular profile of cognitive strengths and weaknesses shape our brain and determine how we perceive the world and how we approach problems. Viewed from this perspective, it seems inevitable that students frequently will not understand problems put to them by teachers in the same way in which the teachers understand them. As a result, teachers and students are often not looking at the same problem, though they may assume it is the same. So, their ways of working toward solutions will also be different—rather like the old idea that an engineer and a philosopher standing in the same engine room on a ship will not see it or think about it in the same way.
As Mary Helen Immordino-Yang writes, "This implies a need for careful attention to learners' perceptions of the educational problems put to them, as well as a need to design learning environments that support such differences. Students from different cultural and social backgrounds may well interpret the same classroom exercises in very different ways. For example, in a second-grade math class, a student was confused over the correct answer to a problem about whether a six-foot-wide car could park in a seven-foot-wide garage. No, it could not, she explained, because the driver would not be able to open the car door. Clearly, although this student's initial response was labeled incorrect, she had indeed solved the math problem correctly but had gone beyond to consider the personal perspective of the driver. While a simple example and one that was quickly resolved, it nonetheless illustrates that this student was considering not simply numbers but practical, personal concerns in solving her math problems." (A Tale of Two Cases: Lessons for Education From the Study of Two Boys Living With Half Their Brains).
Students' comments and answers come from their perspectives, which need to be understood and respected. Taking the time and developing the skills to see problems from the point of view of learners may be teaching's greatest challenge.
Here are several important implications:
One teaching style, one approach, one design will not succeed with all learners. Given the almost unique nature of Nico's and Brooke's challenges, their teachers were forced to meet the young men where they were and to take their lead from the young men. In this extreme situation, the teachers had no way of predicting how Nico and Brooke would function. So, the teachers needed to study the young men without preconceptions and see what the young men could or could not do, and invent various ways of supporting and helping them to learn and develop. They could not meet Nico and Brooke with a predetermined curriculum based on some standard of "normal" functioning but, instead, had to give the young men the freedom to engage in their own learning. The teachers were not limited to a fixed curriculum with its expectations that everyone can proceed in lockstep toward standards that are based on age groupings and expectations that have been "normed" across populations scattered over an amazingly complex landscape. This freedom to match tools for learning to each young men's strengths may be a major factor in the success of these two boys.
Perhaps this research suggests a need for administrators to rethink our current school models that, like Procrustes' Inn, provide a one-size-better-fit-all bed and then stretch or chop the students to fit it. Graduation requirements, grade point average (GPA), grouping by age, course loads, expectations based on identical standards for all, narrow concepts of excellence and rigor, homework, assessment, learning disabilities—these (top)
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all look very different in the light of the implications of new research. Teachers can, as they have done for decades, continue to meet the challenges of changing their methods and lessons, but their efforts must be supported by the structures and practices of the schools themselves.
As educators, school leaders belong to this community of professionals who share a responsibility to study the research and consider its implications.
Another implication arose from this research:
What a teacher imagines will be easy can be very difficult. Teachers often isolate low-level skills assuming that the skills will be more accessible and easier to learn. At some point, most teachers use drills—grammar, math, science, and music drills—that are intended to isolate skills for intensive, decontextualized practice. One of Immordino-Yang's tests involved pitch contour matching, which asked Nico and Brooke simply to listen to two short phrases with the same number of syllables but different intonation (primarily rising and falling pitches). Using nonsense syllables ("na na"), the boys were asked to match the original pattern. "How are you?" "Na na na?"
Immordino-Yang expected that Brooke, with his intact right hemisphere, would perform well and that Nico would struggle a bit. Instead, Brooke performed significantly worse than his peers, while Nico performed significantly better than his peers. Given these results on a "simple" test, it seemed unlikely that Brooke would perform well on the subsequent, more "difficult" task of recognizing sarcasm in various real-life stories. Yet, he performed extremely well, leading the researchers to recognize the importance of context for interpretation.
In this case, the social and emotional context of the real-life events producing sarcasm (the stories in the subsequent tests) played to Brooke's strengths, while the decontextualized matching of tones using nonsense sounds offered no meaningful clues to feed his mind. On the other hand, Nico's more emotionless "grammatical" approach jibed nicely with the emotionless task of the "simple" (na na) test. So, for Nico and the "teacher," the nonsense task was simpler; for Brooke, it was more difficult. In a classroom situation, it is likely that the boys' grades would reflect the teacher's preconceptions and expectations: a good grade for Nico, a poor one for Brooke.
This example suggests that teachers need to be very careful when separating skills from the contexts in which we typically use them and equally careful to search individual performance for clues as to how the student perceives and approaches the problem. Simple may not always be simple, even if that's the intention. Some students may be more able to perform a skill in a complex context than to perform it in a stripped-down context. Brooke needed the emotional context to make sense of similarity between vocal tones.
The example also suggests one reason for teachers to consider student responses to problems as data rather than simply reflections of correct or incorrect answers. Data are sources of insight that can be inferred through careful thought and analysis. Correct and incorrect answers tend to be treated as results that can be judged and assigned a grade that accurately captures understanding or ability. Had the researchers simply "graded" Nico and Brooke's responses to the contour-matching task (above the norm and below the norm), they would not have developed their insights into how each boy's brain was processing information. Grading often misses the point about a student's strengths and weaknesses. Teachers and learners need insight, not a GPA.
Here is another implication:
A child's brain is remarkably plastic (malleable) but inefficient; an adult's brain is less plastic and more efficient. It was this plasticity that enabled Nico's and Brooke's brains to adapt to trauma; adults suffering dramatic brain damage are less fortunate. A child working through a math problem might run up and down a maze of neural pathways playing with solutions, deciding what information might be relevant, while an adult has developed clear avenues that zip toward a solution past old pathways that have been closed off and forgotten.
Perhaps this difference offers some insight into the difficulty many teachers have imagining what is happening inside a child's mind and into the impatience many teachers feel as they watch children struggle to find the well-worn path that seems so obvious to teachers. If so, it suggests that teachers could benefit from focusing less on answers, less on the what, and more on how and why different students grapple with problems as they do. There are many paths up the mountain. Each student has to grow a new neural network that builds on a good way for him or her to climb the mountain. The more of these possible pathways teachers know, the less likely that students will become lost.