July 18, 2013

The emerging field of Mind, Brain and Education – a confluence of neuroscience, cognitive science and education – has sparked my interest for some time. In mysearch for not only answers, but also better questions about how students learn, and therefore, how we should facilitate that learning as teachers in higher education, I am drawn to this emerging field of inquiry because it offers a new way to ground the practice of teaching and inform the decisions we make.  

I was listening to a podcast recently from a 2011 conference on Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning: Implications for Education. While a vast majority of the work being done in this regard is K-12 focused, scholars are pushing the boundaries of what we know about learning and how we learn. Even with a K-12 focus, research findings still provide us in higher education with fodder to ponder, question, and apply in ways that match the educational context in which we operate.

Listening to the podcast, one finding jumped out at me and prompted this question, “How can we give our students time to think, be patient, be mindful, consider all options/alternatives versus pressing them to respond instinctually and hurry to find an answer?”

Neuroscience scholar and researcher Adele Diamond (University of BC in Vancouver), studies development of cognitive control functions (executive function) in children. She’s looked at inhibitory control, or the ability to stop yourself from doing something that would be your first reaction, but would be wrong in the current situation-like putting your foot in your mouth or hurting somebody’s feelings inadvertently.

Dr. Diamond offers a glimpse into the research looking at mindfulness and patience in learning. She explains that children typically don’t give themselves enough time to wait and process information before they respond or react. However, there are pedagogical and curricular models that can be employed to teach patience and mindfulness. She points to the Tools of the Mind Curriculum as an exemplar. Children will often do what’s called mirror reversal writing-where they’ll write a “b,” or a “p,” or a “d,” or a “6” reversed. Dr. Diamond assures us that this is perfectly normal, and they’ll grow out of it. But, teachers and parents often get very concerned and might ask the child to write the 6 a thousand times. Or, take off math credit for doing it. In Tools of The Mind, this phenomenon doesn’t upset teachers at all. They tell the child that this afternoon or this evening, when you do your math homework, every time you have to write a 6, put down your pencil and pick up a red pen. That’s it! By the next day, the child is no longer writing 6’s mirror reversed. What happened was the child needed to pause before they wrote the 6. By giving the child a task to do (put down regular pencil, and pick up red one), it gave him or her time to pause and think about writing the 6 correctly. The teachers gave the child something to do. So that instead of going to the automatic response to do it reversed, that was put aside and the way they know to do it, which is the correct way, was able to come to the fore and be expressed.

I’m interested in extending this to practice in higher education and want to know what people think about it, how it can be applied, and how we can talk to students about the need for patience and mindfulness when learning. We live in a time sensitive culture where the first hand up wins, the first to completion wins, the first and quickest with the right answer is somehow the best. How do we move to a space where speed is not what counts, but exercising patience and mindfulness to reach a reasoned conclusion that may be counter to an instinctual response can come to the fore. I’m wondering about posing a question to the class and the usual protocol of expecting hands to go up immediately. Often, faculty find discomfort with silence in class when no one raises a hand right away, and this may run counter to that discomfort. How else can we question the class and encourage deeper thinking? What kinds of activities can we ask our students to do that will allow them to move beyond an automated response and let their deeper knowledge and analytical skills shine through?