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BBI 2007 Session 3

Paul Grobstein's picture


Science as loopy, story telling/revising rather than truth/facts

"I was intrigued when asked to decide rather or not the earth was round or flat. At first this seemed to be an easy question to answer based on what we are taught but by the end of the disscussion I was left questioning I had learned. We were given several more questions of this type and at the end I always questioned what I had been taught." .... Deidre

"Science as story telling and story telling in general (as Paul describes it) can at times seem unrealistic. I say this because I'm not sure if we could ever get everyone in the world to listen and acknowledge everyone else's stories. At the same time, I think it's necessary to be hopeful and do our part in order to be a catalyst for change. I also think that I may perceive story telling a little differently...but I guess that's the whole idea...I acknowledged Paul's ideas and in turn it affected my own. I think that's the most important part: it's still my own" ... Ashley

  • getting better at process at least as important as acquiring content
  • a social process: diversity/transaction essential

Living in virtuality

"Using computer models to illustrate outcomes can enrich students’ understanding. For example, if asked where an arrow will land if shot directly above a pick up truck traveling 45mph; my students can predict based on their prior knowledge. Obviously, I can not pile the lot of them on a truck and conduct the experiment to have them find out what will happen. So usually I would draw a schematic and explain the answer to the students. They will take my word for the actual result or not. However to avoid any home experimentation I can have the students use a computer applet that gives them the ability to manipulate variables such as speed, angle, etc. and then run it as many times as they want. In this way, they’ve used technology as a tool to see the results for themselves. I can also add a discussion area to have students write their reactions and why they think this result has occurred. Their required notes give me information on each individual’s level of understanding, a win-win situation!" ... Joyce

"I think it would be really important to guide them through what they might be considering as take aways from the activity. Students, very generally speaking, are more engaged by technology and sometimes the point of what an instructor is trying to impart gets lost in the fun of playing around with the game or the ants." ... Benjamin

"It is amazing that a seemingly random pattern can quickly become a pattern, if even for a short amount of time. But in the big picture, I wonder were this is leading to in our discussion of the brain?" ... Robert

  • observations themselves are "stories"
  • computers, computer models valuable educational tools
  • distributed systems

Moving on ... to the nervous system

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside-


  • Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
  • Implications if Emily was right?

    • Brain = behavior, there isn't anything else
    • "a person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells ... and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them" ... Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis
    • "it never ceases to amaze me that all the richness of our mental life - all our feelings, our emotions, our thoughts, our ambitions, our love life, our religious sentiments and even what each of us regards as his own intimate private self - is simply the activity of these little specks of jelly in your head, in your brain. There is nothing else" ... Vilayanur Ramachandram
    One example (of many) of one kind of reason (of many) to suspect she was ...

    What story do you hear/see in Emily Dickinson's poem? Do you think the brain is wide enough to contain the sky ... "and You beside"? What would this imply? In general? About education? Write your thoughts in the forum area below.


    Thinking about how the brain (nervous system) works (if Dickinson right)

    • From stimulus/response box to semi-autonomous input/output box consisting of interconnected input/outboxes consisting of ... large number of very small input/output boxes (neurons)


    Is the real brain (nervous system) actually that way?

    Yep ...

    • Sensory neurons the only way in, motor neurons the only way out, mostly interneurons
    • Similar but different in different organisms, different in same organism at different times
    • All neurons, differences in behavior are differences in organization of neurons
      (change organization of neurons, change behavior)
    • Neurons have some degree of autonomy, so therefore does nervous system, can view as output/input box as appropriately as input/output box
    • The architecture of the brain gives it the characteristics of an explorer



    Key points

    • Brain=behavior a good story
    • Variation from brain to brain (diversity)
    • For outside to affect brain it has to pass through sensory neurons
    • Changes in brains with experience
    • Brains have characteristics independent of experience and can generate outputs independent of experience
    • Brains are designed (by evolution) to explore, to do loopy science


    What most interests you about what we've talked about so far? In what ways might it be relevant in your classroom? What would you like to learn more about yourself using the internet? Write some thoughts/questions in the forum area below.


    Cheryl Brown's picture

    Emily's poem and brain variations

    Since we are all unique individuals why wouldn't there be brain variations and infinite possibilities? I think the Emily was right and that the brain is wide enough to contain the sky.
    Bob McCormick's picture

    Tuesday July 10, 2007

    Wow, teachers are brain surgeons! A brain surgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital changes the brain with surgical instruments while I change behavior with my words and actions. Now the final issue becomes a pay equity issue since we both have the same affect.

    Also the comment about babies are born explores reminds me of a book by Alice Gopnick, Scientists in the Crib. In the book she states that babies are born with powerful learning mechanisms and cites a study by Andy Meltzoff where he explains that infant can mimic facial expressions (stick your tongue out at the baby, the baby will stick his/her tongue out at you) 42 minutes after they are born. It seems like we are really born to explore and learn almost from the moment of birth. This is complete contrast with John Locke who said that children are blank slates.

    Two quotes come to mind on the uniqueness of our brains. The first is from Carl Jung maintaining that “The normal man is only fiction” and the second one from Rodney Dangerfield asserting in his unique and ubiquitous style “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know too well.” The same can be said for their brains.

    I especially like Paul’s comment about his goal of teaching; to teach them to think. It reminds me of a story. If you

    Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a person how to fish, and you fed him for a lifetime. Something to consider if we really want our students to become true life long learners which will be necessary in our increasingly complex and demanding condensed world

    Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

    Emily, The Brain, The Classroom, and The Internet

    Emily - Emily indeed was on to something as the brain in big enough to contain all that we experience and imagine.

    The Brain - I believe as finite as the sky is, in that it is contained on the Earth, God has given us the capacity to use our brain to think and be creative infinitely.

    Classrooms and The Internet - Setting an atmosphere for exploratory learning is a fine ideal.  However, as a teacher and administrator turned adjunct, the common thread on each of these levels is the pacing requirement.  Curricula does not afford Educators the time to allow students to explore, question, and/or challenge what they are being sad is the realization of this for the students and teachers.  These would be recognized, in many cases, as teachable moments.  Hope rests in the fact that we provide food for thought for time spent out of our their world.

    Angela Bryant's picture

    Emily Dickinson

    I believe that Emily poem about the sky is wider then the brain, had you really think about what she meant. If the brain could observe the sky then the sky would notice the brain. If that is true then the brain could store any kind of information.
    Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

    Brain matter

    Brain variations are necessary to make this world more unique. I think that we are all unique in various ways. Emily's poem is unique and her brain is unique just like mine.
    Donna Morris's picture


    I always thought that I was imparting knowledge to my students ,but I never though of it as brain surgery ,which is a interesting concept. Dickinson's therory was right on point in that every story we take in goes to our brain.
    Bruce Williamson's picture

    Emily's Brain

    Fine, everything is an idea in the brain. This means that nothing is really real, that hallucinations may be as valid as common perception! In teaching I think one must be careful not to create a feeling of uselessness or that any action taken is inconsequential. Existentialism was such a philosophy, at least as I understood it in high school. Nothing really mattered, and existence was pointless. So how do we encourage folks to take action, work hard on self improvement, learn a career skill, care about other people (who might just be all in our imagination-nobody really exists)? Now I am reminded of science fiction stories about paranoia in the extreme—where the human subject is convinced that they are the only human brain that exists and that the entire universe that they perceive has been virtually created by other, nonhuman, beings in order to study the unique human brain. And that other “people” have been created, sort of like in Matrix, to keep the one brain from realizing how unique and important it is, or how lonesome existence is. Practically, I must show students and peers that what we do matters and that there continues to be a benefit from making progress. Thinking is even more important now than ever realized before, since it creates reality. Richness of experience is part of the joy of life. But what of the practice of quieting thoughts, of deliberately meditating to think of as little as possible? Regards,
    Diane OFee-Powers's picture


    I am interested in lerning more about the brain to help me teach better, and to teach the kids how to think through questions, problems , stories etc. Brain variation is especially interesting to me, again I want to learn more about it to assist me in my teaching.I also want to learn about brain variation to better understand how I learn!!. This information will improve my understanding of my students and what they need from their teacher. It is imporatant for teachers, parents, and the public to realize that there are brain variations to better understand why people act the way they do. I don't want kids to use it as an excuse, but to increase awareness to these varaitions and to assist these kids (people) in their educational journey.
    Graham Phillips's picture

    Day Two, Morning Session

    I see the logic behind the story that the brain, and more specifically, the way that it is conditioned, is responsible for our interactions, our learning, and our social skills. I'm very intrigued as to what learning more about our brains will mean for me as a medium for my students and as an individual in my own relationships with others.

    In terms of what it implies for the classroom, I think it gives us an important reminder: We really are brain surgeons, and the scary thing is that I think many educators out there are unaware of that fact or unwilling to consider such a story or explanation from that perspective. Locally, when dealing with students of special needs or students who are talented/gifted, and universally, when dealing with education legislation, such as NCLB or even on a state level, the majority, or at least the plurality, of people who hold power over the educational system are unaware of the fact that they are indeed brain surgeons. The result is legislation like NCLB and the state, county, and township programs that have been designed by individuals/groups in order to comply with federal statutes...measures which are not actionary, but reactionary, in a sense, like taping together a cracked mirror.


    Paul Grobstein's picture

    on difference ....

    Its not that people with (ADD, autism, violence propensity ...) have different brains. EVERYBODY's brain is different from everybody elses. There is no "normal" brain. Rather, some people's brains are more similar to other people's in some respects, leading to observed similarities in behavior.
    William Sgrillo's picture

    Anyone for Chess?

    W. Keith Sgrillo I like to embrace this idea that the brain is ever changing because, for me, it gives a sense of hope. It helps me to realize that despite students/peoples limitations, there is always the possiblility to change, develop, and expand. This line of thought has helped me to better understand and work with other people/students in ways I wouldn't have before. I also like this idea beacause it allows me to change as well and "improve" on some of the "stories" I previously believed and told as well. Someone brought up the idea of environment and how it affects on the brain. It reminded me of an article I read this year in a sciene magazine about the construction of the brain. The scientists looked at and compared/contrasted healthy brains of living people and dead. they studied people who were life-long "puzzle-solvers" (i think they phrased it that way). They looked at brains of people who engaged in chess, math puzzles,word puzzles etc and compared/contrasted them to those who do not. They found that there were significantly more ridges in the brain of those who engaged in puzzle games (like chess) than those who did not. I found that to be very interesting and maybe Paul can expand on that.
    Angela Morris's picture

    Emily Dickinson's Poem and discussion

    Emily uses metaphors to compare the sky size to the brain. My feelings are that she is showing how the brain has limitless possibilites as the sky is infinite in size. Our brain as we been taught can hold limitless possibilities and as long as we input information (or undergo brain surgery as Paul stated.) we can achieve infinite possibilities. The sky is also a previous story that was implanted by a science teacher who told us the story when we were young and so now we know what the sky is and its properties and we can exceed it by continuing to get our brains worked on. In education we must continue or students to think critically and to always questions the stories they hear by doing research and making their own summary of observations and stories. If we continue to do this especially at an early age we can develop a new breed of criticasl thinkers which would help to facilitate new stories about science and inquiry.
    Deidre Bennett's picture

    I understood Emily

    I understood Emily Dikinson's poem to mean that the brain has knowledge of the sky and everything else. The brain contructs meaning of its surroundings where as the sky can not. The sky does not have a conscious or the ability to think. In fact, the sky would not exist if the brain did not anknowlege it as the sky. We began a disscussion on brain variants where Paul said there was not a "normal" brain but instead every brain was different or brains could be put into groups with other brains that are similiar to it. I agree with this statement, but what concerns me is how society then determines what brain variants are medically treatable and which are not. I use brains predipose to violence as an example. if these brains are similiar when studied then why is their not proper medical treatment for them. Graham pointed out that society has tolerance for some variances, I agree. Obviously violence is not one them. As a society we believe violence is a moral crime. It is a crime against society and speaks to a persons soul. I can not say that I believe differently. So how does society deal with this variance . . . .we build more jails.
    Teresa Albers's picture

    emily dickinson

    Understanding that all brain are variants from one another offers greater acceptance of one another and allows room for individual learning styles and paces. However, the generally accepted standards of grade level abilities is fundamentally based upon the desire to provide everyone with the skills needed support, participate, and engage in society. Is there really space in the story of educatiion to accept that being prepared for and living a satisfying, fulfilled life does not require equality (standards) in education?
    Mingh Whitfield's picture


    I loved the use of poetry to stimulate discussion about the brain. I also thought Emily Dickenson provided a wonderful "summary of osbservations" for future generations to test. Who knew she was a brilliant scientist in addition to an eloquent poet!
    Benjamin Zerante's picture

    Emily Dickinson Response

    At first I took this stanza on the surface level and missed some of the deeper implications that we discussed. I took a more flowery approach and thought that Emily Dickinson was commenting on the imaginative power of the brain and our ability to conceive of things that are bigger than our physical brain. While my first analysis was not completely off, it was perhaps too simple. Taken to the extreme, Dickinson is actually implying that the “Sky” as well as everything about us is a construction of the brain. If that is so, then everything around us (our perceptions) as well as our behavior is a result of our brains. People perceive the world differently and act differently due mainly to brain variations. This is such an important point for educators to digest because we are responsible for shaping the minds of young people. That is an enormous responsibility and undertaking and as stewards of that mission, it is our duty to understand to the best of our ability what we are acting upon. Environment affects the brain, so what we do in the classroom changes our students’ brains.
    Dalia Gorham's picture

    Emily Dickinson's poem

    Emily Dickinson's poem translates itself into the story that the sky, people, the world are all just ideas. I interperted the poem to mean that the brain is able to comprehend  and grow (with knowledge) indefinetly. As an educator I believe the brain is able to "contain the sky" and so much more.
    Ron C. de Weijze's picture

    If there isn't more, don't mention it

    Paul, "Brain = behavior, there isn't anything else"

    If there is nothing else, why do you mention the environment, e.g. "For outside to affect brain it has to pass through sensory neurons"? That means there ìs more, outside.

    Paul Grobstein's picture

    what's "outside"?

    Interesting issue. I presume/use the "story" that there is an "outside", and it seems to be a pretty good one (ie one that makes sense of lots of observations and raises new questions) BUT ... all we know of the "outside" is an interpretation by the brain of patterns of action potentials that may arise from things "outside" or equally from spontaneous activity generated by the neurons themselves. Yep, there is probably an outside, but I don't know for sure. And know even less how it might be described/imagined by a nervous system different from my own.

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