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Reflection and Redirection: Moving Forward with Brain-Based Education, Social Neuroscience, and Ethnography

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My Experience. Speaking with a professor in the Biology department the other day about the new format of introductory biology at Bryn Mawr College made me reconsider my exploration of education and learning in this particular course, Brain, Education, and Inquiry. One thing the professor said that I found intensely interesting was how the most common complaint about the new course was that there was no text book; from my understanding, there was no lack of readings assigned, but still, a book of “facts” was what seemed to be the most requested. A common reason for this was that many felt they would not be prepared for the MCAT later on, or for upper level sciences, simply because they would not learn a standard set of facts. Many complained that the lack of a textbook caused them to learn absolutely nothing and some even suggested that they would take introductory biology at another school within the tri-college consortium. The professor also explained that the new structure included in-class discussions and debates; further, a few students actually enjoyed the class, participated, and it seemed that they took valuable learning experiences away from the class evident through feedback and evaluations. The professor ended the spiel saying that although only about half of the class did well on the midterm exam, the class structure was changing for the better; those who want to be there to participate and develop ways of thinking rather than just a set of facts, will.  This anecdote immediately led me to further contemplate the subject matter of my own class. Throughout the semester, I had a hard time letting go of what I thought worked for me (and everyone else) in the classroom. As a student used to traditional teaching/learning practices, such as taking notes at lecture, asking a few pointed questions, and often using a textbook, I was not as open to new ideas at the beginning of the semester as I am now. Having explored my own unchartered waters within my educational thinking, I have gained some unique perspectives concerning education. I am compelled to suggest that maybe this course should be integrated into education during the freshman year of college, as well as its principles applied throughout primary and secondary education.


Brain-Based Learning and Social Neuroscience. A way of understanding the human experience is often done through means of exploring the social sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology; yet the way of understanding human sensory input and cognition is often through what we know as hard or basic science, neurobiology, endocrinology, etc. Obviously, we now know that we cannot fully understand the human experience without knowing about how the brain works, and consequently, we cannot fully understand the brain without knowing how one experiences certain conditions or factors as human beings. They go hand in hand. When it comes down to it, “there is no separation of brain, mind, body, feelings, social contacts, or their respective environments” (1). Integrating this philosophy into education is useful and is actually being done, and it is known as brain-based education. This type of teaching and learning is not founded on neuroscience, but rather, it requires a multidisciplinary approach. This class is sort of an example of this, by juxtaposing what we know about the brain and what we know about students and teachers in education; this experience was heightened by the wide variety of backgrounds we students come from, by offering our ideas and sharing our understandings/misunderstandings with each other, or in other words, simply participating in co-constructive inquiry. Incorporating this early on in education will benefit students, teachers, and communities alike. “The brain is the most relevant feature to explore, because it affects every strategy, action, behavior, and policy at your school” (1). By educating teachers (instructors, facilitators, professors) and students about how the brain works will ultimately allow the individual to know why one strategy is being used over another, what the purpose is of what one is actually doing in order to be more effective, how to engage, and how to define principles or keys to follow. Brain-based education is thus “the engagement of strategies based on principles derived from an understanding of the brain” (1). This will help bridge the “hard” science of learning and the experience of learning, creating a more multi-disciplined and thorough education. Perhaps this would open up certain areas of study for those who would not traditionally choose so.

It is still a common notion that the social sciences are on the opposite spectrum from the natural sciences. As a double-major in both Anthropology (cultural focus) and Biology (medical focus), I am commonly asked what my interests have in common, as I am not focusing on biological anthropology or evolution. Interestingly, I almost always feel compelled to scream out  that they have absolutely nothing in common (which is actually why I was initially drawn to them – they were both a nice break from the other); yet from my deeper understandings of both fields and a fresh outlook from this class, I know I cannot possibly say that.  It is with constant fascination that I continue to study in both areas and more and more am I becoming aware of the interplay between the two. I am one who is benefiting from a liberal arts education and has had the opportunity to explore many different areas of study. While a liberal arts education has been a step in the right direction, incorporating a more interdisciplinary understanding into the learning experience for each individual course as a student is a must. Learning how to make connections in subject matter is valuable in deepening our understandings.

One of the most powerful connections being made within the realm of brain science and social science is that of social neuroscience. John Cacioppo, a psychologist pioneering this field explains that “social neuroscience is premised on the notion that biological, cognitive, and social levels of analysis, as well as a dialogue and integrative collaborations among scientists working at these levels of analyses, will contribute to more comprehensive explanations of the human mind and behavior” (2). This area of study is one which incorporates how social conditions affect the brain, given that school behaviors are highly socialized experiences based on our senses (2). Social neuroscience also looks at the biological mechanisms that underlie social behavior, such as neuroendocrine and immune factors. By understanding things like empathy and interpersonal reactions (a hot topic in the newly developed Social Neuroscience journal) or how our neurons regenerate with exercise and body movement, for example, we can develop effective ways of using and developing our minds and thinking critically. Many in our society have doubted this philosophy but it is evident that the brain and human behavior are not separate entities. Welcoming such an idea within our culture is necessary for implementation of better educational practices.


Learning Culture, Ethnography. What I can take away from this class  and the above philosophies is that education is changing and needs to move forward in a new direction. We have often discussed that changing education requires a change in culture and society as well. In an article by a psychologist, Michael Cole, entitled “What’s Culture Got to Do With It? Educational Research as a Necessarily Interdisciplinary Enterprise”, he stresses that schools have become institutionalized cultures for growing next generations (3). Indeed it is important to recognize that education should have the goal of creating life-long learners, and those from the community should help facilitate this for the students and themselves. Cole, while providing a rich history of “schooling”, gives numerous examples of how educators must understand the social interactions at play within the student classroom and even the larger community. Thus, he even goes on to outline a program for teachers which involves an ethnographic area study of the community of which they will be teaching in. This enabled the teachers to use the students’ wealth of experience as topics of instruction and talking points for discussion (which we have discussed in great lengths during class); it also allowed for the incorporation of the families and other community members as guests into the classroom to teach or explain certain areas of which they were well-informed.  This example resulted in the idea of “teaching through the community” as a tool for fostering inquiry (3). We see that employing the use of anthropological perspectives (or just social sciences in general), is just as useful as brain education.


Concluding Thoughts. In conclusion, although educational reform is on the forefront of many minds, it is not something that can occur within an isolated manner. In order to change education, we must indeed change culture. Moving forward with education in a new direction is crucial to the ecology of human beings. By understanding the need for multi-disciplinary methods combined with research about both the human experience and how the brain works, we can develop better strategies for educating our students and each other. By engaging in co-constructive inquiry within this course, I have developed my own understanding of the importance of combining social science with hard science: hard science does not make social science more believable or substantiated (as many have often said), but it does offer unique and different perspectives on how to approach learning. Brain-based education and social neuroscience are two areas that seem to be focused on bringing everything that we know about the human mind and human behavior together; yet although we are stressing brain education, we cannot forget the importance of the social perspective, as seen with the example of studying ethnography. It only makes sense to use these philosophies as tools to better strategize, facilitate a deeper learning experience, while strengthening prosocial conditions, and community involvement. Using inquiry to learn about the brain to benefit education has taken us down the road less-travelled and it has surely been a fruitful exploration.


Works Cited

1.     A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education. P. Jenson. 2008. Phi Delta Kappa International. Accessed on 12/11/10 from :

2.     Social Neuroscience : Understanding that Pieces Foster Understanding the Whole and Vice Versa. J. Cacioppo. 2002. American Psychologist 57(11):817-813. Accessed on 12/11/10 from:

3.     What’s Culture Got to Do With It? Educational Research as a Necessarily Interdisciplinary Enterprise. M. Cole. 2010. Educational Researcher 39(6):461-470. Accessed on 12/08/10 from: