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Brains Collide

ellenv's picture

Brains Collide

 As children experience increasing contact with the world around them, the practice of categorizing and schema creating occurs as a survival technique.  With the creation of these schemas, relationships and connections between objects, people, animals etc. can be explored and edited through the processes of accommodation and assimilation. Increasingly, it seems, the educational system has moved towards replicating this model of knowledge acquisition in its curriculum. Instead of looking at different subjects in isolation, schools systems are now investigating ways in which to create contact between subjects. It is at this point of emphasis on interdisciplinary education that there exists a connection between education and the brain. Essentially, this type of educational reform is asking students to assimilate and accommodate different types of thinking and look at problems from different points of view.  In theory, this interdisciplinary approach to education would allow for the creation of critical thinkers who are able to adapt their educational “schemas” to describe problems using the knowledge they acquired from several fields of thought (and make use of Loop 3- the interpersonal loop).  There are both short-term and long-term consequences to shaping education in an interdisciplinary fashion and the question that arises from this reform is whether or not the traditional educational system has the capacity to create a functional curriculum that allows for the “conflict between brains” that is necessary for a successful interdisciplinary approach to education.

In a perfect world, an interdisciplinary approach to education has the ability to create contact between all three Loops of understanding, which in turn allows for innovation. Rather than being confined to pre-defined lines of thought, students would come into contact with conflicting points of view and they would then have the freedom to reconcile these points of view to create their own understanding of the problem or topic at hand. Loops 1 and 2 would come into play in establishing a student’s pre-existing notions, opinions, and understanding of the outside world while Loop 3 would allow for the clash between points of view necessary to shape new understanding. Because the learning process occurs when an individual detects conflict and reflects on it, ideally an interdisciplinary approach to education would create the conditions necessary for this organic learning to occur. The conflict and reflection process would come as students were introduced to a topic via different avenues of thought (e.g. looking at a problem from a mathematical point of view as well as an anthropological point of view). Each student would come away from a learning experience with a slightly different understanding and perspective on the content presented. Seeing as education does not exist in a vacuum, it makes sense that the educational system would embrace interdisciplinary curriculum that hints at a promise to create critical thinkers and innovators rather than thought clones. Many institutions of higher education are quick to highlight their focus on interdisciplinary academics and the term “interdisciplinary” seems to have become the go-to label for new forms of curriculum.

In practice, however, there are some places where the interdisciplinary approach to education can go awry. For one, students are often spoon-fed the connections between different disciplines rather than coming to an understanding on their own. In that sense, they are being exposed to a variety of points of views but at the same time they are not experiencing the conflict that is a necessary condition for the learning process. By eliminating this opportunity for conflict, you are also eliminating the possibility that a student fails to reach a conclusion. This process of failing and recognizing a failure in your system of understanding is a key part of innovative thinking (1). The realization of failure in understanding and subsequent modification of point of view is more likely to occur when there is are multiple points of view that are coming together and challenging one another; therefore, a truly interdisciplinary educational system should take into account the strengths and limitations of different points of view. In highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses, this approach is placing an emphasis on local truths rather than a universal Truth. Striking this balance between playing up local truths while at the same time making sure students are actually gaining an understanding of the material can be tricky. This means that oftentimes, one point of view is emphasized over another and as a result information can be presented in a manner that foregrounds points of view that are considered more important (culturally or otherwise). In doing this, the educational system is abandoning the process of conflict that is necessary for the continuation of the Loops of understanding.  

When you look at what the essence of interdisciplinary education is, then, it is basically an extension and reinterpretation of the infant phase of learning. In the first years of life, humans are constantly surrounded by new information. In order to avoid a constant sense of confusion, infants look for “statistical patterns” (2) while at the same time they are forced to test out predictions and hypotheses in an attempt to understand the conflicts that exist in their understanding. Infants are unable to extensively discuss their predictions about why their toys light up or function in the way they do, for example, and as a result they have to work through the different possibilities on their own. Therefore, they are becoming more experienced with the process of building understanding through repeated failures that leads to an understanding in cause and effect relationships (2). This aspect of infant learning requires a level of conscious thought while at the same time in this stage of learning, infants’ brains “must be unconsciously processing information in a way that parallels the methods of scientific discovery” (2).  Interdisciplinary education is also asking that students rely on both their unconscious and conscious knowledge of the world.

Traditionally, there has been a heavy reliance on teaching conscious thought by establishing and laying out explicit connections between ideas in the educational system. This system does not allow for the creation and activation of schema and instead teaches facts in isolation. The procedure involved in creating schema requires both a conscious knowledge of what an individual perceives while at the same time it requires an unconscious establishment of connections between what is being perceived and previous experience or perception. Interdisciplinary education is an attempt to bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious forms of knowledge.  When a student perceives a conflict in point of view or makes connections between disciplines, they are making use of both the conscious and unconscious acts of assimilation and accommodation.  

If interdisciplinary curriculum is an attempt to reproduce/extend the infant stage of learning, it is an imperfect one. Even though interdisciplinary teaching creates the opportunity for conscious and unconscious creation of schema in ideal situations, there is still overt instruction that takes place. This overt instruction may be a necessary condition of the educational system (otherwise all learning would be self-directed), but all the while, it does inhibit pure infant-like exploration and learning. It is argued that such conscious direction and instruction can limit creativity (2) and because of that interdisciplinary teaching can encourage only a certain level of creativity within the classroom. Should researchers gain a better understanding of the unconscious and how it functions, it is possible that this classroom dynamic could change. With a better understanding of the unconscious, there would be a better understanding of how to teach to the unconscious and as a result, the schema that students create within the classroom would be less teacher-directed and more self-directed. The presence of overt instruction could be minimized and the classroom could be opened up to more collaboration and conflict of ideas.  

One main consideration arises from the idea that interdisciplinary classes should be integrated into the educational system. This consideration if whether or not interdisciplinary classes should be team-taught. Team-teaching allows for teachers with specialized knowledge to share their point of view with a class while at the same time it means that several points of view come into play in the classroom. However at the same time, there is a possibility that this inconsistency in teachers in the classroom could mean that the students do not become comfortable with the classroom atmosphere before it is time for the teacher to change once again.

(1) Lehrer, Jonah. “Accept Defeat: the Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” Wired Magazine. Jan 2010.

(2) Gopnick, Alison. “How Babies Think.” Scientific American. Jul. 2010.




Paul Grobstein's picture

creating brain conflict in classrooms: problems?

"the question that arises from this reform is whether or not the traditional educational system has the capacity to create a functional curriculum that allows for the “conflict between brains” that is necessary for a successful interdisciplinary approach to education."

An important question indeed, and some quite good specific instances of it.  But without a bottom line?  Can it be done or not?  What would it take?