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2008 Brain and Behavior Institute

jrlewis's picture
Brain and Behavior Critique

During the course of my internship in Pre-College Science Education, we (people involved in the Summer Institutes) discussed the use of metaphors and stories to convey information to an audience.  In the case of education, Lad Tobin writes about how students and teachers utilize metaphors, analogies, and stories to create shared understandings.  He argues that it is not only the similarity between the two components of a metaphor, but also the differences, that facilitate learning. With these thoughts in mind, I have decided to present my account and critique of the Brain and Behavior Institute in the form of a metaphor. 

The community of the Brain and Behavior Institute closely resembled a dance company.  The participants comprised the core of the company performing the choreography with balance and zeal.  The leading dancer was Paul Grobstein carrying out a series of intricate steps.  He pirouetted, twirled, and tourjetted across the stage touching on topics as diverse as amphibian nervous systems and depression.  He gracefully rendered the obscure issues clear and the challenging topics accessible. There was an element of brilliance present in the performance that can only be achieved through persistence, training, and reflection.

One of the greatest strengths of the institute was Grobstein’s substantial experience.  From the first day, it was obvious that he was completely comfortable with the content and capable of discussing a variety of principles and applications. In his conversations he would entertain any interesting question.  By interesting question, I mean any thought that was remotely relevant to the brain or behavior.  In this environment, participants were able to satisfy their curiosity about actions, beliefs, and disorders of themselves and others. It was a rare opportunity for the participants.

Grobstein occupied a unique position in the company as a choreographer and dancer.  His influence at multiple levels lent the program an element of consistency.  The complete performance emerged from the cooperation of the choreographer, costume designers, dancers, stage designers, and theater technicians.  Dances are designed by the choreographer to convey meaning or tell a story.  Grobstein created a complex and compelling dance for the participants to perform.  However, the participants found the to be abstract and confusing.  They encountered a great deal of difficulty internalizing the choreography they had learned to produce a performance that was simultaneously meaningful to them and true to the artist’s vision for the piece. 

Grobstein handled this issue most gracefully as coordinator, discussion leader, and presenter.  He encouraged the participants to express their initial expectations about the brain and behavior in order to tailor the institute more accurately to their interests.  He also asked the participants to provide reflections and responses to the first week of the program.  He used these comments to modify the second week of the institute.  In consequence the entire Institute proceeded without incident or upset. 

Meaning for the dance materialized during the performance as the audience interpreted the recital.  Through extensive documentation on Serendip, the thoughts of both Grobstein and the participants were made available to the public.  The subjects discussed in the online forums were both specific to this particular Institute yet relevant to everyone.  Reflections on nervous system form and function are valuable information common to every human being.  As are ideas about human behavior and experience important to any social creature. 

This dance company metaphor, I believe, successfully describes the community of the Brain and Behavior Institute.  However, it does not convey the important pedagogical strategies implemented.  The interaction between the Grobstein and the participants is also not clearly characterized.