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Shift, Observe, Engage

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 Shift, Observe, and Engage

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            This semester, in our course Brain, Education, and Inquiry, we’ve talked about a lot of different concepts in neuroscience, society, and in education. We’ve talked about how they’re connected and how they feed into each other.

            It’s been like the chicken and the egg; which comes first: science, society, or education? We need a paradigm shift, but how do we start? We know the system is broken or, if not broken, walking with a pretty heavy limp. Many of us are dissatisfied with our educational experience: training for standardized tests, rote memorization, jaded educators, disillusioned peers—we’ve found a lot of the problems that make learning uncomfortable or even impossible for lots of different students. We’ve talked about how it can be easy to “play the game” and cheat the system, playing into the standardized tests to “succeed,” even when that means that the success is not necessarily real.

            We’ve talked about it all. And where does that leave us? Where has the edge of our education, our understanding, moved to?

            For this final webpaper, it comes down to a book and an amalgamation of the semester’s experiences. Hopefully, by taking some advice from the author (Jill Bolte Taylor, “My Stroke of Insight,”) this course can end by paving the next few steps we need to take to start our paradigm shift and, maybe, come full circle at the same time.

            Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist. A neuroanatomist. Harvard-trained and affiliated with the Indiana State University School of Medicine, her interest in the brain was piqued by her very personal experiences with mental illness. Her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 30s, although he had been showing signs for some years prior to that time. Taylor made it part of her life, spreading awareness and understanding not only about mental illness but also about the brain and how much it comes into play for how we see and view the world.

            Taylor woke up one morning with splitting pain in her head and, within a few hours, she watched her entire perception of the world, and of herself, shift. She was no longer Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D, neuroanatomist, spokeswoman for the Brain Bank (the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center)—now she was one with the universe. “What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am a sea of water bound inside this membranous pouch” (Taylor 42). She felt herself start blending into the world around her, into the universe, as she started hemorrhaging into the left hemisphere of her brain. Taylor was having a stroke. A congenital arteriovenous malformation burst and started affecting her language and linear processing skills. She staggered through her apartment and forced herself to call for help, barely able to form full words let alone a coherent narrative about what was happening.

            But, as a trained neuroanatomist, Taylor knew exactly what was going on. And that’s part of what makes her book so fascinating. As Taylor catalogues her experiences that morning and her recovery (a full eight years), she is able to tell in explicit detail about what happened to her and her brain. Her whole world shifted and suddenly she wasn’t an individual anymore. Her right hemisphere of her brain took over, the feeling, intuitive half of the brain—Taylor compared it to Nirvana.

            All of this is pretty interesting, particularly in our look at the brain and our understanding of how it filters the world around us, but Taylor’s story has direct connections to education and beyond, into inquiry, into how we understand the world around us. In our search for happiness, peace, and even Nirvana.

            Taylor was startled by the medical community’s lack of understanding of how to deal with a recovering stroke patient. It wasn’t that she had bad care—to the contrary, it was through the care of doctors, nurses, friends, and family that Taylor has completely recovered—but in the beginning the interactions that Taylor had with the inquisitive medical professionals left her frustrated and confused. It seems that only by experiencing the stroke that Taylor was able to fully understand what it meant to have one, and what a stroke patient needed to understand and recover. Speak slowly. Enunciate. Repeat. Compassion. Patience. Eye contact. Understanding the deficits, beyond just surgically repairing the damage, was crucial. But how can someone who has no ability to understand language, who doesn’t know what words sound like anymore, who only hears cacophony and chaos in the world around her—how can she answer questions pertaining to her condition? She has to learn everything again, learn as best she can, and observe and engage with her internal circuitry in order to heal.

            Taylor lists several recommendations for recovery in her book and because this is all tightly linked to repairing the brain, in re-learning, they’re very good recommendations for education.

            Treat [them] as though [they] would recover completely. To believe in the plasticity of the brain.

            A stroke patient needs to feel the hope that they can recover and, because of the malleability of the brain, there is hope. The brain can recover. “The brain has tremendous ability to change its connections based upon its incoming stimulation” (117).

            The same can be said for students. Just because a student doesn’t seem to be making headway in a subject, just because they don’t seem to get it does not mean that they won’t. If a woman can learn to speak again, a student can probably learn long division.

            It comes down to challenging the brain immediately and constantly, with the acceptance that the brain needs to rest at times, and that multiple-choice questions are better than Yes/No questions.

            We learn best when our brains are forced to interact and observe. That is, after all, how Taylor was better able to understand stroke patients—and how she was able to recover. Connections between neurons are made through stimulation and it’s only by exercising your brain that you can learn (or re-learn) anything.

            But the brain can’t always be going full throttle. Any student who’s been through a Finals period will know that going all out, writing three or four papers in a row and taking an exam or five, will end in a serious burn-out. It’s by sleeping, resting, and allowing the brain to process and integrate new sensory information that we’re able to harden our knowledge and understanding. To remember it.

            And it’s only through challenging the brain, by making it think divergently and convergently, that true inquiry and application of inquiry can happen. Multiple-choice questions force the student to think further outside of the box. Honestly, essay questions are probably better than multiple-choice (but no one is asking a stroke patient to write an essay about what they feel and perceive). Yes/No is too constraining and, Taylor writes, “[demands] no real thought” (119).

            Break down every task into smaller and simpler steps of action.

            Taylor needed to re-learn lots of different activities, things that we take for granted every day. She had to re-learn how to speak, walk up stairs, even sit up. She had to learn to rock and roll (literally) before she could learn to sit up on her own.

            Students need to do the same. No one can be expected to completely grasp a concept right away or as a whole. By breaking it down into smaller pieces, into steps, and going through it again and again—that’s how new connections and paths can be honed in the brain.

            And that requires patience and compassion.

            If there’s anything we can take from Taylor’s book, especially in reference to education, it is patience and compassion. The brain is very good at learning, at making connections. Even a “wounded brain” like Taylor’s is more than capable of healing completely. Of learning complex things all over again. It’s easy to think of it all coming down to the left brain, of linear, analytic thought. Learning is not just analysis, linear, impassive. As Taylor discovered as her right brain started taking over, dominating her mind, emotion is an extraordinarily important part of who we are and how we think. When the two hemispheres work together, they complement each other and seamlessly incorporate two perceptions of the world into one. But the right brain is often discredited and derided as “potentially violent, moronic, rather despicable…not even conscious” while the left brain is seen as “linguistic, sequential, rational, smart, conscious…” (140).

            For Taylor, this is a gross misunderstanding of the right hemisphere of the brain. For her, from her experience of merging and shifting into a single entity with the universe, the right brain is crucial, important, loving.

            My right mind is open to new possibilities and thinks outside of the box. It             is not limited to rules and regulations established by my left mind that             created that box. Consequently, my right mind is highly creative in its             willingness to try something new. It appreciates that chaos is the first step             in the creative process. It is kinesthetic, agile, and loves my body’s ability             to move fluidly into the world. It is tuned to the subtle messages my cells             communicate via gut feelings, and it learns through touch and experience             (148).

It learns through touch and experience. Hands on learning. It learns by doing.

And Taylor is not trying to say that the left brain is any less important or amazing than the right brain. But we seem to all too often emphasize the left brain in education, to push for analytic, linear, rational thinking—when it seems, at least from Taylor’s experiences, that feeling and doing is just as important, if not more, when it comes to understanding.

            It’s not that we need to shift from one hemisphere to the other. We don’t need a complete paradigm shift. Without one or the other, we aren’t whole. We’re lacking. We need both, divergent and convergent, right and left, in order to best understand and explore the world around us.

            We don’t necessarily need a paradigm shift. We don’t need to move from one type of learning to another. Rather, we need to learn to appreciate education from all angles and learn to blend them together, into one. Like Taylor and the universe, we need to move all of these different types of pedagogy closer together and start molding them into something closer to resembling what the brain needs in order to make new connections.

            We need to treat patients like students and students like patients. We are all students. We are all patients. We all need to observe, engage, and shift.


Work Cited
Taylor, Jill Bolte. My stroke of insight: a brain scientist's personal journey. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.