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Brain and Education

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.  Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.  

Thoughts this week about 

and our conversation based on them ...
BrettLee's picture


I am finding out in my studies of the acquisition of language that even how we learn to speak and understand speech varies from individual to individual, simply because our brains are structured differently in these areas.

krosania's picture

Thinking about our

Thinking about our discussion and reading other people’s posts got me thinking about the purpose of higher education. It seems that many are trying to reevaluate how important it is for everyone to go to college when there are many jobs that do not require an education. This made me think about my own career path, and the fact that many of the courses that I’ve taken in my college career are not directly relevant to neuroscience or psychology. But then again, that’s not why I chose to take those classes. I took classes throughout my college career simply because I was interested in them and because I wanted to be challenged to think about those particular topics differently. I think that everyone, no matter what their eventual occupation, has the right to have this kind of educational experience if he or she chooses to, and that is certainly not a reality of today’s educational system.

As many others have pointed out, I think the goal of schools should be to teach children how to learn in the best way possible for that individual’s brain. We all think differently and learn differently. I am finding out in my studies of the acquisition of language that even how we learn to speak and understand speech varies from individual to individual, simply because our brains are structured differently in these areas. This leads to differences in how we learn to read, and as a result, how we best are able to learn. There are many attentional differences between individuals too that also affects learning styles. For this reason there should be many alternative means of acquiring knowledge available to children. I think many would argue that this is not plausible because of the way schools are currently structured, but I think Montessori schools are a good example of how this obstacle can be overcome. As I said during our discussion, I understand the need to standardize the material learned at lower levels of education, but think that as students grow older and learn more about their interests, they should be able to choose how to build on their foundation of core knowledge. At higher levels, there should be opportunities (such as there are in liberal arts colleges to diversify one’s own education, and the method of learning should as always be the choice of the individual. In a way, I feel like this is how college (at least at Bryn Mawr) currently works. Some students learn better through lecture, some through reading, and the way that we choose to study for exams is completely individualized. However, this system only works for those who know themselves and know how they learn best. For this reason, providing this basis of “learning how to learn” at early ages is important. Also, creating a society full of individuals who are experts at their own learning process would be useful no matter what profession is chosen as an adult. Every job is a learning experience as the world is constantly changing and all professionals must learn new skills and ideas in order to keep up with it.

Amelia's picture

I agree with Alex in that I

I agree with Alex in that I also have a problem saying there is single measure of intelligence and that we should somehow view our definition of intelligence (often measured by IQ) to be superior to other types of intelligence. Since intelligence is (I think) based on our knowledge of a subject, people can certainly be more intelligent in various areas. In terms of applying it to education, I believe that it is positive to try and foster whatever area people may be ‘intelligent’ in and attempt to foster their interests in such topics. For example, my high school (which was a large inner-city high school of about 4000 students) had different tracks that people could go on depending on their interests, goals, and talents. While they had a wonderful AP and IB program for students wanting to attend college, they also had areas of law enforcement, child care, cosmetology, car maintenance, administration, culinary arts, etc. I don’t see the point in educating people in a way that they will never need the information. Not only does this process at my high school keep people in school longer since they are interested in what they are learning (instead of learning Calculus if they want to go into culinary arts), it prepares them for what is to come. Many students place out of high school into jobs that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get without some continued education. Many students didn’t want to learn math if they didn’t have to while I wouldn’t want to learn about child care. While I could go into the other social and familiar pressures that play a role in the decision as to which track you would like to take, it works as a way for people to leave school and have the most ‘intelligence’ in their area as possible.

These different types of intelligence and ways of measuring intelligence are why I find IQ tests and standardized testing to be such a horrible measure of intelligence and potential. While IQ tests have attempted to get around the problems of the SATs and GREs and measure a more functional intelligence instead of an intelligence of education, there is still much to be lacking. If you have simply never done some of the questions that come up on the IQ test, you will not score as high as someone else regardless of your actual aptitude to learn. I have a great problem with the SATs and GREs (much more than the IQ test) in that it really is measuring how much of a formal education you have had and how prepared you are to take the test. If you look at statistics of inner-city schools vs. suburban schools, they inner-city schools do significantly worse on these tests. It is not that these students are not as ‘intelligent’ but they haven’t necessarily been given the opportunity to work on vocabulary or practice analogies. I don’t see how me having a big vocabulary from memorizing words (and therefore being able to do well on analogies) is going to help in my pursuit for a PhD in Neuroscience. If a test could be written that truly measures the aptitude of a person to learn, that would be a more valid measure.

I do think, however, that having ‘neurodiversity’ in the same classroom would be very difficult to do successfully. I did attend Montessori school in elementary school and I think that it is a good attempt to do this, however I’m not confident that it works. I loved going to school and would spend my whole day reading (after I did my minimum amount of required work for the day) and because of this I read Dracula in the 3rd grade. However, I couldn’t tell you what 5 x 6 was without working it out with blocks. While this way of learning math may have helped some people and could give children a better concrete understanding of numbers, it’s not very practical. Again, as we’ve discussed before, if we can’t change society we do have to do some learning that will let us get along in the current society.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain and diversity, continued

Maybe relevant to earlier discussions, and/or seeds for future conversations ...


tlogan's picture

Bridging the Gap

First, here is something I was thinking about during our discussion last week. Though I believe neurodiversity in the classroom is the utmost importance, there needs to be an assessment of the end goal of education in order to determine which kinds of approaches need to be considered. Yes, I do believe it is important to weigh in equality into the educational system, but I also think that the educational system needs to have a certain amount of applicability and efficiency to be sufficiently effective. By reducing things like math and sciences to a broad, theory based curriculum I feel as though we lose what one set out to achieve. I couldn’t imagine engineering courses being helpful to anyone if the appropriate equations were not emphasized. It seems that one might redirect the focus of education in order to allow all to learn at an equal rate, but more effective might be something like the French lycée system, in which students going in different directions are split. I’m not advocating segregation based on neurological difference, rather schools which emphasize the difference and play to its strong suits.


I would like to discuss the opposite side by commenting in the ongoing discussion on neurodiversity put forward by Emily and Stephanie. I think we have (including myself) been thinking of neurodiversity as an obstacle to overcome in terms of teaching and translational knowledge. What if one were to think of it as a boon to the education system, in that perhaps the continuity of neurodiversity can be used to shape the system itself. Perhaps it would be important if rather than attempting to cater to anyone group, there were feedback mechanisms that did more than assess how completely students learned the material; these methods could serve as a guide for the teacher to bridge the gap between students of different learning types.


But then again, on the other side, one must think about how diverse a classroom can be before it begins to suffer in terms of efficacy. I know very little of autism, but from what I have experienced, it seems as though the methods for communicating material to autistic students would be much too divergent from what would be effective for “normal” students. It’s a quagmire.

atuttle's picture

The Multifaceted Nature of Human Intelligence


Emily H. brings up an interesting point by asking questions about our “biological disadvantage” and its interplay with our motivation and early environment. This question references the difficulty in parsing out the different components of human intelligence, which educators are constantly assessing and trying to improve (i.e., who passes a course, who graduates high school, who gets into college). A topic I’ve been interested in exploring is the biological underpinnings of human intelligence. In defining intelligence, my question pertains to inherent versus acquired aspects of “being smart”. As I mentioned last week, many institutions rely on standardized intelligence tests to decide a person’s subsequent function. Early IQ tests (Terman 1911, Wechsler, 1944) were developed for placing military officers. Schools also use the WAIS and Raven’s Matrices to decide which students are eligible for special intensive or “honors” courses. But are these tests accurate in defining intelligence?

IQ testing is based on the fundamental belief that there is a single, unitary measure of intelligence. Furthermore, proponents of IQ and standardized (i.e., SAT or GRE) point to converging, independent criteria as indicators that the tests are accurate. I have trouble buying this argument, however, based on some points that people have mentioned. First, Jessica K. points out that taking a test is like any other task. Some people are better at sitting still, or are more motivated, or less intimidated to take a 2-3 hour exam. Furthermore, the “independent evidence” is iffy. While researchers have found that IQ score are more accurate in predicting an individual’s future job performance than references or an interview, correlations are still only .15. This is not an overtly strong correlation! The correlation also breaks down further when the jobs are not high-powered or require college education. Finally, Stephanie brings up Gardner’s research. If multiple intelligences do in fact exist, I believe it is the responsibility of educators to strengthen all of these diverse skills.

This evidence calls into question the relevance of standardized intelligence testing. Specifically, it is important to understand that the correlates measured by IQ evaluations is not “intelligence” in its complete and literal form, but is rather a sample of several components of the complex set of criteria we refer to as intellect. Thus, while institutions will no doubt continue to use IQ tests (after all, the evidence linking college retention or salary in high-level jobs is relatively strong), educators must not rely solely on universal benchmark tests to direct learning in the classroom. Rather, it is important to understand the multifaceted nature of human intelligence and cater to individual differences.


~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

Stephanie's picture

Neurodiversity & Education

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend last week's class due to the snowy/ icy weather conditions. I was especially looking forward to our discussion on the brain and education, especially since I am an education minor. However, I enjoyed the readings and enjoyed reading the online forum posts.

One issue Elliot raised, which I agree with, is what exactly is the definition of neurodiversity? I have a general idea of what the term "neurodiversity" might mean, however, I am also unclear about exactly what "neurodiversity" entails. And, I would be curious to think about how "neurodiversity" may play out in a classroom or other educational setting. My current working definition of "neurodiversity" is the diversity or differences present among the brains/ minds of people, and for our discussion, the diversity of student minds/ brains.

So, based on my definition of neurodiversity, I think neurodiversity poses many challenges to education. If we all think and learn differently, then having one teacher teach 20 to 30 students (who all may think & learn differently) using one way- seems to be a problematic- some kids may learn very well and others not so well. One constant challenge of any teacher and our education system is to find ways to foster neurodiversity and accommodate neurodiversity in the classroom. Another major challenge is figuring out a way to evaluate students in a fair and equal manner when they may have different minds and ways of learning.

When I began thinking about neurodiversity in the classroom, one theory from my education classes came to mind: Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner originally came up with 7 different intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathmatical, musical, body-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal intelligence. Then more have been added, such as spiritual, moral, naturalist, and existentialist intelligence. This website describes his theory and the different intelligences: You should take a look if you have never heard of his theory before. Many educators find this theory very interesting and applicable to education in general and for finding better ways to examine and evaluate every student while still appreciating the diversity of each student's mind. I find Gardner's theory very appealing and interesting especially when thinking about neurodiversity and education.

I look forward to hearing what others think about neurodiversity and education, along with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.

Andrea G.'s picture

I'd like to pick up an idea

I'd like to pick up an idea that we touched on in class this week, and Natsu mentioned briefly in her post.  Most of us seemed to agree that changing attitudes about diversity would be a much more effective goal of education if it were a process that started early on.  While a lot of the conversation following this idea focused on more specialized, higher level classes not being conducive to promoting "mental diversity", and the benefit of reaching the greatest number of students, I think it's also important to recognize that it may be a lot easier to promote diversity at a younger age.  I'd argue that in elementary school, children are more open to new ideas, experiences, creative thinking than at any other age. 

I'd also like to respond to something else Natsu mentioned in her post.  As far as being taught to only solve a problem in one way, I think that while it may be the case in introductory classes, I've found that upper level science classes have all very much encouraged me to think about problems in various ways.  For example, in my Quantum Chemistry class tonight, we went through at least three different proofs of most of our homework problems.  All of us in the class come from different mathematical backgrounds, so we all think about our assignments differently, and there's never been any mention of the "right way" to do a problem.  I agree that it would be ideal to have a greater focus on the problem solving process itself instead of simply getting the right answer, but it seems our educational system is set up in a way that forces students to think homogeneously before we're allowed to branch out and think for ourselves.

ehinchcl's picture

I think that andrea brings

I think that andrea brings up some good ideas, which are tied to some of the discussion above. I think the idea that diversity in education needs to be begun at a young age is a good one-- because, as is mentioned multiple times above, younger people are more "accepting and open." One thing that I wanted to bring in here was actually the biological basis for this-- I've read multiple studies that speak to the increased neural plasticity in younger ages. (Ex. how you learn a language so much more easily when you're young)

Do we think the same thing applies to this idea of diversity? Are we at a biological disadvantage if we don't learn to be accepting/open early on? This ties into the personal narratives that were brought up in class; people who went to 'diverse' (self-identified) schools felt that issues of diversity were dealt with and addressed... or that the issues were not really even present simply because they were so ingrained in the educational system. Thinking about it this way was really interesting to me, because it seems to make the claim that we must work extra hard if we wish to integrate diversity into our educational system at a later age. However, to somewhat argue against my own statements here, I don't really like the idea that I am less able-- at the biological level-- to accept a diverse way of thinking. For some reason it bothers me less to say "I've been brought up with a certain mindset so its hard to change that" than to say "I'm biologically/neurologically fixed in some way so to 're-program' is tough." (I guess the issue of choice and personal agency are important to me!)

so i realize that little rant got a bit off the exact discussion topic, but I would love to hear what other people think or have to say about it.

Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Neurodiversity and Education

I also unfortunately could not attend class last week, but have certainly found a number of topics from the articles and previous posts quite interesting. First of all, I would like to focus on Gillian’s post. She brings up a fantastic point that definitely was thinking a lot about. For the most part, education in our country caters to a specific type of student. Therefore, students in under privileged areas not only often receive a lower quality of education, but may also be receiving a type of education not truly tailored to helping them learn and grow to fulfill their intellectual potential. (I realize I’m focusing on a specific type of education, that for intellection learning, rather than the broader sense of education that incorporates all types of learning at all ages). This educational disparity among socio-economic classes is undeniable and deserves much greater attention.


Also, I’m not exactly sure what we’re talking about when we say “neurodiversity.” People seem to be using it in many different ways, seeming to reference cultural diversity, diversity in thought process, and everything in between. Therefore, I think it’s difficult to discuss its relationship to the equally ambiguous “education.” I do think neurodiversity (whatever it means) in the classroom has value – much of education is learning how others think, whether its facts and figures or subjective opinions. This basically means that much of education, and I personally feel this applies to my own experiences, has focused on learning how to learn and think critically so that I can use this crucial skill in all aspects of life, current and future. In Eileen Haas’ article she states, “Of course, every kid needs to know certain things as a member of society, in preparation for life and for being part of our culture. But beyond that, the most important thing is teaching the brain to learn how to learn. That enables every kid, no matter what their interest is, no matter what their profession eventually becomes, or what hobbies they develop, to make the most of it.” This ties in the point discussed in many of the previous posts addressing the idea of occupation that do not require our conventional idea of higher education. I think filtering out into jobs that fit one’s personality, lifestyle, and interest is perfectly natural and people should be supported in finding their niche. However, I think some jobs do not encourage continual education and neurological stimulation (which in turn foster the ability to critically think). Therefore, finding ways to help support a community in which all people have ways to continually learn and grow seems crucial in generating this “neurodiversity” we so desire.


Finally, I found the Gaab article to present some interesting ideas, particularly the potential for fMRI to change the way in which we can learn. How will this and other technological advances change our thoughts about education in the future? How much should we value the findings in this type of translational research? Should this expensive research be supported, or should the money be allocated directly to improve our current educational system?

Felicia's picture

Jessica and Rebecca bring

Jessica and Rebecca bring up interesting points about the value placed on formal education. I think it's so important to take into consideration, as Rebecca said, the educational inequalities that exist in the current system, but reading Jessica's post made me think about different kinds of education and the apparent superiority of some.

As an interviewer in the admissions office, we're told to look for diversity of all kinds - if nothing else, it's one way to distinguish thousands of applicants from one another. I can't help but notice the disparities in formal education, which ironically are to some extent viewed as diversity. Is it OK that formal education is valued over lesser paid trades? No, probably not, but I think that's a seperate issue. It would be great to let those who wanted to pursue academic endeavors fight it out if everyone was given the same opportunity to fight. If everyone had the choice to become an assembly line worker, janitor, or obtain a higher degree and allowed the opportunities to do so, I think it's a great idea to let those who wish for a higher degree work hard for it. However, most (not all) of my friends from home dropped out of college not because learning wasn't something they valued, not because they didn't want to work hard to earn a degree, but rather because they couldn't keep up with working full time while going to school, or because test-prep resources weren't available, etc, etc...I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but without a level playing field and equal opportunities for everyone we can't assume "self-selection" is as cut-and-dry as it seems.

I haven't much questioned whether or not diversity in an educational setting is valuable, partially because as a high school student I thought that some of my characteristics that made me a strong applicant were also the ones that seperated me from the stacks of applications they went through. But in this case, embodying "diversity" (in the form of geographical, interests, etc) was the means to and end - getting into college. I wonder, however, how much of that diversity is maintained and how much is lost in the educational setting. Although I'm the same person as I was four years ago, my ideas and interests have no doubt been influenced by my diverse peers. We may create a diverse or wide range of thoughts/interests as an institution, but it's interesting to see how the individual responds. Is exposure to diversity beneficial for the individual?


We've pointed to quite a few flaws in the system, and I'm fascinated by the power it has - the ramifications of a standardized testing score can dictate the school a person is admitted to, but what is that score really saying? I think Kara's right in that the assessment of students is way off, it seems almost industrial and streamlined. I think an adjustment or at least reassessment of what's important is in order.

kbrown's picture

Education as application

As I was thinking back to our discussion last week on education as it is involved with emotion, I found it particularly interesting with respect to the readings that children and adults who suffer from emotional disorders were said to be impaired academically. However, numerous times in the articles it was mentioned that as far as test scores went, these students were comparable to other students in the class, and did not seem to suffer from a lack of intelligence or test taking ability. This teased out an important distinction for me that, although an obvious one, was not something I had really contamplated before. While beginning the readings, it did not seem obvious to me why a concept of morality or emotionality was so intrinsically connected to academic performance. Surely math skills are not linked to a concept of right and wrong. However, as I thought about the issue longer and in our discussion in class, it became clear that emotionality, while perhaps not intrinsic in the accumulation of skill, is rather completely connected to the application of those skills. One may not need a sense of emotion to learn theorems, but it is much more likely that emotion could be used in the application of those skills. However, this still does not explain the average test scores of students with emotional problems.

Perhaps it is not ability itself which is being altered by a lack of emotion, but rather the motivation. As was discussed in class, people have a multitude of reasons to acquire and perform academic skills well, from pleasing parents to getting in to a good college, all of which seem tied to some emotional base. It seems that skills which are acquired passively, or maybe even intelligence, requires little motivation, and therefor even people who have little emotional motivation to perform well may do so on tests of these types of abilities. However, when it comes to real world application and decision making skills, these students are sorely lacking.

Although, after thinking this through, this concept seemed obvious, it points to a crucial problem in our assessment of students and in our education system. I think most would agree that the basic idea of education is to increase a student's ability to think through problems and make choices of all kinds, mathematic as well as ethical. However, how is it that when testing students who perform poorly on rational decision making skills, they still perform at an average level. Perhaps our education system, by putting emphasis on acquiring and "spitting back" equations, facts and figures, is really testing the wrong thing, and that instead we should be modifying our assessments and teaching styles to encompass a more broad, theoretical, decision making focus. This is not to say that the basic fundamentals of every discipline are not important, but rather that we should be using these fundamentals in more application-based ways from an early age, rather than emphasizing the "cramming" that seems to dominate middle and high school education today.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Diversity: the individual and the social

Thanks to Danielle for picking up some of the questions that had been on my mind going into our last conversation. And to Rebecca for mention of the "schematic model" of the evolution of thinking about brain and education. And to everyone for thoughts both during the last three conversations and in this and the previous forums following them. There are indeed interesting and important issues at the intersection of "broken brains?", "diversity and productivity", and "brain and education". Our conversations have very much helped me better understand these and, more importantly, to think about them in ways I hadn't before. Needless to say, this is at least in part a function of the diversity among us, so I hope others share at least some of my sense of satisfaction in a shared product.

What particularly intrigued me from our last conversation was the idea that diversity may be an essential grist for a productive community, one which generates new ideas both individually and collectively, but that that grist alone is insufficient, something more is needed.

This is, I think, particularly clear in the educational context. Natsu mentions a need "to encourage students to change their attitude towards problem solving so that they are not so focused on reaching the right answer." Danielle similarly thinks students need to be "allowed and encouraged to explore their individuality and develop their own opinions and visions about the world. But as several people pointed out during our discussion, important as those things are, even that is probably not enough. People can be "individuals" and allow others to be without in fact having experiences of a sort that would genuinely alter their perspective from respecting diversity to valuing it/making use of it, and the latter is what is needed to generate genuinely interactive (see Thinking About Segregation and Integration) and productive diverse communities.

This suggests that what is additionally needed is some kind of experience with collective tasks, tasks where the benefits of diversity are clear, where people actually experience the advantages both to others and to themselves of diversity. A few years ago, some colleagues and I wrote a paper on "Emergent Pedagogy" and I remember arguing against the proposition that classroom achievement should be assessed both individually and collectively. Fortunately I was out-argued and the time and the paper does indeed include that concept. It now makes even more sense to me than it did at the time. If education is focused solely on individual achievement it fails to provide the kinds of experience that valuably help individuals appreciate the degree to which their own achievement is limited in lieu of meaningful exchange with others who have different perspectives.

We are indeed "biological creatures" but we are biological creatures whose potential is greatly enhanced by social/cultural contexts that are made possible by our distinctive biology. Perhaps what is needed in education (and in social/cultural institutions more generally?) is less concern for how to make individuals better than one another (as judged by some external standard) and more explicit attention to how individuals can both draw from and contribute to communities that maximize the potential of all individuals?

Gillian Starkey's picture

Jessica and Rebecca

Jessica and Rebecca discussed something somewhere up there ^ that I'd like to sort of bring back into the conversation because I feel like we, as students at an institution of higher education, should consider. Jessica asked, "What's wrong with allowing students to filter themselves out?" The problem, as I see it, is that it's not the students who are filtering themselves out -- it's that our educational system caters to a very specific sector of the population (usually white students from privileged backgrounds with educated parents). So when a student drops out of high school in favor of pursuing a job that requires less formal education, there's more at work there than the student's choice. There's a good chance this student's parents aren't educated, and that the student doesn't come from a privileged background; there are a lot of circumstances other than what a student is interested in that can land them in a job that doesnt require a high level of formal education. Basically my point is that our education system currently favors a certain type of student, so I feel like it can't support neurodiversity (or, diversity in mental functions/skills) until that changes.

Also, I just want to clarify that I don't think we as a group view those occupations that require less formal education as "lower" or "less good" or inferior in any way (at least, I don't). I recognize that people working in these occupations require an entirely different set of skills in order to succeed, and that their success is defined in an entirely different way from what we fourth-year college students are used to. This could get us into a really interesting discussion on intelligence, and different types of intelligence, etc., but as far as education goes, I think higher levels of formal education are generally preferred/looked upon more favorably just because they are less limiting/open up a wider range of careers. (And actually, is this even true? I'm starting to doubt it, after having several discussions with seniors in various humanities fields who have no idea what they're doing after they graduate, or what career goals they have in mind.)

Jenna's picture

Neurodiversity and Education

Natsu and Jessica both made good points about the current state of neurodiversity in and out of the classroom.  I think as Natsu stated it is important not to underestimate the neural differences of people from similar backgrounds.  Her example shows that it is not necessary to come from a drastically different lifestyle or culture to have neural diversity.  This once again returns to the problem of how to measure neural diversity.  Is there a test we can use to determine if people in a group are thinking differently enough to increase productivity?  However, due to the general aversion to tests as tools to measure neural processes I think this would be problematic.  I really like the idea that it is not the lack of diversity in students at places such as Haverford and Bryn Mawr that cause our supposed lack of neural diversity but instead the teaching style at these institutions stifles the neural diversity that already exists.  If this is the case, then perhaps it is more important to change the way classes are taught than to worry about the diversity of students admitted.  


This leads to the question of whether it is really important to teach many different ways to answer one problem.  Although I think it is important to appreciate that everyone will solve a certain math problem differently and it is a good exercise to show that all ways of thinking are valid I do not think it is important to structure a whole class around it at upper levels of education.  I think the reason early classes such as kindergarten focus so much on developing neurodiversity is because that is the time when each person figures out their own learning style.  Once someone knows how they learn best they can apply that to the upper levels of education.  It is not necessary for the teacher to teach a variety of different ways because each student has already developed their own problem solving methods.  For example, say a teacher gives a lecture on cell biology and tells students which information is important.  Some people will gain a comprehensive understanding of the material by just going to the lecture, some will read it in a textbook, others will get extra help from the teacher or a tutor, form study groups, draw pictures, make flashcards, or any other method.  It is not necessary for the professor to do all of these things because the students already know which will work best for them and can pursue it on an individual basis.


Finally, I want to return to Jessica’s point that there is important neurodiversity outside of the classroom.  During class it was argued that perhaps colleges should admit people with lower grades and SAT scores to increase neurodiversity.  However, perhaps by admitting those people we are actually decreasing the neurodiversity of the world as a whole.  I think as a society we are more productive if people are allowed certain tracks.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with going to a vocational school instead of high school if you have a passion for a certain vocation and little interest in upper level English and Math.  However, I don’t think that everyone should have to take a vocational course if they don’t want to; just as not everyone should have to take calculus if they don’t want to.  Overall, I think that neurodiversity as a population is more important than having it in each individual classroom.  Since upper level classes are essentially just a different vocational track it is natural that people with similar interests will end up together.  

aamen's picture

Education and Change

Reading over the last couple of comments prompted me to start thinking about what I really believe the purpose of education to be.  I certainly agree that higher education does not have to be a goal or priority for everyone, and I don’t see anything wrong with teaching kids how to take tests.  However, I don’t think that knowing how to take standardized tests should be the primary skill that kids coming out of elementary school possess.  The overall reason that we go to school is to learn, and it seems to me that the general goal of a classroom should be to make sure that the students are learning and retaining as many skills/as much information as is possible.


I went to a Montessori school for kindergarten and the first couple years of elementary school.  Like Rebecca said, I remember the focus of the classroom being primarily on everyone figuring out in their own way how to solve problems creatively.  For some exercises teachers actually put us in groups of kids who all tended to do things differently, and let us all explain to each other different ways to do the tasks.  In contrast, in my later years of elementary school I remember math problems being counted as wrong if students didn’t write them out exactly how the teacher wanted, even if the ideas and answers were correct.  I talked to a relative recently who is currently teaching 4th grade, and she said that it is understood at her school that kids coming from Montessori programs are generally (academically speaking) around two years ahead of the other students in the class.  Clearly something about the way the Montessori classrooms are run helps the students to learn skills and retain information in a stronger, more efficient way than in traditional classrooms.  In class last week I brought up the example of the “jigsaw classroom”, where researchers found that getting the kids of different ethnicities to cooperate led to more cohesion and friendships in the classroom.  In order to promote this cooperation, they gave each student a part of the day’s lesson plan to be responsible for, which meant that they all had to listen to and learn from each other.  In addition to the social factors, the researchers also found that in this type of classroom the kids tended to have significantly greater recollection of what they had covered and learned in class.  If the goal of education is to allow students to learn the most in the most efficient way possible, it seems to me that there are changes that could be made to our current general education system that would bring us closer to this goal.  For example, it seems to be helpful to allow the students themselves to be responsible for teaching or explaining some part of the material.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Continuing these thoughts

I'm glad to hear a first person account of a Montessori classroom experience.  I'd just like to provide another observation to add to your own and those of your relative who teaches 4th grade.  My mother is a 6th grade English teacher in a very rule-driven private school.  I think she would agree with your relative that the Montessori kids are able to approach writing tasks in entirely different ways than the other kids, but she also frequently finds that they have difficulty with many of the rules that are expected in the typical classroom.  These rules might include, expected attention duration for a given assignment, following a schedule instead of designing an interest-based personalized schedule, and not collaborating with others on assignments.  I think it's important to note (and I forgot to mention this in my post! your post made me remember it!) that the successes and challenges Montessori kids may encounter when entering a fundamentally different learning environment can expose some problems with the educational system itself.
Marissa Patterson's picture


I would definitely agree. This has somehow become my 3rd post in this forum about Montessori, but yes, it was a difficult transition to taking tests and being forced to go by the teachers schedule instead of my own. I am a big nerd and was just reading a book called "Montessori: The science behind the genius" which looked at a series of studies about how the Montessori method works best (in my and the authors opinions) for learning for children. Instead of being a factory method where the school rotates around the teachers and the clock and tests, it is so much more fluid and focused on the child and their learning.

Yes, there may have been issues once these kids move into "regular" school, but in my opinion that comes from the regular school itself. If like you said, Montessori kids are 2 years ahead (or even if they are exactly equal), it seems unfair to force them to conform to the "standard" way of teaching. I went to Montessori through 6th grade, and I sincerely wish that I would have had the chance to continue my education in that format. I think I would have learned a very different range of information than I did in public school (and even at BMC).

Mawrtyr2008's picture

I worked on a research

I worked on a research project this summer in Paul’s lab that deal with many of the issues raised in class and in the forum. My project centered on how changing understandings of the structure and function over time have paralleled changes in the fields of education and mental healthcare. In class, Paul showed this schematic model of different interpretations of the brain. Keeping those diagrams in mind, what interests me is that the current mainstream approach to education still incorporates elements that follow the tabula rasa understanding of the brain (standardized tests, lecture-based classes) even though our understandings of the brain have dramatically changed. It seems to me that a “less wrong” understanding of the brain would focus less on its ability to memorize and more on its ability to create. Unfortunately, pedagogical methods that cater to these interesting functions of the brain aren’t evident to me in many classrooms right now.

An interesting case study to throw into the discussion would be to compare a traditional classroom with a Montessori classroom. It seems to me that the sets of kids in either classroom graduate with very different kinds of skills. Traditional classrooms are often stereotyped as content and test-oriented while Montessori classrooms are conversely stereotyped as process and learning-oriented. Furthermore, traditional classrooms are known to segregate students based on perceived ability (whatever that means and however that’s determined apart from standardized tests remains unclear to me) while Montessori classrooms are all about integrating kids of different ages, interests, and skill levels.

This summer, along with Ian Morton, I also participated in the Summer Sciences Institute, a seminar for K-12 teachers. In these series of discussions, one of the things that seemed of affect teachers the most was when Paul described them as neurosurgeons. Although it sounds peculiar, it makes sense because teaching and learning are terms used to describe specific changes in the structure and function of the brain. This leads me to wonder if teachers knew more about the brain and how it works, whether that knowledge would have a meaningful impact on the way they teach.

As I’ve mentioned before in another forum, efficiency seems to be a critical component to any realistic discussion of education reform. It’s hard for me to talk about these ideas in a comprehensive way because I always get bogged down in the logistics of social stratification, power, money, and efficiency. In this light, perhaps a critique of education is more a critique of capitalism in general?
Jessica Krueger's picture

One topic I'd hope we'd hit

One topic I'd hope we'd hit during this discussion on education and the brain was academic doping, but it seems our focus has gone elsewhere.

It seems to me that we've been engaging in a lot of feel good discussion about encouraging individuals and increasing neurodiversity. We want to honor each student's individual learning style, and we want to increase "neurodiversity" by introducing more variety into classroom. Okay. I can't quite put a finger on it, but something about the tone of this discussion annoys me.

We need to consider the goals of education. What is wrong, exactly, with teaching kids how to take tests? Test-taking is a skill, like writing a paper or reading a computer screen detailing engine function and knowing which wrench to use to resolve the issue. Instead of focusing on self-development and trying to push children towards the academic ivory tower, shouldn't education be about getting a set of esential life skills across to students? Is university education really essential for everyone? Does every automechanic need to be able to situate Sapphic poetry in an 18th century context or does every Latin professor need to know how to fill a red top and a purple top vaccutainer for a CBC SuperChem? Would it really improve the quality of their lives? Or are we just expressing a preference bias to our lifestyles in considering our choices and values superior?

What's wrong with allowing students to filter themselves out? During the K-12 years, we're dealing with human beings during the most tumultous times of their lives, childhood and adolescence. It's a rare breed who will sit and focus through those raging hormones, so why not let track programs fill with self-selected students willing to dedicate their time to pursuing higher education, while allowing other students to "aim lower" as it were? Would pushing students through material and skill sets they don't consider valuable increase neurodiversity? If so, at what cost? Why not let students who value their free time now serve as worker bees in the soceity? Is there anything wrong with being satisfied as a career assembly-line worker, janitor or M.D. PhD?

Lastly, at what level do we want this neurodiversity? The classroom? The school? The districit? The state? The field of work? Wouldn't a track system, with schools pushing various different focuses, actually increase neurodiversity in the population overall? How are we so sure we haven't already attained this proverbial "neuraldiversty"? How are we so sure that students aren't already developing their own approaches and re-wiring their own brains when given the same sets of materials and skills? How do we quantify this? Are there ways of thinking that may actually be detrimental to certain goals? Do you really want a physician to be contemplating the various schools of thought on heart health when your father is coding on the table? Do grocery cashiers really need special, tailored train to teach them how to stock a shelf or check out a patron?

I guess what I'm detecting in some of these discussions is a bias against "lower" occupations and educational goals within our group. Of course we want to think academia and the university are the best life paths to select, we selected them afterall. What's wrong with letting students drop-out and pursue their own learning? What's wrong with teaching Creationism, if not as a science then as an alternate way of thinking about things? What's wrong with letting girls forgo calculus in lieu of home-economics classes? Wouldn't these increase neural diversity? Not that I ascribe to any of the arguments proposed here (I personally align myself with Heinline with regard to specialization) but I feel like these questions hadn't yet been raised and are important to the discussion. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Ian Morton's picture

Jessica and Rebecca

Jessica and Rebecca,

I am glad you two have begun this conversation, as I think it is crucial for any discussion of critical issues in education.

Jessica, I think you make a good point to have us consider how we might be applying our own ideals to the education system, and even to society at large. While many of us believe that it is universally better to be educated, this only reflects a value we have come to adopt throughout our lives. Why do we value education? Because we believe that education opens up more and more opportunities, education allows for greater individual freedom, education stimulates intellectual growth, education teaches us how to be critical thinkers etc. However, we cannot say with any certainty that these are “good” for everyone. Despite this stipulation, I hold the position that education is valuable for its ability to promote an individual’s growth. It is through education (be it education through an institution or through conversations) that one is able to better think about the world and one’s relation to that world.

Rebecca then introduces to this discussion the importance of not overlooking the sociological issues underlying the education system. Agreeing with Rebecca, my education (including formal education, personal experience, and discussions with others who have worked in and gone through various institutions of education) has lead me to believe that the current education system serves in part to maintain the social structure, a structure that does not equally share its resources and opportunities. While a discussion of how the education system functions to maintain our social hierarchy is beyond the scope of this post, I would like to briefly suggest a few so as to relate to Rebecca’s inquiry into the role of autonomy. First, inner city public schools are far more likely to stress the importance of following directions, while private institutions are more likely to encourage individuality, personal achievement, and even “honor.” Second, inner city schools are at a financial disadvantage, which in turn poses consequences for the resources available, including teachers. Third, as Liz mentions, there is the concern of the NCLB act and teaching to the test. While public schools are at risk of following a strict curriculum that offers a narrow academic perspective, private schools are far more likely to promote the development of creativity and critical thinking. Fourth, one shouldn’t forget the forces at play beyond the school itself such as the images of wealth a power achievable through drugs and violence as apposed to education. Additionally, I have heard several accounts of academic achievement being viewed as non-masculine. One should consider who makes it out of the inner city and into a place like Haverford. If one does, one will see that it is mostly women who are able to successfully make this incredibly difficult transition.

My point here is that I do not think we are necessarily showing a bias against “lower occupations,” but rather against limiting people to “lower occupations.” That is, I agree that there is nothing wrong with someone who is satisfied with being a janitor, but I do think there is something inherently wrong with conditioning someone to believe he or she should aspire to nothing other than those job’s deemed undesirable by the upper class; there is something wrong about limiting one’s ability to chose another path. One may be tempted to say that we are the ultimate source of our actions, but such a view is idealistic and shortsighted. Not only are most of the decisions we make everyday arrived at non-consciously, but also one should not deny the profound influence one’s environment has on shaping how one will live his/her life. An environment that doesn’t come with a guarantee that you’ll go to college, that doesn’t tell say that you’re “honorable,” that doesn’t have sufficient resources, that doesn’t encourage creativity and individuality, that doesn’t value education, that doesn’t encourage critical thinking etc. will undoubtedly influence one’s decision as to whether or not he or she will pursue a career that demands higher education. Again, I am not saying there is anything wrong with occupations that don’t require a stacked resume. I am rather saying that the way society and education are currently structured have a profound influence on important life-decisions we all make. I am saying that a man growing up in inner city Philadelphia who chooses to become a janitor was not the sole determiner of his fate and that his career choices were severely limited due to the disadvantages inherent to the education system.

I believe this discussion brings us to one of Paul’s points that to change the education system requires that we change society. Yet a change in society requires a change in education. To make significant a change we would have to address policy makers, teachers, and parents alike. So where do we start?
Marissa Patterson's picture

Yes, but...

Yes, test taking is an important skill, but only because that is how people today are forced to learn in school. I went 8 years in school never taking a test (ok, I lied, we had spelling tests sometimes) and I learned so much, by reading and exploring and creating. I was able to learn for myself, without a test staring me in the face. I have definitely noticed, especially in college science courses, that I learn material for the test and then promptly forget quite a lot of it. And yet I still remember dates and very specific information from a yearlong 5th grade exploration of history from prehistory until 1990. I honestly believe that this difference comes from what the focus and reasoning is for the learning.

Yes, some of my classes have been more discussion based, or paper based, but so many of them have been "learn this material for the multiple choice test." I would argue that test taking is NOT a necessary skill, because it does not teach you anything except how to memorize certain concepts and regurgitate them. But writing a paper forces you to analyze and comprehend what you have learned and decide what it is you believe about a topic, and then present it in a clear manner.

Furthermore, I am fascinated by the comment Jessica makes about how physicians don't need to know various schools or thought or automechanics learning poetry. Isn't that why we are all at liberal arts schools? I could have gone somewhere and majored in pre-med and filled my courseload with anatomy and biology and chemistry and never leave the science building. Instead, I am at a liberal arts school where I have had the chance to take a wide variety of courses and develop an interest (and a minor) in anthropology. I've taken quite a few public health courses and am now thinking of going into that field, and some of my reasoning has to do with the connections I see through public health in anthropology and medicine. If I had simply focused on my planned career goal, I would never have had the chance to develop this different way of looking at the world, even if technically a doctor does not "need" anthropology to perform.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

What about Structural Inequality?


Thank you for bringing up the very intesting point that education isn't limited to the classroom. The brain is capable of inductively amassing various types of complex information and applying them. An example that I know Paul cites often is that of language acquisition in little children. I think you're right to bring to our attention that somone can continue to read, experience, and learn outside of the classroom, no matter what their occupation.

While I appreciate the points you brought up, I think that your argument seriously overlooked the issue of structural violence and inequality in education. There's a wealth of sociological research available that suggests that our educational system acts as a means of replicating social inequality that's already present in society. I'd be happy to put of specific citations of books and authors if you're curious, as soon as I find my syllabus from David Karen's "Social Inequality in the US" course. Furthermore, if we're talking about a neurobiological level, there's ample evidence that as our education system currently functions, children's chances of making it to college are largely predetermined based on things as simple as how many words their parents used with them, what types of questions they were asked, and how they were spoken to. I realize that this conundrum leads right into the "enriched environment" problem surrounding neural growth, but it's a important one to consider in this context.

Therefore, the question I would pose to you in response to your post would be, is "self-selection" an accurate discription of what's happening? How can you ascribe characterisics of autonomy, consent, and intent to a minor's action of dropping out of school when that school wasn't offering a fair playing field to begin with?  Lastly, how can an education system take these differences into account such that a 16 year old's decision to leave high school is actually an autonomous one?

Emily Alspector's picture

I wasn't able to make it to

I wasn't able to make it to class last week because of the weather, but I would like to post some of my thoughts about the readings we had done for class and hopefully spark some conversation that way.

I find it interesting that all of our discussions seem to have the same general underlying issues, this idea of cultural and social codes, what is socially acceptable and how has our (and others') culture influenced how we make decisions (about race, education, psychopharmacology, etc etc). In the Immordino-Yang article, the authors stress the importance of emotions in learning, a relationship that is rarely spoken about from an academic standpoint. While we are biological creatures, it is our social world that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and unifies us to one another. This culture, whatever it may be, influences our emotional responses and ethical decisions, "what is good or right within our cultural fram of reference" (7). Thus, emotions (by way of culture) are actually seen to have effects on how we learn, and later, how we live. This was pretty fascinating to me. I also liked the authors' idea of Emotional Thought because we often don't think of our emotions in terms of thought processes, especially rationality. As far as the education aspect of this article, the authors made it clear that there needs to be a change in how we teach kids because right now they are not using their full potential, however I wish they would have clarified how exactly the education system should change and what specific changes can be implemented to improve our schools. A general problem with our schooling system is an abundance of critics and a lack of actual ideas.

I personally found the Gaab article to be incredibly interesting, being a linguistics minor. It really amazed me that a program has been developed that can actually reverse the effects of dyslexia. I would have liked to learn more of the specifics of developmental effects on the effectiveness of the program; is there a certain stage of development after which the program doesn’t work? Is it possible that dyslexia can be permanently reversed? What other speech problems can be fixed with similar computer programming? This same program was used in the research talked about in the Haas article in terms of retraining the brain in adults. Since this is clearly NBS-related material, perhaps a discussion could be had of the implications of rewiring the brain (with regards to ethics, possible risks involved, etc). We had a long, intense discussion about genetic "enhancement" and alterations, how is this much different?

ebitler's picture

Stimulating Minds and Educational Policy

I was trying to think about the brain and education without focusing so much on diversity, to see if I came to any different conclusions. Based on the readings for this past week it seems to me that they point to just how important it is to stimulate the brain. Brains can be trained with a great deal of stimulation to learn better, and for me this emphasizes the need for challenging academics at every age.


I think it’s a pretty common belief that brains need to face interesting and challenging problems in educational settings to promote the ability to learn and the ability to think critically. But despite this common attitude, this idea doesn’t really seem to be reflected in public policy. It’s not a new topic, but the No Child Left Behind legislation is interesting to think about in the context of what it’s doing to our children’s brains.


No Child Left Behind policies have led to some poor implementation in some states. For example, my experience with the Pennsylvania public schools is that they now teach to the test, so that kids spend months learning how to answer analogy problems or search for the right context clues in a paragraph so that the schools’ scores are high enough to continue receiving federal funding. This has two major problems. First of all, it prevents any encouragement of neurodiversity by only exposing students to the types of questions on tests and telling them exactly how to arrive at the answers. Secondly, it does nothing to stimulate and challenge the brains of the kids that are capable of passing the test from the start. Rather it promotes stagnancy in all those individuals who are about the minimum education requirement.


There are special programs that will pull kids out of their classes to expose them to extra learning opportunities if they are considered exceptional students, and I think there’s something to be said for challenging each mind as much as possible. This leads me to the argument that track programs, where students are in classes based on their abilities, may be a better route for developing all minds. Although returning to the question of neurodiversity (which I seem to keep doing…) it seems that track programs would promote the idea of surrounding oneself academically with others who think alike. So I’m curious to know what everyone else thinks of the teaching all together vs. teaching to similar groups question? Is it worth the loss of a neuraldiverse educational setting to stimulate each brain as rigorously as possible via grouping? Although like Natsu pointed out, those students who are all good at math may actually represent more neuraldiversity than we thought… And what is our current policy saying about promoting all minds to think and learn as much as possible?

Danielle's picture

Neurodiversity and Education

Professor Grobstein proposed some very interesting questions in our last seminar that I feel need to be addressed further:


- Does education currently enhance or diminish neurodiversity?

- Should education enhance or diminish neurodiversity?

- What practices do/ would contribute to either objective?


I never quite thought about how objective and narrow minded education has evolved into. I feel that as a child, in lower school (pre-school and kindergarten), teachers and academia focus on developing a child’s independence and creativity through a non-structured teaching environment. As a child it is important to develop mentally and emotionally by interacting with the environment with minimal academic structure. Why does academia feel the need to make teaching environments structured and even more narrow minded in high school and professional schools? Academia always rewards individual and independent thought, but does not promote this in classroom teaching methods. Education has diminished neurodiversity but embraces and praises those individuals who can break from the mold that academia has created. A lack of neurodiversity in education has inadvertently evolved from the need to keep the learning environment as efficient as possible. Independence of thought has been overcome by the need to be efficient in the classroom environment. I think education should be more focused on teaching people to develop independence of mind and thought, while simultaneously teaching important subject matter. Diversity of perspective can only come about if students are allowed and encouraged to explore their individuality and develop their own opinions and visions about the world. I think the key to increase neurodiversity in academia is to make more seminar like courses, in which discussions are prompted by important subject matter to the given academic department.

natsu's picture

Diversity in classrooms

At the beginning of class this week Professor Grobstein raised the question of whether it should be an explicit objection of classrooms to change students' attitudes about diversity so that they can see its benefits.  At one point in the discussion Jenna brought up that this might be more difficult in certain disciplines, and this made me think.  Jenna commented, and others seemed to agree, that experiencing the benefits of diversity in educational settings must start at a much earlier stage like pre-school.  Teaching the benefits of diversity may be difficult when students are in high school or college because while talking about diversity is quite natural, say in a Sociology class, doing this in a Math class where most questions that are addressed have one right answer would be difficult.  I was actually surprised with this idea about the difference between a humanities class and a science class, because in my experience looking at how differently each student solves the same problem (mental diversity?) is so much more interesting in disciplines like Math or Physics.  When I was a high school student in Japan, I accidently (!) started attending an after school “cram school” that specialized in calculus.  There, students enjoyed applying calculus to any problem- not just Math and Physics problems but also problems in Chemistry, Astronomy, Biology and even game theory.  In solving any problem, our teacher instructed us to write down our own strategies for tackling it, and students always came up with numerous ways to approach the same problem.  We would often have debates about which one is the “best” approach (the most efficient, the fastest, the most fun, the most beautiful etc.) but it was clear that each person had their favorite type of approach.  We were a group of Japanese students who came from similar backgrounds, went to similar schools, and all (except myself) shared an arduous love for calculus; yet our uniqueness and the diversity in the classroom was so obvious.  I was disappointed when I took a Calculus course at Bryn Mawr, because the professor simply told us which approach to use for each type of problem.  The few times when the professor tried to have students tackle questions without her telling us how, there was often a lot of unhappy people because students got so frustrated and confused by different things that people were saying.  In my opinion, the major difference between the two classrooms was the students' purpose in solving the problem.  The students in my cram school were not really all that focused on getting the right answer; they were much more interested in the feeling they get from engaging in the problem-solving process.  On the other hand, the students in my class here seemed to be interested in nothing else but getting the right answer. I think that a first step that teachers can take to encourage students to appreciate diversity in a learning environment is to encourage students to change their attitude towards problem solving so that they are not so focused on reaching the right answer.  


Marissa Patterson's picture

I agree

I just wanted to comment, having been in the same calculus class as Natsu, that the focus was very much on getting the right answer and doing it the "right way." I grew up going to a Montessori school that in some ways was very similar to Natsu's cram school, much more focused on the process and the learning as opposed to the end product. Even after 10 1/2 years in "normal school" I still sometimes miss that chance to be creative and explore learning instead of trying to get the right answer (or the best grades, or the top score). I often feel I learned much better back when the attention was put on how you got there instead of where you were going.