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The brain and education: three loops and conflict resolution


Paul Grobstein's picture

More on loops/conflict/education: indifference and indeterminacy

Very much enjoyed our follow up session together on Monday.  A few things to think more about, for myself and anyone else interested ...

It was a very interesting realization that, as a scientist, I tend to be more comfortable than many people with the notion that there are things in the world that are "indifferent" to human beings and "indeterminate," and that such things (earth quakes, chemistry, biological evolution, physics, mathematics) were an important component of education.  As Thomas L. Friedman wrote in an op ed piece a year or so ago "you cannot spin Mother Nature. You cannot bribe Mother Nature. You cannot sweet talk her, and you cannot ignore her ... And Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats a thousand."  Friedman's point was that both indeterminacy and indifference to human sensitivities is also true of economics.  And, I would argue, of much of human affairs generally:

"Because most of our experience is in dealing with other human beings, perhaps we overestimate the potency of bribery, sweet talk, logic, and well-meaningness? How potent are virtue, reasonableness, and the like in dealing with the brain? with culture? Why do they work to the extent they do, and can we make sense of their limits?"

Both indifference and indeterminacy tend to make students (and people in general) uncomfortable: they imply that one can't "be right all the time" nor "fully in control" and that there are limits to the efficacy of "niceness" no matter how fully developed and "well-meaning."  Is experience with this something that is appropriate in a classroom in general?  In a classroom imbued with a concern for "social justice"?  I'd argue it is not only important but essential, in both contexts.  

The wishes to be "right all the time" and to always be "in control" are unreasonable at best and, at worst, the origins of both significant personal unhappiness and substantial interpersonal  conflict.  All classrooms should, it seems to me, help people recognize that both being wrong and being out of control are not only permissable but desirable features of human development, growth, and inquiry.  And I think this is still more important in classrooms with a concern for "social justice."  The most important thing to learn about human relationships is not a particular set of rules ("do unto others ...," respect diversity, share power, etc etc), but rather that they too are somewhat indeterminate and inevitably have elements of impersonality ("I have to admit I do/don't like this particular person but don't know quite why").  "Social justice," like the "laws" of biology or chemistry or physics or economics is not something to be learned but something to be created, tested, and created anew.  And to do that, one needs not to avoid but be comfortable with some degree of both indeterminacy and indifference (or "objectivity").

I appreciate very much the candid reactions to the lesson and resulting discussion that helped clarify for me what the terrain was that I was hoping to explore with this particular lesson, and hope it contributed to others thinking more about this terrain as well.  The reactions/discussion also contributed to further thinking on my part about how to make the terrain more accessible in particular contexts.  Yep, the reactions suggested that the exercise was "losing lots of students," not only because it was making them uncomfortable (perhaps necessary) but also because it was too abstract, didn't seem to connect to their own concerns.  In future, I'll try to structure this exercise so that there is more discussion/reflection along the way.  And add to it exercises/models that make its relevance to human interactions more explicit (cf Prisoner's Dilemma, Thinking About Segregation and Integration, Ant Colones: Social Organization Without a Director?). 

Thanks again to all for sharing experiences and conversations. 


alesnick's picture

thanks and thoughts

Thank you, Paul, for the great talk and useful framework you shared with us last class.  The idea that there can be, and needs to be, striving despite their not being able to be one ideal to which to strive (because it, too, would "mistaken" and part a dynamic, unpredictable process of change) is hard to sit with.  I see that if people feel less bound to/by a fixed, external ideal, they may feel freer to actively investigate, assess, and seek to change their worlds and themselves.  A paradox of development?  Human and societal?

Paul Grobstein's picture

The brain, loops, and conflict

Thanks, all, for rich conversation Wednesday night.  Looking forward to talking more about all this, and to your reactions to the Three Doors of Understanding activity and exhibit.  In meanwhile,  a few thoughts from our Wednesday session ...

Much appreciated the challenges to the educator-as-brain-surgeon metaphor.  I do think its important for educators to recognize that they are bringing about changes in brains but did not at all intend to endorse the idea of a uni-directional interaction between an "expert" and a "patient."  Indeed "surgery" is not only too unidirectional but also a particularly crude way to influence the brain even in cases where it is more obvious that changes in the brain are what is intended (cf Making the Unconscious Conscious and Vice Versa: A Bi-Directional Bridge between Cognitive Science/Neuroscience and Psychotherapy?).  My sense as a neurobiologist is that bidirectional ("loopy") interactions are, for a variety of reasons, much to be preferred whenever the brain is involved. 

And I also think its important, whenever the brain is involved, to avoid the deficit/disability mindsight (cf Models of Mental Health).  The interesting tension here is how to avoid thinking in terms of failings without giving up the idea that something can get better.  And the key, I think, is to give up the idea of there being some achievable "ideal" that people are supposed to get to.  One can then, I think, assert that everyone is capable of evolving beyond where they currently are, ie everyone is in some sense always "mistaken".  And everyone can participate themselves in charting the directions of correcting whatever mistakes they wish to work on. 

That notion (the "getting it less wrong" process all three loops are involved in)  takes a little while to get one's head fully around, and has some interesting general implications for ideas of change, as well as for social organization.  Perhaps we can spend a little more time on those whe we meet again on Monday?