Brain Elasticity & Learning Through Action

I just listened to a fascinating podcast from On Being entitled “Investigating Healthy Minds” with Dr. Richard Davidson and it meshed with an interview published recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Know Much About History” with famed historian David McCullough. While Dr. Davidson makes many points about the nature of the mind and the effect of meditative practices on the mind from the perspectives of a practitioner and a neuroscientist, toward the end of the interview, a question about meditative practices as “spiritual technology” elicited the following, fascinating response:

Potentially. I don’t think I’ve used that phrase, but certainly I have talked about the range of practices, really the mechanics of practice, that are so richly described in some of the contemplative traditions and the potential value that many of these practices might have for modern science and our modern understanding of the mind. You know, I certainly — the idea of transformation is one that to me meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding. I’ve no problem with that and, you know, I think that really is a natural byproduct of understanding many of these constructs as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training. (emphasis added)

This idea underlies all of teaching and learning: the acquisition of skills over time changes the brain at any age. So often, I see kids sitting and staring at their desks, their notebooks, their laptops when they are working on prewriting exercises or planning stages of projects. Almost invariably, when I ask what they’re up to they respond with one word – thinking. My response is also almost invariable – thinking is doing, so do something. This is not merely flippant. I have a raft of suggestions for activities from taking a walk to drawing a picture to working on something else for a bit. Every assignment and project isn’t perfectly designed to capture every student, intrinsically motivating them into motion, but at the end of the day, thinking is action. So, do something, analyze the result, revise, and try again with an altered approach. Learn to do, better and better, through practice, approaching this process as a skill related to fluency in other skills, like writing, speaking, or film making. In the context of the conversation, I take Dr. Davidson to mean that meditative practices transform the mind in powerful ways because they are learned skills worked closer and closer to perfection over time. Because these practices are learned and then put into action repetitively, I see them as analogous to any performance skill taught in a classroom.

Learning as doing that transforms the mind is also reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s conversation with David McCullough, as he suggests, among other great ideas like active, involved parenting, student centered projects and art in the teaching of history in order to create critical minds:

And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with “the lab technique.” In other words, “give the student a problem to work on.”

“If I were teaching a class,” he says, “I would tell my students, ‘I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever.” He adds, “I have been feeling increasingly that history ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military.”

What about textbooks? “I’d take one of those textbooks. I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.'” You’d know that book inside and out.

Mr. McCullough advises us to concentrate on grade school. “Grade school children, as we all know, can learn a foreign language in a flash,” he says. “They can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you’re never going to forget it as long as you live.”

“We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers,” he summarizes. “I would teach them how to ask questions—because that’s how you learn.”

McCullough’s final point is powerful and true. History isn’t a fixed quantity to be memorized and held (or forgotten), but a series of techniques for understanding the past through drawing connections and interweaving disparate narratives and artifacts. Skills. Teach doing, build fluency in questioning and examination as skills, and transform minds as meditative practices transform minds thanks to the brain’s elasticity. Spiritual practices and history are both shrouded in mystery, but through the sometimes mundane, sometimes transformative process of doing each, we learn and are changed for the better.

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