Cultivating empathy in my own children and modeling empathy for the needs of our greater community has consistently been a core strand of both my personal and professional work. Brain scans now tell us that the blossoming and pruning of neurons tied to social responsibility, emotional connection to greater causes and to acting on empathetic feelings is in full swing during middle school and high school years – no suprise to those who work with teens on a daily basis. For these reasons – and because of my internal wrestling match with technology and how it impacts human behaviors – I am fascinated by the RSAnimate video belowed shared by Angela Meiers on her blog today. I encourage you to take 10 minutes to watch the video and consider the hopeful message shared.
Maybe, just maybe… with the right leadership, hard work, and the right use of technology… empathy will evolve us into a global community that lifts up more than tears down… I dare to hope… do you?
"Research tells us that students who take Algebra II or who successfully complete 3 – 4 years of high school math have a much better chance of success in college." Does anyone else find this all too common statement by legislators and so called "education leaders" a bit shallow? Haven't college bound students (and those who are successful in college) always completed higher level course work across most subjects areas? Leaders and lawmakers have shifted some of the focus of public education discourse towards a negative and unproductive path - specifically in the areas of math and science. The incredibly important issue of better preparing students for a 21st century economy will not be answered by simple minded, silver bullet actions such as increasing enrollment in AP classes or making all 8th graders take Algebra I. The call for change to improve student achievement demands far deeper, far richer, and far more meaningful conversation.
I am not suggesting that math and science aren't important subjects (or that all students should be required to study Greek). The question is not whether to teach math and science but, rather, what to teach and how. How many students graduate from high school today knowing how to solve algebra problems by rote, but do not understand math as a way of thinking about how to solve problems? Similarly, how many high school students take three years of science – including biology, chemistry, and physics – but do not know what the scientific method is and how to use it, as we saw in the AP chemistry class described at the beginning of the last chapter? We keep hearing that all students need more math and science courses, but I believe that all students need more engaging and relevant math and science courses. The question is: What should all high school graduates know in order to be literate in math and science as disciplines of problem solving?
Wagner gets it. Preparing students to do well on a test is, well, not that tough – and not enough. It simply requires getting a copy of the test and drilling through the concepts and the answers with the students. The insistance on using such tests to measure school performance by those advocating for NCLB and more AP test prep is sorely short sighted. The 21st century economy will require students to do far more than is asked for on these tests and yet the political focus on these tests is driving dollars and attention to, well, the test scores. In the end, we are becoming more and more sophisticated at test preparation and less focused on preparing for what comes after the test… life.
Wagner's call for rigorous dialogue focused on aligning curriculum and school practices with 21st century work place requirements is on the mark. Much more important than taking a few tests, students need to be prepared to think, write, speak, collaborate, research, investigate, synthesize, and create in jobs that are not even invented yet. School performance needs to be measured by how well students are prepared for 21st century success through assessment practices that are rigorous, capture depth and nuance, and well aligned to modern day work place skills, content, and concepts. A look at Wagner's work is a good place to start that conversation.
Daniel Pink's new book Drive is focused on the science behind motivation. I found his book A Whole New Mind incredibly insightful and look forward to what he has to share in Drive. He argues that the business model assumptions based on pay incentives for performance actually have an ignorable or even negative effect on actual task performance in most situations. His work is based on studies published by highly respected economics scholars and brain research. Hmmm… Does this play into the "pay for performance" debate raging in public education? Take a look and share your thoughts!
While not a new thought on leadership, the importance of emotional intelligence for effective leadership is now more arguable than ever with the developments in neuroscience research. Hear what Goleman and Boyatzis have to say in their post called Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership.
The maturation of the human mind recapitulates its evolution, so the first parts of the brain to evolve – the motor cortex and brain stem – are also the first parts to mature in children. Those areas are fully functional by the time humans hit puberty. In contrast, brain areas that are relatively recent biological inventions – such as the frontal lobes – don't finish growing until the teenage years are over. The prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to fully mature (p. 114).
This developmental process holds the key to understanding the behavior of adolescents, who are much more likely than adults to engage in risky, impulsive behavior… A recent study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards – things like sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll – was significantly more active and mature in the adolescent brain than the prefrontal cortex was, that part of the brain that helps resist such temptations. Teens make bad decisions because they are literally less rational (p. 114).
The problem-solving abilities of working memory and the prefrontal cortex are a crucial aspect of human intellingence. Numerous studies have found strong correlations between scores on tests of working memory and tests of general intelligence. Being able to hold more information in the prefrontal cortex, and being able to hold on to that information for longer, means that brain cells are better able to form useful associations. At the same time, the rational brain must also stringently filter out all extraneous thoughts, since they might lead to unhelpful connections. Unless you are disciplined about what you choose to think about – you won't be able to effectively think through your problem. You'll be so overwhelmed by all those incoming ideas that you'll never be able to figure out which ones are genuine insights (p. 131).
Anyone else think we should be paying attention to these developments?
Recent development in technology has resulted in a tidal wave of new information about how the human brain works. As the research is published, those who can profit from the information have rushed to understand it – and use it to better persuade, manipulate, or change the behaviors of their targeted audience. Most obvious in this camp are advertising companies and political institutions. A CNN article yesterday covered one more example of this focused on the writers of film – Neurocinema. These insitutions are driven by a desire to make a profit – they certainly do not have "the common good" centered in their sites. This begs a question… Why don't those of us who are targeting "the common good" seek out this information with the same tenacity? What does current research tell us about how schools should do business? How should this change the approach of doing ministry? Non-profit work? Programming for community children? Just yesterday, Josh Lehrer blogged about fasting and the effects of low glucose levels on the performance of the pre-frontal cortex in his post called fasting. It certainly isn't earth shattering… but the research tells us something about how we work with students who suffer from poor nutrition. It may also tell us something about school procedures regarding food, drinks, and class schedules.