By Bill Madigan
When I went to a Neuroscience conference at the University of Wisconsin recently, one of the researchers was noting his method of stressing rats for his study. Apparently, detailing this added credibility to his findings. Well, what he said, led me to the most powerful revelation that I brought away form the two-day conference. He confessed that his chief method of stressing the rats was “immobilization!” He offered that “low-novelty feeding” was another method of choice – like only eating chicken. This method causes stress as well. (Perhaps AVID should heed the subtle warning when it decides to serve chicken again at gatherings.)
When I heard that immobilization caused stress, and a severe form of it at that, I dropped my head in humorous relief and sense of validation. I personally hated much of middle and high school because my teachers generally pontificated for hours or herded me along with my peers into the dreaded coffins of “project packets” – “stuff” we could do with little help or input from the teacher or fellow classmates. We were enjoined to “sit quietly and do our work.” We were not to move. Our bodies were not to disturb our brains as they trudged through the anti-engaging “packets” or lectures. Just as the noted educational thinker, Sir Ken Robinson has said, we have devalued the importance of our bodies in learning. He says, “we treat our bodies as a form of transport for our heads.”
I had to sit still in my 15-year-old male body, full of hormones urging social interaction as well as physical exploration. The most recent raft of research into the teen brain suggests that teens want two things much more than adults: social interaction and novel experiences. Most of my classes harbored neither. This is not to say that my teachers who taught this way were bad people, for I remember many who nobly struggled to build my self-control and discipline. It was what they knew. God bless them, as this must have been a challenge because I have recently been diagnosed as having ADHD, and I’m sure I was back then. I’m not alone, 25% of people are estimated to exhibit ADHD behaviors. Most importantly, some in the “positive psychology” movement say that hyperactive tendencies may be a beneficial genetic trait that results in explorers and risk takers, as well as people scanning the present moment for danger and excitement. Indeed, it is believed that the diaspora of Homo sapiens who walked out of Africa and spread out across the globe was lead by this 25%.
Another professor at the Wisconsin Symposium on the brain discussed how autocratic and bossy parents and guardians also cause stress in children. Knowing that we as educators can be bossy at times AND that we too often “immobilize” our students, makes you wonder how much brain-numbing stress we introduce into the learning environment. This traditional compound of stress-inducing classroom practice is indeed the 19th century’s industrial model of education: low in engagement, low in socially active learning, overly standardized (which is low in novelty) and most important, deadly to motivation. We need to go back to the farm.
The new metaphor of the agricultural approach to education requires educators to work like family farms with advanced professional learning communities. Together, they need to build classrooms like farms where growth and learning occur through creative and critical thinking. In a recent Newsweek article entitled “The Creativity Crisis,” authors Bronson and Merryman warn us that other nations are “getting it” and adding creativity and problem solving to their curricula. Indeed, they state that, “In China there has been a wide-spread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.” Daniel Pink, in his forward-looking book, A Whole New Mind warns, because “computers can do it faster and better than people . . . engineers and programmers will have to master different aptitudes, relying more on creativity than competence, more on tacit knowledge than technical manuals, and more on the big picture than sweating the details.” This emerging new educational “standard” will be more fluid and alter the role of the teacher to more of a mentor and coach. When the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman discovered the “Omega” particle, he admitted that his brain came up with the idea in a state of “play.” He said he was “playing” with the ideas in “a relaxed fashion.” This is the agricultural model, rigorous, dynamic and a bit looser than what we are used to. “standardized drilling and killing” kill creativity and critical thinking.