By Bill Madigan
A noted neuroanatomist named Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had a massive stroke in her medial left hemisphere early one morning. The resultant hemorrhage permanently destroyed an area of her brain responsible for mathematical computation. In addition because of the proximity to Broca’s area (speech production) and Wernicke’s area (understanding and writing speech), she was completely unable to communicate verbally or understand speech – a deep challenge, given she was in a hospital for many months. She remembers curling up in a fetal position for much of that time while her traumatized brain slowly healed. Eight years later she is able to do complex math and she travels extensively giving talks and seminars. Even though the damaged portion of her brain remains permanently destroyed, new brain cells have come to the rescue to restore lost capacities. With the patience and rigorous help from her mother who was a schoolteacher, she has regained not only her lost mental toolbox, she has a new and astounding appreciation of the “plasticity” or resiliency of our brains.
Dr. Taylor is a living example of what we now know about our brain and mind. When we consider that Jill was able to recover so much that was lost, we start to realize that any child or adult can ACTUALLY attain near-miracles. In fact, not 15 years ago, a stroke’s effects were considered permanent. Doctors maintained a foundational belief that lost abilities could NOT be regained. Our brains and their newly revealed powers of resiliency and adaptation are without question the most inspiring and powerful element of 21st century learning. Neuroscience has exploded with some of the most transformative ideas for all humanity, let alone education. This is the key to educators: do our foundational beliefs allow for educational miracles? If a victim of a massive stroke can rehabilitate and actually surpass her previous powers, consider what is possible with even the most challenging student.
In addition to this miraculous news, the new science of Epigenetics has discovered that our genes are not a rigid program that acts like a computer program, but rather, that the environment can actually cause the expression or non-expression of many of our genes, especially genes that affect the brain. Like the new understanding of the brain, genes are not confined to a rigid, unalterable system. They too can be “turned on” by the environments in which they live! Identical twins, separated at birth, have been tracked down and had their genes analyzed, and what they have discovered is that their genes expressed differently based on the natures of the environments in which they grew. In short, human capacities are malleable depending on their surroundings and our foundational beliefs. Both our brains and our genes are designed by nature to change and adapt to enable growth and empowerment. Based on our environmental supports and challenges we engage, we can truly become greater more powerful beings
These two 21st-century ideas can transform all that we do, not only between learner and teacher, but also between teachers and teachers, along with administrators and all involved in the crucible of American education. All our systems and structures can be more confidently guided by this new “miracle based” belief system. Our challenge is to strive for the right environments like team-based problem solving, and project based approaches that offer dynamic preparation for the new non-linear world of work and the ever-evolving combination of technology, demographics, and world economies.
However unnerving or frightening these rapid and incessant changes may be, we can count on our deep and ancient capacity to adapt to these changes and realities because the chemistry of our brains and genes are best designed for that very resiliency.