Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Six: The Reduction of the Nature of Teenagers to Their Brains

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

The relevance of the issue has to do with division of labour between intellectual labour and manual labour. Typically in schools, there is an emphasis on “academic learning”–which means purely intellectual pursuits at the expense of the use of the body as an essential aspect of the learning process. To ignore such issues is to ignore a cleavage in our society that needs to be repaired through the creation of a socialist society that eliminates such a division of labour.

I must emphasize that such work is necessary despite the possible negative repercussions by management. If we are afraid to question management and employers in our own workplace, how can we expect others to challenger their particular employer? How can we expect to unite to challenge the class of employers generally if we fail to challenge our own particular employer?

It is much easier to criticize other employers than one’s own–just as it is easier to criticize other nations than one’s own.

Such criticism is also necessary since the class power of employers is supported in various ways, including ideological means. To fail to challenge the power of the class of employers in diverse domains makes it all the more difficult to challenge them at the economic and political level. This is a typical weakness of social-democratic or reformist approaches to challenging the class power of employers. They idealize one or more domains (such as the public sector or education or law) without engaging in inquiry into the real nature of these domains (see, for example, Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Two).

Hello everyone,

Attached is another article sent to the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following summary and commentary:

The author of the following article, “The Gift and the Trap: Working the `Teenage Brain’ into our Concept of Youth,” (Howard Sercombe) argues that Michael Males’ criticisms of most of the research on youth’s so-called risk-taking behaviour, as reductionist and unscientific is justified. Most of the research ignores social environmental conditions that influence behaviour; the conclusions derived from such “brain research” should therefore be treated with suspicion. Youth, like all human beings, should be seen as a conjunction of biology, social environment and agency (self-determination). Youth, like all human beings, is irreducible to “brain states.”

Sercombe calls for research that unites the biological approach, the sociological approach and the role of agency (human beings as persons who make decisions). However, he argues that we lack a model that incorporates all three. Hence we need to focus on both the biological approach and the sociological approach in succession, with the one balancing the other until a new synthesis may arise.
Sercombe concurs with Males’ earlier view that, when sociological factors are taken into account (such as comparable levels of poverty between teenagers and adults), then the level of risk-taking is comparable.

The author points out that the issue of whether youth have inherent characteristics or have characteristics that are accidental (dependent on social circumstances) has had a long history, dating back at least to Aristotle. Hence, the issue has divided theoreticians for a long time.

What is new is the use of recent “brain research” to claim that teenagers have tendencies towards risk-taking when compared to adults. Such a view claims to be scientific but in fact expresses a prejudice by adults against teenagers. In other words, it is stereotyping in the form of alleged scientific inquiry.

Sercombe, by contrast, claims that modern brain research actually tells a different story. Brain research shows that the neural structure of the brain is subject to modification due to experience. Therefore, neural anatomy and physiology are functions of both maturational processes and environmental processes. The emergence of certain behaviours is a function of genes and the environment. If environmental conditions are not present, then the neural connections may not be established despite appropriate genetic timing. Conversely, if genetic conditions are not present, then the neural connections may not be established despite appropriate environmental conditions. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are two sides of the same coin; they both need to be present for certain neural structures to emerge.

There is (contrary to such authors as David Dobb, in his article “Beautiful Brains”) no one-to-one correspondence between genetics and human behaviour.

Recent brain imaging shows that different connections between neurons are established as experiences differ. Furthermore, human beings, as agents, persons or subjects of their own lives make decisions which, in turn, influence both the environment and the neural structure of their brains (and those of other people).

Sercombe then provides some facts from the U.K. that question the so-called nature of adolescents for risk-taking. He points out that the recent financial meltdown was hardly due to teenagers but rather to adults. Such a meltdown has had much more devastating consequences than the so-called risk-taking behaviour of youth.

Sercombe calls for humility among researchers who favour nature over nurture, or nurture over nature. We do not, at present, he claims, have a model that integrates both in any consistent manner.

He only takes issue with Males’ apparent rejection of the tendential distinctiveness of adolescence as a transition towards adulthood as revealed in brain imagery.

He does criticize Males for apparently rejecting modern brain research and what it tells us about teenagers. The structure of modern teenage brains share certain commonalities with the structure of the brains of adults (since both share a common environment in, for instance, experiencing similar school structures), but there are distinctive aspects to the structure of the brains of teenagers. There is a change in the ratio of grey brain matter to white brain matter from the onset of puberty until the early 20s. Myelination occurs, making the brain more efficient as certain neural structures are selected for use(a function of genetics, environment and agency and not just genetics, as the reductionists claims), whereas synaptic pruning results in the elimination of connections and hence structures that are not used. The teenage years do bear witness to an evident restructuring that makes the neural structures more nearly approximate the more rigid structures of adult brains. By the age of 14, more or less, teenage brains are similar in structure to the structure of adult brains, but they need to be edited and organized into more efficient structures.

The author considers differences between the structure of the brains of teenagers and the brains of adults to be significant only in terms of tendencies. If certain environmental conditions are present (including specific kinds of agents), then there may be certain tendencies to act in certain ways. The specific environmental conditions will have a say in whether adolescents will act differently from their adult counterparts to any great extent.

Sercombe, like Males, points out just how bias the research is against youth. Interpretations of the data from brain research invariably treat youth as deficient when compared to adults. Sercombe queries why research never emphasizes the positive aspects of teenagers as exemplified in the data. (Although he does not specify, it can be inferred that such a characteristic as greater flexibility in rule rejection and reconstruction may be something which adults would do well to cherish.) The discourse on youth (by, of course, mainly adults) presupposes that youth are defective in some manner so that such discourse infects research as well. Such a view leads to the slippery slope of treating youth as pathological and in need of strict control by adults.

Although the author’s approach is noteworthy in the much needed attempt to take into consideration the biological and the sociological (and psychological) aspects of the problem, he seems to be unaware that such a synthetic approach to all three was proposed by John Dewey a long time ago. Sercombe’s view that we need to balance research that excludes sociology and psychology from biology (or vice versa) by referring to research that emphasizes sociology and psychology will never result in a synthesis. What is needed is a synthetic approach that incorporates all three from the beginning, even if implicitly—as does Dewey’s theory.

Dewey begins with human beings who are dependent on each other and on the world of which they are a part—a social, biological and physical-chemical environment. Emphasis on the biological, the sociological or the psychological assumes a functional character: we emphasize one or the other for particular purposes. At a lived level, though, there is no distinction. Human experience is never purely physical-chemical, or purely biological, or purely social. It is all of them together in an inseparable unity. Emphasizing the biological may be required to ascertain certain aspects of our experience, but it never exhausts it.

Educators would do well to study more carefully Dewey’s philosophy in general and his philosophy of education in particular. They may then avoid the reductionism characteristic of biological approaches to human beings or, for that matter, the reductionism characteristic of sociological (and psychological) approaches to human beings and the education process. They may also avoid pandering to prejudices against youth based on pseudo-science (such as that presented in David Dobb’s article, “Beautiful Brain”).

Educators, however, are adults, and as adults they tend to consider their standards to be sacrosanct. They may well avoid engaging with Dewey’s theory since Dewey long ago argued that, although children (and adolescents) need in some ways to become like adults, adults need to become more like children (and adolescents):

“With respect to the development of powers devoted to coping with specific scientific and economic problems we may say the child [and adolescents] should be growing in manhood. With respect to sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind, we may say that the adult should be growing in childlikeness. One statement is as true as the other.” (Democracy and Education, 1916, p. 55)

Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Five: The Division Between the Intellectual and the Manual

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”). The Ning was a social network for chairs of various Equity and Justice Committees of the Manitoba Teachers Society to communicate with each other.

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

Such critiques are relevant for socialists since the issue of the division of labour between intellectual and manual labour is something that needs to be abolished as socialism proceeds. The reduction of intelligence to “brain work” reflects the one-sided division of labour between intellectual labour and manual labour and needs to be opposed.

Hello everyone,

I sent the attached articles to the ESJ Ning and put them in a binder in the staff lounge. Indirectly, they are a critical response to an article that the principal of Ashern Central School recommended (he sent it to us as an attachment and put it in our mail box).

I prefaced the articles with the following:

The author of the following article, “The Ontogeny of Consciousness: John Dewey and Myrtyle McGraw’s Contribution to a Science of Mind,” (as well the additional article by the same author, “Myrtyle McGraw’s Neurobehavioral Theory of Development”) (Thomas C. Dalton) provides a counterargument to “brain-based research” that is reductionist, that is to say, that reduces explanations of human behaviour primarily in terms of biological changes in the brain due to maturation. The emergence of neural structures in the brain is just as much a function of experience as it is a function of biological maturation.

Before providing a summary of the article, a few words are in order to clarify why the article is important for educators. Evolutionary theory informs us that living bodies evolved before the emergence of the central nervous system and the brain. Should not educators take such evolution into account when performing research into the nature and functions of the brain? Is the control of the body irrelevant for learning—as those who focus on academic subjects imply? Or is the control of the body central to the learning process?

Since evolutionary theory involves an inseparable connection of the body of a living being with an environment —life is a process that involves simultaneously living beings (with a body) and an environment—then evolutionary theory must include relations between the living being’s body and the living being’s environment. Often, though, brain studies simply ignore the environment (and hence the body)—thereby distorting evolutionary theory while claiming to rely on it. Similarly, the denigration of the body in modern schools finds its reflection in disembodied brain studies—as if human beings were pure beings of the brain, disconnected from their environment.

Since control of the body (and the life process) is denigrated in schools (academic subjects are the focus), there is little wonder that some early brain research remains hidden to many educators. Such research contradicts the school system’s emphasis on academic subjects and the assumption that disembodied “brain research” constitutes the ultimate in research.

Dewey’s theory of human development is based on Darwin ’s theory of evolution, but Dewey incorporates systematically Darwin ’s insights into his theory rather than reductionist and superficial views of Darwin ’s theory of natural selection (typical of much “brain-based” research) . So-called brain studies, for instance, that refer to Darwin’s theory of evolution often simply ignore the body and go directly to the brain, drawing false conclusions based on their own unanalyzed assumptions.
Turning now to the article mentioned above, the author provides a description of some of John Dewey’s research concerns and how his protégé, Myrtyl McGraw, developed a research program related to infant development, especially the relation between an infant’s and toddler’s bodily movements up to erect locomotion and the development of the infant’s brain in the context of a doubtful or problematic situation.

The more specific issue was the relationship between consciousness and habit in the context of a problematic situation.

The author outlines some aspects of Dewey’s theory before moving to an analysis of McGraw’s work.

Dewey, in his How We Think, argued that the primary problem for the infant and toddler was control of the body. Increasing control of the body was, for the emerging consciousness of the infant/toddler, the major problem that the infant/toddler needed to solve. Dewey was interested in the relationship between the emergence of consciousness, its function, and the transfer of conscious control from the cortical region of the brain to the subcortical region of the brain in the context of the infant’s/toddler’s need to control the body.

Dewey tried to avoid the dualism of reducing all consciousness to brain states, on the one hand, or in reducing all behaviour to conscious conditions on the other.

Conscious experience in a problematic situation, which demands inquiry, can expand the capacities of the individual through, for example, enabling the infant to gain conscious control over certain movements of the body (rather than have such movements under the control of subcortical control, initially, which tended to be gross movements at best and inefficient—if such movements were forthcoming at all) and, in turn, provide a basis for further use of the body in increasingly complicated processes.

Dewey relied on Herrick’s view that inhibition of movement necessary for reflection involved the functional capacity of the cerebrum to override the cerebellum’s automatic response mechanism. Such an overriding function enabled the time necessary to anticipate events that are in the process of unfolding or may occur in the future and consequently to act accordingly. Consciousness, for Herrick, arose as central and periphereal systems were in the process of being coordinated with each other; control over the body and consciousness were not separate events. Consciousness in a functional sense is thinking, and it arises in a problematic or doubtful situation. It was the interplay of resistance and the need for control that occasioned cognitive growth (if it indeed did occur at all).

Dalton points out that Dewey considered the isolation of cognitive experiences from non-cognitive experiences is pernicious since most of who we are involves non-cognitive experiences as the background against which cognitive experiences arise and have any meaning at all. Cognitive experiences arise in a doubtful or uncertain situation (a problematic situation), that includes the whole body as well as the environment. Cognitive development may occur in such circumstances because inquiry (and judgment) is required, forcing us to expand and deepen our conscious perspective in order to overcome the difficulty.

A problematic situation, which occasions the need for inquiry and forms the basis for all learning, introduces disequilibrium into the situation; to resolve the situation in other than a trial-and-error fashion, it is necessary to separate out possibly divergent modes of action and judge them on the basis of the purpose to be achieved—an occasion for the consciousness as a function to arise.

Dewey distinguished consciousness, however, from mind. Consciousness is focal , ephemeral and explicit whereas mind is diffuse (a background), more constant or structural and implicit. As a problematic situation proceeds, shifts in consciousness from the foreground to the background (making aspects of the background—but never the whole—background the foreground) may occur.

Myrtyle McGraw’s theories and experiments with twins furnished some corroborating evidence for Dewey’s theory that intellectual or cognitive development is a function of conscious control over the body that becomes transferred to neural structures linked to bodily habits.

Consciousness is a function and not a separate entity or thing. Consciousness is a function in the context of a problematic situation, where inquiry is required before acting. Consciousness arises due to the need for judgment in a problematic situation and is not merely an irrelevant phenomenon characteristic of behaviourist theories of learning.

McGraw, through her experiments, tested Dewey’s view that is was a problematic situation that occasioned the possibility for increased (cortical) control rather than just reflex actions controlled through subcortical levels; she also tested his view that conscious control became inscribed in the body and simultaneously transferred to subcortical control.

It was the introduction of a problematic element, which interfered with normal or habitual action of the body governed by subcortical processes, into an infant’s and toddler’s experiential situation that could lead to increased control over the environment through the need for cortical control over balance and the need for judgment. It was not a mere repetition (or iteration) of motor actions; practice was insufficient. Practice must occur in the context of a problematic situation. To address a problematic situation, a delay in motor reaction is necessary so that reflection and judgment become necessary.

In McGraw’s longitudinal study and experiments with a set of twins, she found that one of the twins, when exposed to various experiences that challenged his motor judgment under conditions of uncertainty, became more pensive and better able to size up a situation by making more explicit and taking into account more relevant aspects of the problematic situation before reacting.

At a more general level, McGraw saw control of the body leading to a problematic situation as involving, a shifting center of gravity due to the movement of the body in the face of locomotion and the consequent dynamic shifting centre of gravity. Such acts as sitting up required a coordinated effort of various parts of the body to overcome gravitational forces and to maintain a sitting position in the face of such gravitational forces. McGraw hypothesized that “body sense,” or somatic sense, took precedence over the other senses in terms of the emergence of consciousness.

Alternate movements of the upper and lower body required conscious coordination for prone locomotion to occur (such as crawling), but control was at first centered on the lower part of the body, and then on the upper part of the body (with the lower part of the body being relatively inhibited from movement before the coordination of the two could arise). Each step in the control process was displaced to secondary behaviour (less consciously controlled) as a new focus for attention arose because of new problems; conscious control was gradually relinquished to subcortical control as new problems arose. The behavioural repertoire was becoming structured through the development of neural structures and bodily habits, and this repertoire formed supports for more complex structures and bodily habits to arise (as Dewey argued with his theory of consciousness and habits). As a new, more complex problem arises, however, behaviour may at first seem to regress.

Consciousness of the world arises when the child learns to sit up (it is unclear in the article, though, why this is so). Differentiation of self and objects arises when the infant is capable of reaching and pointing intentionally. Self-consciousness arises after erect locomotion leads to an awareness of a causal relation between self-initiated movement and the manipulation or movement of objects (awareness of self, presumably, is a function of awareness of a relation between intention, awareness of movement of the body and awareness of movement of an object—and the difference between them).

The problem of locomotion, whether prone or erect, requires the infant and toddler to resolve the challenge posed by balance in the face of gravitational forces that shift as the child changes in size, weight and form. Such challenges or problems as the child attempts to achieve crawling or walking constitute the basis for learning at the early stages. Judgment is required when engaged in learning to move through space, and such judgment thus contributes to the expansion of human experience as the child interacts with her environments and incorporates her judgments into her behaviours, at first at a conscious, cortical level but later at a subcortical, habitual level.

Learning, which requires judgment, involves, on the one hand, a combination of structures inscribed in neural structures and bodily habits, with both supporting functions that integrate the child with her environment, and on the other, conscious functions that enable habits to be restructured as problematic or uncertain situations provide challenges.

Learning, contrary to maturationists (those who believe that learning takes place only after physiological development at a certain level is complete—those who believe that “nature” forms the basis of all learning), can occur through the mediation of judgment and the structuring of the environment in the face of a problematic situation.

Often, in educational circles, “brain research” is presented as something new. Dewey’s early interest in brain research in relation to learning in a problematic situation, and McGraw’s research, indicate that research into the relation between the development of the brain and education arose over a century ago. However, that research links brain research to the emergence of new bodily habits as a function of judgment in the face of problems associated, in the first instance, with control of the body.

The modern school system, however, treats the body as something that can be dispensed with when learning. Experimental science in general, and Myrtle McGraw’s experiments in particular, have demonstrated the hollowness of such a view. The modern school system still suffers from a myopic view of what constitutes learning, with its emphasis on academic subjects at the expense of vocational subjects. Such a view should not be surprising—when class prejudice is considered. This class prejudice leads to one-sided individuality and reinforces a class society riveted by oppression. A hierarchy of individuals is created.

Can any teacher, in the classroom, resolve such social problems? Does not equity and social justice demand recognition of the nature and extent of the problem? If we simply ignore or turn a blind eye to such problems, are we not contributing to the problem rather than sharing in resolving it?

Fred

Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Four

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

Hello everyone,
 
Attached is another article sent to the ESJ Ning (but not published–the file is greater than the 3 Mb allowed on the Ning).  It is in a binder in the staff lounge.
 
I prefaced the article with the following:
 
The authors of the following article, “The Intelligent Method of Learning,” (Alireza Moula, Simin Mohseni, Bengt Starrin, Hans Âke Scherp,
& Antony J. Puddephatt) argue that higher cognitive functions unique to human beings are, physiologically, located in the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes. The prefrontal cortex covers about 1/3 of the surface area of the cortex for human beings whereas it covers 1/10 for gorillas. The prefrontal cortex provides the biological basis for the emergence of reflection, choice and intelligence.

The authors argue that the function of the prefrontal cortex is to adapt capacities and environment to each other—to act intelligently, or to coordinate means and ends until they form a unity. Such a view of the intelligence is consistent with the pragmatic view of the nature of intelligence (as exemplified in John Dewey’s theories, for example) as the development of a structure with a determinant function that can be learned. Through the development of intelligence (the capacity to adapt ends and means to each other and capacities to environmental conditions), more increasingly complex ends can be realized. Goal-directed behaviour on an increasingly complex level is made possible through the capacity to organize behaviour over time in a flexible manner through memory and attention systems that enable humans to self-monitor immediate acts in relation to the past actions and possible future actions. The prefrontal cortex permits the emergence of such executive functions through conscious reasoning and awareness.

The authors then describe two different kinds of schools. One school is authoritarian and relies on predefined outcomes, planned units and regular tests. The other is driven by problem solving, social solutions to problems and critical reflection by the students; both affective and cognitive aspects are emphasized in such schools.

One problem with the authors’ attempt to link the prefrontal cortex with Dewey’s view of intelligence is that Dewey considered the use of the body (via the basic occupations linked to the common social needs of human beings for food, clothing and shelter) to be essential to the development of intelligence. Problem solving first and foremost emerges as a function of the human life process in the environment through the use of the body (and not just the brain as a surrogate for the body). Indeed, for Dewey, the brain’s function was to integrate the sensory and motor functions of the body and in no way functioned as separate from such integration.

Another problem is that conscious reasoning and awareness, for Dewey, is intermediary; learning involves conscious attention in the context of a problematic situation that requires resolution, but such learning eventually becomes habitual. Conscious attention gives way to habit so that individuals’ consciousness can be focused on other aspects of the environment that require focus to handle increasingly complex problems and the formulation of increasingly complex ends.

Nevertheless, the authors of the article do broach an issue that requires serious consideration by educators concerned with equity and social justice: how to enable children and adolescents to adapt their capacities to the environment and to adapt the environment to their capacities. In other words, educators need to question whether, in the modern school system, the relationship between the executive function of the brain and the adaptive functions of the body assumes a class form as a distinction between “academic” intelligence and “practical”—unintelligence, with class divisions being a consequence.
 
Fred