Thursday, December 13, 2012

Quick Fire Neural Pathways – Helping Our Brains Wire for Compassion

A fourteen-year-old girl, “Wendy” has been shunned by her social circle for having slandered another high profile fifteen-year-old girl. “Samantha”.  Samantha has rallied all of her friends and has now started a social media campaign that essentially humiliates Wendy.  She has posted false information about Wendy and numerous other girls have picked up the slander.

“Jeffrey” has begun to chronicle his growing drug use online. A concerned student alerts a trusted counselor.
Cara and Julie were best friends and actively spent a great deal of time working together, hanging out and connecting.  Cara began spending time with another group of girls so Julie began a social media campaign defaming her character and posting photos and personal secrets that put Cara in a bad light.

So here is another thing that needs our attention as we work with the evolving brains of our digital learners.  Just as the culture of hypertext, Google, Tumblr and Instagrams  weakens neural connections required to think deeply and concentrate for longer periods of time, the same skillset required in our moral learning is affected.

The same practice of digging into an idea with depth, checking with multiple perspectives, moving past frustration, listening, doing, redoing, undoing and doing again in order to develop a complex understanding of a subject - this the same practice one needs to develop empathy and compassion.

Compassion requires you to think about others beyond what you see at face value.  I repeatedly tell my students that they are more than this one experience, or event or circumstance. Just like you need the practice of digging deeper and asking more and more questions, in order to develop depth of understanding, the same applies for compassion. 

Without the practice of slogging through the emotional muck that being in conflict with those you care about, and coming out on the other side, alive and often with an even stronger relationship, it becomes easy to think that the immediate moment is what will exist forever and ever.

The social wrangling and maneuvering has not changed but the means from which to hurt back have radically changed.  Now, teens can publicly strip and defame character in a virtual environment.  A student’s social status can change in the blink of an eye.  The work of trying to hash out difficult feelings is painful.

And increasingly, when we are working with students to sort through these feelings and experiences they are more likely to feel that any conflict means that a relationship is permanently doomed.

The idea that these feelings of hurt or pain are normal and part of learning how to work with others often comes as a surprise.  Part of our new administration/counseling journey is encouraging the idea that we can “fix” the problem by talking it out and acknowledging the harm and working at finding ways to repair harm.

This is a practice that requires repeated training and drilling before it becomes a habit.  As young beings get less and less  exposure to personal and interpersonal conflict, we need to artificially implant it back into our curriculums. The neural pathways designed to help our brains wire for compassion are worth preserving, and for now, we need to add it  with purpose, into our curriculum spaces.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How Do We Put Back in Curriculum What Technology Takes Away?

Technology is moving into the educational sphere in an ever-increasing way.  The BC Ed Learning Plan has “Learning empowered by technology” as one of its five key elements that will inform future educational policy. (p.5 The Vancouver School Board, like many other districts, is looking at introducing a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) culture into Vancouver Schools.  The Vancouver School Board’s Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer Brian Kuhn writes, “The future has always been an uncertain reality.  However, today our reality is on an exponential change trajectory, powered by technological progress.  The uncertainty of the future is being amplified like never before.  How do we make successful choices and decisions in a context that at times feels like chaos?” (
All this “exponential change trajectory powered by technological progress” is happening whether we like it or not.  Our students are wired in to online culture in a way that is incomprehensible to the majority of non digital-native teachers and administrators. And we talk a great deal about supporting our learning communities and about allowing access to online culture be that via increased bandwidth, wireless schools, and an increase in hardware and licensing.
But what are we doing about what technology takes out? 

Every time I go on a long run, the benefits are inherently clear – I am stronger, my lungs are in better condition, I manage my stress levels and I feel better.  But with every step I take, just as I strengthen one muscle, I weaken another. My quadriceps, one of the strongest, biggest muscles in the body gets even stronger and the opposing hamstring muscles get weaker.  If I don’t attend to the weakened hamstrings by stretching and exercise, injury, pain, and an inability to run let me know with great force, that I need to do something differently.
Integrating technology to our brain is no different.  The “exponential change trajectory powered by technological progress” that Kuhn speaks to is not only changing how we learn and “do school”, it is also changing our brains and quickly at that. As Nicholas Carr in his book, “The Shallows” writes, “Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind – over and over again” (Carr, p. 31).  And our evolving brain where “the future of knowledge and culture no longer lies in books or newspapers or TV shows or radio programs or records or CDs” but in “digital files shot through our universal medium at the speed of light” (Carr, p. 31) - Our brain loses out on some valuable practice in deep thinking.
“It’s not a library of books it’s a library of snippets”(Carr, p.166)

Technology, the Internet, and social media add interest, engagement, familiarity and fun.  There is nothing wrong with these qualities, and ideally, learning needs to be all of those things, but hypertext, the culture of distraction and the ten second sound bite, visual profile or video moment take away the practice of deep learning and deep thinking. Online culture does great things with breadth, but actively discourages depth. It is the equivalent of strengthening an already strong muscle without attending to the muscle that gets weakened by the practice.
“Google want us to be able to “slice and dice” the contents of digitized books we discover, to do all the “linking, sharing, and aggregating” that are routine with Web content but that “you can’t easily do with physical books.” (Carr, p.165)
And this can lead to a much bigger problem.  If we have a culture of learners adept at gathering information, skimming and collating, providing wonderful visual examples and video content, what happens to deep learning and deep thinking?  What happens to our culture, when our collective brains lose the neural circuitry required to go past the first two Google pages and consider multiple sources and probing questions? What happens with the practice of democracy?
What happens to democracy, period?
The Internet, however, wasn’t built by educators to optimize learning.  It presents information not in a carefully balanced way but as a concentration-fragmenting mishmash. (Carr, p.131)
We need to stretch and strengthen our teaching practices that promote the neural circuitry for deep thinking.  The depth that is taken out of the practices promoted when working with technology have to be integrated and explicitly part of our technology plans or we will sadly find ourselves “injured” and unable to run further.
One further benefit of including conversations about the inclusion of deep thinking practices and curriculums inside our technology plans, is that we honor educational past practices.  Our non digital native teachers can easily feel that all this talk of technology and education, without intending to, may give the impression that the “new and improved” way of doing schools somehow means, their “tried and true” practices don’t count.  Integrating breadth and depth, strengths and weakness, helps include members of staff who have an expertise and depth of practice that needs to be included in the conversations around technology.

Let’s start this conversation, and lets see where it takes us. I am open to hearing your side of this!