Many names for the same thing

I’m really enjoying day two of this conference. I’ve been chatting intermittently with Mr. Marquette from Stuart Hall High School, and we were commenting on the mix of very scientific talks with every practice-oriented talks. The first talk this morning featured a lot of graphs (some of which lacked labels and therefore weren’t clear indicators of anything) and not a lot of practical applications for education, which speaks to one of the primary gaps that conferences like this try to address: what can we learn about the brain that can really help in the classroom? And what the heck do we do to really make those connections in a responsible, meaningful way?

Our first speaker this morning spoke to another theme that comes up a lot in conversations about the brain: in his words, “The thing about psychology is that there are many names for the same thing.” Dr. Michael Posner’s talk characterized three networks for attention–the alerting network, the orienting network, and executive function–and how they develop over the lifespan. This is just one way of characterizing how the brain leverages different functions for different purposes. I’m partial to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model currently promoted by CAST (see their website here) which grows out of the research of Russian psychologist A.R. Luria, whose work is grounded in the earlier research of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. The UDL model isn’t necessarily more or less right than the model that Dr. Posner described today; instead, these are two different ways of describing how similar and the same regions of the brain can function.

One challenge with describing learning and the brain is that it’s very hard for us to remove ourselves from the equation: we have brains, we’re using them now, and we can’t know what it’s like to not use them. This makes me think of a great text in philosophy of mind. Serbian philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an article in 1974 called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” that talks about the fact that we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat because, among other things, we lack the same sensory equipment. Human’s don’t echolocate, we don’t fly, and we simply aren’t bats. Similarly, we can’t know what it’s like to not learn the way that we learn and not pay attention in the way that we pay attention, so it’s important to develop meaningful metaphors to describe what’s going on in the brain since it’s hard to divorce ourselves from our own experiences.

I’m not sure if the connection is that strong for other people, but that’s my own brain’s meaning-making, I suppose. Back to the conference!

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