To Be Intelligent (page 4)
What does it mean to be broadly intelligent? Our schools and communities need to develop this capacity in our young people as they face the complex challenges of life today. Research on the brain and its infinite complexity can help.
For several summer holidays, when my three sons were young, we had swapped our home just outside Cambridge, England, with friends in Virginia. To our children, America was a land of long summer days, plenty of ice cream, and visits to national parks and historical sites.
Late one evening back in England, we were driving home from a day in the country with the children. My wife played a Garrison Keillor tape - the one describing his fictitious one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota. "At one end of the room there was a portrait of George Washington and at the other end one of Abraham Lincoln, beaming down at us like two long-lost friends," Keillor drawled in his best Lake Wobegon style.
"That's silly," piped up 7-year-old Tom. "They weren't alive at the same time, so how could they have been friends?"
I asked Tom how he knew that. "Well," he said, "when we went to Mount Vernon they said how sad it was that Washington didn't live into the 19th century - and you once told me Lincoln was born after Admiral Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar." His logic, and the connections he had built, fascinated me.
Several years later, at a dinner party in Seattle, I recounted that story. "How I wish American elementary schools taught history as well as that!" mused our host, a professor of education.
"That's silly," said our adolescent Tom. "History lessons in school are boring. I just love everything to do with America!"
My wife interjected, "What's your favourite subject?"
"It's maths, because my teacher always gets us to think about connections and patterns. That's really interesting; I can see how things come together."
Patterns and relationships, emotions, the need to make sense, intrinsic interest, formal and informal learning, history dates, and mathematical formulas - these elements in Tom's learning defy any logical structure. The process of learning is wondrously spectacular and messy, and it does not easily fit within a closely defined, classroom-based curriculum - particularly for adolescents.
Try as we might to accommodate children's spontaneous questions, too often their natural enthusiasm is dulled by the needs of the system for order. Nevertheless, the capacity for self-organisation ("I want to think this out for myself") is valued more and more highly in our society, which is changing so rapidly that today's questions are answered almost overnight. Some people call such an ability wits. In the north of England, people use an old expression - nous, a level of common sense that goes beyond book learning. It's what the brain is all about.
The Complex Workings of the Human Brain
Medical and cognitive sciences, new technologies, and pedagogic research are helping us appreciate how the brain works. The human brain is the most complex living organism on Earth. Coveney and Highfield (1995) call it the "Cathedral of Complexity." Although it weighs only about three pounds, it contains billions of cells (neurons). The total length of the "wiring" between the neurons is about 100,000 kilometres (62,150 miles). To illustrate: The total number of neurons is estimated to be greater than all the trees, in all the forests, on the entire Earth's surface. The number of synaptic connections between neurons may be more than all the leaves on those treas. Susan Greenfield, when lecturing a group of 14-year-olds at The Royal Society in London, compared the memory capability of all those neurons with that of 1,000 CD-ROMs, each one containing an entire Encarta Encyclopaedia. The brain is, literally, a mind-boggling thought. Every human - including the most difficult adolescent - has just such a brain.
Biologists can tell us much about brain chemistry; but for educational practice, the concept of complexity helps us understand the layers of organisation within the brain that act together, apparently miraculously, to handle not only memory, but also vision, learning, emotion, and consciousness.
The structures and processes of the brain are a direct response to the complexity of environmental factors faced by humans since our species appeared. Until about half a million years ago, the brain changed slowly through evolution. But our brains started to grow more rapidly as we learned to use language. Only within the last 30,000-60,000 years have we developed the capacity to be broadly intelligent.
What does broad intelligence mean? Archaeology and cultural anthropology show that humans developed many discrete skills over about a million years (social intelligence, technological intelligence, natural history intelligence, language intelligence); but only recently - say, in the past 30,000 years - have we been able to combine these skills to create the broad intelligence that now gives us our amazing versatility. The cave paintings discovered by M. Jean-Marie Chauvet in southern France in 1994 date from this period.1 Highly sophisticated, they bring social, technological, and natural history intelligences together. They seem to have leapt out of nothing - we know of no earlier primitive art. With the emergence of broad intelligence, modern man was created (Mithen 1996). Archaeology is starting to endorse Howard Gardner's call to educators to work with all of children's many forms of intelligence. That is what gives us our creativity.
How the Brain Flows
The brain can handle many situations simultaneously; historical facts are fitted into mathematical patterning when the brain is comfortably challenged in a non-threatening situation. Psychologists and cognitive scientists call this a state of flow - a state you reach when you become so engaged in what you are doing that all tasks seem within your capability (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). This state enables us to react to our environment while also thinking about many abstract matters. The brain handles this complexity through several layers of self-organisation and vast interconnecting networks. Once established, traces of these networks appear to survive almost indefinitely and are frequently used as solutions to new problems and as the basis for new ideas. That is how, unconsciously, 7-year-old Tom built up his understanding of historical chronology.
Neurologists can now see some forms of memory in operation. Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they watch specific patterns of activity within the brain light up on a computer screen. To the researchers' surprise, memory exists in many locations in the brain, not just one place. Some people liken memory to a hologram where the whole exists in all the parts. Memory traces seem to follow neural networks that the individuals - at the time of original thought - found most to their advantage, even if only for a short time. Nothing is ever irretrievably lost, though we still do not know how we can access memory more effectively at some life stages than at others. If part of the network is later activated, the brain may well question why it is not being asked to complete the original set of connections.
Going with the Grain of the Brain
All brain activity occurs spontaneously, automatically, in response to challenge. The brain does not have to be taught to learn. To thrive, the brain needs plenty of stimulation, and it needs suitable feedback systems. Effective learning depends on emotional energy. We are driven (the ancestral urges of long ago) as much by emotion as by logic. Children - and adults - who learn about things that matter to them are far more resilient and determined when they face problems than are people who seek external rewards. When in trouble, people with intrinsic motivation search for novel solutions, whereas extrinsically motivated people look for external causes to blame for their failure. The brain is essentially a survival system, and emotional well-being may be more essential for survival than intellectual well-being.
Too much stimulation, however, at any stage in life, turns a challenge into a threat. The brain deals with threat easily. It just turns off - as MRI dramatically shows. Give a person an interesting mental task, and many parts of the brain are seen to light up. Persistently insult that person, and the brain goes into a form of mental defence. The lights literally go out. Down-shifting - a phenomenon long recognised by psychologists - is a strictly physiological defence mechanism. Research suggests that working effectively at a challenging task requires significant amounts of reflection - a critical part of brain functioning (Diamond 1995).
No two brains are exactly alike; thus, no enriched environment will completely satisfy any two people for an extended period. Challenge and interactivity are essential. Passive observation is not enough. "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Let me do it and I understand," says the ancient Chinese proverb.
"Ability is not innate. It exists like a shadow of ourselves when we are willing to stand in front of a bright light."
- Ernest Hall
Learning What Matters
With our new understanding of the brain, we are in an excellent position to make it possible for people to become better learners. The implications of this new knowledge for society and for the economy are massive.
Ernest Hall, a successful English entrepreneur, understands the transforming power of learning. He was born in a northern industrial town near Manchester. His parents knew long periods of unemployment in the textile trade. One afternoon, when he was 8 years old, his teacher played a recording of "Apollo's Lyre." Ernest was spellbound; here was a form of beauty that was to transform his life. His family managed to obtain an old piano. By age 12, Ernest played so well that his parents urged him to leave school and earn his living by playing the piano in pubs. "No," said Ernest, "I love music too much to trivialise it. I will make enough money to play the piano properly."
That is exactly what he did. For years he worked in the textile industry, with great success - and continued practising the piano. By his early fifties, he had bought the closed-down Dean Clough Mills and created an amazing complex that today provides employment for more than 3,000 people in an array of high-tech and other businesses, including a mill - and that reserves a quarter of its space for art galleries, working studios, concert halls, and exhibition spaces. This complex vividly demonstrates that living, learning, and working - beauty and economic productivity - are all deeply interconnected.
To celebrate his 65th birthday, Ernest fulfilled a dream: He performed Bartok's First, Second and Third Piano Concertos, accompanied by the Leeds Sinfonia Orchestra. His CDs sell alongside those of the greatest pianists of our day.
Ernest believes in the potential of all young people to develop their particular abilities. "I discovered my interest," he says, "before the crushing routines of my little school would have reduced me to a mere cog in a machine. Ability is not innate. It exists like a shadow of ourselves when we are willing to stand in front of a bright light... We must say to every child, 'You are special. You are unique; but to develop your genius you have to work at it, and stick with it year after year'."
My son Tom comes from a privileged background. Young Ernest certainly did not. But creativity does not depend on privilege, nor does learning necessarily follow from teaching. Thus the old plaint of the teacher: "I taught them everything I ever knew, but they were so uninterested that they learned nothing!" Contrast that with David Perkins (1992), writing in Smart Schools, "Learning is a consequence of thinking" (p.78). We should remind every child of this statement each day.
Reprinted with the permission of the 21st Century Learning Initiative.
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