Friday, May 2, 2014

Different Brains for Different Folks

I had a meeting today with a potential client that made me think about brains. Specifically, I thought about how we already know so much about how the brain works, and about how "brain-based" is a huge buzzword in education circles. In theory, brain-based education is a really good idea because it capitalizes on what we know about how the brain works, and what the brain is capable of. In reality, though, brain-based pedagogy approaches the principles in a general way, that can be applied to all students regardless of how each individual brain works.

What got me on this train of thought was the potential client explaining an assignment that her son was required to do in his Social Studies class. The assignment was an annotated bibliography, and was to be submitted ahead of the actual paper he needed to write. He struggled with the assignment because he had not yet developed an argument or thesis, so he couldn't wrap his head around how each source could be used in the paper to support his eventual thesis. I have no doubt that some of his peers were able to do the assignment without a problem. Some people can organize their thoughts in the abstract, without really knowing what they are going to write about. Other people get overwhelmed by this roundabout way of getting the answer to a question, or developing an argument.

So what do you do, if you're the student that can't do the assignment in this way, if you need to do it differently to get it done? I say, break from the script. If you know yourself as a learner, and you know how your brain works, then find the best way for you to do the assignment. When I was a classroom teacher, executing lesson plans and assignments, I often did not think of the particular individual adjustments that I could make for a student until the issue came up, either because I noticed the student struggling or because the student came to me for help. Managing a class of 35 students, with varying degrees of skill in writing and reading, is a challenge. Developing individualized instruction for each of those 35 students is even harder. I would even say it's impossible.  And yeah, we teachers need a little help sometimes when it comes to figuring out exactly what each student needs in order to do her best!

The best thing a student can do for himself is to learn how his brain works, learn who he is as a learner and approach writing assignments from that perspective. So, if you need to hand in an annotated bibliography, for example, and you're feeling overwhelmed by the abstractness of the exercise, go ahead and develop your thesis first. Your thesis might change over the course of your research, and that's okay. Writers are constantly revising their own ideas, as they expand their knowledge and worldview. But at least, you'll have a place to start when you begin your annotated bibliography and that's all that matters--to be able to begin.

PS Here's a fun little brain test you can take: