The education system today directs almost all of its attention and resources to the brain’s left hemisphere. More specifically to the areas in the left hemisphere that contribute to logical and analytical problem solving – competencies at the forefront of science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM disciplines).
It’s these functions that will continue to be taken over by computers and robots, eventually leaving the heroic left hemisphere all alone in the back alley of cultural progress.
Actually, students have been feeling this way for generations now. They are expected to show up to class, soak in the information, give it back on tests, and ride the escalator to graduation. By that time they will have forgotten most of it, feeling cheated out of the best years of their lives.
You might wonder what education would be like, were it to dedicate attention and resources to the whole brain. It wouldn’t ignore or downplay left-hemisphere virtues, but so much more of the picture would be included: Its quirky, creative neighbor to the right. The constant activity in the limbic apartment below. And the mysterious noises sounding up from deep in the basement.
Of course I am using an analogy here, but the image of a multilevel apartment building is helpful when considering what ‘whole-brain’ education would look like.
Let’s begin where the focus is currently, but expand our frame to include both hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. The brain’s evolution entailed an important differentiation that located specialized nuclei and networks in particular lobes, with the two hemispheres playing complementary roles in the higher-order processing known as critical and contextual reasoning (CCR).
Critical is derived from the root meaning “to cut,” and it is a left-hemisphere specialty to cut and break things down into their elements, analyzing wholes into their component parts.
Given this predilection of the left hemisphere for critical reasoning, we can also see how the education system itself, at least in Western and developed countries, is a product of breaking student populations into levels (primary, elementary, secondary, post-secondary, graduate, doctorate), each level into grades or years, each grade into subjects and courses, and each course into sections, assignments, and assessments.
It all makes perfect sense – to the left hemisphere.
But students often get lost in the mix, stuck and disoriented, unclear about why it’s necessary and where it’s all heading. The conventional answer to that last question is to get a job, where they will likely work in a department, in a skill caste, on a team, doing things that somehow add up to meaningful wholes – but that frequently remains an elusive goal.
What’s missing is a contextual understanding of how things connect and comprise larger patterns and realities. This would be the right hemisphere’s contribution, were it invited to the conversation.
Critical and contextual reasoning keeps the bigger picture in view (or the ideal in mind) as the pieces are analyzed, defined, manipulated and mastered along the way.
This optimal balance of the brain hemispheres is about much more than equal contributions, however. The right hemisphere and its contextual reasoning actually has deeper affiliations than the left with the brain’s limbic system – that downstairs apartment where strange, non-rational things are always going on.
An evolutionarily older network of nuclei than those higher-order processes transpiring upstairs, the limbic system is where intuitive information from the body’s interior and sensory information from its external environment are synced up to produce behavioral responses that are situationally adaptive.
A perceived threat in the environment, for example, will “call up” a fear response in the body and motivate us away from the danger in order to avoid injury or death – which is obviously adaptive.
The limbic or “old mammalian” brain is constantly monitoring and adjusting this alignment of our internal state and external conditions, opening attention to the settings and situations in which we find ourselves. Here is the primitive foundation to what will later evolve into the right hemisphere’s talent for contextual reasoning, adding its own complexity and sophistication, along with a much broader and more versatile emotional repertoire.
This same affective versatility is what supports social and emotional learning (SEL).
The education system largely ignores the social and emotional intelligence of students – until, that is, it breaks out of line and disrupts the fixed routines of instruction. As a consequence, students are not only disoriented without a contextual understanding of what’s going on (right hemisphere deficit), but they don’t know how to connect and relate to their teachers, to each other, and to the curriculum in ways that could arouse interest and promote genuine learning (limbic deficit).
If students can’t and are not supported in learning how to show empathy, build rapport, get along and work together, the higher-order challenge of developing contextual reasoning will be inherently compromised.
A whole-brain model for education is not yet fully in view, for there remains the basement of our apartment building to consider. Beneath the cortex and limbic system and functioning as the boiler room for the entire complex is the brainstem, with its primal responsibility of regulating the vital functions of the body. Running alongside and up from the deep interior of the body, kundalini-link, is the vagus nerve, which serves a crucial role in “tuning” the nervous system.
When we take some deep breaths, roll our shoulders and relax, we are adjusting the vagal tone of our nervous system. Pushing our chair away from a desk full of deadlines, taking a break and going outside for a walk, even the purely mental exercise of telling ourselves it’s not the end of the world or that we did it once so we can do it again – all of these are proven effective practices for adjusting vagal tone and regulating our internal state. They belong to the category of vagal tone regulation (VTR) strategies, which you might guess are foundational skills of life, learning, maturity, and a general sense of wellbeing.
But the education system doesn’t waste time on them, either. What does the body’s nervous state have to do with academic performance and student success? Everything!
If students don’t know how (because it hasn’t been modeled or intentionally taught) to access, monitor, adjust, and regulate their nervous systems, then the natural limbic response of anxiety before a high-stakes exam will degrade the higher functions of mental focus, accurate recall, contextual and critical reasoning, resulting in performance outcomes that do not reflect their true intelligence, knowledge, desire to learn, or dedication to study.
We have learned enough about the human brain, that it’s time for an overhaul of our education system. Instead of fixating on the admittedly important skills of critical reasoning, how about we deliberately and systematically include the equally important skills of contextual reasoning, social and emotional learning, and helping students more effectively manage the stress of learning and life?
We have everything we need now to change the game – at last and for good.