This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter. All back issues
of this newsletter are available free online at
This is the eighth of a
series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current
cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester
(Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two
introductory articles. Newsletter #77 and subsequent newsletters are
written by guests.
For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive
neuroscience. However, Dave Moursund will provide Information and
Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In
addition, readers are invited to send their comments using the Reader
Comments directions near the end of this newsletter.
We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free
IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are
available at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education: Taking Cognitive Neuroscience Beyond Education
Religious Program Consultant/Author
This article invites you to participate in the ever-expanding influence
of cognitive neuroscience into every nook and cranny of civilization. I
believe this is “what’s next” for applied neuroscience. My thesis is
simple: we brain-savvy educators have the responsibility to take what
we know and make it useful within our additional societal roles.
Some Necessary Background
I write from a personal history of over thirty-five years of
observing the expansion of neuroscience into our society and its
During the 20th century, I was an elementary school teacher and
principal, looking for answers to questions that my educational
psychology professors had wisely left unanswered. The first glimmers of
brain science—stress, endorphins, right/left brains—were compelling and
useful in my work. I kept reading and trying to make sense of this
developing science. As my career morphed into other arenas in which
“learning” was an essential element (or at least a guiding metaphor) I
increasingly discovered the value of neurobiology for understanding how
the people I served could best achieve their most-desired yearnings for
Self-disclosure: I’m a church guy. Except for the years I worked as a
meat cutter and job-trainer, I have been employed by religious
enterprises. I’ve worked in parochial schools, served as a church
musician and youth worker, written and edited religious curricula and
developed large-scale programs for a large-scale denomination. I’ve
conducted countless workshops all over the country (and stayed awake
during most of my presentations).
All this work was oriented towards the well-being of congregations as
purposed social systems. Throughout several decades of leadership at
the denominational level, I tried to find ways to integrate
neurobiology into “organized religion”. When I finally gathered enough
experience and insights, I wrote a 21st Century book about the subject,
Your Brain Goes to Church: Neuroscience and Congregational Life
(2005). I started calling myself a “neuro-ecclesiologist”, at first
just a way to tickle folks’ curiosity, but later as a fairly accurate
description of my lifework. I fortunately found a quiet (but growing)
cohort of other church leaders who were also searching for appropriate
and necessary applications of the brain sciences to our work.
We were helped by the emergence of the intriguing field of neurotheology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurotheology)
and its explorations of the neurobiological underpinnings of such
theologically relevant phenomena as prayer, mediation, glossolalia
(speaking in tongues), consciousness, and free will. The IAE Newsletter
has recently published articles on this type of research (see Resources
below), and several recent acclaimed books by such renowned cognitive
neuroscientists as Michael Gazzaniga (2011), David Eagleman (2011), and
Daniel Kahneman (2011) are expanding the societal knowledge base and
What I learned along the way
Cognitive neuroscience sadly still holds only a precarious perch in
churchly enterprises. Because neurobiology easily trends towards
metaphysical matters—part of the imagined province of institutional
religion—some religious leaders are reluctant to absorb neuroscience
discoveries into their thinking and integrate them into their behavior.
Others even seem purposely clueless about any kind of science—and
neurobiology may especially threaten the doctrinal card-houses they
build around themselves. The result? The organized church has a very
limited understanding of even the most basic neurobiological knowledge.
Few religious leaders routinely seek the wisdom that the cognitive
neurosciences could provide to help them answer some of their more
For example, when fear embeds itself into the identity and life of a
parish, understanding the biology of fear won’t solve the specific
problem. But realizing that an underlying (amygdala, cortisol,
fight/flight/freeze, etc) biology exists can lead the congregation to
explore ways in which it can avoid becoming a hatchery that breeds
fearful people instead of a group committed to the
theological/scientific truth, “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Over the years I have thus been insistent about the neurobiological foundations of what we do in churches. (Brains do
go to church!). But I have also encountered pushback. With so many
other fish to fry, most religious leaders seem to prefer to behave as
they have always behaved, believe what they have always believed and
ignore what they have always ignored. Even though the cognitive
neurosciences could easily be applied to the workings of churches, it
still hasn’t happened in any significant way.
Where This Leads
This has brought me to wonder about other large-scale enterprises
within society that we encounter. Although forward-thinking business
and political leaders regularly apply neuroscience discoveries to their
work, is it possible, for example, that most philanthropists,
non-profit and volunteer organization leaders, civil servants, and
parents are (like religious leaders) unaware of the utility of brain
science to their work? Could they also feel threatened by the
implications of neurobiological research? Might they also increasingly
discover better questions and answers in the brain sciences that would
enrich their leadership?
We educators have been among the first cohorts of societal leaders to
put neurobiology to good use. Even though we have disagreed about
particulars, we haven’t for several decades doubted the educational
usefulness of neurobiology. Educational leaders who now ignore the
brain sciences do it at their professional peril.
So here we are—you and me—deeply embedded with the extraordinarily
helpful findings of cognitive neuroscience. We know how it helps
learners of any age.
And what we know about cognitive neuroscience could be useful beyond
narrow notions of “education”. If we see “learning” as a metaphor for
something larger within human consciousness, we also know a lot about
how people change. If we can discern how language is formed, we can
also determine how to improve communications. If we have discovered how
children use brain-savvy strategies to encounter their world, we also
know how to help leaders understand the minds of their followers. If we
have seen what engenders teens’ self-esteem, we also know what might
constitute a rich and rewarding workplace environment. If we can
demonstrate how continuing stress physically diminishes brains, then we
also know how toxic relationships diminish organizations. We probably
know more than what we think we do.
If my experiences as a neuro-ecclesiologist are any clue—and if
I’m correct about what you already know—then I think this challenge is
worth your consideration: It’s time that you take what you know about
the workings of the human brain and apply those insights to other
arenas of human enterprise.
Think of all the places where you have personal influence and all the
ways in which you can affect change beyond your primary role as an
educator. What organizations are you part of? Toward which larger
societal movements—e.g., justice—do you contribute? In what informal
groups is your voice important? Where do you volunteer? In addition to
other educators, who reads what you write? In what other arenas of life
are you an acknowledged leader?
In any of those roles, you have the opportunity to apply fundamental
neurobiological truths to the greater good. Where do fear and anger
need to be diminished? How can organizations work smarter and actually
consider the brains of those they claim to serve? How can you help
counteract the machinations and manipulations of people who use
cognitive neuroscience discoveries for less-than-admirable purposes?
Which thinking and decision-making processes could you teach to others?
Given the recent progress (or devolution) of our society, I don’t
think it’s defensible for us to keep to ourselves what we know to be
true and practical. Although more than enough challenge exists within
the educational enterprise, we have a responsibility to the greater
society to infuse the increasingly wonderful discoveries of the brain
sciences into every human enterprise.
I’ll be working at this from a church guy perch. I hope you find your
own place and work your own neuro-wisdom into that situation.
For the good of the people you serve.
Eagleman, D. (2011) Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Pantheon.
Gazzaniga, M. (2011) Who’s in Charge? Fee Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Harper Collins.
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking: Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.
Bob Sitze works as a congregational consultant and writer. His books have been published by The Alban Institute (www.alban.org) He blogs about simple living at www.thelutheran.org/blogs/simpleenough. He lives in Wheaton, Illinois with his first-grade teacher spouse Chris and a very smart dog.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in. If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help
Readers may also send comments via email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog
and the free newsletter you are now reading.
To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back
issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
To change your address or cancel your subscription, click on the
“Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this e-mail message.