Information Age Education
   Issue Number 82
January, 2012   

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 http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.

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

Bob Sitze
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 cultures.

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 purposed lives.

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 interest level.

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 vexing questions.

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.

The Challenge

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?

Finally

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.

Resources

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.

Sitze, B. (2005) Your Brain Goes to Church: Neuroscience and Congregational Life. Herndon VA. Alban Press. http://www.alban.org/bookdetails.aspx?id=1198

The Science of Evil: http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-69.html

Three Part IAE Newsletter Series: Emotion and Feelings: http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-61.html, Consciousness: http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-62.html, Beyond Consciousness: http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-68.html

The previous article in this series, “The Positive Role That the Arts, Arts Education, and Creative Obsession Will Play…” focuses on the nature of obsession, which is also integral to religious belief and practice. See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-81.html.


Bob Sitze

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.


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