Dr. Louis Cozolino is a respected leader in the relatively new field of neuropsychotherapy and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University. The author of several books on social neuroscience—the study of how human brains are hardwired to connect with one another—Cozolino argues in his latest work that we can overhaul our approach to education using new understandings from this field.
Most would say that the American public education system could certainly use overhauling; few would disagree that it's broken.
Among popular ideas for fixing it is that of bringing the findings of neuroscience into the classroom. This approach may be referred to as "brain-based learning," but it often involves focusing on individual concepts taken out of context and applied piecemeal. It isn't that these research findings aren't helpful, but as Cozolino points out, "renaming teaching as 'brain-based education' while keeping the present model in place is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The challenge lies in identifying the most pressing problems of this model and where to begin in addressing them.
Three challenges that stand out to Cozolino are each related to the fact that the current educational model is based on the production industry. "This model has proven itself over the last 150 years and works exceptionally well for making automobiles, washing machines, and chicken nuggets," he says. But to make these products well, you need to use raw materials that are all the same, tools for stamping them that are all the same, and a clear vision for the end product. Our challenges are that our raw materials are children who vary widely in their makeup; their teachers—the tools used to form them—vary just as widely in their skills and approaches; and to cap it all off, we don't have a clear vision of our final product.
"Education is supposed to prepare young people for the future," Cozolino writes. "But what future?"
The mistake is not in the raw materials, the machinery, or even necessarily our assumptions about what skills children will need to succeed. Rather, Cozolino suggests, our primary problem is in mistaking human beings for industrial products. "When a teacher begins to think of his or her classroom as an assembly line, it's time to make chicken nuggets," he says. "If we are going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers.”
So how do we equip children with the education and skills they will need—not only to make their best contribution to society—but also for lifelong success, whatever success might mean to them?
"What has been missed thus far in essentially all books on brain-based education," Cozolino proposes, "is the recognition that the human brain is a social organ of adaptation." In other words, the brain is equipped to adapt as necessary to navigate its environment, especially through linking to and learning from other brains "in the context of emotionally significant relationships."
A single human brain doesn't operate in a vacuum. The release of important chemicals in the brain is controlled by social interactions, and the quality of these interactions determines how well we learn. As Cozolino puts it, "our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom."
Successful teachers stimulate students’ minds and brains to learn by creating an environment that is enriched with novelty, supported by positive expectations, and characterized by safety and acceptance so that anxiety is reduced. "Anxiety is the enemy of curiosity, exploration, and new learning," Cozolino writes. A mild sense of arousal is good for learning, but in higher states chemicals are released in the brain that shut down its ability to create new connections between neurons—that is, to learn.
Unfortunately, the industrial model of education promotes anxiety and fails to cultivate what Cozolino refers to as the human "natural habitat," which calls for a context of supportive, nurturing relationships where secure attachment bonds are cultivated. In such an environment, other brain-based research concepts have a chance to succeed. But they might as well be deck chairs on the Titanic without this foundation.
If the thought of attempting to cultivate this type of classroom seems daunting to teachers, Cozolino suggests it will be well worth the journey: "As human beings, we need to connect with our students as much as they need to connect with us." Those who come out on the other side, he says, will have a new vision of what it means to be a teacher, a new sense of passion and compassion, and "the empowerment that comes with engaging in and surviving a worthy challenge."