Awareness of some of the basic strategies our brain uses to make sense of the world can help in your quest to be a great teacher.
Think about this scenario. You are invited to a New Year’s Eve party at your friend’s place. Once you get past the formal introductions and settle into the party, you notice there are 23 people there. Out of the 365 potential birthdays that anyone could have in a year, what are the odds that 2 of the 23 people in the room will have the same birthday? If you guessed about 5 to 10 percent, you are in company with the majority of individuals asked this question. The actual number is 51 percent. Surprising? There is a greater than 50 percent chance that in a group of 23 people, 2 or more will share a birthday. That is, of course, unless you are at an identical twins convention, in which case the odds are highly skewed.
What about a second scenario—Katie, a white, upper class, straight A student is acting out in your class the week after her grandfather passes away. Since his death she’s been fidgeting in her seat, speaking without raising her hand, disturbing the class, and has told you several times that you’re “stupid.” Also in your classroom is Lucas, a First Nations student struggling academically and socially. Lucas’s father is an absentee dad and his mother suffers from an on-going alcohol addiction. Last year Lucas’s brother Dakota was in your classroom. He has a diagnosis of ADHD, and struggles academically and socially. Dakota was a constant headache in class, disruptive, argumentative, fidgety, having no problem with insulting classmates and you. Now Lucas is acting out in class. He has been fidgeting in his seat, speaking without raising his hand, disturbing the class, and has told you several times you are “a fool.” Who are you more likely to show empathy for; who are you less likely to send to the office and give second chances to that week? Would you be aware that Lucas also lost his grandfather this week? Would it make a difference with how you respond to him this week?
Research consistently demonstrates that most individuals would be more empathic to Katie than Lucas; does that surprise you? Our brains are amazing computational machines, able to make complex decisions, come up with creative solutions to the world’s most perplexing problems and also invariably doomed to make tremendously reactive choices since our brains function in a highly emotional, and largely unconscious manner, sometimes skewing our otherwise better judgment. The reality is most of us are unaware of how much unconscious cognitive templates create the choices we make from moment to moment. Let me provide you with some further context to solidify this point.
We tend to view and make decisions about our world based on the context—that is how we frame a situation. And in today’s fast-paced world, we need ways to interpret and make sense of the world in a timely and efficient manner. Without the ability to frame situations, we would flounder endlessly in a lake of countless potential choices for how to respond to a situation. The problem with framing is that we tend to make decisions based on a limited amount of information (a very narrow frame) while neglecting equally viable options. Mentoring, case consultation and collaborative teams are just a few ways that educators can widen their frame of reference, increasing their tool box of potential strategies.
Ted Cadsby, author of several books on human psychology and investing, says that over interpretation is probably the most “pervasive and perilous” potential thinking error that humans make. He cites that most people believe that in a group of 23 random individuals it would be unusual and coincidental for 2 people to share the same birthday, and yet he shows using the mathematical science of statistics that it is more probable that two individuals with the same birthday would be present at the party. Over interpretation means that we tend to make many decisions based on feelings and past experience, leaving out logic.
Statistics and research, while sometimes cumbersome, provide educators with some practical solutions that have demonstrated effectiveness. Educators would be wise to have at least a basic understanding of the brain, attachment, and relationship building, as these are the foundational pieces for understanding students.
This factor is a favourite of scientist Michael Shermer who has authored numerous books on why people believe weird things despite science that refutes such beliefs. Confirmation bias is simply this: we tend to notice things in our environment that support what we believe and ignore those that do not. This trait was wonderfully adaptive for our hominid ancestors who were making rapid decisions on what was necessary for survival. When your decision hinges on you being lunch for a sabre tooth tiger, or not, you better make the right decision, and fast.
While this adaptive trait had wonderful survival benefits for our hominid ancestors, our modern jungle of mortar and bricks poses, hopefully, no real fear of being eaten by a tiger, and stopping at the first solution that satisfies us, rather than examining a situation can be detrimental. Confirmation bias is seen frequently when teachers are in conflicted relationships with students. Conflict stirs up unconscious fight and flight survival mechanisms in the brain that actually impair an educator’s ability to see positive behaviours in a challenging student. The longer and more permeating the situation is, of course, the greater the potential the teacher will focus on the negative aspects of the student and discount the positive. The greatest gift teachers can give themselves is self-awareness, according to attachment researcher Dan Siegel. He points out that there is a consistent theme in his research—as caregivers gain greater awareness of their own beliefs and triggers, there is a corresponding increase in the quality of their relationships with their children.
The human brain does not like a high degree of ambiguity and will continue searching for what it perceives is the right answer. Finding concrete solutions is important (we need to do so in order to make decisions in life and the classroom) but it also often leads to simple solutions that fix a leak but ignore the faulty plumbing causing it. Ambiguity is important, it opens up our minds to multiple perspectives to an issue, to further research and exploration into solutions, and it invites a collaborative approach with students, parents and cohorts.
My point in this article is that experience and intuition are wonderful resources when it comes to creating resilient classrooms; however, evidence-based practice is also important. We all have a great deal of expertise as educators, I would agree, but there are researchers who make it their life’s work to find answers to the pressing questions in education; we need to use them.
Cadsby, T.R. (2000). The ten biggest mistakes Canadian investors make and how to avoid them. Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, ON.
Shermer, M. & Gould, S.J.. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstitions, and other confusions of our time. Henry Holt, NY.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2004). Parenting from the Inside Out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. Penguin Books, NY.
Siegel, D. (2010) Strengthening your attention and intention in everyday parenting. Internet article. https://www.drdansiegel.com/press/print/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Coleman (B.A., M.A.P.P.C) until recently worked as a counselor for Living Sky School Division. He has recently made the shift to private practice along with a move to Edmonton. He has a passion for writing and delivering presentations about resilience, trauma, stress and brain research. He has contributed to Canadian Teacher Magazine and various school division newsletters. Scott encourages comments and feedback about his articles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2011 issue.