Neuroscience and religious education

Outline of an informal talk given July 10, 2011, at Ferry Beach Religious Education Week, held at the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine.

Welcome to this porch chat on neuroscience and religious education. What I’d like to do in this porch chat is this — First, find out what you know about neuroscience as it applies to religious education. Second, to tell you a little bit about what I have been learning about the exciting new developments in this area. And third, to talk about ways we can all continue our own education in this area.

(1) Let’s begin with what you know about neuroscience and religious education. And before you say “nothing,” I suspect at least some of you know something about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. How many of you have run into multiple intelligences work before?

What you may not realize (or may forget) is that Gardner drew upon new scientific insights in the way brain works to develop this theory. According to a paper by the Multiple Intelligences Institute, “to determine and articulate these separate faculties, or intelligences, Gardner turned to the various discrete disciplinary lenses in his initial investigations, including psychology, neurology, biology, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities.” [p. 6] So Gardner represents one attempt to apply scientific insights into the brain to educational practice.

So now let me ask: what (if anything) do you know about neuroscience and religious education?

[summary of some of the responses]

  • the brain’s plasticity
  • answering the question: is there a genetic quality to empathy?
  • the god gene
  • how like things like mediation, music, etc., can change the brain
  • kids who have deficits with empathy
  • you can make new neural pathways
  • visualing brain pathways through brain imaging

(2) Now let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve been learning about how to apply scientific understandings of the brain to religious education.

I’d like to begin by reading you a paragraph from a 2000 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” (You can download a free PDF of this book here.) I was introduced to this book by Joe Chee, a teacher educator and UU who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education and technology; Joe recommended this as a great introduction to the topic. And right at the beginning of this book, the authors tell us why we should care about the topic:

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illustrate [in this book], a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today. Equally important, the growth of interdisciplinary inquiries and new kinds of scientific collaborations have begun to make the path from basic research to educational practice somewhat more visible, if not yet easy to travel. Thirty years ago, educators paid little attention to the work of cognitive scientists, and researchers in the nascent field of cognitive science worked far removed from classrooms. Today, cognitive researchers are spending more time working with teachers, testing and refining their theories in real classrooms where they can see how different settings and classroom interactions influence applications of their theories.

So what we’re seeing is this: because of new work in the areas of cognitive science and neuroscience, a new theory of learning is emerging. We are beginning to have better understandings of the way people learn, which sometimes contradict the old ways we’ve been taught about the ways people learn, and these new understandings of ours are forcing us to change the way we teach.

Let me give you one specific example, drawn from the National Academy of Sciences book.

As a result of these theoretical and methodological developments, great strides have been made in studying young children’s learning capacities. To summarize an enormous body of research, there have been dramatic increases in knowledge in four major areas of research…:

1. Early predisposition to learn about some things but not others: No evidence exists that infants come into the world as “blank slates” capable only of registering the ambient events that impinge on their senses in an undisciplined way. Young children show positive biases to learn types of information readily and early in life. These forms of knowledge, referred to as privileged domains, center on broadly defined categories, notably physical and biological concepts, causality, number, and language (Carey and Gelman, 1991).

2. Strategies and metacognition: Outside of these privileged domains children, like all learners, must depend on will, ingenuity, and effort to enhance their learning. It was previously thought that young children lacked the strategic competence and knowledge about learning (metacognition) to learn intentionally, but the last 30 years have witnessed a great deal of research that reveals hitherto unrecognized strategic and metacognitive competence in the young (Brown and DeLoache, 1978; DeLoache et al., 1998).

3. Theories of mind: As they mature, children develop theories of what it means to learn and understand that profoundly influence how they situate themselves in settings that demand effortful and intentional learning (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1989). Children entertain various theories of mind and intelligence (Dweck and Legget, 1988). Indeed, not all learners in schools come ready to learn in exactly the same way. Some theorists argue that there is more than one way to learn, more than one way to be “intelligent.” Understanding that there are multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) may suggest ways of helping children learn by supporting their strengths and working with their weaknesses.

4. Children and community: Although a great deal of children’s learning is self-motivated and self-directed, other people play major roles as guides in fostering the development of learning in children. Such guides include other children as well as adults (caretakers, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.). But not only people can serve as guides; so, too, can powerful tools and cultural artifacts, notably television, books, videos, and technological devices of many kinds (Wright and Huston, 1995). A great deal of research on such assisted learning has been influenced by Vygotsky’s notion of zones of proximal development and the increasing popularity of the concept of “communities of learners,” be they face-to-face or through electronic media and technologies….

OK, so let’s review that:

Brain science shows us that young children are not blank slates. Most of us pretty much know this is true — if you spend any time at all with young children, you know that they most definitely are not blank slates! But brain science gives us the concept of “privileged domains,” areas where young children learn best — physical and biological concepts, causality, number, and language. This is really interesting, and has implications for what we do as religious educators with our young children.

Brain science also gives us the idea of metacognition, that is, strategic competence and knowledge about learning, knowing and learning how to learn. This helps support something we religious educators have known for a long time: that children, and all learners, can be active participants in their learning, rather than passive vessels. But brain science helps us better understand precisely how children and other learners are active learners.

Third, brain science gives us new theories of how the mind works. Many of us already know about multiple intelligences theory, which is based on brain science. But brain science also tells us that children (and other learners) have develop their own theories of what it means to learn and understand. Above all, brain science helps us religious educators understand that we can help learners learn by supporting their strengths and working with their weaknesses.

Finally, brain science confirms for us religious educators the importance of community in education. We already know that, right? But brain science also challenges us to define more precisely what we mean by community. I am fascinated that brain science is telling us that it’s not just people — adult mentors and teachers, and older children and peers — who can serve as guides. Other powerful tools and cultural artifacts can also provide this communal learning environment, also including television, books, videos, and technological devices (including, I hasten to add, all kinds of digital media).

So that’s part of what the National Academy of Sciences has to say about how cognitive science and neuroscience can influence the way we do education.

Now I’d like to to you from another approach to this subject. This is from an article titled “Still Developing: Teenagers, Brains, and the Arts,” in the latest issue of the journal Religious Education (vol. 106, no. 3 May-June 2011, p. 262). This article is written in the first person by Claire Annelise Smith:

I came to brain matters via research on teenage brain development. In many ways, this introduction provide a new lens for understanding teenage maturation as well as looking at and engaging general educational practices. This in turn has impacted my work as a member of faculty at a seminary [Saint Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri] with responsibilities for both directing a program with high schools students, youTheology, and teaching at the seminary level. Not surprisingly, however, it has also reinforced the importance of some of our practices. While teenage brain development remains my focus, I now connect with neuroeducation, which brings together neuroscience, psychology, and education. There is therefore an aspect from general brain research that has added a new dimension to my work in the seminary classroom and youth ministry, namely the arts and the brain.

In seeking an understanding of the teenage brain, I was truck by the interplay between the development of executive functioning and the development of the system that controls emotions and memory. Changes in the prefrontal cortex allow for an increase in executive functioning so that teenagers are capable of conceptualizing, abstract reasoning, critical thinking, and planning. At the same time, the limbic system that controls emotions is developing much more rapidly than the prefrontal cortex. Thus, the most seemingly balanced and thoughtful teen can exhibit inconsistent behavior and make seemingly irrational choices that are purely emotionally driven. This affirmed the importance of small group leaders and mentors in the youTheology program who serve as adult guides to help teen critically process the large quantity of information they receive during the program. These adults also function as sounding boards for teens’ ideas and outlets for their emotional responses. The adults also help them interpret, expand, and redirect, as necessary, these ideas and responses. Thus, teens are supported in theyouTheology process in a way that takes cognizance of their developing brains.

What I take from Smith’s article is the way a growing knowledge of the way brains function at different ages can help us to become ever more sensitive to the needs and realities of the persons with whom we are doing religious education ministries. This is one of five short articles in this issue of Religious Education, articles in which religious educators and religious education scholars describe how the insights of cognitive science, neuroscience, and related disciplines are directly affecting their work.

(3) Where do we go from here? How can we continue our education and knowledge of this important realm of inquiry? Aside from continuing the discussion at this porch chat, I’d like to point out that this year’s annual conference of the Religious Education Association (an interfaith, international group of scholars and practitioners in religious education) is on precisely this topic. The conference will be held in Toronto on November 4-6, 2011. The formal title of the conference is “Brain Matters: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Diversity,” and here’s a brief description:

new insights in biology, neuroscience, and brain studies continue to inform and at times confound our understandings of cognition, creativity, and educational practice. Within this growing body of social and scientific discovery, theologians, philosophers, and neuroscientists, along with educators, counselors, and religious practitioners face a myriad of questions around the relationship between religious experience and cognitive neuroscience. This annual meeting will provide an opportunity for diverse engagement in exploring this relationship both in formal education strategies and in formational practice.

You can find more information about the conference here.

This is one wave of the future in religious education. So tell your congregation that they should pay your way to this very important conference. If there’s no money in the congregation’s budget, perhaps there’s an individual within your congregation who could pay your way — this conference is that important! You really need to be there! At the very least, you can read up on the topic in Religious Education, and you can even read through the reading list for the conference.

We continued talking about neuroscience, cognitive science, and religious education for some time after I gave this talk. Four of kept talking for another two hours, and only stopped because we had to go to dinner!

4 thoughts on “Neuroscience and religious education”

  1. Greetings! I find neuroscience an enthralling field of study for which I have great interest. Also, as an undergraduate student in neuroscience I tend to see a lot of the dubious research (i.e. learning styles) that pass through my classes on a regular basis. It seems apparent to me that the educational system–in the US–is an antiquated system that is too slow to adapt to the exponential growth of technology. How can we reconcile these two fields of interest: one that is too slow to adapt and the other that is at the cusp of human technology and innovation? It seems to me the whole educational system needs to be revamped to align better with what we know today. How do you feel?

  2. Eric B @ 1 — Thanks for the great comment.

    An antiquated educational system? Yes, definitely — more specifically, within my subfield of religious education, I’d say we’re at least thirty or forty years behind the research. And if you think the research on learning styles is dubious, you should read the research on faith development, which is even more dubious.

    You write: “It seems to me the whole educational system needs to be revamped to align better with what we know today.”

    Yes, i agree. However, there are major barriers to such change. High stakes standardized testing is currently the most powerful force driving general education, and so there is strong motivation to teach to the test and ignore what cognitive science tells us about learning for understanding. Perhaps more importantly, both general education and my field of religious education are badly underfunded, with little money available to provide in-dpeth in-service training in cognitive science for educational practitioners (teachers, their supervisors, teacher educators, etc.), so there is little opportunity for educators to learn new approaches.

    So I see little chance for revamping the educational system until we can revisit high-stakes standardized testing (which seems politically unlikely), and until we can adequately fund retraining existing educational professionals.

  3. Dan,
    Nice summary of your informal talk.

    I worry a little that the growing interest in neuroscience and brain research reinforces the view that learning is basically about “acquisition.” The Collins English Dictionary defines learning as “the act of gaining knowledge.” Since the time of Piaget and Vygotsky, the growth of knowledge in the process of learning has been analyzed in terms of concept development and “acquisition.” In the past 30 years, more educators are also now conceiving of learning of as a process of becoming a member of a certain community – i.e. participation.

    I think the participation metaphor is particularly apt for UU communities and children’s RE in UU churches.

  4. Joe @ 3 — Thanks for that insight. Any published articles or research you can point us to that links neuroscience, cognitive science, and the social aspects of learning?

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