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 I got an invite to Google+ (thanks, Scott). First impressions: it looks well-designed and fairly easy to use. But there also appears to be some real depth to Google+: Will posted a link to an online article titled “How Google+ ends social networking fatigue,” which outlines ways to use Google+ to replace Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and even email. One big lack: Google+ still doesn’t support RSS; I’m assuming that will be added.
So far, so good. The real test will come as I see if Google+ takes up more of my time, or whether it makes my life easier.
I’m watching the slow launch of Google+ with very cautious optimism. On the one hand, Google has a bad habit of introducing a new product, handling it badly, and then abruptly abandoning it; remember Google Wave? On the other hand, we desperately need a solid competitor to Facebook, a social networking product which is buggy, clunky, and not at all trustworthy.
Those of us in the religion world already know that we will be using social networking tools more and more as time goes on — it would be really nice if we had additional social networking options, and it would be even nicer if there were popular social networking options that were well-designed. Facebook is not particularly well designed; it’s better than MySpace, perhaps, but not by much. Will Google+ provide a better-designed social networking option?
Scott Wells has started me thinking about what I’d like to do to introduce an online component to sermons. Here are some preliminary ideas:
- On Thursday (the day I usually write a sermon), post a reading and a question for reflection on a sermon blog; the reading would be used during the service three days hence.
- On Sunday morning, just before preaching, post the reading text of the sermon on the same sermon blog. The sermon would have embedded hyperlinks, and bibliographic references for further reading as relevant.
- In addition to comments on the sermon blog, the order of service would give a hashtag for a Twitter conversation. The sermon would be streamed live online, so shut-ins and people who were traveling could hear the sermon, and participate through Twitter and online comments.
- After the Sunday service, comments would remain open on the sermon blog, and I’d join in the online conversation when it made sense to do so.
This would fit into my normal weekly work flow: I have often posted a reading or reflection question a few days before I preach a sermon, and I already post a text of my sermons online before I preach them. At present, I don’t have comments enabled on my sermon blog (because I got too many comments by evangelical Christians and Hindus who wanted to argue without listening to anyone else), but it wouldn’t be a big deal to enable comments once again. The only thing listed above that I can’t do right now is stream the sermon live online (yes, I know I’m at a Silicon Valley church, but we don’t have the volunteers who could oversee the streaming, and our Internet connection is woefully slow). And for you diehard Facebook people, there could be a Facebook page with the sermon blog’s RSS feed.
The real question is: would anyone actually participate in a Twitter conversation, or read the sermon online and comment on it? Would you? Or is there some other online enrichment strategy that I’m missing?
Meg Riley has just announced in Plenary of General Assembly that the Church of The Larger Fellowship will be starting to do live online worship. Details still to be worked out, and time will fluctuate at first, in order to find the best time. They’re also piloting a bunch of other online applications.
Check out this new blog on the Fellowship of Fools, which is “a new congregation, a congregation without walls, a home for Fools of the Diaspora, existing within the structure of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.” It also involves chocolate kisses, flash mob prayers, and blowing bubbles. And what I want from this blog is lots of photos of their “worship which can erupt anywhere.”
We spent last night in Chattanooga, and this morning we decided to visit the Hunter Museum of American Art. “Andy Warhol Robot,” a 1994 sculpture by Nam June Paik on loan from the Kunstmuseum, greeted us as we entered the musuem. The main body of the robot is made out of cabinets of early television sets; the original cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have been replaced by newer CRTs which display short video clips by Paik. Other robot body parts include cameras, film projectors (at least that’s what I think they are) canned soup, and a Brillo box sculpture made by Andy Warhol.
As we were leaving the museum, a woman and two boys, aged about five and seven, were standing in front of the robot. The two boys were looking up at it with great interest, and as we walked by, I could overhear one of the boys telling the woman some story that involved explosions and either monsters or robots.
I just discovered A Unitarian Universalist Blogs the Bible: One UU Sociologist’s Interpretation. Angie, the blogger, started a month ago, retelling the Bible in her own words. It’s fabulous — very readable, very amusing, best new UU blog in months. Now all this blog needs is a bunch of people commenting — which is where you come in.