Learning, Doing, Being

Jewish Education

and the Prefrontal Cortex

Joel Lurie Grishaver

I was at a gathering put together by the Covenant Foundation where I wound up in a small group with Lisa Colton who told me that I should know about Adele Diamond and instantly sent me a link. Yesterday, a couple of months later, I listen to the podcast and was blown away.

Suddenly neuroscience was backing up everything I was saying. I have been arguing in this column/blog for several years (1) that complementary schools are not only important to the Jewish future, but to the overall development of individual students. And (2) that schools need to evolve their process to maximize not only their Jewish impact, but their overall educational excellence. That excellence can be sold to parents. This article will expand in this direction.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the brain underneath the forehead and is involved in mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong or good and bad, predicting future events, and governing social control — such as suppressing emotional or sexual urges. The prefrontal cortex is the brain center most strongly implicated in qualities like sentience, human general intelligence, and personality. Said simply, the development of the prefrontal cortex can make you a good student and a good person. The prefrontal cortex is the last to develop and the first to go in diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The workings of the prefrontal cortex are grouped together in a series of abilities that are filed under executive function. According to Adele Diamond executive function breaks into three key areas:

  1. Inhibitory Control. This includes self-control, self-censorship, delayed gratification, impulse control, and the development of discipline. It is the part of the brain that does reflection and evaluation. Its functions include: Being able to think before you act. Being able to learn something new that conflicts with what you usually do. Acting appropriately when tempted to act otherwise. Paying attention despite distractions.
  2. Working Memory. This is the manipulation of information. This is imagination, problem solving, creativity and that whole arena. It includes: Being able to consider things from different perspectives. Being able to relate one idea to another. Being able to perform a set of instructions in sequence. Being able to monitor one’s own thinking.
  3. Cognitive Flexability. This is the ability to leave one task and focus on a new one. It is all about mental focus. “Mindfulness” is the popular Buddhist term. It includes: Being able to pay more attention when necessary. Being able to think ‘outside the box.’

Tools of the Mind

We know that the more activity that nurtures the brain, the more it develops. Play, sports, music, memorization, arts, meditation nurtures the brain. And according to Adele Diamond, that which nurtures the spirit develops the brain.

The Worst Kind of Hebrew School

Think of a Hebrew school where they do nothing but Hebrew reading drill, check off prayers on a chart where they get a star, and each student has to wait patiently for their turn to be the reader.

Even this Hebrew school, the one we all remember, and the one that every student remembers to hate has some good. Forget about the content. Hebrew is good but that is not our issue. Developing patience is good. Memorizing letters is good. And, beneath the surface of this classroom the Stockholm Syndrome bonds students to each other as they form a community of resistance. And, interpersonal activities are good. Adele Diamond says, “People feel physically better if they are socially involved.”

The Better Complementary School

Diamond says, “Sometime older paradigms are better.” There is ancient wisdom that that helps us, “Storytelling, creative play, singing, dancing, and even sports are central to brain development. The more activity, the more involvement, the more the brain is nurtured. Diamond quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Action teaches the meaning of the act.”

A school that centers itself in experiential education – that is a place of doing that builds sacred community as part of its process and is joyful – all builds the better individual. It develops the brain. Problem solving and other skills are far more important than information, even though facts and names are easier to test. Memorization gets a bad reputation, but it too (think Hebrew letters) is good for mental development.

What we learn is that older wisdom offer great developmental possibility. Telling and retelling and creatively playing with stories are really powerful. Luckily, Judaism is a tradition loaded with stories. The goals of developing good people are as important as other educational goals—and that we are good at. Problem solving is important—and often happens through interpretation. Jewish texts are studied through interpretation and problem solving. Know, that brains work better in joyful settings and shut down when stressed. Surprise and mystery enhances learning. We got a lot of those.

Tell parents that Lev Vygotsky taught that social experiences and continued social interaction is critical. A child’s ability to play creatively with other is a better predictor of success than IQ. Now “make it so.”

Try This at Home

Here is a brain science trick that is really good for us. If a child has a problem with mirror writing, there is a very simple fix. Give the student a red pencil in addition to a regular one. Ask the student to put down his/her regular pencil and pick up the red one every time one of the letters that s/he reverses comes up. The little bit of reflection involve in switching pencils will solve the problem.

Torah Aura and the Prefrontal Cortex

Adele Diamond is involved with a curricular process called Tools of the Mind. It is all about developing curricular resources that promote the development of executive function and other prefrontal cortex areas.

The Jewish School of the future needs to be more concerned about Tools of the Mind than touch screens. And yes, the two are not mutually exclusive.

An example: Diamond tells the story of a class of four year olds that are paired (put in hevruta) each given a story they could not read, and asked to make up a story using the pictures. This is a classic form of creative dramatics. The problem came when no one was willing to listen. Everyone wanted to go first. They solved the problem by giving each team two pictures: one of a mouth and one of an ear. Each person got a card that defined their role—listener and speaker—and then the four year olds tapped into their Inhibitory Control and took turns. Here, brain science both informs and enables this activity.

If we are smart, on complementary schools of the future that we are now designing will take these insights to mind. They will be:

  1. Kind, caring communities that work with respect and feel safe and nurturing. Solo learning doesn’t do for the prefrontal cortex what communal learning does.
  2. It will involve experiential activities that involve whole body learning, problem solving, tools and skills—not centering on the mastery of, but the application of, information.
  3. That the arts, music, dance, plastic arts, and storytelling will be part of the learning. There should be a great focus on creative dramatics.
  4. That learning should not challenge but grow Executive Function, especially in the arena of Inhibitory people.
  5. In order to make our schools good places, we should model, teach, and coach becoming good people.
  6. In our rush for the new, we should not forget that ancient wisdom about learning has much to inform our efforts.

My exposure to Adele Diamond (thank you Lisa Colton) has added another lens to the way I now vision Jewish education. Her Tools of the Mind has given me a new vantage point for looking at the work we do—and I recommend it as a way of looking at the work you do in running schools. To quote Diamond one more time, “Education is not what we teach, but what happens in the prefrontal cortex.”

2 Responses to Learning, Doing, Being

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