Because School Told Us

I recently taught a workshop about brains for a group of 24 5th graders. First I wrote on the board, “What does the brain do?” The students dutifully enumerated the standard list: controls your movements, thinks, feels emotion, controls your heartbeat, controls your body temperature; obviously they’d been studying this. Then I wrote on the board, “How do you know that?”

An awkward silence followed.

Finally a student hesitantly ventured, “Because school told us.”

“What if school is wrong?,” I asked. “Can school ever be wrong?”

I heard an indistinct rumble of “yeah” and “I guess.”

One student tried to resolve her cognitive dissonance by saying that we know because scientists have studied it.

I asked, “What if the scientists are wrong? Let me tell you a secret: scientists have been wrong about tons of stuff throughout the years. They were proved wrong by later scientists. How do you know that today’s scientists aren’t wrong about this? How can YOU know, from your own thinking and your own experience, that the brain does all these things: think, feel, move the body?”

“There was a smart guy a long time ago named Hippocrates who believed, like today’s scientists do, that thinking and emotion come from the brain. But there was another smart guy named Aristotle who said, ‘you know what, I believe thinking and emotion comes from the heart. What does the brain do: it sits there! It never budges an inch! How can all these amazing abilities come from something that doesn’t do anything? The heart is where all the action is: it’s constantly beating, boom-boom, boom-boom. That’s where you’re going to get exciting stuff like thoughts and feelings!’ So how do YOU know Aristotle is wrong, and that school and today’s scientists and Hippocrates are right?”

That’s when the students, one by one, stopped reciting, and started thinking. One student said that when he concentrates on his thinking, it feels like it’s happening in his head, and not in his chest. Another noted that when a person’s brain is damaged, their thinking and emotions are often changed. A third offered an argument-for-argument’s sake for Aristotle’s side saying that the heart is indeed involved in movement. A fourth countered with the example of paralysis from brain injury as proof that the brain is key to movement. For the rest of the intro, the students contributed evidence and arguments instead of memorized facts: except, that is, whenever their teacher interjected. Although she was basically pleased with the class, throughout the session I could tell she was perturbed by my approach. And every time she chimed in, she conducted little call-and-response exercises, pressing them to vocalize the various lobes and bulbs they had memorized, warning them, “this will important later in school!” She was my customer, so I could only sigh inside.

The role of teachers is to encourage students to reason for themselves and to question pedagogic authority. Memorizing facts may help children “perform” according the meaningless standards of formal schooling, but it will not make them true students of the world around and inside them.

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