Mind, Brain, and Education

During my journey to earn my Ph.D. I was frequently surprised by just how much fun I was having. Sure, working full time and going to school full time had its moments, like when I was in the middle of my research and my mom became quite ill. After a few weeks, it was clear that I would have to delay completion a year so I could properly care for her. But, as one who doesn’t have any memory of not being fascinated by brains and how they work, the majority of this experience was like being the proverbial kid in a candy store!

When I contemplated by doctorate, I knew that I would do work at the intersection of cognitive science (how we think, the process we use), neuroscience (the actual working of the brain), and educational research (how we blend and share a multitude of complex and dynamic forces to create learning for other humans). When my advisor mentioned a summer conference at Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education department within the Education Department, I knew I had to go. Harvard had always been that place of mythic proportion in which I dreamed to be immersed. My old brother attended Harvard for his Master’s and I was more than a little envious.

As some of you know, I am a two-time cancer thriver. When I kicked cancer to the curb the first time, I was determined to finally earn my Ph.D. My visit to Harvard was very early in that process. As I was doing my literature review (the deep and wide reading one does to be sure one has a handle on the field of focus for your doctoral work, to ensure that your work builds upon the field) I “discovered” Dr. Kurt Fischer and his Dynamic Skill Theory, a theory of how cognition develops: as we say now, Mind Blown! Dr. Fischer was one of the founder’s of both Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Education and the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society. When I reached out to him, I realized that regardless of cost there was NO WAY I was missing this opportunity to go study Mind, Brain and Education during the first summer of my doctoral work. At the end of the first day I went for a walk along the Charles River. I was overcome with emotion and stood there and cried like a baby, until I realized that the overwhelming feeling was one of profound gratitude to be alive, cancer-free, pursuing my doctorate as I had committed to doing when I was six years old (I have it in writing in my keepsake box that I was going to be a “doctor and a teacher.”), and at Harvard no less! Life was incredibly good.

On the second day I learned the piece of science that has informed every educational decision and move I have made since then. A brilliant, young (relative to me) woman named Mary Helen Immordino Yang was sharing her insights into how our brains work. She revealed that the data was irrefutable that humans learn through emotion. Period. Full stop. Our brains are emotional organs. I was blown away! It made such great sense to me, but so do many neuromyths, so I set out to learn all I could. I read every juried academic article I could find and I agreed to join the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, in part to give me great access to both the scientists doing the work and a bunch of my fellow geeks who love to read, think, and talk about our brains and how they work.

Next week in our shared time of Coffee with the Principal we will be exploring what it means to have what is called a growth mindset, how we can cultivate this in school (and at home ), and how powerful our mindset is when it comes to developing our knowledge, talents, and skills. Until then, remember that we cannot separate our selves (our heart, our soul, our feelings) from our feelings and our feelings make a big difference in what we learn  and what we do not.

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