Education Opinion

The Neuroscience of Democracy

By Sam Chaltain — April 09, 2014 4 min read
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In the ideal educational future, is there a single design principle that matters most in establishing the optimal learning environment for children?

That seems like a pretty important question to consider. And if you were to go by today’s leading reform strategies, you might conclude that the answer is, variably, greater accountability, better use of data, more strategic use of technology, or more personalization (all good things, by the way). Yet for my money, the design principle that matters most is the one modern reform efforts care about the least - the extent to which schools are creating true laboratories of democratic practice.

Consider the insights of QED Foundation founder Kim Carter, whose five-part theory of change is the clearest road map I’ve seen for where we want teaching and learning to go. It goes something like this:

If we have cultures of transformational learning where

1. we create competency-based learning pathways and learning opportunities,
2. know and embrace each student’s strengths, challenges, passions, and abilities,
3. intentionally design for student agency, coaching and assessing habits of mind and being,
4. cultivate communities of collaboration and partnership both inside and outside of school and
5. embed these practices in laboratories of democratic practice,

then all students will flourish and achieve to high levels.

“Lately, more people are becoming more interested in what we’ve proposed,” Kim explained recently. “Yet what I’ve noticed is that while people may be interested in one or more pieces of the five-part theory of change, the one they feel is least relevant to their own work is the emphasis on democratic practice. And that’s when I tell them that it’s actually the foundation on which all the others depend.”

A librarian by training, Carter has not arrived at that conclusion by caprice. Indeed, she believes that the research across a range of fields - from cognitive science and behavioral psychology to philosophy and biology - confirms the existence of a “neuroscience of democracy,” and a set of formulas that can help students discover their own sense of purpose.

“Our theory of change is designed to give students two things: choice and voice. You can’t create more personalized learning environments if students aren’t directly involved in co-constructing them, and you can’t really build a nurturing sense of community if only adults get to make the important decisions. But more than that, as educators we can’t ignore the architecture of the brain, and what it needs, nor can we ignore the structure of our society, and what it requires.”

Neuroscientist David Eagleman agrees. “Brains are like representative democracies,” he writes in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. “They are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. I propose that the brain is best understood as a team of rivals.”

Biologist James Zull makes a similar point in The Art of Changing the Brain, when he says that the goal of school reform should be to create the optimal conditions that will lead to change in a learner’s brain. “Our structure for learning should have a well-proportioned foundation,” Zull argues. “There should be balance between receiving knowledge and using knowledge. If we want to help people learn, we should not worry about how we can motivate them but try to identify what already is motivating them.”

All of these insights, as Carter suggests, require a much greater degree of student agency and involvement than many schools wish to allow. By definition, however, those sorts of democratic practices are messy and non-linear, and most of the most celebrated efforts to reform American schools outline strikingly linear paths to success.

This is a problem not only because systemic change does not proceed in a linear fashion, but because an overly logical, overly academic approach to teaching and learning contradicts what we know about the brain and what it needs to thrive. “Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops,” says Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. “The brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship. What happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain . . . [And] the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing.

“What schools need is not merely to identify more effective ways of teaching the Three R’s - reading, writing and arithmetic. They need to augment those skills with three additional R’s - reflective thinking, relationship-building, and resilience.”

This is why Carter believes all meaningful learning must occur in a context of democratic practice. “The brain has four functions it must perform to help us survive: cognition, control, fear and pleasure. Typically, we pay attention to only one of these in most schools, and ignore the others. Yet we all need a sense of agency in our lives - the research on that point is clear - and there’s simply no way to prepare young people for adulthood if we don’t also equip them with the capacity to engineer their own lives.

“After all, citizenship is how we make our mark in the world.”

What do you think? Is there a “neuroscience of democracy,” and should more schools be grounding their work in its central tenets?

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.