17. Minding the Brain: Three Dimensions of Cognition in Social Justice Curriculum
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309 17 Minding the Brain: Three Dimensions of Cognition in Social Justice Curriculum Dan Glisczinski “Dad! Dad! Check this out! This book is soooo good,” insisted my seventeen-yearold , Flannery, who was engrossed in Malala Yousafzai’s biography. “Dad, you have to read it! It’s about this Pakistani girl my age who survived being shot by the Taliban just for going to school, and she’s now leading an international movement for universal girls’ education. She’s completely amazing.” “Hmmm, sounds interesting, peach,” I responded, mostly still distracted by my tasks at hand. “Tell me more about it when I get home. Gotta run.” And I was out the door. On my way to school, I brainstormed pertinent metaphors that my students and I might consider in our study of how neurons fire together and wire together based on environmental stimuli. Disappointingly, I remained too preoccupied with my own curriculum designs to realize that school was already in session in my own home. My daughter was trying to introduce me to a remarkable social justice and education movement. And I mostly missed it. By the time I returned home that evening, Flannery was at play practice, and so in the ritual of dinner, dishes, and homework, I went to sleep without asking her to tell me more about Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai’s story. If meaningful learning deepens us by adding dimension to our awareness, relationship , and decision-making, my daughter’s thinking about Malala Yousafzai had become multidimensional. Mine had not yet taken much shape. Michael Posner’s research on this very topic—paying attention—earned him President Obama’s 2009 National Science Award. Posner’s research informs us that attentive learning requires activity in three separate brain networks dedicated to (1) alerting, (2) orienting, and (3) executive cognition (Posner & Keele, 1968; Posner, 1981, 310 | Glisczinski 1994; Posner & Rothbart, 2005). The first network observes, the second associates, and the third constructs informed decision-making. These three separate networks function independently yet interconnectively. And together, they are the physiology from which all attention and dimension in learning develop. Purpose This essay invites scholars of teaching and learning to consider the roles that neuroscientific research on the brain’s (1) alerting, (2) orienting, and (3) executive thinking networks play in structuring three-dimensional social justice curriculum. On a literal level, this chapter examines Yousafzai’s work in relationship to the research on how neurons fire and wire to construct three cognitive networks dedicated to progressively advanced dimensions of awareness in education. On a figurative level, this discussion of the three dimensions of attentional networks is offered as a heuristic for visualizing and constructing a social justice curriculum that is concordant with research on how the human brain meaningfully—perhaps even transformatively—alerts, orients, and engages in executive thinking in the context of social justice education. Learning’s First Dimension: Alerting Learning from My Experience Sometimes social justice curriculum comes to us when we’re least expecting it. That was my experience last week, as darkness fell earlier and I watched the season’s first snowflakes cling to my office window. The snow reminded me of a season I love, which reminded me of the high-altitude film Everest I’ve been meaning to see. I checked our independent theater’s listings for the stormy story that chronicled the epic Mount Everest climbing catastrophe from a couple decades back. I’ve been fascinated by the written accounts of those stories for going on twenty years. But no such luck, Everest had already moved on. But what I discovered in the theater’s listings was far from disappointing. Instead of seeing the familiar Everest story, I was treated to something novel and inviting; the theater was showing He Named Me Malala, the documentary about Malala Yousafzai’s remarkable campaign for universal girls’ and women’s education. This is the movie version of the book Flannery was trying to tell me about months earlier. Yousafzai, not yet twenty years old, is the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner and the protagonist for one of the most important social justice movements of which I’ve become aware. In the same way that a theater’s illuminated and flashing marquee lights draw the eyes of passersby to consider the featured titles, the human brain’s alerting network receives and transmits salient stimuli to adjacent meaning-associating neurons. My alerting network was engaged, and I wanted to learn more. Minding the Brain | 311 Research Reminds...