Learning & the Brain – Sam Goldstein (learning & schools)

Instinctual optimism and resilient mindset. Those are the two concepts that Sam Goldstein introduced in his Learning & the Brain keynote Hardwired to Learn: Creating Schools That Nurture and Grow Developing Brains. From his site: “Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. is a doctoral level psychologist with areas of study in school psychology, child development and neuropsychology.”

Instinctual optimism is Goldstein’s reply to the question, How do kids know they can? They are intrinsically driven to learn. Furthermore, as a result of this instinctual optimism, kids know that whatever it is, they can do it, hence the resilient mindset. Think of babies and toddlers you have known – they are instinctually optimistic and resilient about learning to walk, for instance. They don’t tend to ask, and aren’t told they can’t; they just go ahead and do it, taking in stride the bumps and falling down.

Both of these concepts remind me of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk about creativity. Kids come to school eager, wide-eyed and filled with curiosity and creativity. (And Sir Ken says the schools proceed to educate the curiosity out of the kids.)

Goldstein went on to provide a little brain and gene background. He said that genes know in exactly which organisms they reside, and the “basic brain wiring plan is encoded in the genes.” That explains the nature part, but there is also a nurture portion, for although we may be genetically preprogrammed, brain development is also experience based.

At this point he posed three questions:

1. What is and is not intelligence?
2. How is intelligence different from knowledge?
3. How is intelligence different from achievement?

Given all of the above, Goldstein then talked about children and classrooms that nurture them. He felt strongly that it is “not our job to motivate kids, but to create an environment in which kids motivate themselves.” In creating such an environment, we need to consider (and all of the following are quotes)

• potential benefits and adversities of external rewards
• reinforcement of instinctual optimism
• providing opportunities for empathy and altruism (create community)
• providing competition in the absence of winning
• providing extrinsic reinforcers for effort and progress, and not for control [Behavior modification is for control, and Goldstein is not a big fan of this.]
• fostering opportunities for intrinsic control
• maximizing external consequences to control
• finding ways to enhance self-discipline
• setting limits in autonomous ways; helping kids learn to manage themselves instead of teachers managing them

Goldstein concluded by sharing two lists, of sorts: how to focus on student well being and describing the mindset of a resilient child. And he closed with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The secret of education lies in respecting the student.


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