In the first part of this blog series I acknowledged that it seems that any person who desires to succeed in life, whether in business, education, family, churches, works to try and understand brain functionality. I started to discuss from reading Daniel H Pink's A Whole New Mind, how we require an understanding of our brains, their complex neural pathways and how we can use more right-brained thinking. This is the second part of the series; a lot of the background information is found in the previous post. Therefore, just as a recap, let's look at the six right-brain led abilities that we must master to thrive in this whole new world. I continue to try and apply Pink's thinking to educational settings. Once again, thank you to Kim Hartman at www.kimhartman.se for her insights here too.
Not just function but also design. Today it is economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful or emotionally engaging.
Not just argument but also story. Data isn’t enough. The essence of persuasion, communication and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative.
Not just focus but also symphony. While the industrial society specialized in making a few things in large numbers, the conceptual age is about putting the pieces together – Symphony. Not analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine pieces into an arresting new whole.
Not just logic but also empathy. In addition to logic you need to have an ability to understand what makes your fellow man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.
Not just seriousness but also play. There are evidences of enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games and humour.
Not just accumulation but also meaning. Materialism has freed people from day to day struggles to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendent, and spiritual fulfilment.
The high-concept, high-touch abilities that now matter most are fundamentally human attributes.
It is the second half of this list that we now turn.
4. Empathy - How we build authentic relationships in this high-concept, high-touch age is through developing understanding. In a right-brain heavy world, this ability to imagine yourself in someone else's position and intuit what that person is feeling, the ability to stand in others' shoes, to see with their eyes, is crucial. Empathy isn’t sympathy – feeling bad for someone else. It is feeling with someone else, seeing what it would be like to be that person. Empathy builds self-awareness; bonds parent to child, allows us to work together, and provides the scaffolding for our morality. Much of Pink's work here is owed to Simon Baron-Cohen and his work on facial expression. Seven basic human emotions have clear facial signals: anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt and happiness. Empathy is related to symphony because empathic people understand the importance of context. They see the whole person much as symphonic thinkers see the whole picture. Interestingly, dozens of studies have shown that women are generally better at reading facial expressions and at detecting lies. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.
I performed Baron-Cohen's faces test and scored 27/36, equal or better than 54% of all participants. And that is coming from someone who believes he is pretty empathetic and good at recognising emotion in others. You should definitely try it if you want to get a picture of how well you read people (click the image below). This isn't the only measure of empathy, in fact, it is probably not the best, but it does show how well we have to engage our brains androgynously in order to work in this field. In The Empathy Quotient questionnaire, my score was 44 out of a possible 80 which suggests I am not on the autistic spectrum but certainly not as empathetic as I thought I was! Have a go at this here.
From an educational perspective, there is no doubt that this ability to meet students where they are and understand their complex needs in light of what they need to achieve, has never been more necessary. A great article from Edutopia suggests that having empathy as a central tenet in your teaching toolbox achieves three things:
1. Empathy builds positive classroom culture, especially with diverse student in an increasingly globalised sector. In his article Developing Empathy in the Classroom, Bob Sornson asserts, "Empathy is the heart of a great classroom culture."
2. Empathy strengthens community. Given that the definition of empathy involves understanding another's feelings without having experience, empathy sets students up to deepen relationships with their current classmates and people that they know outside of school. These people may be coming from different cultures and different socio-economic backgrounds. Michaela W. Colombo writes in her article Reflections From Teachers of Culturally Diverse Children that "approximately 40 percent of children in the U.S. public schools are from culturally diverse backgrounds (NCES 2003)". As children learn empathy skills by communicating cross-culturally with their classmates, those skills will transfer to their lives in their community.
3. Empathy prepares your students to be leaders in their community. Leaders must understand the people that they lead and be able to show that they care. A study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership found that "empathy is positively related to job performance" (Gentry, Weber, & Sadri, p.3). Jon Kolko describes in the Harvard Business Review how empathy is the key to a successful product. Our students must be able to empathise with those whom they lead in order to make them feel valued. As teachers, we must equip our students to be the future leaders of our communities and beyond.
This same article suggests a number of resources to help us develop empathy in our classrooms:
Miranda McKearney and Sarah Mears suggest incorporating reading in their article "Lost for words? How reading can teach children empathy."
Empathyed.org offers lesson plans centred around empathy.
Ashoka lists different strategies to incorporate empathy across different educational contexts, as well as a toolkit for increasing empathy within schools.
Dr. Karyn Gordon provides some practical tips in TEACH Magazine's article "Dr. Karyn Gordon: Creating Empathy and Gratitude in the Classroom."
Teaching Tolerance describes a variety of strategies for helping to build a positive classroom culture that can include empathy.
5. Play - Pink starts this chaprer by referencing Ford's Rouge Plant where laughing and whistling were sackable offences! However, joyfulness makes us more productive and fulfilled, and 'play ethics' can strengthen and ennoble the work ethic. Pat Kane has written a brilliant book The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. In it, he suggests that it's not either work or play but that work can be play. This concept does not decry the fact that sometimes we have to do unenjoyable tasks, even menial activities, but that an attitude of play makes the "medicine go down".
Entrepreneur magazine recently ran an article on The Surprising Benefits of Having Fun at Work, highlighting that "A U.K. study of 700 participants by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy showed that productivity increased by an average of 12 percent and as high as 20 percent after viewing a comedy clip and enjoying snacks and drinks. Dr. Daniel Sgroi, the report’s author suggests showing a short film or some crazy commercials. Incorporate humorous videos into your PowerPoint presentations. Everyone will leave with a smile on their faces."
This is no less true in education. Don Ledingham, education blogger and director of education and children's services for Midlothian Council, suggested that, "When I consider the secondary school curriculum, the notion of using play as an approach to promoting learning is rare and, in some subject areas, completely unknown.The secondary school curriculum has evolved into a set of formal learning outcomes that often lead the teacher to adopt a methodology where they have complete control over the nature of the learning process, the criteria by which success will be measured and the duration of the learning experience. This is driven by a tacit expectation that 'good' teaching requires explicit goals and formalised learning steps. But play has been used productively in secondary schools." Phillip Waters, writing for The Guardian, offers further suggestion, "Play is a challenge for schools because letting children play means handing over control, content and intent, and foregoing power. That's the argument used by many play advocates. But play can be a reciprocal and social state of being. If schools could lose, just for a day, as a trial, their demarcations of authority and drop child/adult, teacher/student identities, and instead all be players for a day – and, dare I say it, all be learners too – then play just becomes another medium of practice used in the school experience." Dr David Whitehead, the renowned Cambridge scholar echoes this, "The evolutionary and psychological evidence points to the crucial contribution of play in humans to our success as a highly adaptable species. Playfulness is strongly related to cognitive development and emotional well-being. The mechanisms underlying these relationships appear to involve play’s role in the development of linguistic and other representational abilities, and its support for the development of metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities."
I love the idea of having fun - I am never more alive than when I am enjoying myself. This is often when I am with friends or family, usually eating a meal, telling stories (there it is again!) and having a laugh. Us Brits are world-renowned for our 'banter' and practical jokes. This is so key to the school culture - perhaps it doesn't need to be humour but certainly, there is a need for fun, leisure, creativity, recreation, non-serious activity. PEDAL, Dr Whitehead's research project at the university have produced some amazing resources to help teachers integrate play into their curriculum and can be found here and PlayTalkRead offer practical advice for parents too.
6. Meaning- I find it fascinating, as a Religious Studies teacher and practising Christian, that meaning and purpose has a central role in the Conceptual Age. Pink acknowledges that our capacity for faith – not religion per se, but the belief in something larger than ourselves – may be wired into our brains through the right hemisphere. People have enough to live, but nothing to live for. They have the means, but no meaning. This great awakening and desire for something greater is clearly evident in our society where social enterprises and charity giving are at an all-time high in a time of economic low. This reminds me of a brilliant, perhaps prophetic, book I was given by a friend a number of years ago, Man's Search for Meaning, by Auschwitz survivor and acclaimed psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" Part One constitutes Frankl's analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy. This theory based on Kierkegaard's will to meaning, is founded upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one's life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.
This is becoming even more poignant with life expectancy rates increasing - the boomer generation now has much of their lives still ahead of them - they may still look for a reason for existence. As a Director of Sixth Form, I often found myself in conversations with young people, asking them what they wanted to do with their lives. Inevitably, many of them simply answered that they weren't sure or steered towards a number of possible avenues. To find someone without a pie in the sky dream of becoming a professional footballer or the next top model was indeed rare. I had to squeeze out every drop of emotion, drive, enjoyment, hope, ability, previous success and intrinsic or extrinsic motivator to steer their university or employment applications accordingly. Pink's notion of abundance is at play here in two distinct ways:
a) The abundance of opportunity means that young people can go off in a number of directions with degrees and qualifications in almost every field (for a list of quirky degree courses, read this lighthearted article!)
b) There is an abundant scarcity of young people who are able to live for something 'higher than themselves' or beyond a paypacket or parents' expectations
What this shows me is that the facilitation for students to search for meaning in education is crucial. What issue really grinds their gears? What story moved them on the news this week? How can they do something that will outlast them? How can they give back to someone or something that has helped them thus far? This is truly right-brained thinking because it goes beyond the logical, strategic methodology of career aspiration, job progression and financial gain. There is story after story of people leaving the corporate rat-race to pursue a goal that serves a greater purpose:
Even New Scientist, the archetypal left-brain icon, featured an article entitled "Find your meaning at work: 6 things a salary can’t buy". The reality is: you don't have to leave your job to find meaning; you can find the meaning where you are. Or you can use your job to fund you to fulfil your purpose outside of work. For educators, we need to encourage students to find their fit and in doing so, release themselves from the shackles of consumerism, social expectation and cultural demands. They metaphorically must burn their bras, boycott the buses and become their very own Spartacus!
I loved this book - I would recommend it to anyone in any field of work or play. It has really challenged me to look at holistic thinking yet be aware of my left-brain leaning!