That one time I was wrong: and how I was wrong again immediately afterward

I’m not at all bashful about the fact that modern psychology informs every pedagogical decision I make. In fact, I’m quite proud of the psychology classes I took in high school, college, and graduate school. And I’m not talking about the Skinner-Freud debate or how classical and operant conditioning differ.

Instead, I live for the newest developments in what we know about our brains. It’s the small amount of science that I get to bring into my classroom, but it is also the content that earns me the most engagement and motivation out of my students. Students want to know how their brains work. They may cringe the first time I talk about metacognition, but you can bet that, by the end of the year, I’m grinning when a student realizes that she wrote a quality rhetorical analysis of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” because she read it as if she were having a conversation with the author himself. She was thinking about her own thinking.

When I was first wrong about my students’ brains, I was focused solely on their neurons. I explained to my sophomores that neurons were these small bundles of cells that sent electrical impulses throughout their brains. We practiced mindfulness by trying to be aware of the electricity in our own bodies as we studied tactile imagery.

The Assignment:

Right now, you have electricity coursing through your body. Most of it is in your brain! Focus on trying to feel the electricity. Write for five minutes about what you are feeling.

While only a prewriting activity, I can look back and understand why this prompt fell flat. It asks students to feel something that they are physically incapable of feeling. Tactile imagery is about touch, and none of us can touch our brains. The prompt led to stale responses about lightning and static electricity. It wasn’t going to help in the eventual drafting of image-driven short stories.

First Mistake:

When I revisited what I knew about the brain, I learned that I vastly oversimplified what was happening as my students wrote. I had climbed one set of stairs, claimed to have reached the top, and unknowingly ignored the hundreds of flights above me.

When our neurons send the electrical impulses throughout our brains, they do so with the help of synapses. Think of synapses as the roads that connect the city-like neurons to one another. More importantly, these synapses were largely misunderstood until neuroscientists discovered the phenomenon of “pruning.” While it was initially thought that the more synapses one had the smarter they would become, the idea of pruning is that we actually develop too many synapses that are largely unused. These unused roads get in the way of the roads we actually need, so our unbelievably awesome brains actually get rid of them. They self-simplify.

The Revised Assignment:

It’s time to simplify your writing. Choose one of the five types of imagery and describe it as it exists right now.

  • How do your hands feel on your desk?
  • What does the classroom smell like?
  • What is it like hearing your neighbor’s pencil scratch on his paper?
  • Describe one full wall of this classroom.
  • Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth; what do you taste?

The writing was slightly better this time. Students embraced the notion of simplifying their writing and the hesitancy of not knowing what to write was completely obliterated. In short, by applying what I knew about the 33 brains in my classroom, I enhanced the drafting process.

Second Mistake:

But I was wrong again. By embracing the idea of synaptic pruning and applying it to my writing pedagogy, I mistakenly pruned my own understanding of the brain. We don’t simply have bundles of cells that send electricity along pathways. Well, we do, but that’s a gross oversimplification.

As I read deeper, I learned about myelin. Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates the neurons in our brains. The insulation allows the impulses to travel quicker and is responsible for our individual talents.

The more myelin on a particular pathway, the faster and more effectively the impulse travels. Even better, the myelin is selective. It doesn’t just wrap around any neuron it finds. Instead, it wraps around the neurons and synapses that regularly fire. And so my conceptualization of the brain changed completely. We develop talents when we practice them. This isn’t new at all. However, it’s now grounded to neuroscience.

Now, I have a scientifically supported philosophy of teaching writing that includes neurons, synapses, and myelin. It’s a philosophy that encourages consistent writing practice and deliberate metacognition. It asks students not to write because they have been assigned a short story and not because they’ll need to write to do well on the SAT, but instead, it asks students to write because the process of writing and thinking about writing literally makes them smarter. It causes the neurons to fire, the electrical impulses to travel along synapses, and the myelin to reinforce the action by insulating it. In total, when you write today, you are making tomorrow’s writing better.

What are the building blocks of your philosophy of teaching writing? How do you encourage students to think about their own thinking? You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

-Matt

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