Are we hard wired for self reflection? October 21, 2012Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: education and empathy, education and gender, girl's education, learning and the brain, social ecology
from Dr Carol Birrell, Social Ecologist.
The practice of self reflection has had considerable attention and application in educational pedagogies (Bengtsson, 1995). The teacher as a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a model that has informed many subject areas across interdisciplinary divides, as has related research on the role of empathy in education (Arnold, 2005). The area in which I teach and research, Social Ecology, sees a central role for self reflection, wherein a self referential perspective is crucial to an ecological and experiential understanding of life.
Likewise, developing empathic education is an important part of pre-service teachers’ education from a Social Ecological lens. To bring these aspects to bear on what goes on in the classroom, immediately provokes an engaged pedagogy- not only awareness of self within the classroom, but also awareness of others and the dynamics of the whole group.
Most people have some sort of an inner conscious process of which they are aware and a much greater unconscious level of mental activity which is below awareness. In the university classroom, it is my experience that it is generally females who are most at ease with learning and practising reflection as a pedagogical tool. It is more of a challenge to get male students involved.
Why would this be so? Brain research has highlighted the differences between males and females and the way they learn and experience the world differently (Hines, 2003), but sometimes simple causal factors are implicated. Many girls from a young age keep personal diaries. Of course, this is a gendered stereotype, similar to the one that ‘girls love horses’ but there is a widespread recognition of the accuracy here of a leaning towards ‘dear Diary…’ as an important part of normal everyday life for females.
I have observed that females take to more easily, ‘like a duck to water’, the practice of introspection as a pedagogical tool, whereas many males have to be coaxed and encouraged to first of all recognize, then articulate what goes on in their inner process.
Recent brain research provides another take on this interesting area and highlights our still forming knowledge on what exactly is consciousness and how human consciousness may be alike or distinctive from other species. A recent edition of New Scientist (New Scientist 21 July, 2012) pinpoints an area of the brain that may be linked with our inner life, regardless of gender. There are distinctive neurons called VENs (Von Economo neurons) found in the frontal areas of the brain, far larger than typical neurons and with a different shape. There is evidence to suggest that VENs are part of our inner lives, with an important role in detecting emotions in self and others: ‘Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain, or simply the voice of someone we love.
When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience such emotions as love, lust, anger and grief’. As such, they may be interpreted as functioning like a ‘social monitoring network’ (p33).
In Social Ecology, this is referred to as a feedback loop, common to all ecological systems, which then allows us to adjust our behaviour to the circumstances. The body and its sensations, responding unconsciously to those events that are deemed to be the most ‘pressing’, and working through these VENs, may be all enlisted to respond to changes. This suggests that VENs are a key to a ‘sense of self’, a sense of our own identity, as well as a means of assessing ‘a continually updated sense of “how I feel now” (p34)’.
As a classroom teacher, we need to be constantly alert to the changing dynamics of our class/classes and the learning ecology that emerges. Our inner experience, once recognized and reinforced through an ongoing practice of reflection, alerts us to the interchange, the shifting flux within self, within a student, between students, and between teachers and students in that environment. This is highly sophisticated and complex work. I, for one, am glad to know that some very sophisticated and complex neurons are there to help the process!
References:  Bengtsson, J. 1995, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, vo1,no1.  Arnold, R. 2005, Empathic Intelligence, UNSW Press, Sydney, NSW.  Hines, M. 2003, Brain Sex, Oxford UniversityPress, USA.
Carol Birrell is a Social Ecologist and Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She teaches in the areas of learning and creativity and education for sustainability in our Education Studies Major, and also in our Master of Education (Social Ecology) program.