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All students, regardless of ability, will benefit from a reimagined approach to education
One of the key challenges for educators is to get rid of “Bell Curve” thinking. “Bell Curve” thinking is evidenced by educators bearing the belief, overt or covert, that in a group of students, there must be a range of abilities from clever to not clever, with most falling within the “average” category. Numerous studies have shown that the expectations of teachers directly affect the performance of students. Creating or accepting a low-expectations classroom environment will lead to students reinforcing the low-expectations mindset.
In order to get rid of low expectations or “Bell Curve” thinking, a class of students must be approached without any preconceptions about their ability. However, overcoming “Bell Curve” thinking can be tricky for educators as sometimes staffroom talk can lead to a characterisation of particular classes as “dumb”, “lazy” or “worse”. It takes courage, independence and inner strength to overcome stereotypes and labels. Therefore, teachers need to walk alone and chalk out their own path to make a genuine difference.
Rethinking the concept of IQ
Recent developments in scientific understanding of brain development have a lot to offer in the field of education in terms of shaping teacher expectations. Such studies have shown psychologists that the conception of IQ (intelligence quotient) or academic ability has to be revised.
As per previous theories, IQ comprised of two components: one mutable or changeable and the other immutable or fixed. It was believed that verbal reasoning was changeable and could be increased, but perceptual reasoning (or how people perceive patterns and visual information) was fixed. However, this distinction between the mutable and immutable elements of IQ is no longer considered a valid characterisation of how the brain functions, which includes thinking or cognitive development. Psychologists and neuro-scientists now believe that each and every aspect of cognition and perception has the capacity to change and develop. Medical studies of nerve growth and the creation of new ‘neural pathways’ are important to our collective understanding of the act of thinking.
By way of example, the medical management of chronic pain can be instructive to educators. Experts in pain management tell us that up to twenty per cent of people experiencing major trauma will also experience chronic pain, which occurs when a person experiences pain even though the physical injury or trauma has healed. It is believed that the brain ‘misreads’ the body and experiences pain because the neural pathways (or electronic impulses) for pain had been activated during injury but had not been turned off after the injury had healed. Chronic pain indicates that the nervous system can misread the physical reality and a person continues to perceive pain without any physiological reason. This means that what had been a physiological problem then becomes a psychological or neural problem even after the physical wound has healed.
Pain experts have found that the overactive nerves have to be re-trained in order to learn to ‘switch off’. That is, other neural pathways or electronic circuits within the body need to be activated in preference to the pain receptors.
In order to do this successfully, doctors recommend three different interventions: cognitive behaviour therapy, movement and meditation. Cognitive behaviour therapy addresses thinking. This intervention is aimed at changing the patient’s thinking so that they are less fearful and think more optimistically. Movement is also prescribed in the management of chronic pain as activity increases blood flow and strengthens the body, thereby increasing the pain threshold. Meditation is recommended because it can improve focus, change thinking and manage the interpretation of sensations.
Intelligence is mutable
The approach to pain management described here can effectively be applied to the field of education in contexts where ability is low, self confidence is hampered or where risk taking is shaped by fear of failure. The idea that the brain can fall into repetitive negative patterns that elicit pain is instructive. The brain can also be trained to fall into accepting characterisations of low ability, of low expectations, of failure and ‘badness’. Neural pathways and patterns of thinking reinforcing negative self-perception can be very destructive. Yet none of this is real. New neural pathways can be activated through insightful educational intervention. The starting point for teachers is, of course, getting rid of the “Bell Curve” thinking, which, like pain, creates limitations.
Limitations need to be questioned. The fields of science and medicine have palpably shown that perception shapes outcome. However, perception can misread the situation and what is ‘imagined’ can seem real. If this occurs, the path to restoration can be a long and difficult one as it requires a lot of time and effort in bringing about change and correcting perception.
In education, the notion that intelligence is mutable is very important in this regard. The new understanding of neuroplasticity gives hope to students, parents and educators. This is because there is truth in the idea that all students regardless of ability can learn and grow. The same interventions that activate neural pathways for those with chronic pain can be applied to help students to grow as learners. They need a combination of cognitive support to assist in thinking and self-belief and also a variation in the way information and skills are presented – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (involving movement). The use of stillness to enable deep thinking and reflection is also required.
There is no such thing as a dumb student. Every student can learn to learn more, become more able and seek further growth. What is required is a reimagined approach to education.