Neuroscientific findings on learning and becoming: Insights from two case studies

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This article focused on the following research question: What are the key insights which the theory of human evolution, embodied in neuroscience, can contribute to learning and becoming? Thus, the purpose of this article is to indicate some implications of neuroscience for learning and becoming as interconnected processes embedded in human interaction. The article is based on conceptual research comprising an extended literature study as well an analysis of two case studies. The theoretical lens used to analyse data is Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field, which areclosely related to the tenets of neuroscience. The primary contribution of neuroscience lies in knowing how the human brain has evolved and how affect (i.e. mood, disposition, emotions, values) influences learning habits and self-actualisation. That implies that education as a whole is value-laden and aims primarily at leading learners to self-awareness and self-actualisation. I argue that if teachers were informed about these implications, they would be better equipped to assist learners to internalise long-term, healthy learning habits and higher levels of inner self-awareness and self-actualisation. The transfer of values and dispositions does not necessarily take place through an abundance of external resources found in the school, nor through focusing on subject knowledge exclusively within the cognitive domain, but rather by paying more attention to the affective dimension of human interaction, such as disposition, values, attitudes, emotions and feelings. A core finding of neuroscience is that learners can transcend their unfavourable circumstances due to a disposition of inner strength, thus becoming more assertive and resilient, which enables them to self-actualise despite socio-economic hardships. This is due to emergent properties inherent in human evolution.

Many neuroscience scholars have pointed to the fact that most learning and becoming processes are holistic, which assume a human person within his/her totality of inter- and intrarelations in the world (Wetherell 2012; Snaevarr 2010). Du Toit (2014) puts it succinctly:

… not just unity of body and mind, but also of brain and thought, emotion and judgement, affect and action, conscious and subconscious, language and emotion, emotional inner and outside worlds should be preserved as far as possible ... To understand human behaviour we must take into account all factors such as the unity of the organism, interaction with the world, the connection between the conscious and subconscious and the mutual influencing between reason and emotion, reason and affect.

At the same time, an affective turn since the early 1990s has indicated the important role of dispositions, emotions, feelings and habits underpinning successful learning processes. Healthy habits are established over time as people make positive changes in their lifestyle based on their experiences of meaningful changes in the biocultural world of a community or their own life world. The biocultural world links up with Bourdieu’s (1984) concepts of habitus and field. Field is an intellectual construct which signifies unique structures and cultural conventions or rules of the game by which a specific community operates. Habitus points to the internalisation of past, present and future experiences of an individual as well as in relation to both his/her objective and subjective social experiences. Therefore, habitus forms the basis of all perceptions and value judgements pertaining to human experience (Bourdieu 1984). To sum up: If learners could navigate successfully in their field, their habitus would change gradually, enabling them to gain more social capital to become more assertive beings. Assertive persons usually gain more self-confidence to become empowered and behave confidently in society without being disrespectful towards others. They thus have acquired agency which enables them to act with legitimacy. Such empowered dispositions are attributed primarily to the affective domain. This facet of Bourdieu’s conceptual framework links up with the key findings of neuroscience, namely the important relationship between the affective as a contributing factor to long-term academic success and social fulfilment. (Joorst 2015; Damasio 2003:195–7; Bourdieu 1998).

In the first part of this article I examine the role which neuroscience could play in both cognitive and affective development in formal education. I advocate an investment in teacher awareness of their own affective dispositions to enable them to realise how their own professional behaviour, including values, attitudes and dispositions, will influence their teaching across curricula. Moreover, my plea is that education policies and curriculum choices ought to focus less on the measuring of performance and more on the healing of learners and society. At the same time I argue that human consciousness will always be able to transcend adverse circumstances due to emergent evolutionary properties. Learners are not victims of their circumstances; they can acquire human agency and develop a sense of resilience, thus transcending external disadvantages by the unique manner in which they attribute meaning to their own learning experiences (Bourdieu 1994).

In the second part of the article I discuss the implications of neuroscience by way of investigating two vastly different, real-life case studies which I encountered in the literature (Meyer 2016; Joorst 2015). The first concerns an extra-curricular learning project based on holistic brain science. The project involved a few teachers who accompanied a selected group of underperforming grade 10 learners in Mitchells Plain to enable them to improve their academic performance. I chose this case study because the specific methods of teaching and learning are in congruence with neuroscientific principles: a holistic approach towards learning by using the whole brain effectively. The other case study describes the school learning experiences of working-class youths (aged 17−18 years) in a rural town situated on the West Coast. This case study centres on the manner in which these youths create meaning from their learning experiences despite their dysfunctional school environment. Due to their positive dispositions, all of them succeeded to position themselves favourably in the community and to utilise available resources so that they could function effectively and realise their dreams to a certain extent. This case study highlights the importance of an inner habitus (primarily an affective characteristic), which can serve as an enabling force whereby adverse circumstances can be transcended and self-actualisation can become possible.

Hence the most important message of neuroscience flows from this case study, namely that human behaviour can never be fully comprehended without a holistic understanding of a unique human being who interacts with the world; the interconnectedness between conscious and subconscious; and mutual influences between reason and emotion, reason and affect – a total mystery. At the same time it can be concluded that the affective domain determines to a larger extent our becoming (human) and of self-actualisation than our cognitive abilities, because our survival, sense-making abilities and eventual fulfilment as human beings are dependent on this.

In conclusion, neuroscience advocates for educational policies and curricula to embody a greater emphasis on humaneness and wholeness, and a lesser emphasis on the measuring of achievements, in order to bring about significance (meaningfulness), reverence and a sense of wonderment.

Keywords: affective domain; brain development; consciousness; emotional resilience; evolutionary; habitus; humaneness; wholeness; wonderment

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Neurowetenskaplike insigte oor leer en wording aan die hand van twee gevallestudies

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