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11.15.2010

How colleges are bad for our brains

Our brains have not evolved to sit still in classrooms, to listen to lectures or to cram for tests. Most of academia works against how our brains function. This mismatch produces a wide spectrum of symptoms that are presumed to be isolated deficiencies of the learners. Colleges fail to admit how the design of their currricula, teaching methods, assignments and schedules are responsible for so many of the problems experienced by students. Instead, academia seems to take the attitude: "if you cannot take the heat, quit your bitchin and get out of the kitchen". Academic rigor and traditions are valued over newly minted insights about cognitive functionality. As result, more than half of entering freshman "get out of the kitchen" by dropping out before graduation.

Here's a quick rundown of how academic experiences work against our brain functionality:

  1. When we're exposed to excessive expertise, we learn to act helpless and then become morbidly dependent on authority figures. This works for submitting to the alpha dog in our pack, but not for knowledge work, creativity, and many other roles that call for our personal resourcefulness.
  2. When we're put under prolonged pressure, we suffer crippling anxiety. We lose physical coordination, mental agility, immune responses and restful sleep. We remain in a state of agitation which we cannot shake off, sleep off or mood alter away. This is our fight/flight response gone awry because the dangerous predators seem to be constantly present.
  3. When we get framed as deviant, defective or deficient, we unconsciously buy into the diagnosis and play the part. The way we get seen, labeled, talked to and evaluated becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. While this worked to maintain safety in numbers and avoid getting kicked out of our tribe, it's not helpful when cultivating our best performance and unique abilities.
  4. When we're subjected to excessive control and guilt trips, we over-compensate in order to restore our emotional balance. We may lash out at others or take out our frustrations on ourselves. Displacing these anxieties gives us urges to overindulge in drinking, shopping, gambling and many other escapes.  While this keeps us from totally losing our minds, it sabotages our relationships, reputations and self respect in the process.
  5. When we're exposed to bad examples, we imitate them regardless of their effectiveness. We may easily become hypocrites, incompetent technicians or bullies if those examples get paraded in front us. This learning by osmosis enables us, as infants, to add twenty new words to our vocabulary every day and to mimic our parents behaviors which meets with their approval. It does not safeguard us against internalizing gibberish or dysfunctional exemplars. 
  6. When losses, setbacks and other misfortunes do not make sense to us, we get devastated and drown in despair.. We are prone to long bouts of depression when we're faced with a barrage of meaninglessness incidents. This works to prevent us from digging a deeper hole for ourselves or from foolishly chasing after rainbows.  However, it does not generate the meaning that's missing or define new directions for us to pursue.
  7. When we're rewarded handsomely for our efforts, we lose our self motivation, creativity and long term perspective. We become addicted to the extrinsic rewards, greedy for more and desperate to maximize our earnings. This works to motivate our stockpiling food for a long winter, but not for taking others' interests to heart. 

This amounts to seven count indictment against most forms of academic rigor, requirements and restrictions. However, it also defines a complete turnaround that will work superbly with how our brains function. Once I complete these fifteen criteria for a reinvented higher ed, I explore that brain-compatible approach in detail.


Note: This post addresses issue: 8. Conforming to brain specs
of the 15 Issues in the reform of higher ed.

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