Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Social Neuroscience of Education

    Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom

    by Louis Cozolino

    New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 409 pp. $37.50 (hard cover).

    In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) initiative awarded $37 million to eleven states for the development of self-report cards on school climate. The initiative presumed that increasing students’ sense of social well-being, security, and comfort within school would lead to more harmonious classroom environments, healthier peer relationships, fewer behavioral problems, and improved academic achievement. Efforts like S3 have prompted schools nationwide to be more accountable for facilitating students’ positive experiences in the classroom.

    Why is that? What evidence do we have that the social atmosphere of school really matters to learning? In The Social Neuroscience of Education, Louis Cozolino addresses these questions through the lens of neuroscience and social psychology. By describing the way the human brain has evolved and how it develops throughout the lifespan, Cozolino shows us that students are social creatures deeply affected by relational interactions at school. Divided into four distinct parts, The Social Neuroscience of Education explores the answers to three broad questions: (1) How has the brain evolved to learn? (2) What conditions optimize learning? and (3) How can teachers and administrators apply this knowledge in classrooms and schools? The sequential, well-organized text draws upon research on primate evolution, attachment theory, developmental psychology, and social neuroscience. Cozolino deftly summarizes this expansive literature to inform a discussion of practical steps educators can take to cultivate a socially responsive learning environment in schools.

    Part I, “The Evolution and Development of the Social Brain,” uses both literal and metaphorical analogies to indigenous tribal communities to assert the argument that the brain is a social organ. Cozolino presents research which shows that social tasks such as cooperating, communicating, and decision making have led to increasing sophistication and growth in the size of the human cerebral cortex—a part of the brain that is associated with memory, perception, language, and consciousness. Further, as a tribal species, humans rely on these social interactions as a way to feel included and worthy within their communities. With this in mind, Cozolino argues that classrooms are like tribes. It is the responsibility of the teacher, as tribal chief, to create a welcoming environment that signals to the students, as tribal members, that it is safe to be open to learning. As the author clarifies, external signals in our environment transmit messages to our brain that activate its receptiveness to new information. Neurons within the brain will grow depending on the conditions of the learning environment. By ensuring that students feel respected and capable, teachers can foster an environment that promotes neural plasticity within the student’s brain. This neural plasticity facilitates the brain’s flexibility and willingness to grow and become more complex.

    Part II, “How to Turn Brains Off,” examines research on negative phenomena that may adversely affect the learning brain. Research supports our understanding that learning and memory systems are developed based on instincts of arousal, stress, and fear. Human cognition and emotion are intertwined, so our neural plasticity tends to shut down during times of extreme anxiety. Further, scientists have learned that the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory) can experience apoptosis (cell death) and a reduction in functioning when exposed to stress hormones. This suggests that stressful circumstances and environments inhibit both learning and memory.

    Yet research has also proven that the brain is resilient and that by establishing a safe and welcoming learning environment, educators can alleviate the strain on both chronically and temporarily anxious students. One way to do this is to promote laughter in the classroom. Among many other benefits, Cozolino asserts that humor reduces feelings of anxiety and loneliness, offers a sense of empowerment and control, and increases attention and memory. Additionally, Cozolino highlights the need to attend to children’s fragile egos. He notes that people in general are easily humiliated, and children with chronically shaming caretakers are at risk for depression and anxiety. Thus, he recommends that tribal teachers nurture the classroom community by exercising discipline through humorous experiences and loving messages that build students’ confidence.

    Cozolino explains in Part III, “How to Turn Brains On,” that mirror neurons are brain cells that behave as if the person is actually participating in an activity that they are only observing. Consider a teacher demonstrating how to draw a circle. While watching the teacher, the student brain “practices” drawing the circle. Mirror neurons also associate actions with goals. As a result, the brain predicts that the teacher intends to use her chalk to draw a circle, not to throw it across the room or to eat it. Cozolino theorizes that these mirroring systems evolved as a way for primates to transfer social skills. By observing others, people can practice or troubleshoot behaviors. This falls in line with the argument that humans are social creatures. Research also shows that humans sense and monitor each other’s facial expressions and nuanced behaviors to assess for intentions, feelings, and motivations. This suggests that teacher attitudes and personal biases affect students’ perceptions of how wanted they are in the classroom and how capable teachers view them as learners. Offering opportunities for exploratory learning and academic challenges will reduce problematic effects of these biases by increasing students’ autonomy and independence while simultaneously exciting students’ neurons to promote neural plasticity. Encouraging curiosity and introducing opportunities for play can arouse students’ minds. Enjoyable activities like play activate dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin in the brain—all chemicals that contribute to feelings of pleasure. When students associate pleasurable experiences with school, they are cognitively more likely to embrace future learning opportunities in that same environment. As Cozolino states, while “the brain is not a muscle, it responds like a muscle by growing when stimulated and shrinking when unstimulated” (p. 161).

    In Part IV, “Applying Social Neuroscience in Schools and Classrooms,” Cozolino synthesizes ways that practitioners can bring the knowledge of neuroscience and social psychology to education curricula and instruction. This culminating section explains how learning environments are heavily influenced by the ways in which academic materials are taught; therefore, pedagogical frames like curricula and instruction will benefit from considering the social aspects of neuroscience. Cozolino lists twelve facts that are important to know when considering the learning capacities of the human brain, among them: the brain is a social organ that needs stimulation from other brains; conscious and unconscious awareness contributes to information processes and memory; sleep, diet, and exercise affect neurological processes; and stress and fear can inhibit neural plasticity. Part IV concludes with two real-life examples of education programs that emulate the tribal classrooms recommended in the book. Both of these model programs have adopted curricular and instructional frames that offer students assurances of physical safety, emotional security, and ecological relevance. First, Stephen Barr of Green Dot Schools is praised for developing a high school system that prioritizes small class sizes, personable student-teacher relationships, and nurturing support for incoming freshman. Next, Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has an explicit focus on student literacy and engagement, is applauded for involving the entire neighborhood in the academic prosperity of the students in his school.

    In a time of increasing demand for social-emotional learning initiatives to protect students from bullying, childhood aggression, and other destructive interactions, The Social Neuroscience of Education provides an argument for how the brain as a social organ can be shaped to maximize students’ learning potential and school engagement. The mysterious human brain is actually a malleable organ that can be programmed, repaired, and fine-tuned in order to learn more efficiently. While the title implies a critique through the lens of neuroscience, there are many elements of this book that align more closely with psychoanalytic sociology and social psychology. Nevertheless, Cozolino presents theories and research in formats intended to be easily digestible by novices to education neuroscience and psychology. While Part IV is the most useful to practitioners, the preceding parts provide a solid and cohesive foundation for how lessons from neuroscience and psychology can be harnessed to improve education.

    This book is applicable to all types of learners, irrespective of age, race, socioeconomic status, gender, or life history. Moreover, because The Social Neuroscience of Education is designed to be digestible for a range of readers, scientists who want to connect theories of the mind to education efforts will find the content just as meaningful as classroom teachers who want to better understand how the learning brain acquires new information.

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    Book Notes