Learning, Doing, Being

Jewish Education and the Prefrontal Cortex

Joel Lurie Grishaver

I was at a gathering put together by the Covenant Foundation where I wound up in a small group with Lisa Colton who told me that I should know about Adele Diamond and instantly sent me a link to a podcast called Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education from a November program on American Public Radio. Yesterday, a couple of months later, I listened to the podcast and was blown away.

Suddenly neuroscience was backing up everything I was saying. I have been arguing in my column/blog The Gris Mill for several years (1) that complementary schools are not only important to the Jewish future, but to the overall development of individual students. And (2) that schools need to evolve their process to maximize not only their Jewish impact, but their overall educational excellence. That excellence can be sold to parents. This article will expand in this direction.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the brain underneath the forehead and is involved in mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong or good and bad, predicting future events, and governing social control — such as suppressing emotional or sexual urges. The prefrontal cortex is the brain center most strongly implicated in qualities like sentience, human general intelligence, and personality. Said simply, the development of the prefrontal cortex can make you a good student and a good person. The prefrontal cortex is the last to develop and the first to go in diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The workings of the prefrontal cortex are grouped together in a series of abilities that are filed under executive function. According to Adele Diamond executive function breaks into three key areas:

  1. Inhibitory Control. This includes self-control, self-censorship, delayed gratification, impulse control, and the development of discipline. It is the part of the brain that does reflection and evaluation. Its functions include: Being able to think before you act, being able to learn something new that conflicts with what you usually do, acting appropriately when tempted to act otherwise and paying attention despite distractions.
  2. Working Memory. This is the manipulation of information. This is imagination, problem solving, creativity and that whole arena. It includes: Being able to consider things from different perspectives, being able to relate one idea to another, being able to perform a set of instructions in sequence and being able to monitor one’s own thinking.
  3. Cognitive Flexability. This is the ability to leave one task and focus on a new one. It is all about mental focus. “Mindfulness” is the popular Buddhist term. It includes: Being able to pay more attention when necessary and being able to think ‘outside the box.

(Tools of the Mind)

We know that the more activity that nurtures the brain, the more it develops. Play, sports, music, memorization, arts, meditation nurtures the brain. And according to Adele Diamond, that which nurtures the spirit develops the brain.

The Worst Kind of Hebrew School

Think of a Hebrew school where they do nothing but Hebrew reading drill, check off prayers on a chart where they get a star and each student has to wait patiently for their turn to be the reader.

Even this Hebrew school, the one we all remember, and the one that every student remembers to hate has some good. Forget about the content. Hebrew is good but that is not our issue. Developing patience is good. Memorizing letters is good. And, beneath the surface of this classroom the Stockholm Syndrome bonds students to each other as they form a community of resistance. And, interpersonal activities are good. Adele Diamond says, “People feel physically better if they are socially involved.”

The Better Complementary School

Diamond says, “Sometime older paradigms are better.” There is ancient wisdom that that helps us, “Storytelling, creative play, singing, dancing, and even sports are central to brain development. The more activity, the more involvement, the more the brain is nurtured. Diamond quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Action teaches the meaning of the act.”

A school that centers itself in experiential education, which is a place of doing, that builds sacred community as part of its process, that is joyful, all builds the better individual. It develops the brain. Problem solving and other skills are far more important than information, even though facts and names are easier to test. Memorization gets a bad reputation (think Hebrew letters), but it tool is good for mental development.

What we learn is that older wisdom offer great developmental possibility. Telling and retelling and creatively playing with stories are really powerful. Luckily, Judaism is a tradition loaded with stories. The goals of developing good people are as important as other educational goals—and that we are good at. Problem solving is important—and often happens through interpretation. Jewish texts are studied through interpretation and problem solving. Brains work better in joyful settings and shut down when stressed. Surprise and mystery enhances learning. We got a lot of those.

Tell parents that Lev Vygotsky taught that social experiences and continued social interaction is critical. A child’s ability to play creatively with other is a better predictor of success than IQ. Now “make it so.”

Try This at Home

Here is a brain science trick that is really good for us. If a child has a problem with mirror writing, there is a very simple fix. Give the student a red pencil in addition to a regular one. Ask the student to put down his/her regular pencil and pick up the red one every time one of the letters that he reverses comes up. The little bit of reflection involve in switching pencils will solve the problem.

Torah Aura and the Prefrontal Cortex

Adele Diamond is involved with a curricular process called Tools of the Mind. The process is all about developing curricular resources that promote the development of executive function and other prefrontal cortex areas. What is so interesting to me is that so much of what we have done educationally is rooted in the development of these mind tools.

  1. Since our inception inquiry learning (problem solving) of texts has been central to the materials we teach.
  2. Our Hebrew material center in pattern recognition and use problem solving to decode the meaning, not just the sounding of texts.
  3. We have always centered our work in the development of skills and not drilled or reinforced specific information.
  4. Since Artzeinu all of our Teacher’s Guides have translated our resources in experiential learning and in the past year, starting with Experiencing the Jewish Holidays and Experiencing the Torah directly promote experiential education.
  5. In Teaching Jewishly we offer ancient wisdom about creating joyful classrooms and that build sacred community.
  6. Stories and dramatic play have long been part of the way we teach values, prayer, and many other subjects.

The article by David Bryfman about making schools like camp is important, especially when he talks about sharing control with students. It is both new and ancient thinking. Your job is to create the school of the future that works with millennial learners. Our job is to give you resources that allow for total involvement, active experiences, and are good for the student as well as good for the Jewish people.

My exposure to Adele Diamond (thank you Lisa Colton) has added another lens to the way I now vision Jewish education. Her Tools of the Mind has given me a new vantage point for looking at the work we do—and I recommend it as a way of looking at the work you do in running schools. To quote Diamond one more time, “Education is not what we teach, but what happens in the prefrontal cortex.”