The Noble Role of Teachers:
Transforming Ourselves to Change the World
Study Session 11 – ‘Growing’ the Pre-frontal Cortex can Enhance the Teacher-Student Relationship
The purpose of this Study Session is to give you some ideas about increasing the number of neural pathways and functionality of the CEO of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex.
It is now well-established in neuroscience that all human brains have the quality of neuroplasticity – the ability to regenerate and grow neural pathways when certain procedures are put in place. This ability of the brain to ‘grow’ itself has been made startlingly clear in the two books written by Norman Doidge: The Brain that Changes Itself, in 2008 and The Brain’s Way of Healing, in 2015. It is this ability of neural pathways to multiply so as to expand their functionality that explains why the pre-frontal cortex in long-term meditating monks and nuns is appreciably larger, and more densely packed with neuronal pathways, than for other people. Hence the term ‘Buddha brain’ that has often been assigned to the pre-frontal cortex.
Although it is in its infancy as a branch of scientific endeavour, educational neuroscience is becoming increasingly important for some educators, mainly in the hope that students’ academic performance can be increased. However our interest is more related to the question of what teachers (and other adults) can do to change their own brain structure so that their personal wellbeing and that of their students can be enhanced.
Neuroscience proposes that the pre-frontal cortex has nine main, higher-level, human-specific functions that it coordinates and oversees in the brain. Each one of these nine functions can be seen as an important aspect or component of a ‘good’ human being, one who is of noble character – someone with a high level of Peaceful Mind and Open Heart, manifesting advanced levels of authentic happiness and wellbeing, and being a fine exemplar of someone who lives according to the five universal Human Values of Love, Truth, Peace, Right Conduct and Non-violence.
It is for these reasons that we are recommending that teachers (and other adults influencing children) set out to ‘grow’ their pre-frontal cortex, so that they can more readily demonstrate the qualities that they would like to see in their students.
There are a number of techniques recommended for generating more neural networks in the pre-frontal cortex. These include: physical exercise, increasing one’s responsibilities for decision making, learning a new language and so on. However the approach we are using here focusses on taking steps to strengthen, in turn, the nine ’executive’ functions of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). As you could see in your reading of Handbook for Teachers in Human Values Education in the previous Study Session, the nine functions are, in brief:
- Body regulation
- Emotional balance
- Fear modulation
- Response flexibility
- Attuned communication
As you can see from your readings and reflection on the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), each one of the above nine functions is necessary for getting along in daily life and for the experience of wellbeing. Further, to the extent that a teacher is able to be an exemplary role model of each one of these truly-human capacities, so too will the students enhance these qualities within themselves, through the subconscious learning activated by their mirror neurons.
The Exercise – Step 1
Reflecting on each one of the above nine functions of the PFC, identify which one of them (in yourself) is most likely to be weakened, or have low functioning, during periods of stress, worry, loss or uncertainty.
As an example, it could be that, whenever finances become extra tight, someone might find that they lose almost all empathy for the plight of others; or perhaps all of their minor fears become exaggerated.
The Exercise – Step 2
Having identified your PFC function that is most vulnerable in times of stress or difficulty, develop an action plan for the next two weeks that aims to strengthen this weak link in your chain of resilience for maintaining your authentic happiness and wellbeing.
For example, the person who has identified ‘empathy’ (as the PFC function that is weakened during adversity) might decide to practise imagining what someone before them in the check-out line at the supermarket is feeling, or the driver in the other car at the stop lights; and to do this assiduously for two weeks.
As another example, the one who realised that minor fears become more intrusive during stress might decide to focus on the breath for ten minutes twice every day and to imagine themselves advancing towards the feared situation in a steady, calm manner; and to do this for 10 to 20 days.
The Exercise – Step 3
After two or three weeks, if you found that your action plan was effective in strengthening that particular PFC function, consider writing a short piece in your Journal describing what changes you experienced in your wellbeing, and how this came about.
The Exercise – Step 4
The Exercise – Step 5
Neuroscientists are now saying that sustained practice of mindfulness, and also the strengthening of empathic feeling and response, will both gradually increase the functionality and resilience of all nine PFC functions. You might like to try this also.
“When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.”
— Mary Helen Immodino-Yang and Antonio Damasio (2007)
We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education.
“Neuroimaging and neurochemical research support an education model in which stress and anxiety are not pervasive. This research suggests that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives,
interests and experience.“
— Judy Willis (2012), The Neuroscience of Joyful Education