know your neurobiological narrative

I might be misguided but isn’t an ‘intervention’ (you know, of the academic variety) primarily concerned with manipulating emergent properties of cognition? But then, isn’t cognition linked to neurobiology? If so, isn’t it cognitively dissonant to assume that manipulations (interventions) can only be confined to just cognition?

Perhaps this is a result of the diagnostic culture we live in; this belief that cognition is some separate domain; separate, that is, from our bodies. This is our dilemma; the way we so easily fall into the slipstream of efficiency when faced with the complexity of what is is to be a human being: we grasp for solutions that are, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “clear, simple, and wrong.”

We teachers need to broaden our conception of intervention in the educational context; broaden it to manipulations of physiological states that underpin cognitive function. Or are physiological states just assumed to be secure enough to facilitate the business of getting young people to pass exams? My experience tells me that the clear path of wrongheadedness is the preferred route here.

And so the epistemic lens slips, fails to visualise, in the words of Stephen W. Porges, the prerequisite of health, growth, and restoration as fundamental to the (more often than not) engineered ‘outcome’ of academic performance. There is so much talk about self-regulation and autonomy (the holy grail of independent learning) but what never seems to be acknowledged as inherent to this is the role of well-being: which is essentially the securing of safe physiological states. Porges, with his Polyvagal Theory, has much to teach us about this. I’ll explore this in more detail in my next post.

It seems absurd, this separation of mind and body; analogous perhaps to that of taking your car to the garage after discovering a problem with the alternator, only to be told by the mechanic: “Sorry mate, we only shine hub caps here”. Then again, perhaps that’s what the education system is, in its current phase: one shiny, polished hubcap.

I quite often feel a bit of a fraud as a teacher (hold it… I’ll let that moment pass) as much of my training seems to me to have been based on a belief that learning is this alchemy of capturing emergent cognitive states. But we know it’s not. Learning is messy, transient, time-bound, emotional, and dynamic. It brings with it more variables than our expedient methods can ever measure. What’s more, learning is wholly driven by what Porges tells us is the ‘neurobiological narrative’.

There is of course metacognition: something Dylan William helpfully calls ‘the integration of motivational and cognitive perspectives’. But even William finds himself perplexed by the mechanics of this: he writes in Embedded Formative Assessment if you figure out a way to do all that, please let me know. 1 Similarly, David Didau asks: “how can we ever hope to define the swirling, nebulous mass of thoughts that crowd our minds?” He tells us it is a liminal process, “between knowing and not knowing.” or, more prosaically, certainly from an English teacher’s perspective, “an attempt to live with negative capability”. 2

Education needs to concern itself more with this navigation of the nebulous, especially if it wants to safely and securely put its passengers to shore at the harbours of attainment: real attainment, that is: which is more than just passing exams.

My argument (perhaps unsurprisingly) is that with mindfulness we learn to accept the state between knowing and not knowing; that we learn to lean into liminality and thereby learn how to inhabit the state between knowing and not knowing. And that state is focus, concentration; the full interplay of attentional awareness. Develop this as an emergent property and I’m sure you’ll get better cognitive states too. But in the meantime – whether mindfulness is your thing or not – get to know your neurobiological narrative

1. Dylan William, Embedded Formative Assessment (Solution Tree Press, 2011), 152.

2. David Didau, What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (Crown House Publishing Limited), 103, 159.

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