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Our brains are wired for social learning

Psychologist Louis Cozolino describes the brain as a "social organ," saying there is no such thing as an individual human being, because we are so fundamentally shaped and co-created by our relationships. He explains that human relationships actually sculpt brain tissue: Our positive relationships trigger our brain chemistry to be more plastic, enabling us to learn more easily. Traumatic experiences, on the other hand, negatively alter the brain and can shut down learning. Our brains and bodies are constantly being shaped at a cellular and genetic level by our environments as we live. Our brains are constantly evolving through our interactions with each other.

Neurophilosopher Patricia Smith Churchland says "I am who I am because my brain is what it is," perfectly describing the rapidly developing realm of neuroscience and the insights it holds for youth development.

Our brains evolved in a tribal context, where learning was done through relationships and oral tradition. Modern education generally disregards this -- leaving young people hungry for it, and therefore vulnerable to groups like gangs that do incorporate these elements. But relationships help to engage the social networks in the brain that enable learning.

During the past two days, as I attended our center's social and emotional learning symposium, "Assess it to Address It," I was reminded of the need to incorporate this knowledge into youth programs.

As we work with adolescents, rather than resisting these aspects of their development, we need to make space for them to bring their full selves to the program. We can harness the social motivation to learn, which is a highly effective learning strategy. The more that learning is couched in social networks and connections, the better our retention.

Practical ways to apply this approach in youth development

  • Introduce new content through stories as much as possible.
  • For things that are challenging to teach with stories, encourage youth to learn it "so that they could teach it to someone else"--this engages the social motivation to learn and social networks in the brain (Leiberman). Our Youth Teaching Youth programs are a great example of the effectiveness of this approach to learning.
  • Consciously cultivate what Cozolino calls a "tribal environment" through the use of small groups, cooperative learning, cultivating attachment, encouraging play and story telling, fostering equality and democratic participation, and making a safe space for vulnerability and uncertainty.

By combining the insights of neuroscience with the developing realm of social and emotional learning, how can we better equip young people to develop and thrive?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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  1. Kathryn! Thank you for the insights to this and the applications to our practice. A few things came to mind while reading your post:
    First, we have a truly unique opportunity in youth programs in which we can implement and encourage tribal environments, the nurturing of authentic social relationships, and we are able to allow young people to bring their full selves into our program environments. This is something that formal educational environments haven't done so well.
    Secondly, the research you share with us reminds me of the book "The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement" by David Brooks! What a great read! The book summary states: "The unconscious mind, it turns out, is not a dark, vestigial place, but a creative one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made—the natural habitat of The Social Animal. Brooks reveals the deeply social aspect of our minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. He demolishes conventional definitions of success and looks toward a culture based on trust and humility".
    Lastly, I think our series on Social Emotional Learning are critical for practitioners (and decision makers) to think about it means for our programs. How youth programs can answer to the socio-emotional needs of youth but also incorporate the socio-emotional and cultural assets that youth bring into the programs.
    My apologies for a long rambling comment...but your post sparked a lot of connections in my brain :)

  2. Josey, thank you so much for your thoughtful and substantive comment! Indeed, we in youth development have a unique position to focus on cultivating these tribal environments that harness the social and neurological development in young people. This is why Cozolino's and Lieberman's research particularly captured my attention: not only are we well-positioned to do this type of education, but I would argue we have already been using many of these strategies, and this gives us another window into our effectiveness, as well as pointing out ways for us to improve.
    Thank you, as well, for highlighting Brook's book--it sounds like I will need to add that to my reading list since it speaks so clearly to this same realm of human and social development.

  3. Kathryn - I find the new brain work fascinating and appreciated the points you made and links provided. Thinking of the brain as a social organ - developed with others - helps to make social aspects of learning real in new ways. As we begin to understand the biology behind our brains we may also begin to better understand how to enhance learning in more areas, more effectively. Apparently educating the heart is also good for educating the brain!

  4. Thanks so much for your comment, Dale. I was interested to hear the ways that Kimberly Schonert-Reichl addressed brain science during her presentations at the SEL Summit earlier this week. When we think about social and emotional learning, I hope that the neuroscience will encourage us to take seriously the critical importance of not just the individual student, but really thinking ecologically about the whole network of relationships that surround him or her, and help us to be attentive to making their environment as socially nurturing as possible.

  5. Rebecca Fairbanks DickinsonMay 18, 2014 at 9:00 AM

    Kathryn, as someone at the beginning of my learning about our important youth development work, I was reflecting on the club I lead and what the social experience is like for the middle school aged students who have joined. For them, the project topic seems like just the backdrop to the friendship network within the club, showing that maybe these students’ willingness to be a part of after school learning stems from wanting connection to other students. When students are not getting along, participation drops immediately. I hadn’t thought of the brain being a social organ, and many of the vulnerable situations that the students have found themselves within their friendships have only developed into positive reflections when we took the time to make space for it, and not try to carry on with the project. I’m grateful that out of school time lends itself to making a tribal environment in this regard, because the pressure of state standards weighs on the school community for the rest of the day.
    Another thought I had was that this tribal context discussed is distinct from the tribal governments that we have in Minnesota, although one of the strongest values of both could be collective self-determination. The self, neurologically, being a social self, of course. Something to help support self-determination is to emphasize it as a value for both our clubs, and for our friendship groups.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Rebecca. I definitely agree that we can see the very concrete impacts of social and emotional learning and its impact on the brain and learning--I think we all can think of times when we have watched a young person "tune out" because of emotional upset, or be unable to retain information because of feeling intimidated, for example. And while the term "tribal education" clearly refers to tribal in a global, sociological sense, I agree that there is much we can learn from our tribes here in MN, as you mentioned.


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