The gestalt of the brain


We’ve looked at nueroscientist Christof Koch’s theory of consciousness a while back, and a recent study pairing fMRI scans with network analysis pairs nicely with his premise.

To review, Koch’s theory is that consciousness has everything to do with connectivity (and nothing to do with distinguishing between inanimate and animate matter).

In this recent study at Vanderbilt University, researchers found:

“No one area or network of areas of the brain stood out as particularly more connected during awareness of the target; the whole brain appeared to become functionally more connected following reports of awareness. . . .

Consciousness appears to break down the modularity of these networks, as we observed a broad increase in functional connectivity between these networks with awareness.”

What does this have to do with schools?

Well, it correlates with the wider theme that you need to look at the connections between components and people and the contexts they operate within in order to truly understand what’s occurring within any given system. This is why a school is so very complex: they are dynamic and fluid, predicated as they are on social relationships, constrained within political, class, and cultural hierarchies and norms.

Relationships are Fundamental to Well-being

A duck and a rainbow at Loch Lomond.
A duck and a rainbow at Loch Lomond.

There’s a great post up on Nautilus summarizing research that drives home one of the key points of this blog: strong social relationships are fundamental to well-being (and thus, learning).

Here’s some key tidbits. Do read the whole thing when you’ve got some time.

. . . ‘You are the most social animal on Earth, invest in your social relationships, it will be a form of happiness.’ ” It’s an answer that is so obvious that most people dismiss it.

. . . In 2009, the study’s longest-serving former director George Vaillant was asked by Joshua Wolf Shenk of The Atlantic what he considered the most important finding of the Grant study since its inception. “The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people,” he responded.

. . .“The biggest take home from a lot of this, is that the quality of people’s relationships are way more important than what we thought they were—not just for emotional well-being but also for physical health,” he says. Marital happiness at age 50, he says, is a more important predictor of physical health at 80 than cholesterol levels at 50. “Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. That is the bottom line. People who were more concerned with achievement or less concerned with connection were less happy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”

Not only did strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, it affected the architecture of the brain.

For more on the importance of social relationships to learning, please check out Esther Quintero’s invaluable gathering of information on “the social side of education” over on Shanker Blog.

For more on this topic from this blog:

Ecological Advice for New Teachers

By HitroMilanese (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s some nice ecologically minded advice for first year teachers from middle school teacher Jennifer Gonzalez. She takes the idea of ecological guilds and applies them to two possible archetypes that might be encountered by new teachers: marigolds (allies) and walnuts (toxic):

Marigolds exist in our schools as well – encouraging, supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them, you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive. …

While seeking out your marigolds, you’ll need to take note of the walnut trees. Successful gardeners avoid planting vegetables anywhere near walnut trees, which give off a toxic substance that can inhibit growth, wilt, and ultimately kill nearby vegetable plants. And sadly, if your school is like most, walnut trees will be abundant. They may not seem dangerous at first. In fact, some may appear to be good teachers – happy, social, well-organized. But here are some signs that you should keep your distance: Their take on the kids is negative. Their take on the administration is negative. Being around them makes you feel insecure, discouraged, overwhelmed, or embarrassed.

Sound advice. Forming a guild and finding your positive niche within a school is fundamental to your professional growth and sustainability.

During my first year teaching, I remember asking my Fellows advisor—a 35 year veteran teacher in the South Bronx—what it was that kept her going in those first challenging years as a new teacher. She spoke about a group of colleagues that she could cry with, eat lunch with, and share resources with. She maintains contact with most of those colleagues to this day.

You’ll most likely find this is a common theme. Teaching, especially in high needs schools in communities facing great challenges, is an incredibly difficult profession, and there is little beyond experience that can prepare you for it (and hence why apprenticeship is such an important model). It can be spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively demanding in a minute-by-minute manner.

Isolation can be a damaging reality of many public schools. Forming positive professional social networks is a critical key to thriving.

If you are a new teacher gaining your foal footing, make sure to form your guild!


Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers.” Cult of Pedagogy. N.p., 29 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <;.

More on Guilds

Human Guilds: Cultivating Inclusion and Adaptivity

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

Acknowledge the Complexity of Schools

“Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. . . .

At the minimum, know that working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from complicated systems and imposed from the top in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action.”

–Larry Cuban, “The difference between ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ — and why it matters in school reform“, a repost of an oldie but goodie on The Answer Sheet

Success In College Takes More Than Academics

At a time when a college diploma is more important than ever to compete in the global economy,only 10% of students from low-income communities across the country who enroll in college are earning a degree. Pair that with the fact that the majority of African American and Latino students graduating high school don’t meet “college readiness” benchmarks (New York City reported last week fewer than a quarter of its students are ready for freshman year) and we have to conclude that public schools aren’t setting up students for long-term success. while creating a culture of high academic expectations is certainly crucial to success, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. There are social, emotional and financial barriers that students from low income communities have to overcome. Getting them to their next graduation day is the challenge we face.

–Jason Bernal, “Getting low income students to college takes more than just academics” on The Hechinger Report