For the second year, The Geelong College has partnered with Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) to see students learning about their own brain function, metacognition and the fascinating world of neuroscience. The Research Project is a collaboration between ISV and renowned educational neuroscientist and Harvard University graduate, Dr Jared Cooney Horvath (PhD, MEd). At the crossroads between the laboratory and the classroom, Jared spends much of his time working directly with schools and other organisations. Dr Cooney Horvath has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Melbourne and a Masters in Mind, Brain and Education from Harvard University. He has worked as a teacher, curriculum developer, brain researcher, and is currently an educational researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
Our Year 9 student cohort had the privilege of participating in a number of workshops with Dr Jared throughout Terms 2 and 3. Early-mid adolescence is a time of significant development in the human brain. Year 9 is an ideal time, then, for metacognition training. As students begin their journey in the Senior School, we believe that it is important to equip them with evidence-based skills to prepare them for their learning in the years ahead. Although we were not able to hold most of the events live this year, the online format enabled students to still hear from Dr Jared, ask him questions, and enjoy learning together in a virtual sense. The workshops consisted of five 90-minute lessons, facilitated by both Dr Jared and our small team of expert Senior School teachers. These lessons, called Hacking the Brain, enabled the students understand how their brain works and, more importantly, how to leverage this knowledge in their study and life. The lessons focused on four themes and a follow-up discussion;
Lesson One: Get you Mind Right (Stories and Errors)
Lesson Two: Master the Hardware (Neuroplasticity)
Lesson Three: Gaming the System (Memory)
Lesson Four: Owning your Learning (Metacognition)
Lesson Five: Follow-up Discussion Session
Reflection from Joel Grigsby, Year 9 student
Throughout late term 2 and term 3, All the year 9 students from The Geelong College, took part in the latest opportunity provided by the school, the Cognizance project. With the 5 sessions given to the students by Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, the cohort learned all about their developing brains and how they can best use them.
Over the 5 sessions, we learnt about many different topics, ranging from anywhere between something so simple as recall, all the way to something as complicated as Neuroplasticity. Sure the 5th session was a revision session, though I think my peers would agree, we learnt just as many new things in that session as we did in the rest of them. This project was aimed to teach us how to best learn, not in ways that we’ve been told for the last 10 or so years, but in ways that none of us had ever heard before, a truly eye opening experience. The ideas thrown around were quite overwhelming to I’m sure almost all of us, though our learning was backed up by the booklet we all filled in as the Sessions unfolded.
The Cognizance project opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of learning and my brain, I drive this tool, not the other way around. The time Jared spent speaking to us, got me thinking about thinking, which in my opinion, is the best kind of thinking one can do.
Reflection from Anneliese Hallam, Religion teacher and Cognizance Research Project participant
Reflecting on session 2 with Jared something that surprised me is how efficiently the brain adapts and changes according to our environment and experiences. Jared explained that the brain is passive, responsive to what is occurring to it in the moment. This is a radical new way to think about what we know of as the most important instrument for cognitive function. We saw this firsthand when the students put on their perspective-shifting Googles and relearned how to catch and find the ball with a skewed perspective. Within three minutes!
Jared then introduced the concept that so-called ‘geniuses are normal humans who put in an extraordinary amount of work to perfect their craft, including Mozart, Beethoven and Michael Jordan. This demonstrated to us all the potential humans have as learners. Simply hearing this can empower us to take charge when it comes to our own abilities. We are capable of so much more than we know. A clichéd maxim, yes and often said to young thinkers yet to see it demonstrated through Jared’s session’s brings this phrase to life. We genuinely are capable of so much in ways we have perhaps not previously thought possible.
Interestingly, Jared covered epigenetics –how genes turn on and express as a result of our behaviours and experiences. While this is something that I have previously studied, Jared explained how even our thoughts change our genes dramatically. The science of epigenetics is fascinating, empowering, encouraging and hands back the power to individuals. Humans can self-improve and flourish if given the tools to do so and if they put in the work. But what are the tools? And what is the work? From what we are learning through the sessions I believe the tools are as follows:
- Information and knowledge. Students (and all humans) need to be aware of how much power we have to change ourselves, to renew our patterns of thinking, behaving and ways of being.
- Application. It is not enough to know these facts and not practice them. This is now partly my role when it comes to students learning in my classes. Visualisation, metacognition, reflection, mindfulness are practices I hope to bring more into the classroom.
- Repeated application The students need to feel empowered and be responsible for their mind, their brain and their learning. Students can habituate metacognition, reflection, visualisation and use the practical skills they learning in aspects of their life. But they will need to do so continually. As we have seen in the sessions so far, the human mind loves autopilot mode - to break free from this habitual mode, we need to remind each other.
As an educator this means that I will be implementing cognitive processes in classes (such as visualisation, positive self-talk, metacognition) to re-familiarise and practise with students these inner processes where we can.
Interestingly, many of the neuroscientific discoveries Jared is sharing with our students align with ancient spiritual teachings. For example, in prayer, in meditation and in the utilisation of hope. As a teacher of religion and philosophy I am very grateful we have the opportunity to connect with this cutting-edge science that pushes boundaries of knowledge and transcends our current understanding of what it is to be human. In a year that has been full of change and the necessity to adapt, it can be comforting to know the brain is made for just that – change and adaption.
How is the research conducted?
To gauge the effectiveness of this program, ISV and The Geelong College asked students to participate in a 10-15 minute survey taken twice, once prior to the coaching and again once the program is completed. It captured demographic data and student attitudes to learning in several domains. The analysis being conducted during Term 4 will look for any possible changes, trends or patterns in the students’ perceptions about how they learn. Teachers involved were similarly asked to respond to pre- and post- survey questions about the program, and whether they feel it is a useful learning tool, helping them to understand and individualise the learning environment. Results will be provided directly to the College later in the year, so we can use it to enhance student learning and engagement this year and into the future.
Over the next two years, Dr Cooney Horvath will be working regularly at The Geelong College as our Neuroscientist in Residence.