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As promised, Friday's seminar on the implications of social brain theory for how we think about the national curriculum resulted in a fascinating discussion.

As promised, Friday's seminar on the implications of social brain theory for how we think about the national curriculum resulted in a fascinating discussion.

Social brain theory is based on a relatively new synthesis of social psychology, evolutionary theory and neuroscientific fundings that add up to a view of the mind/brain/individual as more socially embedded and less individualistic than dominant economic models of behaviour allow for. See the RSA's social brain pages for more information.

Full details of the contributions and the day are available online, but here I wanted to make one or two observations that struck me as particularly important.

The first is how quickly people grasp the implications of the social nature of the brain for the kinds of skills or attributes we should be inculcating in children. There was a general consensus that room should be made for children to work together, to develop high level collaboration skills, to learn how to solve problems in groups and to behave altruistically.

One participant called it the challenge of how to provide structures in which children are encouraged to be open and giving, rather than 'going in on themselves like a sea anenome' which is what happens as soon as incentives are introduced for people to behave selfishly.

One implication of this is in how we construct schools as institutions that inculcate certain types of behaviour. If our unconscious brains and habit forming repetition are, as social brain advocates would argue, more important than we thought, then the kinds of behaviours and attitudes that are being developed through the structures, hierarchies, rules and routines of the school are perhaps as or more important than what is explicitly taught in the classroom. One participant referred to the 'implicit curriculum' of behaviour shaping that is often found in primary schools. Another participant asked how often children in secondary schools had the opportunity to watch their teachers collaborating on lesson plans, or anything else.

The second implication of how the education system reinforces assumptions about individualism and competition as the dominant model of human behaviour is the obvious thorn of assessment. As the Innovation Unit's Alec Patton blogged on Friday, cooperation between students when it comes to assessment is currently constituted as a cardinal sin rather than a learning outcome to be rewarded, and so the messages being sent to the unconscious brains of children will mitigate against collaboration at the all important assessment stage. If we want to encourage collective skills towards problem solving then we must think hard about how those collective skills might be measured for individual children working together. It's not easy.

However, there was a palpable determination in the room that we need to think more clearly and more robustly about how schools and learning are constructed in light of the emerging social brain thinking and the hope is that the conversation is only just beginning.


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