Tribal Learning in the Classroom
An Interview with Louis Cozolino
June 12, 2013—In a recent interview with psychologist and neuropsychotherapist Louis Cozolino, Gina Stepp explores the concepts behind his 2013 book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. The human brain is a social organ, Cozolino points out. Its natural habitat for growing is in the context of secure attachment bonds and nurturing relationships.
How can we apply this understanding to reimagining the educational system? The approach Cozolino offers isn't a quick or easy fix, but it is fairly simple in principle: create classroom situations that come as close as possible to the early tribal social environments in which the human brain first learned to learn.
GS You call it “An unfortunate twist of fate . . . that the amygdala is mature at birth while the systems that regulate and inhibit it take many years to mature.” What does this mean for us in general, but especially for teachers in the trenches of the classroom?
LC I think the significant aspect for parents and teachers is that there are networks of the brain that aren’t fully mature until our mid-twenties. During development, children and adolescents require a certain set of scaffoldings for their brain. In other words, they use our brains to help them navigate life and this is reflected in our public institutions. For instance, the age at which we allow people to drive, or go to bars, or smoke reflects their level of brain maturation.
Specifically relating to the classroom, if we have activation in fear circuitry, learning circuitry is inhibited. So a teacher’s job is not only to present information but also to modulate the fear networks so that the information can actually be attained and retained.
GS As you mention in your book, one of the ways you can do that is with positive interaction: “A warm smile, a touch on the shoulder and an occasional joke can go a long way.” But what would you say to the “Tiger Teachers” out there, who may see teaching as serious business that requires a firm hand and no-nonsense attitude?
LC If you’re going to be a very aggressive learning-oriented teacher, sort of like an old-school commandant, that may work for certain groups of kids, but not for kids who don’t have the socio-emotional development and maturity required for them to regulate their own emotions and to modulate their own attention. It would be a recipe for failure for kids who are struggling, who don’t have that emotional foundation at home—who have insecure attachment, anxiety disorders, or anxiety about learning. It isn’t so much that any particular teaching style is wrong; it’s just that one size doesn’t fit all. It’s like therapy, in a sense. You have to match the teaching style to the students. I don’t think there are any unteachable students. But I certainly think there are bad matches between students and educational environments.
GS So how would you implement a good match? It seems like that would require individual learning plans for every student.
LC Not necessarily individual. If you have several hundred students there are probably learning styles and learning needs that would exist among scores of students.
Teachers also have different styles and different capabilities. But given our industrial model which pushes everybody through a system, individual factors are downplayed or ignored. As a result, kids are failing school because we haven't put time into looking at the human variables. There’s very little human engineering in the schools. The system exists to perpetuate the system, and if the kids learn--that’s great. But kids’ learning and teachers’ well-being is not at the heart of the system. I think if you ask just about any teacher, especially in a public school system, they’ll tell you that’s true.
GS So, it's not only teachers who need to change in reaching out to students?
LC I think it goes much deeper than that. The way we conceive of schools as large factories needs to change in order to change the experience of both the students and the teachers. We need to create environments that stimulate neuroplasticity. It isn’t just about helping those kids who need help. It’s about optimizing everybody’s performance by matching their learning environments to their brains.
GS Do you have concepts in mind for how one would do this?
LC No, not really . . . I trust the wisdom of experienced teachers and I think that if you allowed teachers the time to get to know their students and to organize experience for the students, that’s where the optimal bang for the buck would probably occur. It goes back to the concept of being a tribe.
GS What do you mean in your book when you talk about “tribe?” I think I understand it to some degree, because I see this happening in my daughter’s school: there are a range of students in one classroom, from those with sensory challenges to those who some would call “gifted,” but they seem to be learning to work alongside one another.
LC It’s a small-scale society where people aren’t beholden to a system but are flexible and integrated with one another, are adapting to the challenges of the social and physical environment and working together to learn together. That’s a very different model to an institutional one where everybody has to come in one end and go out the other and there’s some pre-ordained product.
Take your child’s classroom for example. If you have a range of students from gifted to autistic in the same room, that’s more like a tribe, there’s biodiversity in that room. The kids that are at one end of a skill spectrum can learn a great deal by being with the kids who are at the other end, and vice-versa. But you also have to feed challenges to those kids at the advanced end to stimulate their thinking and you have to find things for the kids at the other end to do in order for them to feel connected and accomplished so they can develop mastery and self-esteem. It's important for them to feel they have something to contribute. So it’s a complex enterprise. That doesn’t really match very well with an assembly-line approach to education.
GS You write about Marva Collins, a Chicago teacher who turned around a number of failing students using attachment-based teaching strategies. One of the things she addressed was what you call “the central issues of shame, self-esteem, and compassion by creating an environment conducive to learning.” Why would you say those three influences are “central issues” when it comes to learning?
LC Well, I think those three points are at the heart of human connectivity. Shame shuts down learning. If you have a student who has the experience of being shamed all the time, they’re just going to fall further and further back. The opposite of shame, in a sense, is self esteem—and the way self-esteem is established is through the compassionate attention of the people around. And that’s what Marva Collins did, she got off of the assembly line and she started realizing that in order to reach these kids, she had to interact with them in a qualitatively different way than she was able to interact with them in the public schools.
GS And she did that through positive, encouraging interactions rather than a "tough love" approach, it seems.
LC Right, she was the Rogerian therapist. Positive regard, warm, caring—she basically was what you would want a good mother to be, and in that context her children found a bridge between failing in school and starting to succeed in school.
Even more to the point, she was sitting next to the student, doing the assignment with them and in some places for them—and then giving them an A. Then the student would take the paper home and show it to the parents, and sometimes the parents would be upset because their child had never gotten an A before—they thought it must be a horrible school to give him an A. So there’s a lot in that little scenario about what she was trying to do.
If you have a child that’s so shame-based that they are turned off, tough love is just going to send this kid out into the street into a gang. And if you apply tough love to a large group of people, it’s going to work for a handful and it’s not going to work for another handful. So again, it goes back to this issue about what a child's unique needs may be.
It’s a constant challenge both for parents and therapists: you have to meet the person where they are in order to move them forward. As the adult, you’re the one who is supposed to be able to conceptualize the strategy that helps them to come from where they are to where you need them to be and where they would like to be. You know the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Well, the research says this might be true for some people in terms of character if they have a certain foundation. But in terms of physiological development and protein synthesis and neurobiological growth, what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The science doesn’t seem to back up the folklore.
GS We like to think that if something is good for one person’s character, it must be good for everyone’s, right? If two people growing up in the same family have different outcomes, we can’t wrap our brain around that. But of course, being in the same family doesn’t ensure the same influences.
LC Every brain is an experiment of nature and every child has a different childhood. Gene-environment interactions over time are incredibly complex. The only thing we can do is to be humble enough to know that we can’t reduce everything down; to be paying attention to what we see in front of us and trying to adjust to those things.
In a mass-production model people aren’t thinking in terms of tribes, they’re thinking in terms of populations. Reality with human beings doesn’t work that way. We're asking the wrong questions to begin with, which is why we never find answers—and we become anxious when we can't find one answer that will solve all the problems. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t conform to that sort of anxiety management.
GS Applying that to a tribal classroom, it seems the idea is for teachers to work toward a multi-dimensional environment where they are familiar enough with children’s individual strengths so they can use them to help with day-to-day issues that come up. For instance, bullying isn’t tolerated in my daughters’ classrooms and I’ve seen teachers pair up kids in ways that require them to make use of their diverse gifts to help one another. It’s beautiful to see the more capable kids often protecting and helping those who are younger or have challenges.
LC Yes, and that’s a wonderful lesson for people who are lucky enough to not have those handicaps. It’s not a substitute for education. It’s a part of their education. And that’s what happens in a tribe: every family has people who are less capable than others, but you can’t waste human capital in a tribe. So even if someone has very limited capabilities you have to find some way that they can participate and contribute. It’s very important for them to contribute, just like it’s really important for the “brighter” kids, or those who have more abstract ability, to be stimulated. It’s important for them to play musical instruments, it’s important for them to do drama.
Teachers know this, but teachers are squashed in systems that try to regulate their behavior and require them teach to tests. If you have no time for the social agenda—for the human agenda—and all you can do is teach to tests, then the autistic kids will just have to catch up. And we have to push the other kids even harder to pull up the curve, to get our AP scores higher. And the whole thing goes sideways because the goal is wrong. Unfortunately, administrators and politicians don’t have any clue about this. Of course, the system is upside-down, the teachers are the ones who should be making the decisions about how to educate children, not politicians.
GS And the system sees success in very narrow terms, right? There are certain subjects you’re supposed to be good at, when the reality is that we don’t have as much of an outlet in school for our artistic and creative children as we do for our academic children.
LC Right. And so for that artistic child, their self view is going to be connected to the fact that they’re not good at something, as opposed to how well they might be at something else. But imagine that child in a tribal situation: she would be allowed to find her own contribution and actually be rewarded and reinforced for it instead of constantly being confronted with those things that aren’t her strengths. That’s what leads to shame and that’s what makes them shut down.
GS So what do you do? If the school is the problem, then I suppose it’s up to the parents at home to provide successful experiences to counteract that shame, but then you also have situations where the shame is coming from home and you would need teachers to provide those important successes.
LC Every child is a different situation. There are some kids who go home every home every night and they have plenty of food and warmth and love and care; and other kids go home at night and nobody pays attention to them, they have to figure out how to get food themselves—there’s no quiet place to study because the television or music is playing all the time. Parents are drunk, parents are gone—so every kid has a different challenge.
GS You suggest—and I think you mean this for parents or teachers—that “gradually shaping a child’s primitive narcissistic instincts into healthy and realistic self-esteem without crushing his or her spirit may be the central challenge of parenting.” That does seem to be a key point—and of course harkens back to the central issues of shame, self-esteem and compassion. How do we walk the line of shaping a healthy self-view without crushing spirt—either as parents at home or as teachers in the classroom?
LC Who knows? Every one of us that’s a parent struggles with this every day. And our kids bring up all of our struggles from our own childhoods. Our parenting brings up what we dealt with growing up with our own parents. We’re surrounded by people and competitive with the parents of the other kids, while we're trying to look good to our children. There’s layer upon layer of challenge in raising children if you care enough to pay attention to it.
And there’s no substitute for paying attention to a child and seeing how they react to what happens around them. For instance, you might have three kids and one responds positively to praise, one responds negatively to it and the other one couldn’t care less. So what does that mean? What’s the rule? There’s no rule, except to pay attention. That’s the complexity of human experience that can’t be replaced by any system. Individual “experts” can make a lot of money publishing books that say one thing one year and say the opposite thing the next year. But the good part of it is that it gets the dialogue going.
Let’s take, for example, the appreciation we have now for how important the early years are. Many experts used to think that children didn’t remember anything from the first five years, so it didn't matter what happened to them during that period. Now we know that’s false. On the other hand, we don’t really know the right thing for every child, because every child is different.
Unfortunately, everyone’s an expert in parenting, right? Even people without kids are experts and will tell you what you should do and how you should do it. People stop you in the street to correct you about how you’re interacting with your children. There’s always a new parenting book, each one contradicting the one you just finished. By the time you finish reading them all, your kids are in college and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. Also, with kids it seems like whenever you find something that works—three or six months later they’re in a new stage of development and what worked before doesn’t work anymore and you’re up the creek again.
But I don’t think there’s any replacement for having a group of parents and teachers who can communicate about what they’re seeing and can remain flexible and open to the input of other people.
Of course, I'm not a parenting expert, I'm thinking more in terms of a methodology. We have this system that clearly doesn’t work, so shouldn’t we try something different? If the school system is wasting billions of dollars and 70 percent of the money that goes into a school has to pay for administrators and retirement programs while the good teachers are burning out and the bad teachers are staying—then something’s wrong.
Maybe we should think about the term educational system as an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.” In small-scale societies, education wasn’t a separate activity; it was part of daily life. You didn’t go to school; you were always in school, because you were learning through imitation, through modeling, through communication, through activity. Granted, the way society is now families can't just be at home together all day. Nothing would ever get done and society couldn’t function. But on the other hand, I think we need to pay attention to how brains evolved to learn, and change our educational system so that we’re providing funding for the kind of schools where learning can occur. If we believe that poor performance and a high dropout rate means that we have to teach to tests—that, I think, is a wrong assumption.
Education isn’t really about information. We don’t even know where the world is headed. Most of the things that we rely on every day didn’t exist when you and I were kids. So how do we predict what our kids need to know? The key is to teach them how to learn and how to get along with each other and interact. The information itself is almost irrelevant. Half of what I learned in graduate school is wrong now. So how important is the information versus helping people to learn how to seek what they need to discover?
Of course, nothing changes quickly. The problem is we’re so concerned about countries like Japan and Sweden getting ahead of us in science education or math scores. But is that really what’s going to challenge us in the future? Why is it that so much of the world's innovation comes from the United States? I don’t think it’s because we have high math scores.
One thing that’s happening in the United States is we have this experiment in democracy with essentially open borders and cultural plurality. We’re working on a much bigger project than mathematics. We’re working on human evolution in terms of learning how to build relationships beyond very narrow cultural limitations. So that’s the wealth of the United States. Kids are sitting in pluralistic classrooms spending time learning math when the real richness of learning is surrounding them in the brains of the other children in the classroom.
GS What you’re saying is we need to relax about scores, to stop feeling as though we need to send kids to school earlier and earlier because we want them to somehow have an edge over the competition.
LC That’s right. We’ve already won, it’s done. I think kids should have as much time as they possibly can with no responsibilities—to just be able to wander around in the grass and stare at trees. But again, you have administrators who were educated in a different world, and who think very linearly and are looking at measurement criteria as the meaning of everything. It’s a capitalistic, industrial model that has been very successful in making cars and boats and things, but it’s not the way children historically have been educated.
We can see by the failure rates, by the suicide rates, by all kinds of other things, that we’re missing the point. You just have to read the newspaper. If we took the time and the energy and the money and started experimenting with other ways of doing things, at least we’d have a chance of finding a better way. But right now, we’re just pouring all of our resources into a system that really doesn’t work.