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Dr. Sylwester is a well-known authority on how better understanding of the brain can shed light on education practices that directly impact the classroom.

Connecting Brain Processes to School Policies and Practices
A monthly column that explores scientific and technological developments that pose problems and possibilities for educational policy and practice.

Robert Sylwester

A Social Brain Deserves A Democratic Classroom - Part 1
October 2003

By Robert Sylwester, Ed.D.

The two previous beginning of the school year columns focused on the currently contentious issue of school standards and assessment. This set of two columns will focus on a related but equally important and contentious issue—that of the management of classrooms in a democratic society.

Introduction. We’re a social species with a rich language-driven culture, and most of us now live in a democratic society. The dependent state of our immature birth brain requires a strong early focus on social interaction. Our extended juvenile maturation gradually shifts us from a very dependent infancy into an autonomous but collaborative adulthood during which we directly and indirectly rear the next generation.

We’re thus interdependent throughout our lifespan—and since our social skills at birth are at only a potential rather than proficient level, we must learn how to communicate and get along with both kin and non-kin.

Socialization begins shortly after birth with the smile and mimicry of face recognition and it continues into laughter sparked by childhood play and games. It develops into a central joyful element of life, because we soon discover that socialization allows us to benefit greatly from the knowledge and assistance of others.

Much of our brain is thus devoted to neuronal systems that process the complexity, ambiguity, and joy/sorrow of social interaction, and these systems must be appropriately and continuously stimulated to develop and maintain social competence. We spend over 12,000 hours of our childhood and adolescence in school.

We had become a democracy by the beginning of the 19th century, but it took another 100 years for John Dewey’s powerful voice to argue for a collaborative school that would explicitly teach and demonstrate the social knowledge and skills that citizens in a democracy need. It’s taken almost another 100 years for scientists to understand the biological substrate and validity of Dewey’s philosophical beliefs. Further, this awareness comes at a time in which schools confront pressures for measurable academic excellence at the cost of the time it takes to develop democratic competence.

This first of a two-part column will thus explain the social nature of our brain, and next month’s column will discuss the biological support that a developing social brain gets from a democratically managed classroom.

Social Development

Our twenty-year maturation is divided roughly into an initial ten-year childhood during which we learn how to act like a social human being, followed by a ten-year adolescence during which we learn how to become a productive reproductive human being. The first four years of these two developmental stages (the preschool and middle school years) are typically characterized by the slow awkward initial development of the requisite knowledge and behaviors of that stage, and the final six years by a move towards confident competence.

Childhood. The survival tasks of childhood focus principally on movement—how to smoothly regulate one's own movements, predict the movements of others and objects, move air molecules and instruments to create articulate speech and written language, and confidently move in a socially appropriate manner. Children (and adults for all that) who move awkwardly often have problems with social acceptance.

Children must also master the words, facts, computations, and conventions that enhance social interaction. Most normally developing children can rapidly and automatically process basic motor, language, and social tasks by age ten. They understand how their world functions and the dynamics of the challenges they confront.

Adolescence. The adolescent maturation of our frontal lobes shifts the cognitive focus from a factual world of true/false recognition into the more complex response processes that involve preferences and choices, many of which require social sensitivity. As indicated in the previous two columns, these include being able to identify the cultural point that separates such dichotomies as danger/opportunity, right/wrong, fair/unfair, pleasant/unpleasant, and beautiful/ugly. Parents and other adults define these categories for children (who have immature frontal lobes), but adolescents must begin to decide for themselves what’s right/wrong, fair/unfair, etc. in the ambiguous situations they confront. Our frontal lobes play a key role in such decisions—and the decision is often difficult since, for example, a danger in one setting can be an opportunity in another.

The childhood drive to rapidly and automatically read, compute, and recall facts (true/false activity) thus shifts into a typical adolescent/adult cognitive pattern that thoughtfully considers various alternatives before responding.

Kinship relationships and values are central in childhood, but we live most of our adult life with non-kin, so adolescence is a transitional period during which family bonds must weaken so that young folks can explore relationships and values outside their family. Peer social interaction thus characterizes much of adolescent life, and socially interactive extracurricular programs are often more appealing than the standard school curriculum.

Our Social Brain

Our brain is composed of hundreds of separate processing systems (or modules) each of which focuses on a specific cognitive function (such as shape or tone recognition, tongue or finger movement). We can see this in a brain scan that highlights the modules currently involved in a cognitive behavior. We can thus think of our brain as a social system of collaborating neuronal modules—now active, now inactive as the task of recognizing and responding to a challenge evolves.

Think analogously of a classroom with some thirty individuals collaborating on a task—the level of involvement constantly shifting among students and teacher.

Since the hundreds of individual modules are highly specialized, our brain needs separate but integrated arousal/focusing systems that can identify potential dangers and opportunities. That’s the assignment of our emotion and attention systems—our working brain—and they’re integral to the individual and social solution of problems.

Think of being in a state of temporary mental equilibrium when the emotional analysis of incoming sensory information signals a looming challenge. If our brain’s analysis of the current state of our various body/brain response systems suggests that we’re up to the task, feelings of joy and optimism dominate subsequent cognition and behavior. Conversely, if we sense that we’re not up to the task, feelings of sadness and pessimism permeate (Damasio, 2003). We can similarly observe this affective process in social behavior, such as in investment patterns during stock market fluctuations, and in the fluctuating body language and behavior that competing teams exhibit as they play through periods of optimism and pessimism.

The arts and humanities often play an important arousal/focusing role in society that’s analogous to the role that emotion/attention play in individuals. Picasso’s mural Guernica and Aristophenes' drama Lysistrata are renowned examples of art forms that alerted (and continue to alert) society to culturally important dangers and opportunities—in both examples, to the horror of war. Childhood play and games also provide a developing brain with opportunities to analyze and respond to pretend dangers and opportunities in an informal social setting. A developing brain should continuously experience the social arousal and focus that the arts, humanities, play and games provide—and these should be as ubiquitous in classroom life as they are in a democratic society.

Conscious cognition is centered in our brain's cortex, the large deeply folded six-layer neuronal sheet that comprises our brain’s surface. The cortex is divided into sensory lobes (the back half) that process our recognition and analysis of the dangers and opportunities we confront, and frontal lobes that process the response strategies we then develop and use. As implied earlier, the sensory lobes mature during childhood and the frontal lobes during adolescence.

The cortex is also divided into right and left hemispheres. Goldberg (2001) suggests that the right hemisphere (in most people) is specialized to recognize and creatively respond to novel challenges that we confront, and that the left hemisphere develops efficient routines over time for use with familiar recurring challenges. Language is an example of an established communication routine typically centered in the left hemisphere.

We also observe this functional pattern of cortical specialization within a democratic society: the extended discussion that occurs as we seek to understand the nature of our collective challenge; the creative solutions we propose, discuss, and test; and the societal procedures we eventually establish through legislative action or voter initiative.

Both our brain and a democratic society must thus have robust systems that (1) alert us to and focus on looming dangers/opportunities, (2) recognition systems that analyze the dynamics of the challenge, (3) problem solving systems that can create reasonable solutions for novel challenges, and develop efficient established routines for familiar recurring challenges, and (4) a motor system (or executive branch) that carries out the decision.

Many neuronal modules (and citizens in a democratic society) collaborate at every stage of the process, and we’re a successful species (and society) because the individual brain modules (and citizens) participate in the process with whatever capabilities they bring to the collective task. No single module governs our brain, and no single person governs a democratic society. At the core, we’re thus individually and collectively cooperative.

We share this cooperative drive with much of the biological world—from the symbiotic relationships between coral polyps and the photosynthetic algae within their tissues to the 12,000 species of social insects that have evolved into very complex cooperative communities (Randerson, 2003). We’re different, in that much of our culturally cooperative behavior is learned, not innate.

Next month’s column will focus on social learning—and especially on the positive impact a democratic classroom can have the development of a social brain



Dr. Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon.  He focuses on the educational implications of new developments in science and technology and has written several books and over 150 journal articles.  His most recent book is A biological brain in a cultural classroom: Enhancing cognitive and social development through collaborative classroom management  (2003, Corwin Press. Second edition).  The Education Press Association of America gave him three Distinguished Achievement Awards for his published syntheses of cognitive science research.  He has made over 1300 conference and in-service presentations on educationally significant developments in brain/stress theory and research.




Goldberg, E. (2001) The executive brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. New York: Oxford Press.

Randerson, J. (March 15, 2003) "Together We Are Stronger" Inside Science. New Scientist. 177.2386, 1-4.