Some light holiday reading: a student’s narrative on our education system

“Evolutionary Educational Neuroscience, Human Stupidity, and Why Jake’s Staying in Bed.”

Warning. This essay contains infrequent coarse language which some readers might find offensive.


21 July 2009

 1. Prologue

Wherein the stage is set, and the purpose established.

 “Jake, you need to wake up,” I yell out to my 17 year old son – for the 7th time already this morning.  Being a teenager, his brain is undergoing a lot of change, and this is affecting his sleep patterns, but this is unusual, even for him.

I go into his room and gently shake his shoulder.  To my surprise, he is in fact wide awake and, to my astonishment, quite lucid.

“I’m not going to class dad,”  he declared.  “I’m just not”.

“Are you not feeling well?” I asked, already knowing this was not the issue, but very curious about what was.

“No, dad, I’m not going to class.  Ever.  It’s a waste of time.”

“Ahhh, Jake, this is probably a bit sudden.  Can we discuss this tonight?”

“No, Dad, we can’t.  I’m not going.  Uni is a complete waste of time.”

Jake’s a pretty good kid – good grades so far, always keen to learn, always does his homework, and has never complained about going to school or uni before. Plus, he’s much smarter than me, so I was more than prepared to hear his case.

“But Jake, what are you going to do instead?  You need an education.  You can’t get anywhere in life without an education.”  I am painfully aware of these clichés even before they fall from my mouth.

“But this education system sucks.  It simply doesn’t work.  And I don’t want to waste any more time in it.”

“Oh,” I groan.  “How does it suck?”

“Dad, you are the first to tell me that the environment is on the brink of collapse.  And if you are right, and I’m sure you are, then having an education isn’t going to prevent it.  And it certainly won’t help me when it does happen.  But worst of all, it’s the education system that got us here in the first place – on the edge of going to hell in a hand basket.  So tell me how going to Uni is of any use to anyone!”

I was almost stumped.  I was expecting – and was even prepared for – the typical excuses like “I’m tired” or “I’m bored” or even “Lauren dumped me – again” but this was far different.  He actually had some good points and I did not have a single cliché that would help.

“It will help get you  a job,” I offer pathetically.

“Great response Dad, a ‘job’.  What fucking use will a job be if the planet goes arse up?  Tell me that!”

“Language Jake, please. You know the rule – no ‘F’ words before 10 am.  So what are you proposing then?  That you drop out altogether?  How will that help?” I ask.

“I don’t know for sure. But I know that I want some solutions.”

 2. The Deal

In which Jake agrees to go to Uni if he can out-argue his old man.

“Okay,” I continued.  “Let’s play a game.  You come up with a problem, I’ll offer a solution.  Then we can swap roles.  And if I get more solutions than you, then you go to class.  Deal?”

“Deal,” he announced – over-confidently.

“So what’s your first problem?” I ask, getting settled for what is going to be a long and intense morning.

 3. Jake’s First Problem:  lectures

“Well that’s easy.  Lectures are just so boring.  Some dusty old fart talking for 50 minutes in front of a couple of hundred students who are all bored shitless.  Some of them even have that wonderful technique of reading out aloud the words that they display on a PowerPoint presentation! Only the sucks who sit at the front are taking anything in – for the rest of us it’s a complete wank.”

I had to think for a while, but I eventually came up with a solution.

“Well Jake, fair point.  I can’t believe they haven’t even read Microsoft’s own research.  But lecturing does have it’s place, and it can be as effective as other modes of teaching if done well. And yes it can be boring, if all you are doing is listening.  If you are bored, that simply means that your mind is not fully occupied – it has some spare ‘processing capacity’.  So why don’t you do something else to keep you interested?  Like take your laptop in to class, and Google some of the subjects while he is lecturing?  Or making annotated notes about what his is saying – or better still, start doing your assignments while listening.  The brain is able to multi-task you know, which is why we have a corpus callosum.”

“Fair enough,” Jake conceded.  “But that’s not totally helpful.”

“I actually agree.  But neuroscience is a young emerging field, and educational neuroscience even younger.  Researchers are making great headway in understanding how important memory is, how it is created, and accessed.  We know that you can’t have much without memory – you can’t have real relationships without remembering the other person, you can’t hold grudges, feel guilty, hold a conversation.  You can’t even practice religion if you can’t remember Allah’s name, let along remember how great he is.  And we can even see memory being created in the neuronal networks produced in the brain.  But educational neuroscientists are still a way off from building the bridge between this knowledge, and actual practices in the classroom.  So stay tuned – we’ll get there.”

My turn for a problem now?”

“Go ahead,” replied Jake, obviously confident that he could out-solve me.


4. Dad’s first problem: irrational beliefs

“Well,” I begin.  “We humans have the most complex brain in the animal kingdom, and our culture – an integrated multiplicity of those brains – is widely viewed as the most complex thing in the known universe.”

“Well yes, if you don’t include yours of course.”

“Hilarious Jake.  But despite having this highly evolved organ, we humans can still believe some really whacky things.”

“Such as?”

“Well I’ve read about primitive cultures which believe that the world was created by bulls, who live up in the sky, and that rainfall is the process of them ejaculating over the earth, causing the grass to grow.  These people therefore worshipped these bulls and made human sacrifices to them – just to get a healthy crop.”

“That’s disgusting, but we’re not like that now – we are well past that sort of primitive insanity!”

“Oh really?  Well in the last 12 months I’ve read the following stories in the local press:  (i) a father hires hit men to murder his daughter – why?  For money?  For revenge?  No, for wearing a mini skirt in public!  (ii) a grandfather sacrifices his granddaughter in the belief that he would get a good harvest next spring.  And while his community was pretty disgusted with this, they were not surprised because it was not uncommon!.  And (iii) the Catholic church excommunicates a mother who allows her 9 year old daughter to abort her foetus, which was conceived after her stepfather raped her.  Assumedly, the father could just go to confession for absolution, but the mother was not so repentant, so she’s out.”

“That is gross Dad.”

“Yes it is, but they are all true.  And very, very recent.  And I don’t need to tell you about the bizarre religious beliefs behind the 9/11 tragedy, or the insidious beliefs of the Religious right in the US which perpetuate wars against ‘the wicked and unholy’.  So tell me, what is the solution to this?”

I had him stumped.  No way could he answer this one.

“Well Dad, that’s easy.  You reckon that evolutionary biology and neuroscience are the go – well, they have your answer.  If your evolutionary theory is right, and that the human brain evolved to maximise survival and reproduction rates, then this function of the brain – the development of beliefs – must either be one such adaptation, or an evolutionary by-product – a spandrel like the male nipple.”

“With you so far, but what’s the solution?”

“You have to use your precious neuroscience to decide what it is – an adaptation or a spandrel! If it is a spandrel, then it can be eventually removed from our culture through education – much like it is in the West where Science is replacing religion.  But if it is an adaptation, then there may be no solution.”

“How depressing,” I say.

“Maybe.  But perhaps cultural evolution may negate many of its effects – you know, we could evolve, through memetic transmission for example, belief systems that afford us the evolutionary advantage, but not the insanity.  You know, beliefs that might be irrational, but which are not counter-productive.”


5. Jakes 2nd Problem: relevance

“OK Jake, your turn.”

“You won’t fix this one Dad, I bet. It’s about the lectures again, but this time it’s that they are just not relevant.  I have no idea what they are talking about half the time, and if I go off and study it, but the time I grock the subject, they’ve moved on to something else completely fucking different! And that’s usually even more irrelevant.”

“Jake!  Language!”

“Chill Dad, it’s 10:09.”

“You raise a very interesting point.  Have you ever noticed what happens when your mother tries to give me directions?”

“Ah, yes, you completely ignore her, she gets pissed, and you find your own way.  But what’s that got to do with anything?”

“I deliberately don’t listen because your mother makes the same mistake as everyone else – she fails to get a shared perspective before she starts giving directions!  ‘It’s easy, go past the Post Office, and it’s the 3rd on the right – you’ll see a big oak tree near the flatroof house, turn left and it’s the house with the white fence on the left, just over the other side.’  I’m sorry – you lost me at “It’s easy”!  How the hell do I know which Post Office she is talking about, and more importantly, from which direction am I ‘going past’ this Post office? Without sharing the same starting point, all the rest of the information – especially about left and right – just creates confusion.”

“Again, what’s the point?”

“Well this is exactly how neurons work – if you accept the precepts of neuroscience, then learning and knowledge is an emergent property of the connections between neurons – i.e. a network of inter-connected neurons is the basis of particular pieces of knowledge (and learning is the process wherein these neurons become physically connected and/or reinforced).  But for you to know something, be able to use it, to recall it, that cluster of connected neurons must be connected to the rest of your brain!  Islands of unrelated knowledge are not integrated into your brain, so you will very quickly forget them.  So this is why it is vital that you relate your new knowledge to your old knowledge – make it relevant to your own life somehow.”

“Good point Dad.”

“So if your mother takes the time to reach a shared perspective – like explaining which Post office, on which road, and which direction I’m travelling – then I’m able to get a mental picture of the road which is consistent with hers, and then the rest of her directions make sense.  So my solution for your irrelevant lectures is to spend your study time, not so much on rote learning the content of the class, but more to linking it to your existing knowledge by making it relevant to your own life.”

“Like how?”

“Well for example you could reflect on how this new knowledge differed from your existing knowledge – that is, is this knowledge new, or is it a modification of something I already knew.  And you could consider how you might apply this new/modified knowledge in your life now. So when the lecturer is raving to you about differential calculus, instead of just robotically doing the problem sheet, perhaps you could spend some time comparing and contrasting her lecture content with what you already knew from high school about the subject, and how calculus might affect you directly.  I don’t know, perhaps in describing the acceleration curve of your skateboard when you go over jumps or something.  Anything that relates the new knowledge to your existing knowledge.”

“Cool Dad, I’ll give it a go.  Luckily my first lecture this afternoon is reproductive biology.”
“Good grief,” I moan.  “Please, tread warily!”

6. Dad’s 2nd Problem:  education doesn’t teach you about life

“Jake, do you remember the first time you were Captain of your footy team?” I ask, by way introducing my next conundrum.

“Sort of.  Tell me the story again?”

“You were in Under 10s, and it was your turn to be captain.  It was only your eighth game, and you were just learning how to play.  And god knows, you didn’t really inherit the “jock” gene – your father is a bit of a sporting klutz.”

“Really Dad?  I hadn’t noticed.”

“Your team lost pretty badly, and you didn’t play very well yourself.  And when you made a bad mistake – you kicked the ball to the opposition – you cracked it really badly and stormed off the field, blaming the umpire, your team mates, anyone you could think of.”

“How embarrassing!  I hope this story has a point!”

“You sat at the goal post crying, refusing to come back on the field to lead your team off.  But the rest of the team were fine with losing.  And so are you now that your are older.  But back then you were not – you had not learned to lose, it was a lesson you had to have.  It occurred to me that everything we do, everything we think, every behavioural pattern, is something we have to learn.  We can learn it in utero, that is the neuronal connections form during gestation, under the actions of genes more than environment, or you can learn it by experience.  I think Geary calls this Primary learning as opposed to Secondary learning, both evolved for survival and reproductive success.”

“Yeah well I doubt I’d have any reproductive success if I continued to behave like that!” said Jake.

“Exactly – girls wouldn’t go near you – so you had to learn for your own survival sake. And I had the honour of teaching you that – cajoling you, encouraging you, getting you to examine your thoughts, and then leading back onto the field.  And I’m proud to say that now, you lose with dignity, and are an all-round good sport.”


“Great Dad, thanks.  But what’s your fucking point?”

“Well, not every child has a father to give them these lessons. So why is that our education system refuses to include these important social and personal skills at school, instead leaving them up to the child’s family (or worse, their peer group) to teach them informally?  Surely life education is as important as anything else?”

“Why is this so important?”

I could tell he was buying time.  He didn’t have an answer.  I went in for the kill.

“Well, you never knew your grandparents, but suffice to say that I never really learned very good social skills as a child, and had to learn them informally from self-help books and the like.  It would have been so much easier to learn them at school.  And I imagine that there are kids out there who learn socially and personally destructive skills because of this void, all to society’s detriment – with drug abuse, crime, violence and so forth.”

Jake was stumped.  He fidgeted, looked into the distance.  Finally he said,

“Er, Dad, I don’t know.  I don’t have an answer.”

“Whoo hoo! I yell.  One for the old man!”


7. Jake’s 3rd Problem:  Economics

“Now Jake, your first two were a bit soft.  Give me a challenge can you?” I boast.

“I’ve been reading up on some economics,” he replied with confidence.

“Christ Jake, and you call me a nerd?

“Economic growth is the basis of our financial system.  But biological systems don’t allow for never-ending growth – there has to be death, decay, atrophy, loss.  Our system is fundamentally flawed. There’s no point coming up with an energy-efficient light bulb to reduce consumption by 10% if our economic system needs to increase consumption by 10% per year to avoid economic collapse – it’s just pointless because at the end of the day, we still use more energy, not less.  And one day soon, the energy reserves will run out.”

“Where did you learn this?” I ask.

“Certainly not at Uni.  I’m too busy learning how to get a stupid job – one that probably wont exist in 10 years!  This Uni – even you Dad – you’re all teaching me to get an education, make lots of money, consume, spend-spend-spend; shop-shop-shop.  But you also taught me about arithmetic and this simply does not add up – the ecological system must collapse if we continue consuming like this, and our education system is not giving me any solutions.”

“Well Jake, I stall, “My answer to this is not going to be simple.  The essential problem with the economic system is that it has been based on inaccurate psychology – it assumes that we need more and more stuff.  And our education system has not equipped us with the knowledge – let alone the thinking skills – to work out that this is just bullshit.

“Recently though, Evolutionary Educational Psychology has shed some light on what humans really need – and it’s not rocket science, Darwin described it a century ago – it’s all about survival and reproductive success.  GEARY theorises that it’s about the desire to control our environment (for survival and reproduction) and more recently Positive Psychology has produced evidence showing what humans really need – and it’s not the latest plasma TV or new car – it’s about physical security, emotional connectedness, community, family and raising children.  But interestingly, we don’t teach any of this stuff in our education system. I’ve even heard education Ministers state that such material will never belong in a state run education system.  So we have to work it out for ourselves – but this is almost impossible when we are totally surrounded by commerce – advertising, marketing, branding – exhortations to buy this, lease that, eat something.  It’s like living in the Matrix!”

“What are you Dad, some sort of Commie?”

“Maybe,” I pause.  “The current system is a good way, though of maintaining social harmony – while we are busy shopping we are not killing each other – well not directly at least – wealth is distributed widely so there are few people in real poverty, and lifelong opportunities exist for most of society. But while it is based on this materialism, it is destined to fail. It’s like the marketers have lucked upon a defect in our evolutionary biology – they’ve discovered that we have no ‘enough’ button when it comes to material goods, we’ll just keep consuming until we run out or we die in our own shit.”

“Yeah, just the same as Fructose – I read about this – our brains initiate the production of hormones when we’ve had enough protein, enough fat and so on.  But there’s one thing we can keep eating until we die – fructose. And as a result, we get fat, we get heart disease, we get diabetes, and we die.“

“Exactly,” I reply.  “But you forgot the other half of the equation – we also get commercial weightloss industry, we get thousands of heart and diabetes specialists, and we get drug companies.  And the marketers have grocked to the lack of this “enough” button really early, and haven’t let on to the rest of us.”

“All very interesting Dad, but what is the solution?”

“Well, the solution is pretty simple, although it’s not easy.  Firstly, we need to incorporate evolutionary psychology in our education system.  And secondly we need to work on a post-consumer society:  eventually we are going to run out of those natural resources with which we make stuff, and eventually we’ll choke on our own wastes.  We need education systems that inform us about ways to live full, happy and meaningful lives, without the focus on materialism.  A tall order, no doubt, but a crucial one.”

8. Dad’s 3rd Problem:  Environmental Stupidity

“Last one Jake.  But you do realise I’ve already won, don’t you?”

“Yeah Dad, whatever.”

“This one will completely stump you.  Do you remember listening to The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy?”

“Of course.  Which bit?”

“You remember the scene where, after first colonising planet earth, Homo sapiens adopted leaves as their legal tender.  This very quickly led to a serious inflation problem, and this problem did not go un-noticed by these intelligent apes.  Their solution was, of course, to “burn down the forests”.  Homo sapiens indeed.  We are faced with a similar conundrum:  we have massive decline in our landscapes, as evidenced by the death of biodiversity.  Everywhere you go in Australia’s forest, you don’t see palms, creepers, native pines or any of the thousand endemic species – you just see monocultures of bloody gum trees.  And what is our solution?  Grow more Eucalypts!  Even when there’s extensive evidence that foreign species will do so much better, and serve our human purposes far more effectively.”

“So what’s your point?”
“Well, explain to me why we can be so bloody stupid, when we have the best brains on the planet!  Why do we spend billions planting gum trees, and millions removing and killing introduced species?  And while you are at it, describe to me how our education system might be able to fix this type of lunacy!”

“Well Dad, I think I can,” he replied, very slowly and deliberately.

“Go on.”

“But I have a confession to make.”

“God Jake, what is it?”

“I know we are all atheists in this family Dad, but, but . . . “

“For fuck sake boy, tell me.”  I was getting very worried.

“. . . well I’ve been reading . . . the … um  . . .”  Finally he blurted it out “I’ve been reading the Bible!”

I felt immediately betrayed.  How dare he go against the longstanding family traditions?  How dare he think for himself?  We’ve taught all our children to marvel at the wonder of the garden, but not to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it.

“And the problem with planting these natives, instead of more effective introduced species is related to your problem about beliefs.”

“Really?  Sounds like a very long bow.”  I said, finally regaining my composure.

“Absolutely. If you read Genesis, you see that the entire proposition of creation is based on Man being qualitatively separate from the rest of nature. You know, how god created man in his own image, and commanded man to have dominion over it.  And we believe this shit, even though Darwin blew it entirely out of the water a century ago.  Even atheists like us still truck with the idea, even though we don’t realise it.”

He was getting quite excited with this discovery.  And I was impressed.

“But what has this to do with native trees?” I ask, genuinely intrigued.

“Well, we have this view, this paradigm, this belief system, that Man is not Nature.  So if Nature introduced a species of tree into our country – i.e. a bird dropped a seed, and that seed became a tree, that tree a forest etc, then we see this as natural, and we call the plant endemic.  But if MAN did the same thing – e.g. introduce an acorn from an oak tree into a rainforest, then we see this as un-natural and something that should be avoided or rectified.  Dare I say, we even see it as sinful, or evil.”

“I like it – great thinking.”

“Yes, and you see now why these environmentalists get so passionate about “native” flora and fauna – it’s almost like a religion to them.  But from a purely scientific vantage point, there is no difference – man is part of nature just as much as anything else, and the changes s/he introduces to the environment are no different from the changes brought about by any other species.  Every species manipulates the environment to its own benefit – humans can just do it better and with bigger consequences.”

“That’s right.”  I interject.  “Again, rational, intelligent behaviour that enhances our survival and reproductive success is being thwarted by faulty thinking – by faulty belief systems.  Once again, like all human phenomena, it gets back to the human brain.  But now, what is the solution?”

“I can’t answer that fully Dad, and I don’t think anyone can – just yet.  But I do know this.  We need urgently to understand the neuroscience of belief systems.  We need to understand why they evolved, and how they become counter-productive. And we need to accept that anything we do to this planet which enhances our survival and reproductive success will be worthwhile, and anything that fails to, will be useless – or catastrophic.  There is nothing sacred or inherently moral.  And once we understand that, we might use our educational system to mitigate those negative consequences of faulty belief systems.  This might prevent us from flying planes into buildings, from fouling all the potable water, from burning down all the forests.  Surely if our belief systems are an evolutionary adaptation, we can use our evolved intelligence to make sure they work to our advantage, and not our demise?”

“Well put, Jake.  Well put.” I was both impressed and proud, as only a father can be.

 9. Conclusion

“Dad, why did you play this game with me?  It seemed a bit dorky at the start, but it’s worked really well.”

“Don’t know for sure, but I’ve read somewhere – I think it might have been some non-evidence-based NLP or something – that by turning things upside down, you always get a different perspective, a different mindset, and often get some great solutions.  So I was keen to get you out of your “problem” mode, and into “solution” mode, so that’s why I suggested we take turns in coming up with problems, then solutions.”

“Upside down eh?  You sound like Gabriella Cilmi,” he jibed.


“Never mind Dad.  God you’re old.”

“Now Buddy, even though I have clearly won, and you need to get up and go to class, would you like me to give you an overview now on the neuroscience research on music and learning?  It should only take a couple of hours.”

“Please Dad, Noooooo!  I’m going to class, I promise.” He screamed.

“I thought you might.”


 10. Epilogue

In which I explain why this ‘essay’ is in such an odd format.

How is it that we can, as John Steinbeck so eloquently put it, know something and still not believe it?  If the environmental scientists are to be believed, human civilisation is facing near certain catastrophe.  By any measure, the effect we humans are having on the planet is simply not sustainable and something, eventually, must give. We have rising CO2 emissions, increasing average temperatures, rising pollution levels, peak oil, global warming and a lethal combination of a dwindling freshwater reserves along with seriously reduced rainfall patterns.  Our population is increasing exponentially, and it is anticipated that at our current rates of consumption of natural resources, our population is likely to be decimated, or perhaps not even survive at all. Combine with that the perceived or real threat of nuclear obliteration, it is a depressing picture indeed.

Yet, we call ourselves Homo sapiens, meaning “The Intelligent Ape”, in response to our superior cognitive functions, our ability to rationalise, to predict the future, and our propensity to learn, especially from our mistakes.  And we have – at least in the West – formal education systems which make at least 10 years of full-time education mandatory for all children. And yet, our environment, and our behaviour, suggests that we are much less than intelligent, hell-bent it would seem on self-destruction, taking with us as many other species as we can.

So why was this essay in the form of a narrative, and not a formal, standard academic article?  This is an example of practising what Educational Neuroscience preaches.  I’ve (a) used a story to teach something about neuroscience, and I’ve done this because neuroscience itself tells us that storytelling is one of the most effective teaching methods (although the exact evolutionary reason for this is not so well known).  Secondly, I’ve deliberately included strong language, humour and discussions about emotive subjects like religion and death to demonstrate how emotions affect memory and learning – again something which Neuroscience has known for some time.


11.     References and Further Reading

In which I list all those references that were used (meaning either read or skimmed)  to develop the ideas in this essay, not just those that were directly referred to.

Andrews, P. (2008) Beyond the Brink:  Peter Andrews’ Radical Vision for a Sustainable Australian Landscape,  ABC Books, Sydney

Biswas-Diener, R. & Dean, B. (2007), Positive Psychology Coaching, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey

Black, P & William, D (1998) “Assessment and Classroom Learning”, Assessment in Education, Vol.5:1, P7-75

Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, New York

Blakemore, S-J, & Frith, U. (2005) The Learning Brain.  Lessons for Education, Bakewell Publishing, Massachusetts

Calman, K. (2001) “A study of storytelling, humour and learning in medicine”, Clinical Medicine, (3) 227-9

Carlson, J.S. &  Levin, J.R. (Eds.) (2007), Educating the Evolved Mind:  Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Educational Psychology, Information Age Publishing, North Carolina

Clark, R.C. & Mayer, R.E. (2008) “Learning by Viewing versus Learning by Doing:  Evidence-Based Guidelines for Principled Learning”, Performance Improvement Vol. 47 No.9, p 5-13

Covey, S.R. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, The Business Library, Melbourne Australia

Dawkins, R., (2006) The God Delusion, Bantam Press, London

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin Group, London

Doidge, N.  (2007) The Brain that Changes Itself, Scribe Publications, Melbourne Australia

Education Commission of the States, ”Bridging the Gap Between NeuroScience and Education. Summary of a Workshop co-sponsored by Education Commission of the States and the Charles A. Dana Foundation”, Denver, Colorado July 26, 1996

Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (2005). ‘Death by PowerPoint’. Chem. Engr. Education, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 28-29.

Flannery, T. (2008) “Now or Never.  A Sustainable Future for Australia?” Quarterly Essay, Issue 31.

Gazzaniga, M.S., Ivry, R.B., & Mangun, G.R. (2009) Cognitive Neuroscience.  The Biology of the Mind, 3rd Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, New York

Geary, D.C. (2007), “Educating the Evolved Mind:  Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Educational Psychology” in Carlson J.S. & Levin, J.R. (2007) op cit

Geary, D.C. (2005), The Origin of Mind:  Evolution of Brain, Cognition and General Intelligence, American Psychological Association, Washington

Geary, D.C. (1998).   “What is the function of mind and brain?” Educational Psychology Review, 10(4), 377-387

Gillepsie, D. (2008) Sweet Poison.  Why Sugar Makes us Fat, Viking Penguin Books Australia

Gladwell, M. (2005) Blink.  The Power of Thinking without Thinking Penguin Books London

Gladwell, M. (2000) The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Abacus Books, Great Britain

Goswami, Usha (2008), “Neuroscience and Education”, in Jossey-Bass Publishers, The Jossey-Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning  John Wiley & Sons Inc, San Francisco

Hattie, J. “Influences on Student Learning”, Inaugural lecture:  Professor of Education, University of Auckland August 2, 1999

Hawkins, G. (2006), The Ethics of Waste:  How we Relate to Rubbish, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland

Hitchins, C.  (2007), God is Not Great:  how religion poisons everything, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2007

James, O. (2007), Affluenza, Random House Publishing, London

Johnson, B.T. & Kirsch, I. (2008) “Do antidepressants work?  Statistical significance versus clinical benefit.”  Significance Vol 5, Issue2, pp 54-48

Kalyuga, S.; Chandler, P.; and Sweller, J. (2004). “When redundant on‐screen text in multimedia technical instruction can interfere with learning (training, education, instructional systems).” Human Factors, 46(3), 567‐580.

Kasser, T. (2002) The High Price of Materialism, MIT Press, Massachusetts

Kerzweil, R. (2005) The Singularity is Near:  When Humans Transcend Biology, Penguin Books, New York

Kirsch, I., Moore, T.J., Scoboria, A., & Nicholls, S. (2002) “The Emperor’s New Drugs:  An Analysis of Antidepressant Medication Data Submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration” Prevention & Treatment, Volume 5, Article 23

Libet, B.  (2004) Mind Time:  The Temporal Factor in Consciousness Harvard University Press, USA

Linley, P.A., & Joseph, S. (eds) (2004), Positive Psychology in Practice, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey

Liston, Delores D. (1994) “Story-Telling and Narrative:  A Neurophilosophical Perspective”, Education Resources Information Center

Mar, R.A. (2004) “The neuropsychology of narrative:  story comprehension, story production and their interrelation.”  Neuropsychologia 42(10):1414-34

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Preventing violence before it starts – with wellbeing education.

‘David’ a refugee from Africa, absolutely loved his Junior School teacher ‘Amelia’: she was the centre of his school experience, and he showered her with affection, gifts and notes about how special she was. When he went to Middle School however, he began to associate with some older boys and he began to misbehave. Amelia had to discipline him on one occasion about his misbehaviour (in his eyes, unfairly) and suddenly the relationship changed: he started to literally bully the teacher with nasty comments, verbal abuse and threats, a hurtful demand to ‘get all of my letters back’ and even physical intimidation. The teacher, a young graduate, consulted with the school leadership, who applied the standard discipline process, which only made the situation worse: he now taunted her with more abuse calling her a ‘snitch’. The teacher was devastated and sought assistance from the Positive Education team.
David had been learning about Positive Psychology as part of the NAB-funded program, and so the team reinforced this learning with David in a number of impromptu sessions. Firstly, he spent time reflecting on his own personal strengths, and quickly saw that his current behaviour fell well short of these. Secondly, he spent time reflecting on what he loved about his teacher, and how he felt about her. Finally, he was given a chance to describe what he valued most about their relationship, and what he really wanted to happen with her.
Then, using Neal the Seal (an adaption of assertiveness training) he was invited to meet with Amelia, a wellbeing team member, and his current teacher. There was barely a dry eye in the room after David bravely told Amelia how he felt about her, why he had been treating her the way he had, and what he would like to happen now. He even clearly expressed his anger at being disciplined, and apologised for behaving the way he had. Days later he reported to Amelia and other staff that ‘we are now friends’ and ‘I love her’.
David learned a valuable life lesson. Instead of following the ways of his older peers – particularly those disposed to mistreating women and girls. He learned that assertively expressing his feelings led to positive and peaceful outcomes – a lesson that one day might just save his life.

* ‘David’ and ‘Amelia’ are pseudonyms. All other details are factual.

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Social Supports – they even trump genetics

About one-third of the population carry a genes which were originally thought to predispose people to depression, anxiety and unhappiness. But research by Yale’s Professor Kaufman shows that it is not this simple.
If you have this genetic combination, you are in fact more likely to suffer badly if you endure difficult (uncaring) circumstances during your childhood. However, Kaufman has shown that the genes actually work to make you more reactive to your circumstances, not necessarily more likely to suffer psychopathy. Her research examined the role of positive social support – a consistent supportive adult to whom the child could turn – and discovered that
(a) those who had the genetic combination (short-short or s/s) AND who had suffered childhood abuse AND had no social support were ~ twice as likely to suffer depressive symptoms than those who were equally abused but did have social support.

(b) having social support – just one positive adult influence – removed some 80% of the effects of the abuse.

This research highlights the power of strong, consistent and positive relationships with children – the very thing that abusers rob from them – and how every attempt at helping such children must begin with rebuilding such relationships.

Social supports and serotonin transporter gene
moderate depression in maltreated children
Joan Kaufman*†‡, Bao-Zhu Yang*†, Heather Douglas-Palumberi*, Shadi Houshyar§, Deborah Lipschitz*,
John H. Krystal*†, and Joel Gelernter*†
*Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06511; †Clinical Neuroscience Division, National Center for Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder, Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center, West Haven, CT 06516; and §Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06511
Edited by Bruce S. McEwen, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, and approved October 15, 2004 (received for review June 18, 2004)
In this study, measures of the quality and availability of social
supports were found to moderate risk for depression associated
with a history of maltreatment and the presence of the short (s)
allele of the serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism
(5-HTTLPR). The present investigation (i) replicates research in
adults showing that 5-HTTLPR variation moderates the development
of depression after stress, (ii) extends the finding to children,
and (iii) demonstrates the ability of social supports to further
moderate risk for depression. Maltreated children with the ss
genotype and no positive supports had the highest depression
ratings, scores that were twice as high as the non-maltreated
comparison children with the same genotype. However, the presence
of positive supports reduced risk associated with maltreatment
and the ss genotype, such that maltreated children with this
profile had only minimal increases in their depression scores. These
findings are consistent with emerging preclinical and clinical data
suggesting that the negative sequelae associated with early stress
are not inevitable. Risk for negative outcomes may be modified by
both genetic and environmental factors, with the quality and
availability of social supports among the most important environmental
factors in promoting resiliency in maltreated children, even
in the presence of a genotype expected to confer vulnerability for
psychiatric disorder.

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Loneliness Changes Your Brain – in a bad way.

Protracted social isolation of adult mice induced behavioral, transcriptional and ultrastructural changes in oligodendrocytes of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and impaired adult myelination. Social re-integration was sufficient to normalize behavioral and transcriptional changes. Short periods of isolation affected chromatin and myelin, but did not induce behavioral changes. Thus, myelinating oligodendrocytes in the adult PFC respond to social interaction with chromatin changes, suggesting that myelination acts as a form of adult plasticity.

Nature Neuroscience 15, 1621–1623 (2012) doi:10.1038/nn.3263

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Making sense of ‘senseless violence’

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The Ultranot – if it wasn’t so serious, it would be funny.

This article appeared in today’s The Age newspaper.

Just like medicine and engineering, education is an evidence-based profession, yet the Age’s story about the ‘ultranot’ demonstrates how our political leaders, bureaucrats and some educators simply don’t get this. The story reminds me of former Premier Brumby’s announcement before his last election promising ~$300 million for the Year 9 camp program. Both this and the ultranet project were massively expensive, ill-conceived, poorly-defined, and ultimately afforded students no educational advantage. And both arose from politicians (from both sides of politics, both State and Federal) refusing to fund programs that we know, from the evidence, improve student outcomes, and instead promise headline-grabbing programs purely to win votes. Not surprisingly, our students are falling behind the rest of the world, spend much of their school years bored and disengaged, and so many graduate unprepared – academically, socially and emotionally – for the adult world. If we ran our engineering or health systems this way, patients would die and bridges would collapse, and the community would rightly be up in arms. But similar – and possibly worse – consequences arise from poor educational policy and practice, only they are not so immediate. Our students deserve so much better than this.

Imagine what $90+ milliion would have bought us, if it had been spent on evidence-based interventions. We could have trained every Victorian teacher in the power of feedback in teaching. We could provide social and emotional education to every Victorian school. We could have improved the quality of our teacher training, or assisted under-resourced schools and students to improve educational equity. But instead, this money went to highly-paid consultants and experts, and afforded zero educational value to our students.

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New youTube Channel on Wellbeing Education

thinkEd has started publishing educational videos on its wellbeing education program (called rockEd), which is based on the successful system used by the Khan Academy ( What he has done for general education, we are aiming to do for wellbeing education: provide education that improves children’s wellbeing available to everyone, anywhere in the world, at no cost.

Please check out the site, subscribe give us your feedback!


thinkEd Australia




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thinkEd’s Positive Education program featured in INSPIRE magazine

Sunshine Harvester Primary School’s program is featured in this month’s Department magazine. A great story about a great project (although it’s a pity the author can’t spell Irish surnames). See pages 28-30

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Government Funded Chaplains in Schools

First there was this well-written but misguided article by David Hastie×55.html

Then this is the full version of our reply published the following day (published at


Kudos to David Hastie for being the first Christian I have read to  publicly concede that the ‘presence of chaplains is an unspoken endorsement of religious worldviews’.  Publicly funding such an initiative in secular schools is hypocritical if not unconstitutional, but one which David argues we may just have to live with.

Well, no we don’t.

While formally qualified psychologists, social workers and counsellors need up to 8 years of training and deal with trauma, it is non sequitur  to conclude that religiously-motivated chaplains are therefore needed for other support roles.   That students need a range of support services – including but not limited to formal counselling – is uncontroversial.  Students need role-models, confidantes, life-skills teachers and mentors, all of whom can provide much needed friendship, educational support and ‘counsel’ throughout difficult times.   But, in a secular system, we as a nation have agreed that they must not get formal religious education and support.  And yet this is what the chaplaincy program, albeit in an surreptitious, or as David puts it, (unspoken, way) provides to our schools, at enormous expense to the Federal taxpayer.   Is this just an under-the-table handout aimed at satisfying the various religious lobbies?

David rightly highlights the role of positive psychology and other programs which effectively support our students  – and I know of many suitably qualified professionals who are both willing and able to deliver this type of student support without any religious or spiritual motivations – and who are paid a lot less than psychologists.  It’s time to drop the charade.  We should create and fund programs which give students what they really need, and what their parents have really agreed to – secular student support that is not religiously-motivated, and that provides proven interventions which improve the wellbeing of our students.  Call them Student Wellbeing Workers, mandate basic training in the science of wellbeing, and drop all references to those non-secular words like ‘spiritual’, ‘chaplain’ and ‘pastoral’ which are peppered throughout the Chaplaincy Program documentation.

Then, let’s see who applies for these newly-defined positions – I am willing to bet that a lot more secular helpers will apply than David thinks.  But I really won’t care – because I’ll be confident that these workers will only be allowed to provide students with evidence-based, effective support for students’ wellbeing and education, and not the implicit religious endorsement, even indoctrination, that so often accompanies chaplaincy.  And I’ll care even less which party they vote for.

Greg Donoghue
Montmorency Vic

Declaration of Interests:  Greg Donoghue is Director of thinkEd Australia which researches and provides wellbeing education to schools, and is currently developing a PhD research project with Prof John Hattie from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.



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Positive Educational Neuroscience

Proposed Article for Publication (2012)

Positive Educational Neuroscience:  toward a unified evolutionary theory of wellbeing education.



Geary’s development of Evolutionary Educational Neuroscience has aligned formal education practices into an evolutionary biology theoretical framework.  In this framework, all human learning is conceptualised as a biological adaptation:  the specialisation of cells into neurons capable of receiving and sending information to other cells for the enhancement of the organism’s evolutionary advantage.  In this paper I intend to extend this theoretical framework to include the specific teaching of wellbeing – particularly positive education and social-emotional learning.  In doing so I will describe three specific cognitive adaptations – general learning ability (plastic intelligence), metacognition (the ability to reflect on, and alter, our thinking) and cognitive filtering (the ability to consciously filter sensory information).  I will then propose a 7-pillar model of wellbeing, entitled Positive Educational Neuroscience, which emerges naturally from  these three cognitive adaptations.  I will compare and contrast this model with competing models as proposed by Seligman (PERMA), Pink (Drive) and Maslow (needs hierarchy), and hypothesise that these seven tiers are sufficient to define an exhaustive wellbeing curriculum.  Finally I will describe valid ways in which this hypothesis can be empirically tested.

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