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Understanding Ourselves: An Introduction to the Brain, Behavior, and Human Learning

Beginning in October of 2019, Mr. Pannone and Mr. Byrnes will begin teaching an Upper School-wide course entitled Understanding Ourselves: An Introduction to the Brain, Behavior, and Human Learning. The course is the natural evolution of our Days of Reflection, which will occur six times between the first session in October and the end of the school year.

What’s the purpose of the course?

The purpose of the course is to introduce students to core concepts intended to serve as the foundation of self-knowledge. Students will delve into questions about how we learn, what influences our behavior and relationships, and how we develop the agency to act thoughtfully and intentionally on behalf of ourselves and others. They will then apply these questions to their own behavior, learning, and life choices.

How will it work?

Over the course of workshops, each of which will run on a Wednesday beginning at 9:00 am, students will read, listen, and watch thought-leaders on brain science, cognitive psychology, and human behavior. They will engage in activities and discussions designed to help them connect these topics to their present and future lives. Students will also be asked to experiment with using their new knowledge to express agency and make change in their lives.

Will this mean a lot more work for students, in addition to their normal courses?

It will definitely mean more reading, thinking, writing, and speaking, but it won’t mean more time. We plan on giving students all the time that they need during the sessions, and we also plan to provide students time, prior to each session and during the school day, to prepare for each session.

Is this graded?

No, though we hope that everyone will be a better learner, and maybe better person, as a result of our work together.

What will faculty members be doing while the course is being taught?

Our faculty will have the wonderful opportunity to do deep work, both individually and by department, on the development of competencies and other learning-related projects. We believe that the value added to our students’ learning experience as a result will be transformational.

Can you be more specific about the course of study? How much can you do in six days?

The course is designed to be an overview: a way to provide awareness that we hope will prompt further pursuit of understanding over time. Here is a snapshot of each session:

DISCUSSION 1 -- October 23, 2019: Cell Phones: Do we own them, or do they own us?

Core Topics: persuasive design | nudge theory & behavioral architecture | data colonization | privacy

Guiding Questions: Why are cell phones so good at distracting us? Why does it matter? How can we build our own agency -- the ability to act thoughtfully and intentionally -- in a world that gets more distracting every day?

DISCUSSION 2 -- January 22, 2020: How Does Thinking Happen?

Core Topics: systems 1 & 2 | attention | memory | the attention merchants

Guiding Questions: How do our brains actually work, and what are the physiological limitations of attention? If, as William James said, "our life is the sum of how we spend our attention, then how do we create awareness of our attentional processes, and make intentional decisions around best using it?"

DISCUSSION 3 -- April 1, 2020: How do we make meaning of the world?

Core Topics: mental models | heuristics | the limitations of thinking

Guiding Questions: How do we make meaning of the things that we pay attention to? How are our perceptions and biases formed, and why is it useful to understand them?

DISCUSSION 4 -- TBD: Being Human.

Core Topics: emotions | evolutionary history of human sociality | empathy | armor & vulnerability

Guiding Questions: How are our behaviors and learning shaped by interactions with other humans -- by language, by our vulnerabilities, and by our relationships? How is the digital age, and in particular our screen-mediated world, changing how we experience these elements of our humanity?

DISCUSSION 5 -- TBD: Finding Purpose.

Core Topics: success & failure | flow | introspection | micro-motives

Guiding Questions: How do we define success and failure? Where do our notions of these concepts come from? How can we begin, in Todd Rose’s words, to identify our “micromotives” and what we really are passionate about and good at?

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