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Brain Awareness Week: Brain v. Mind

Tina Grotzer, Catherine Elgin, and Gigi Luk

Students gathered last Thursday in Larsen Hall to attend “Brain v. Mind: What is the Nature of Knowledge,” a discussion about varying conceptions of knowledge and how they can be applied within the education field. The panel event — part of Brain Awareness Week — featured Professor Catherine Elgin, Associate Professor Tina Grotzer, and Assistant Professor Gigi Luk, who discussed their varying views on the issue.

Brain Awareness Week is part of a global campaign launched by the Dana Foundation to raise awareness about the brain. HGSE students collaborated with faculty, researchers, and the Brain Basics student organization to host a series of events including a youth conference, and this panel focused on understanding the brain.

“This conversation is important — particularly because a growing public interest in neuroscience information necessitates thoughtful conversation about what neuroscience can and cannot tell us about complex topics, like knowledge,” said master’s candidate Heather Francis, who helped organize the week of events.

To start the “Brain v. Mind” discussion, a seemingly simple question was presented: “What is the nature of knowledge?” Providing an array of different answers, their responses served as a reflection of the different fields in which they work.

“I am a constructivist, in terms of psychology, so in my understanding, knowledge is part of one’s experiences. I understand it as more interactive,” said Luk, whose current research includes the cognitive consequences of bilingualism at different ages. “When learning a new language, for example, at first you just hear a sound. But progressively, you see how these sounds begin to carry meaning, you actively engage, and you experience trial and error. That is knowledge.”

Holding a similar position, Grotzer, whose work centers on cognitive science and causal induction, explained her conception of knowledge as “the way people make sense in a complex world.” For her, it is about enacting knowledge.

“It is less about what is in your brain and more about how you are able to act in intelligent ways within your surroundings,” she explained. “So you have to be able to read features in the environment and pull what cognitive resources you have forward in a given instance through perception, attention, and reason.”

Finally, Elgin, a philosopher of education, pushed back against both of these ideas, pointing out that these constructivist views of knowledge are problematic. To demonstrate this, she stressed the importance of distinguishing between knowledge on the one hand, and “beliefs” or different “takes” on things on the other hand.

“Interaction with your environment is how you come to develop the beliefs that you have, however, these beliefs can be misleading,” Elgin said. “For example, it used to be widely believed that the sun orbited around the earth because people’s experiences, like watching the sunrise and the sunset, provided them with the experiential basis for this to make sense. Knowledge departs from this in that it is what is ‘good’ in our beliefs, it is what we ‘ought’ to believe. Knowledge and questions of truth are independent of what someone believes and thinks.”

Throughout the discussion, students asked questions to help “unpack” the complex topic. For many, their greatest concern was how to actually apply competing conceptions of knowledge in the classroom. And with such different understandings of the meaning of knowledge, each faculty member had different thoughts about moving forward in the realm of education.

“As educators, we need to make kids aware that ‘how do you know’ is different from ‘what makes you feel,’” Elgin said. “If you report to know something, that means there are public standards that you have to satisfy, and these standards are something students should be aware of. ‘Knowing’ is not subjective.”

Grotzer stressed another approach. “If we take knowledge as enacted, you cannot have schools where you have standardized assessments because enacted knowledge invites disruptive innovation; it changes how we assess in schools and we have to assess for what people can do with their knowledge,” she argued.

While no formal answers or conclusions were drawn, that was not the intention of the discussion. Instead, the panel was meant to help students see the value of a interdisciplinary perspective on the complex issues surrounding “knowledge” — not only what is meant by the term, but how those understandings can be enacted and what implications they have moving forward.


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