Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Should We Do with Our Classrooms? Make Them Mobile and Plastic.

The brain is plastic, free, [yet] we are still always and everywhere in chains.   -C. Malabou

In What Should We Do With Our Brain? (a pdf version can be found here), Catherine Malabou examines certain metaphors and models that are commonly used for making sense of the organization and function of one of the human body's most perplexing organs. Midway through the book she makes the claim that "Any vision of the brain is necessarily political" (52) because "[how we make sense of] neuronal functioning and [how we make sense of] social functioning inter-determine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them" (9). More specifically, she posits that "There is today an exact correlation between descriptions of brain functioning and the political understanding of commanding" (32). Basically, how we talk about political power and social organization directly mirrors how we talk about brain organization, and vice versa. What we've discovered, however, is that we don't really understand brain organization, but we still rely on "so many unsettling metaphors in the register of command and government: a controller that sends orders down from on high [like] a central telephone exchange..." (4). Current research into neuroplasticity, however, demonstrates that the brain is not nearly so rigid and hierarchical (or could one say arbolic?) as the centralized command models suggest, which means we need a new language for talking about the brain, a reassessment that also could give way to more suitable metaphors or models for rethinking the politics of power socially and historically speaking. When rethinking language about both the brain and politics, perhaps the key is taking seriously their inter-determinable quality and exploring that relationship as a new model for both, a quality Malabou refers to as plasticity.

Plasticity is the ability to both receive and give form, meaning the brain gives form (much like the command center idea) but the organ is constantly modifying, repairing, and making new connections as well. Much of these modifications are shaped and impacted by environmental conditions, meaning the brain can receive form from factors outside its neuronal network (and how we organize power in our societal institutions, for instance, could serve as one of the many environmental factors which give the brain, as well as our conception of it, form as well). There is an inter-determinable relationship, in other words, between brain and world, and command center models miss this truth completely. What's most interesting is plasticity as a concept resists or subverts all models (if we are to assume that a 'model' is a rigid, unchanging form): "The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model" (6). A "centralized command center" not only fails to grasp the functionality of the brain: it presents a picture that is totally opposite of how our brains essentially and actually operate. And perhaps the command model also gives us a contrary picture of how political and social power could be rethought and redistributed: "It is thus not just a matter of uncovering, in the name of brain plasticity, a certain freedom of the brain but rather... to free this freedom, to disengage it from a certain number of ideological presuppositions that implicitly governs the entire neuroscientific field and, by mirror effect, the entire field of politics" (11). This got me reflecting upon the following question: How can we rearrange or reorganize power relations in our classrooms, for instance, to emancipate the student brain, to free it up such that it not only receives form but gives it as well, in our classroom environments and beyond?

He who bends others best is he who bends best himself.   -J. Ranciere

To see how our metaphors and models for political power permeate all levels of human existence (from brains to schools) take a look at the following image of a classroom from Nick Sousanis's Unflattening:

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening, Harvard University Press, 2015
The teacher, of course, serves as "the brain," commanding and giving form through his one-directional, neural networks which transfer data to the various receivers of information (namely, the students). The organization of the classroom mirrors the command center model of both politics and the brain, and it's obvious who's empowered and who's not in the above image. But what if we took the concept of plasticity more seriously? What can plasticity tell us about rethinking classroom politics & power relations?

One of my mantras for the year is the following quote from Jacques Ranciere's The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation: "He who bends others best is he who bends best himself" (85). (a pdf version can be found here). In the above picture, the only things that are demanded to bend are the students. It reminds me of Felix Guattari's distinction of Subject Groups and Subjugated Groups: the Subject Group (Teacher) has manifest power because they can demand to be heard, whereas the Subjugated Group (Student) doesn't necessarily have to be heard (however, the subjugated group does have latent power, if they were to act collectively for instance...). Classroom designs announce loudly for our students what models we're employing when it comes to distribution of power, and the design illustrated above messages clearly that students are to be told what to do, think, and learn. The teacher is the explicator of truth, and the students are to trace the teacher's path towards that truth: however, "It is the explicator who needs the incapable," writes Ranciere, "and not the other way around," (6). The explicator monopolizes power at the risk of disempowering and anesthetizing the students, meaning what we need instead is a pedagogy of student empowerment, which is another way of saying a "Pedagogy of Plasticity."

Each one of us describes our parabola around the truth - no two orbits are alike. And this is why the explicators endanger our revolution.   -J. Ranciere

Last spring, I had the fortunate opportunity to order new furniture for my classroom, a privilege I realize most teachers don't get, and I only had one serious request: I wanted everything to be mobile, which led us to select Learn2 desks made by KI:

Everything in the classroom, except the bookshelf, has wheels, including my desk, the students' desks, as well as the podium. As a result, everyday the relations among participants in the classroom shift and morph, depending on the activity; everyone is bending, giving form, and receiving it, including me. The design model is one of plasticity, and this change in the classroom arrangement helps give form to a new kind of pedagogy, an approach to teaching and learning that one might describe as andragogical. Already in the first 2 weeks of school, learning has taken some of the following forms:

There's no singular teaching style for all occasions, just as there's no singular learning style that proves better than all other methods. Just as plasticity as a model for the brain resists or even subverts all permanent forms so must our teaching methods. Mobile furniture is only one strategy for moving towards this realization, and it's been exciting to see it happen in my classroom this year. It's not the furniture that matters so much as the message we're sending in terms of who has the power over the learning process in our classrooms. To put it in Felix Guattari's terms, I hope the redesign of my classroom contributes in some way to removing the blinders from both the teacher's and students' perception such that the latent power of learning, that is autonomously in all of us, becomes manifest. The student doesn't trace the teacher's path to truth; everyone maps their individual journey together as a community.

They say classrooms are still always and everywhere in chains, but we know they can be plastic & free!

Works Cited:

Guattari, Felix. "Transversality." Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews, 1955-1971. Trans. Ames Hodges. Semiotext(e), 2015.

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do With Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Trans. Kristin Ross. Stanford University Press, 2007.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard University Press, 2015.