Wise Integration: Sea Squirts, Tech Bans, and Cognitive Artifacts (Summer Series) | Brent Kaneft | 22 Min Read

July 25, 2023

“If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.”

“Professor” Irvin Corey

A sea squirt will metabolize its own brain. This hermaphroditic organism produces tadpole-like larvae that immediately swim to their eternal home, connecting headfirst, and then proceeding to absorb their eye, their spine, and their brain. The sea squirt isn’t being reckless, but prudent—this cannibalizing process supports the development of their “digestive, circulatory, and reproductive organs.” Once the eye, spine, and brain navigate home, they don’t serve another function. There is a well-worn joke that this is the same thing that happens to tenured professors. More charitably to tenured professors, this is a process most humans participate in: find a home, design for homeostasis, and then reduce the need for the brain through automatic processes or default modes—the brain is an “energy hog” and will take shortcuts whenever possible. Efficiency is its goal.

This isn’t a criticism, it’s biology (and sociology): brains crave predictability, and they seek efficiency; more or less, both attributes make predictable, routinized environments desirable —disruption demands effort, and brains want to conserve energy. This reality makes change hard, at least initially. Think about the first time you used a smartphone: you expended a lot of cognitive energy trying to manipulate this new tool, perhaps became frustrated from time to time, until at last its functions were integrated into your life so as to be second nature (e.g., When was the last time you paused to remember how to share a video, image, or podcast with a friend?).

This neurotrait is why, for example, classroom management is so crucial. Students’ brains want a routine, behavioral expectations, and clear goals that prevent cognitive overload. Without that structure, students are constantly on the alert and will struggle to learn in that environment. What’s more, with good classroom management, the use of novelty to gain students’ attention can be even more powerful. Students can handle it because of the predictably reliable environment the teacher has created. They can risk disruption, disorder, and cognitive dissonance because they trust the teacher.

What strategies, tools, activities, and innovations are integrated into the classroom, then, should be subject to thorough vetting, because whatever we add to this space changes the environment and the developmental outcomes of our students. Recently, Jonathan Haidt, NYU professor, bestselling author, and co-founder of Heterodox Academy, wrote a…

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Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is Head of School at Wilson Hall School, a PK-12 independent school, in South Carolina. He holds a master’s in literature from James Madison University and earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from Indiana University (Bloomington) in May 2022. Since 2016, Brent has led teacher workshops on how to translate Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) research strategies into the classroom, and since 2020, he has focused on research-informed practices in the areas of social-emotional learning, mindfulness, and equity and inclusion. Brent’s recent publications include "The Belonging Apocalypse: Woke Bypassing, Contemplative Practices, and a Way Forward for DEI" (IntrepidEd News) and "The Problem with Nice: Moving from Congenial to Collegial Cultures" (Independent School Magazine).