John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and B. F. Skinner helped shape 20th century educational policy and practice by connecting teaching and learning to emerging cultural and scientific developments. Recent dramatic advances in the cognitive neurosciences and computer technology suggest that a similar set of creative educational theorists will soon emerge to help schools connect teaching and learning to 21st century biology and technology.

These budding educational theorists are already fascinated by the maturing brain tissue and exploding technology they daily confront in their professional assignment—and they’re already thinking about moving the educational status quo to status WOW! Whether you see yourself as a potential theorist or as an educational leader who will help implement the new theories, you’ll be pleased to know that several renowned scientists have recently published excellent accessible books on the exciting new developments in the neurobiology of consciousness, certain to be a central and controversial element of any 21st century educational theory.

Consciousness, the last major unsolved problem in biology, provides our unified sense of self—our personal subjective awareness of our existence and of the environment we inhabit.

Consciousness abandons me during sleep and magically reappears when I awaken. And when I’m conscious, I not only know something, but I know that I know it.

So who is the “I” who is doing all this knowing? And how is it possible for networks of firing neurons to spark my subjective feelings and thoughts—to transform matter into mind? The search for the meaning and mechanisms of consciousness has historically been the speculative purview of philosophers and theologians (who tended to consider it a disembodied essence beyond the capabilities of biological research). Times change, however, and neuroscientists can now explore the biology of consciousness via the remarkable observational capabilities of brain imaging technology. Although conventional wisdom saw biological explanations of consciousness as emerging in the distant future, the renowned neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux recently wrote, “The day when the autonomy of consciousness can be given a neuronal interpretation may not be as far off as was generally supposed” (2004, Changeux).

Conscious thought and behavior emerge out of unconscious emotional arousal, which alerts us to potential challenges and helps to activate innate automatic responses. If we have no innate response to a challenge, conscious feelings emerge, and these activate relevant brain systems that consciously (subjectively) and rationally (objectively) analyze the challenge and develop a solution.

Since school activities focus principally on conscious learning and behavior, the biology of consciousness will thus help to formulate credible 21st century theories of teaching and learning. But since consciousness is also integral to religious belief and cultural behavior, its relationship to educational theory will certainly be controversial. Educational leaders will obviously have to understand consciousness in order to deal intelligently with the complex issues it will raise.

What must occur now is that educators who are interested in the cognitive neurosciences should begin the process of preparing themselves for the day when the definitive biological theory of consciousness emerges. When that occurs, our profession will need folks who can immediately and competently explain it during conference and staff development presentations and write about it in educational journals. Join that significant select group!

Begin your extended exploration with the following sequence of eight books. The first four provide a non-technical introduction to the general concept, and so prepare you for the more theoretical books. The four books that follow present the latest theories of renowned neuroscientists who have been studying the neurobiology of consciousness from different cognitive perspectives. The books were written for a general audience, and so effectively strive to help readers understand technical elements of our brain and the underlying neurobiology of consciousness.

It took me awhile to read through the set but what an intellectually stimulating experience it was for me—and I trust also for you. I imagined young educators developing exciting fresh perspectives of teaching and learning while reading the books, untrammeled by the five decades of professional baggage I carry.

My thoughts drifted to John Dewey at the beginning of the 20th century, contemplating Democracy and Education—and then to a 21st century John or Jane Dewey contemplating Consciousness and Education. Wow!

A Consciousness Reading List for Educators Who Want to Help Shape 21st Century Education

BASIC CONSCIOUSNESS BOOKS:

  • Ackerman, Diane. (2004) An alchemy of mind: The marvel and mystery of the brain. New York: Scribner.A marvelous, beautifully written, non-technical introduction to consciousness and related issues by a poet/naturalist who has written several excellent accessible books about cognition.
  • Blackmore, Susan. (2004) Consciousness, An introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.A sprightly reader-friendly college textbook that will introduce you to the entire range of philosophic and scientific consciousness studies, and adequately prepare you for the more complex works that are now emerging.
  • Zeman, Adam. (2002) Consciousness: A user’s guide. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.An excellent general introduction to the neurobiology of consciousness. Zeman focuses especially on sleep and vision as key elements in the study of consciousness, and so his book is a fine introduction to the more theoretic books.
  • Newberg, Andrew, D’Aquili, Eugene, and Rause, Vince. (2001) Why God won’t go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. New York: Ballentine.

Religious belief and behavior are intriguing elements of consciousness. This book provides a fascinating non-technical explanation of the developing field of Neurotheology (neuroimaging studies of people engaged in religious thought and behavior), and so it provides a unique dimension in consciousness studies (Sylwester, 2002)

BIOLOGICAL THEORIES OF CONSCIOUSNESS:

  • Koch, Christof. (2004) The quest for consciousness: A neurobiological approach. Englewood, Colorado: Roberts and Company, Publishers.Koch is a long time collaborator of the recently deceased Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize as co-discoverer of DNA. Koch’s book is a fascinating account of their collaborative search for the biological roots of consciousness within our visual system. The book is also meant to be a college text, so it provides much useful support for understanding the technical material.
  • Damasio, Antonio. (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. New York: Harcourt.Damasio’s intriguing Looking for Spinoza is the third of his highly regarded series of books on the emotional underpinnings of consciousness. Damasio connects his recent discoveries about emotion and consciousness with the 17th century speculations of the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. Damasio suggests that although modern science is making spectacular discoveries about human properties and capabilities, the ancients often had remarkably correct insights. (Sylwester, 2003)
  • Edelman, Gerald. (2004) Wider than the sky: The phenomenal gift of consciousness. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.Edelman is another Nobel Laureate who has moved from his first area of study (the immune system) into neuroscience and consciousness. Wider Than the Sky is his fifth book on his theory, commonly called Neural Darwinism. Edelman sees many parallels between Darwinian evolution and the way an individual brain develops, and views human consciousness as a property that emerges out of the highly interconnected modules that constitute our brain.
  • Changeux, Jean-Pierre (2004) The physiology of truth: Neuroscience and human knowledge. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.In the final book in this proposed study sequence, Changeux sees the search for truth to be the driving force of consciousness. Changeux’s book may thus provide the best entry into a theory of education. His book explains how our brain is organized into a neuronal workspace of many specific but massively interconnected processing systems that can collectively resolve true/false issues—often overriding emotional biases and conventional wisdom in the process. The scientific method (and its validation processes) is perhaps the best observable illustration of this system in action—and it’s an important curricular element.

Best wishes on your personal mind-expanding journey into consciousness—and on the contributions you will make to 21st century education because of it.