Creating Desireable Environments for Learning


So, what’s this?! (credit: David Kaplan)

Three Guesses:

1. A snowcone formerly belonging to Evan, which he dropped on our driveway, and I flattened with my Tacoma.

2. A “Rainbow Pancake” compliments of our local LGBT bakery.

3. Artist’s rendering of the hurricane in Wonkaland after the great jellybean explosion.

OK, I know what you’re all thinking – “that thing looks just like the laminal layers of my brain’s neocortex!” And you’d be right!

Actually, the Scientists at the Tufts Tissue Engineering Research Center assembled circular modules of cast silk into these concentric rings to do just that – i.e., simulate the laminal layers of the brain’s neocortex, seeding each layer with neurons before assembly.

“Why on earth would they want to do that?” you might ask. “Do we really want to be dinking around with multi-colored simulations of neocortical laminates?” I hear you. This sounds like a Hannibal-inspired remodel of our noggins. I’m fine with gray matter, thanks.

But here’s the deal – these experiments have unleashed a flood of new insights as our scientific friends have been able to culivate actual living brain tissue outside of the body and keep it alive for months! This overcomes a major obstacle that has frustrated scientists for decades: studying the living brain in the lab.

So how did they do it? Well, obviously, you start out with the brain of a rat. You  harvest a few rat brain cells, then use them to impregnate the above scaffolding, which you have constructed out of silk and collagen proteins. You really need to follow the recipe here, because that’s the only way the cells can grow into the proper complex arrangement (otherwise, apparently, they would grow all higgledy piggledy like rat brain kudzu).


The result is that the smart people at Tufts can now study (maybe learn to diagnose and even treat) neurological activity in brains that have suffered traumatic injury.

As Michael Blanding notes in his article on the discovery,

The neural cells grew around the scaffolding to create functional neural networks in a remarkably stable structure.”

Read more at:

Pretty amazing stuff. But the even cooler thing about the whole process – and the thing that’s more immediately relevant for us – is how the experiment was run.

Turns out the scientists at Tufts sort of wound up the regenerative neurological spring and let ‘er rip.

“We did not know how to direct the process, so we allowed the cells to do it themselves,” explains David Kaplan, director of the Tissue Engineering Research Center (TERC) based at Tufts, which has been instrumental in efforts to grow body tissues for more than a decade. “But we had to create the conditions that made the cells want to do it.” (emphasis added).

Read more at:

Those of us in Christian leadership can take a lesson from the brilliant scientists at Tufts. Whether we are leading a church, a school of the arts, a seminary, a business, or a Sunday School class – the bottom line is that any real spiritual growth depends on two factors: the power of the Holy Spirit, and a willing heart, eager to yield to His shaping influence.

Ultimately, we have to let our students, our trainees, our disciples go, and allow them to “do it themselves.” Until then, those of us who occupy learning “labs” can construct the “scaffolding,” we can provide the pedagogical/adrogogical constructs in which our students can flourish – if they want to.

In other words, we can give them the tools, but if the students don’t want to build, to grow (see the “willing heart” component above), then nothing is going to change. We as leaders must create the conditions that make our students want to follow Jesus, to pay the price, to avoid the consequences of less than whole-hearted devotion, and to enjoy the rewards of total commitment.

It isn’t a case of our telling them only what they “should”  or “ought” to do (though obligation is an important part of the message). Creating an optimum environment for spiritual growth means showing our students how wonderful it is to know the Lord Jesus (simulation anyone?) so they will want to follow Him wherever He leads.

If they don’t get the “why”of our mission, they’ll fade in the stretch of trying in their own strength to accomplish the “how” and the “what.” They’ll wind up with a list of obligations they have dutifully checked off – all of which reverberate with the hollow echo of sounding brass and clanging cymbals. This is all part of what Simon Sinek calls “the golden circle.” I hope to cover that in a future blog.



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