Brain Elasticity & Learning Through Action

I just listened to a fascinating podcast from On Being entitled “Investigating Healthy Minds” with Dr. Richard Davidson and it meshed with an interview published recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Know Much About History” with famed historian David McCullough. While Dr. Davidson makes many points about the nature of the mind and the effect of meditative practices on the mind from the perspectives of a practitioner and a neuroscientist, toward the end of the interview, a question about meditative practices as “spiritual technology” elicited the following, fascinating response:

Potentially. I don’t think I’ve used that phrase, but certainly I have talked about the range of practices, really the mechanics of practice, that are so richly described in some of the contemplative traditions and the potential value that many of these practices might have for modern science and our modern understanding of the mind. You know, I certainly — the idea of transformation is one that to me meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding. I’ve no problem with that and, you know, I think that really is a natural byproduct of understanding many of these constructs as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training. (emphasis added)

This idea underlies all of teaching and learning: the acquisition of skills over time changes the brain at any age. So often, I see kids sitting and staring at their desks, their notebooks, their laptops when they are working on prewriting exercises or planning stages of projects. Almost invariably, when I ask what they’re up to they respond with one word – thinking. My response is also almost invariable – thinking is doing, so do something. This is not merely flippant. I have a raft of suggestions for activities from taking a walk to drawing a picture to working on something else for a bit. Every assignment and project isn’t perfectly designed to capture every student, intrinsically motivating them into motion, but at the end of the day, thinking is action. So, do something, analyze the result, revise, and try again with an altered approach. Learn to do, better and better, through practice, approaching this process as a skill related to fluency in other skills, like writing, speaking, or film making. In the context of the conversation, I take Dr. Davidson to mean that meditative practices transform the mind in powerful ways because they are learned skills worked closer and closer to perfection over time. Because these practices are learned and then put into action repetitively, I see them as analogous to any performance skill taught in a classroom.

Learning as doing that transforms the mind is also reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s conversation with David McCullough, as he suggests, among other great ideas like active, involved parenting, student centered projects and art in the teaching of history in order to create critical minds:

And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with “the lab technique.” In other words, “give the student a problem to work on.”

“If I were teaching a class,” he says, “I would tell my students, ‘I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever.” He adds, “I have been feeling increasingly that history ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military.”

What about textbooks? “I’d take one of those textbooks. I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.'” You’d know that book inside and out.

Mr. McCullough advises us to concentrate on grade school. “Grade school children, as we all know, can learn a foreign language in a flash,” he says. “They can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you’re never going to forget it as long as you live.”

“We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers,” he summarizes. “I would teach them how to ask questions—because that’s how you learn.”

McCullough’s final point is powerful and true. History isn’t a fixed quantity to be memorized and held (or forgotten), but a series of techniques for understanding the past through drawing connections and interweaving disparate narratives and artifacts. Skills. Teach doing, build fluency in questioning and examination as skills, and transform minds as meditative practices transform minds thanks to the brain’s elasticity. Spiritual practices and history are both shrouded in mystery, but through the sometimes mundane, sometimes transformative process of doing each, we learn and are changed for the better.

Creating an Environment for Writing

Edutopia’s blog section has a nice piece up today with “Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere” that I like a great deal and not just because it begins with one of my classroom mantras: writers write. As teachers of writing, and all teachers are writing and communication teachers (and models), this piece is worth a look. I particularly like the idea of modeling writing for our students, which is one of the reasons I have a class blog and why I love #4 on the list, which is to “set pure tone” by doing the writing assignments yourself:

Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected “R”, he clearly states that it’s important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, “Would I do the work I’m asking my students to do?

This is essential – could I write a descriptive essay about Thomas Jefferson using my five senses? What did Jefferson smell like? How does he smell today? What kind of grade would that piece get me in fifth grade? Writing responses to AP-style prompts and sharing them with students has informed my instruction, given me compassion for some of the uncool realities behind on-the-spot literature surprise attacks, and shown me the potential value of document-based synthesis surprise attacks.

I also value the realization that writing takes time and so often schools cram in more and more and more, choking out time for creative enterprise and energy. Students amaze me at the depth and beauty of their output so often whilst being strung between endless club, activity, academic, artistic, and social demands. Some freedom and space in both the physical and time dimensions can give opportunities for creative output – written or otherwise.

An environment for writing in the classroom corresponds to an environment for creative, active learning in the school and beyond. I’ll be thinking about this blog piece as I plot out next year’s curriculum and loose plan in the next few weeks.

100 Greatest Nonfiction Books

The Guardian has released great fodder for argument: the 100 greatest nonfiction books. I’m a nonfiction addict – the creative essay, persuasion in all its guises, academic study, education research, society & culture, the arts, history. I have just finished The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and am currently reading The Information by James Gleick. I often run fiction, poetry, and nonfiction texts concurrently, and the nonfiction generally turns over more quickly. This list is interesting because it runs from Herodotus to Clay Shirky, who is one of my favorite current thinkers. There are must reads from Sontag’s Notes on Camp to Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky’s arguably most excellent tome, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (outdone by his epic The Ancestor’s Tale, in my opinion), The Revenge of Gaiam and The Silent Spring in the environmental camp, In Cold Blood, Innocents Abroad, The Souls of Black Folk – the hits just keep on coming. Additionally, there are many titles like Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that have reached cult status and which I have high on my list of what to read next. In literature The Uses of Enchantment and in journalism The Journalist and the Murderer caught my eye as unknowns, as well as The Story of Art, which shares a title with Simon Schama’s awesome BBC and much later produced television series all grabbed my attention.

Why is this list important? Any list represents a smattering of opinion at best, but this may spark conversation about nonfiction, which is a creative and under-appreciated genre, especially in high school English classes. Just today, I had five separate conversations with students who are abandoning advanced English coursework in favor of science and math. If we were teaching engaging, vibrant, creative non-fiction covering areas of student interest per student choice, perhaps we would be more likely to retain interest in more challenging English courses. Of course, higher level IB or AP English courses have debatable value, but I see value in students valuing the study of reading, writing, and communication. Students are not best served when they see English studies as an impediment to their scientific or mathematics careers. But, when they don’t get to see lists like this, how could they know what they’re missing? How could students know until they’ve missed developmentally essential time for developing their skills in examining writing for data, argument, and nuance and for writing fluently and vividly that the most famous and successful mathematicians and scientists are all great authors unless we have them read these books?

Literature includes nonfiction, which means literature is science, math, art, culture – haute and pop (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, anyone?), philosophy, and so much more. When English teachers expand their literary choices to include excellent nonfiction, everybody wins and departmental barriers are transcended, exposing the teacher as learner and engaging students in areas of personal interest. Students and teachers deserve a healthy helping of nonfiction and this list is a good starting point.

Learning Outside of the Classroom

In the midst of our first day of a “Classroom Without Walls” trip, one of my English students who is on the trip looked at me as we surveyed the landscape of canton Schwyz in Switzerland and said “It’s really amazing how fast we learn. I mean, this morning we had no idea about any of this.”


Not the inside of a school building

We began the morning slowly after a night fitful sleeping, as it turned out, by everyone. We ran and bounced our way through a cow pasture to begin with, practicing the run, brake, lean-and-run-quickly technique for launching. I learned run, brake, left, and right in German. Slowly, each paragliding student, myself included, worked her or his way up the hill, getting longer and longer flights. Eventually, we launched from the highest point and practiced turning. I learned that I am the Greatest American Hero of Swiss paragliding, landing much like Mickey Mantle coming into third base. This is my goal for tomorrow. The kids flourished, learning at different rates and succeeding or struggling with different parts of the technique, but all completing the day with successful flights and a high level of stoke for tomorrow, and for each successive day. The stoke is for flying, for doing something new, for succeeding, for learning easily, quickly, and authentically. When a boy’s glider collapsed and spun him around, no teacher needed to tell him that he hadn’t lifted off from the ground. When a girl launched five meters off the ground on her first try, she didn’t need a grade to prove that she had nailed it. It’s learning to do something personally valued, even if not valuable on the open market, that brings on the stoke.

I’m lucky to be teaching at a school with amazing resources through which kids are granted these kinds of opportunities. I wish all kids got them. At the end of the week, I’m not at all sure what quantifiable metrics we’ll have fulfilled, but that should clear up much of what we need to know about quantifiable metrics and learning. Sometimes, oftentimes, teachers and students alike need opportunities to soar and opportunities to make hard landings in environments that don’t look like school, but are.

Google Chromebooks and Corporate Computing

Google is launching the Chromebook, and making the profit savvy move of marketing it as a tool for education. I’m not sure if the conjoining of business and education within the initial marketing splash says more about the currently depressing state of American educational discourse or about what Google misunderstands about education. However, tapping into taxpayer cash is always a good decision for the bottom line, and that’s what Google is doing. Even though the Chromebook is slightly more expensive than a comparable netbook, a higher price that includes the Chromebook’s reduced functionality, educators are already piloting Chromebooks for free, saying good things about how quickly they turn on, and loving the new administrator panel that allows for easy web filtering. The rush to love is on. Of course, educators are also loving the low, low price!

But, let’s slow down for a minute. What bothers me the most about the rush to support a device that doesn’t even hit the market for another few weeks is that the Chromebook locks in corporate control with even more finality than Windows or Apple’s fierce-cat entitled operating systems. To be sure, Chrome offers many apps that are open source and free and offers the capability of user-designed apps with much greater ease than writing Windows or Mac software, but the platform is more narrow than what we’ve come to expect from a PC because it’s locked into an internet and cloud-centric system. Creating images and sound in Aviary’s Chrome app, even if offline for storage in the cloud later, is still working in a browser. Browsers browse, they troll for goodies and suck our time in StumbleUpon. Google is an internet company, and so their new OS vision reflects their vision, which is the primacy of the old web. Google Buzz didn’t generate much web 2.0 action, and the Wave has crashed. So why go forward into tomorrow with 1999’s, or even today’s coolest search engine? The answer seems to be because it’s better than 1981’s QDOS. But, is this not a false dichotomy for no other reason than Apple exists?

What about Linux? Can we take what makes us excited about app development and give it teeth through basing the development of creative and educational software on open source platforms? I think about the apps I love on Chrome, and I wonder if they will stay free, if they will begin to include ads, which would be an OS-based ad pipeline to students using Chromebooks, or if they will start to charge a little, and incrementally the bargain-that-was will become death by a million cuts. It’s unclear, and this would be worth nailing down before committing an organization to the Chrome path. I’ve written before about path dependence and the arguments I’m hearing for Chromebooks sound like arguments against the Windows path, which I sympathize with. But, it’s not a very convincing argument. I’m ready to have an argument about non-corporate computing in schools, but I’m not sure how to win it beyond the obvious democratic nature of open source software. Perceived ease of use, familiarity, and path dependance – that up-front investment that locks in future decisions – always seem to win the day. The shape of this debate, or more accurately non-debate, has echoes that resound throughout free societies. I’d love to think we had the boldness to trust each other and to take on the burden of learning something new if only for the personal benefits, but the scary unknown tends to fold us in on the familiar and the authoritarian.

But, that’s probably too opaque and possibly too idealistic. Here’s another big Chromebook related question: As organizations move to corporate controlled and held data in the cloud,  how organizations view their relationship to their data, to what they create?As I consider my use of Google docs – which I like very much – and what I’m putting there behind the curtain of my OS and my browser, I find an important distinction between what I hold digitally on a drive in my hand or in my computer and between what is held digitally in a Dick Cheney-style undisclosed location by people who I’m trusting to be responsive to me. Chrome is a leap all the way into this brave new world, in which we, the users, trust nice folks elsewhere with our digital products for work, learning, and play. I feel the requisite warm fuzzies to Google’s brand, but I can’t figure out why I should trust them more than Facebook, about which we are all quick to remind kids (and not each other) about thinking twice before uploading information. The differences are clear, but so are the similarities: Facebook and cloud operators like Google hold our data and form giant monoliths from which it is sometimes difficult to wrest accountability. As it has grown, Google has become a major target, like Microsoft before it, of cyberattacks from hackers and possibly quasi-superpowers like China. Eventually, Chromebooks are going to need anti-virus apps, or something like that, to protect them from the black hats.

Let’s slow down and catch our breath about Chromebooks and the cloud. I use the cloud – Google apps, Dropbox, the Aviary suite, SlideRocket, and so on. I love the ease of sharing between my PC and Android phone. Still, when we talk about a new direction for schools, it’s worth stepping back and looking at the whole picture, and simple cost analyses and brand loyalty isn’t enough. If Chromebooks reflect what we want kids to do with computers in school, we may need to start asking them to do more before we give them less.