Monday, March 14, 2011

Contrasting Two Kinds of Education (Part I)

I don’t know how many people know that I grew up in Northern (West) Germany after the war. For many Germans this was definitely the worst of times. Individuals struggled to survive physically, but I wonder how many are aware of the tremendous number of individuals who were emotionally devastated. Many were in and out of mental institutions and there were many teachers among them.

In the midst of this chaos I had the great fortune to end up with a very exceptional teacher. She was young, gifted and talented and had grown up in this little town which had never been bombed (It had actually been scheduled to be destroyed by Allied bombing, but the end of the war intervened).

What made this teacher and this time so unusual was that everyone had so much freedom. New regulations had not been established for schools and education. Also, there was little money to pay teachers so we only went to school 2-3 hours a day and from 8-10 A.M. on Saturdays.

On many days, too lovely to stay indoors, we would go on hikes to a place she felt to be educational. Most vivid in my memory are visits to the local “Schloss” or castle. This was not like many museums today where isolated pieces are grouped and labeled.

Rooms had been largely left intact and this allowed my imagination to run free as I saw myself living in this kind of environment. Our teacher didn’t teach us things as part of a prepared “lesson,” but rather often pointed things out, or linked items to historical events or told stories.

Either as we walked or back in school she had us recall the type of china (Was it “Dresden?”), and furnishings (“What time period and country did it represent?”, “Where did the carpets originate?”, or “When was the castle built and why here?”).

As a result of this almost casual exchange I became fascinated with stories of royalty, their wars and relationships and other struggles – something that became linking themes and convinced me that I was meant to be an historian.

My entire education was incredibly challenging. For example, we didn’t have spelling tests. Instead she would “dictate” a story slowly and we would write as she read to us. German is very phonetic (spelled largely the way it is pronounced) and I found following with my writing very exciting and challenging.

Despite shorter time spans, many opportunities were provided for us. We didn’t have P.E. every day, but we loved it because it was entirely based on achieving our personal best. I can still remember my little sister and I walking to the local gym to practice on the ropes and do acrobatics.

We did this for fun, inspired by our limited exposure in school.

We learned to sing, went to local “children’s theatre” productions and acted in plays. Math was relatively easy because her instructions were so clear, most science was taught on our walks (types of trees, fauna, weather patterns, etc.).

At the age of 12, when we came to the U.S.A., with the exception of the English language, I was almost three years ahead of students in my classes in academics.

Not until college and graduate school did I once again come across the kind of teaching and “magical challenge” I had experienced early on.

At the end of this month, our new book, “Natural Learning for a Connected World: Education, Technology, and the Human Brain”, will be available on Amazon. I know that much of this book is the result of my own experience of the kind of teaching both Geoffrey and I now so passionately advocate.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Our Tolerance for Violence

When writing this column I often use the word “learning”. But this word has many meanings, the most important distinction being between learning in school and learning from life.

Learning from life is natural for the human brain and body. The brain, especially in children is literally organized (brain cells connect) when children have experiences that include sight, sound, touch or movement, or engagement of feelings. The impact is compounded when such experiences occur more than once, or are particularly violent. Then they lead to the development of “patterns” or habitual ways of seeing or doing something.

So here is my dilemma. At the recent Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema I observed something so disturbing that I had to get up and leave. Before going into detail however I need everyone to understand that we support the film festival and thoroughly enjoy the people who are involved in the film industry. Without exception they strike us as creative, positive and totally committed to their art. And the Festival is great for Idyllwild. It is a young festival and Steve Savage has assured us that the situation I describe here will be addressed next year and should never have happened.

On this particular afternoon the film series began with a thoroughly delightful film intended for adults and children alike. It was called “Libby Girl Online,” produced and directed by a wonderful young woman, Janet Mayson. Everyone enjoyed a very clever computer literate dog and her friends.

But following “Libby Girl,” and with hardly a break in between, came a film of darkness, violence, cruelty, and foul language. I expected parents to get up immediately and take their children outside but instead I saw only one father take his infant out of the Center. These were “good parents” in the usual sense and the children were well behaved.

Even the next film, which could have been funny for an adult audience included sexual content of a very explicit nature. To an adult mind the blatant sexual scenes could have been seen as silly and entertaining, but what were these children experiencing?

In children the emotional system is far more developed than their ability to reason. They have no way of putting things in perspective. Parents may not see an immediate reaction in their child, especially when children are taught to “behave” when in public. But the kids (and sometimes the parents) often have nightmares and what may be seen as unreasonable fears that are never connected to what they saw or experienced.. In my own case I had a dream about human beings being taken over by monsters that had very thick skins with barnacles on them. I have a lot of experience interpreting dreams and it didn’t take long before I realized that my unconscious was saying that we were all becoming “hardened” to watching violence of all kinds. A callousness was taking us over.

Fear and terror act as subtle undercurrents that affect all of us but especially children. Have we as a society become so desensitized to violence and violent language that we no longer see it’s potential to influence our thoughts and actions?

But whether you believe like Isaac Asimov’ character Hari Seldon that “violence is the first refuge of the incompetent,” or you believe that guns should be available for everyone, hopefully you have used your reasoning capacity to decide these things. Children do not have the ability to reason out what they see and experience – they mostly absorb impressions and feel things that ultimately add up to a shift in beliefs and actions. Over time experiencing violence of all kinds will influence their tolerance for violent acts. And children without caring parents present as they grow up are especially vulnerable. In this case, parents should have acted instantly!

We will address issues of fear and helplessness this Saturday, February 12, at the Caine Learning Center. We will be showing a fantastic film. It will begin at 4 p.m. and will be followed by all of us talking about how this is relevant to our lives, communities and what is happening in schools. See you there.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Power of a Great Teacher

Recently one of our Caine Learning Associates told us about an experience that carries a message.

In high school she had been part of a well-known choir. The director of the choir had been responsible for her lifelong interest in music. “He made Beethoven’s 9th symphony come alive for me.” “ He made me feel the music in such a powerful way that it changed me and my relationship to music forever.”

She was recalling this because she had recently been at a reunion. The current director of the same choir had called together all choir members and former directors from the last 35 years. As the current director looked over all the people gathered in a huge auditorium, he asked how many past members now have children or grandchildren who were there today ”The sheer numbers were astounding!”

Later, as she was talking to her son, she realized that she was passing on her passion for music the same way her teacher had instilled it in her. Her understanding and love for music had been passed on to her son. It had deeply influenced his knowledge and love of music.

Her story made us aware once more of the power held by a great teacher to impact not only their students but later generations. And there is now some science behind this.

Many neuroscientists are currently fascinated by what they call “mirror neurons”. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire in response to a person being observed when they are doing or saying something, especially if we admire that person or are close to them. The experiment we often refer to is one where a wife tells her husband that she has a pain in her shoulder and neuroscientists pinpoint which area of her brain lights up as she feels the pain. The scientists observe the husband’s brain lighting up in the same brain area, even though he does not actually feel the pain itself. He was literally “feeling her pain.” (This same research is demonstrating that we may be hard wired for empathy!)

One of the conclusions drawn from this research is that people are very sensitive to what others do and how they act, often much more so than to what they say. As one author put it, “If you yell at your children not to run down the stairs, they don’t learn to slow down nearly as much as they learn how to yell.” How you actually act in their presence has a big impact.

As the US narrows the goal of learning in school to student results on standardized tests, largely consisting of multiple-choice questions and essays scored by strangers hired by test publishing companies, I am often frustrated and angry by the simplistic view of learning that this represents.

Wouldn’t our money be better spent on creating teachers who love their subjects and are masters at sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with their students? And who are at liberty to teach for understanding and genuinely higher standards?

And there is even a bigger message. You and I are teachers every time we interact with our children and with each other. They tend to become what we are!

By the way, the Caine Learning Center is beginning to have some functions open and free to the public (though a donation of any amount would be appreciated). On Saturday, February 12, we will be showing a fantastic film about the impact of stress associated with a sense of helplessness and fatigue. It will begin at 4 p.m.. After that, we will talk together about how this understanding is relevant to our lives, community, and what is happening in schools.

See you there.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Letting Real Life Into the Classroom

Some time ago I was sitting in a 4th grade classroom. The teacher had a special treat for his students. He had invited a university professor to talk to his students. The professor was a specialist in rodents and other animals that can be found everywhere around Idyllwild.

He did two things to begin his presentation. First, he passed around about 6-8 stuffed animals – the real kind prepared by a taxidermist. These were the one’s he was prepared to talk about and every 2-3 students got one to look at.

Then he began a power point presentation that described these animals and presented facts about how they lived and survived.

That is when it happened. The students ignored the professor’s presentation and instead focused on their animals. They talked excitedly about what they were observing in low but audible voices.

The teacher was becoming very uncomfortable and after repeatedly warning students to pay attention, each warning being followed by a few seconds of silence, he finally became openly angry and kept apologizing to the professor for the behavior of his students.

Knowing what I know about how people learn naturally, I wasn’t at all surprised. Here is how things could have ended much differently.

At least a week prior to the professors’ visit I would have asked him what he planned to cover and how. Once I knew what animals he planned to bring I would have found a way to introduce the animals to the students in a way that provoked interest. This could include, for instance, a list of critters students had encountered in Idyllwild. I would invite them to “adopt” one for further study. By adopt I mean which ones would they choose to research or document. During this preliminary stage they would be encouraged to get as much information on “their” animal by using the WEB, books, interviewing local experts or reading brochures provided by local organizations.

I would encourage them to be as original as possible and also encourage them to observe or even record their animal using a webcam or video recorder of some type.

The arrival of the professor would be a special event. Here was an expert who could help them go deeper. They could have conversations with him and pepper him with questions and check their knowledge. Their enthusiasm would still have to be curtailed because listening and sharing ideas politely and respectfully needs to be developed (My students always learned how to do this right from the beginning and I modeled it).

Finally, since they only had the professor for an hour that day, students could have put all of their discoveries together in some form afterwards and send it to the professor as documentation and “thank you” for what they had discovered.

Lesson? In the age of technology it is especially important to have students begin with their own unique questions and to allow them to do their own research first. When they come to class with their own understandings, the teacher (or parent, guardian or grandparent) can ask them questions or help them deepen their own understanding about what they know but always in a respectful way. “Who are their adopted animal’s natural predators”?, “How is their animal different from those adopted by other students”? “What drives their animal to behave the way it does”? “What characteristics do the animals share”? “How might they be grouped”? How are they important to the food chain or ecosystem on the hill”? The list of possible questions is almost endless, and as long as students are allowed time to find the answers and act as a group of experts, their knowledge can deepen.

The real benefit comes in the form of research and documentation skills they acquired as they pursued answers, worked with others, and identified data and details. All are ready to be used again for other fascinating questions and puzzles related to science, history, geography or writing.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On the Desperate Need for Community

A friend of ours just sent us a reference ( ) to an article that describes how students are using circles and talking sticks to share stories. They report how this practice is improving relationships in the schools.

Can this really be news? I don't mean that the practice is not great and very important, but it should be obvious. In this day when we know that the body, mind and emotions are deeply interconnected in all of us, why are educators not more sophisticated in their understanding of how critical relationship is to learning?

Some adolescents are now texting between one hundred to over 1,000 messages a day. Isn't social networking all about relationship?

Yet many students don't know fellow students they see every day in their school. No wonder we struggle with things like bullying or racial acts of hate. Then, instead of bringing kids together to talk and share who they are, we end up establishing a system of punishment or disciplinary action because we think threat will solve the situation.

Meladonna Some, the author of "Of Water and of Spirit" once said that when a community requires policing from the outside to patrol it, it is not a community. All too often we look for the police or some other entity other than teachers or students to solve relationship problems.

Geoffrey and I just completed a book on Process Learning Circles (Strengthening Your Professional Learning Community: The art of learning together - ASCD).

We wrote for adults because we believe that community begins at the top. It also emphasizes
how critical self knowledge is whenever we want to work together.

Since teachers are most convinced that something works when they see it working with students first, we suggest that they have students learn together using the Process Learning Circle Format. I am always astonished at the results. Even when I think students know each other and can work together on projects, I find this is seldom the case.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What video games can teach us about learning

This is my first post and I want to start it with the Town Crier Column. I am hoping that we can begin a conversation about learning and teaching based on the thoughts I expressed

Although our work at the Caine Learning Center is primarily with adult educators, we always have parents ask us how their children can do better in school.

Most recently a parent came to me hoping that I could help their son do better in his courses. His grades were low and his teachers were basically saying their son lacked focus and could not concentrate on schoolwork. Like most U.S. teens these days, this student spent hours playing video games, watching T.V., and playing DVD’s .

In this particular case our student was in a class “learning” about the Westward movement. I asked him what he was doing in class. He told me that they read their textbook and kept a journal of their readings. The journal was written in their own words.

I asked him if he had heard of the Louis and Clark expedition and he “sort of” remembered the names.

Knowing what we know about learning we asked him if he had ever been in a canoe filled with supplies and knew how such a canoe would react to a storm or freezing weather. He mouthed the words “no . . .” and his eyes became alert. I asked other questions like “Had he ever spent a night in the wilderness?” and “Do you have any questions about how you would survive if you had to do that?” “Where would he get food once supplies ran out? “ And I invited him to ask questions that surfaced for him when he thought about the West and the Indians. “What did Louis and Clark do when they got sick?” I also asked him if he would like to find out.

His eyes became larger and he was totally alert. This had the makings of a video game where challenges are everywhere and players have to resolve problems under pressure and master new skills in order to survive under tough circumstances.

Although many parents are leery of video games (I agree on the nature of the content) our own knowledge of learning gleaned from brain research and cognitive science tells us that video designers know a great deal about how to engage kids in life like learning situations that “teach”. And in the course of “playing” their games, students have the opportunity to master all kinds of things such as the names of characters, critical information about the nature of the game, basic rules, as well as how to cooperate with others, make critical decisions, keep their “cool”, and concentrate for long periods at a time.

So I have many questions when it comes to today’s schools and education. Mine goes something like this: How “real” is learning in school?

On the one hand we all have to learn how to write and spell for example, but I ask myself, how might these be learned better? If we take a lesson from video games and brain research, then the first thing that we understand is that kids need to be involved in something that matters to them. Taking spelling tests or writing sentences and paragraphs according to a formula directed by an adult agenda often lacks meaning for them. They just don’t care enough and have to be forced or coerced.

Would students learn these things faster if there were an opportunity to solve a problem they cared about? What if they had an opportunity to volunteer to write an article for the “Town Crier” or to design an ad for their aunt’s restaurant? Both of these would provide challenges that mattered if they themselves decided to do this and both situations would provide them with feedback on their spelling and grammar. Doing something “real” requires pretty high standards. Neither their aunt, nor the “Town Crier” would accept something spelled incorrectly or that lacked good sentence structure. Writing something that has real consequences and is meaningful to the student results in “feedback” that is pretty instant and real.

I have also watched discipline issues disappear when students are working on something they care about. We all learn better when we are interested in solving a problem that matters to us. And inevitably we work harder and longer.

Let her know what your thoughts are.