Archive for October, 2010

Element 4: The CEO of the Brain

Recent studies is developmental  psychology have shown that the greatest predictor of success in life is something called “self-regulation”.  In simple terms it has to do with your ability to control your emotions, your ability to reason through situations, and your ability to see the long-term over the short term.

Self-regulation has grown out of the understanding that we have gained of the role and value of the front part of the brain: the prefrontal cortex.  This is where “executive function” lives.  Executive function is what controls us – hence “self-regulation”.  It is the “executive”, the CEO, of our beings.  And, the better developed and refined it is, the better we are able to function as integrated beings who are capable to living successfully in the world.  It means putting off some immediate desires in order to gain better longer-term ones.  It means learning not to act purely on an emotion that courses through our body.

How do we get it?  How is self-regulation developed?  Understanding this will help us to construct learning environments that facilitate its development.

Suffice it to say today that traditional education of young children today is not providing the best kinds of experiences and environments for developing self-regulation.  A more careful examination of what is required will come to this space soon.


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Element 3: Learning is Doing

“When you do it you learn it.”  We’ve probably all had an experience of really learning something only when we started to apply it, to do it.  We speak of “book learning” and “learning on the job”.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s medicine or plumbing.  You can learn things in principle, theoretically and then you have to address real applications.  It is the latter that is most meaningful and which can translate into excellence.  Indeed, it is the latter that is the measure of success.  Does every person who gets straight As become exceptional in their field?  Of course not, just like every exceptional person did not necessarily get straight As – some were actually very poor “at school”.

I don’t mean to suggest that theoretical learning is unnecessary or a waste of time, far from it. My purpose is to underscore the huge value of learning by doing, where actual meaning-making takes place.

Many successful  people are “self-taught” – they simply did the doing, probably in flow.  Historically more people have learned what they learned this way that in today’s top-down approach.  I suggest that we need more experience in schools, more doing, more applying.  We need schools where students discover and arrive at conclusions rather than being fed information – “answers”.

Consider a typical situation.  Geometry class.  We’re studying area and come to figuring the area of a triangle.  The typical approach is to give the students the formula and have them work through examples, plugging in numbers, etc.

A decent teacher will show how the area of a triangle relates to the area of a rectangle and thus how the formula is derived.

A much better approach would be to give the students actual rectangles and triangles and let them explore with them… allowing them to see for themselves how the two shapes relate and then what the formula for the area of a triangle must be.  In this manner you have engagement, a quick feedback loop and the resulting formula will be “owned” by them because they figured it out: that’s called learning.  Learning is distinctly different from remembering.

The truth of the matter is that “teaching” should never mean “telling”.  You can’t teach very much if that is your approach because learning requires doing.  Doing with engagement, affect, is what real learning looks and feels like.  The rest is “remembering” and often leads to forgetting.  Real learning, that stuff you taught yourself, figured out on your own, that will not be forgotten: it has been incarnated into the fabric of your being.  This should be our goal for learning.

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Element 2: Intrinsic Motivation

Today we have identified the optimal conditions for learning.   This is true for people, not just children.  The research shows that we learn best when:

  • we have control over what we’re doing
  • we get regular, immediate feedback
  • we have an interest in what we’re doing

Think about something that you chose to learn or explore in order to understand.  You wanted to do it, maybe with a passion.  When we engage in this way we invest all kinds of time, far more than anyone could require us to.  We all know the heavily engaged person: “are you still working on that?!” Let’s assume a healthy level of engagement and not an obsessive, consuming one.  It is true that we’ll put in the time to explore and learn.  Why?  Because we are engaged at a high level.  Our motivation here is internal – it is not a prize, an external reward.  We are moved, motivated, by a question, a desire to perfect ourself or a desire to solve a problem for its own sake.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has discussed this phenomenon extensively, calling it “flow”.  One essential point about high engagement, flow, is that you need to have two things occurring: high competency and high-challenge.  When these are out of balance you either lose interest due to boredom or frustration.  But find that balance and you will carry on for great lengths of time, feel yourself to be in an ecstatic state of satisfaction and be truly energized by the experience.   Imagine a school where this took place!  Holy Grail indeed.

When a child can choose what to work on based on her interest at the time she is far more likely to find herself in flow – heavily and productively engaged in the work or activity.  Her motivation is internal: to work on a question of interest to me NOW.  She will produce more and learn more in this manner than if she’d been assigned the task.  And, her satisfaction will not take the form of a grade but will be her own satisfaction in personal achievement. The outcomes here will be twofold, direct or explicit and indirect or implicit.  The explicit outcome will be meaningful learning of the matter/subject at hand; the implicit outcome will be that learning is a pleasant, self-controlled and engaging process.

The value of a positive emotional experience when learning cannot be underestimated.  The role of emotion, or affect, in learning is huge.  We understand this clearly when emotions are negative – we call it trauma.  When terrible things happen to us they are embedded in our psyche because they carry strong emotional components; the stronger the emotional component the worse the level of trauma.  With positive emotions we can recall similar situations: the birth of a child, a first kiss, a much-deserved award, etc. We recall that which carries with it a strong emotional component because emotions act as the glue of learning: they bond the pieces.

During the process we need to constantly evaluate our success.  We need to know if what we’re doing is working.  When we build with building blocks we get that: either the structure stands or it doesn’t.  We can step back, try something else, learn what worked and what didn’t, improvise, explore, and continue to design based on what is succeeding.  It’s the constant feedback that directs us along the way.  It’s highly efficient.

A learning environment needs to provide this quick feedback-loop.  Waiting days and weeks to see how we’re doing is often too much time.

When we allow for learning to take this form what emerges is an approach to human development that we can truly celebrate as human flourishing.  Isn’t this the goal of education?  Shouldn’t an education help you to discover what you excel at, what your passions are, and what form your contribution to the world will be?

Each one of us possesses talents and has the ability to develop them. Research (Ericsson, K. Anders) has shown that talent is not so much “innate” as it is the result of hard work – effort.  Let’s build an education system that allows for each child to discover their passions and interests and to excel at that/those.

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SO I posted some thoughts to the SLATE.com crowdsourcing project on what 21st century schools should look like.  Unfortunately their format was highly limited in space, allowing only for short bursts.  I will post here, over the next few days, the rest of the “thought behind the bursts” – the full justification – for why those bursts (ideas) make sense.

Element 1: Individualized timeframes

We start with a basic fact about living organisms: they are all different in their pace of development.  That package of bean seeds you plant in your garden tells you that the seeds will germinate in anywhere from 8-16 days.  That’s a 100% variation.  So the plants begin to sprout on different days (and some not at all) then they flowers at different times and bear fruit on different days too.

Similarly, those three maple trees on the street, all planted at the same time when the neighborhood was established, all change color and drop their leaves at different times.  They are the same age and grow under the same conditions, but one can be without leaves while the one next to it remains mostly green.

What we know about how living things develop is this: we understand the linear process, but the timeline is less predictable, less exact.  Yes, the bean plants need to flower before fruit will appear: without question.  The leaves need to change color before they separate from the branch: undoubtedly.  In the same way and for the same reasons, a fetus needs to develop a brain stem before it can develop organs, a child needs to walk before she can run, and speak before he can reason.

So we understand the order of human development, but not the exact timing of it. Pediatricians can’t consistently tell us the precise day a child will be born on, nor when they will take their first steps or speak their first words. It doesn’t work that way.  Yet, somehow it was decided that we could assign a specific amount of time that it would take all children to learn how to read, add, or grasp the fine points of literary analysis.  Put this way the latter seems wrong-headed on its face,

How long does it take to learn to ride a bike?  Play tennis? There aren’t answers to these questions.  The answer is: it takes the time that it takes you and that’s all there is to it.   It’s not right or wrong, good or bad, better or worse- it just is.

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So I have posted to the online magazine Slate.  They have a crowdsourcing project up around the question of what “schools should look like in the 21st Century”.  Below is what I posted.  It’s partly a distillation of what gets posted here.


If we look at what we’ve learned from developmental psychology, neuroscience research and leadership training we’ll see that this is what a school should be like:

  1. mixed-age group environments: it is not chronological age that determines what a student can learns and we all take the time we need to learn. Living things develop in a non-linear process. How long does it take to learn to ride a bike?  The answer is: it takes the time that it takes you and that’s all there is to it.
  2. self-directed, lengthy periods of work to accommodate the fact that intrinsic motivation leads to engagement and meaningful learning. When we work based on interest we invest far more time than anyone could require us to. When a child can choose what to work on based on her interest at the time she is far more likely to find herself productively engaged in the work.
  3. allow for results-oriented assessment and student participation in assessment rather than raw test scores.
  4. allow for exploration and open-ended questioning in order to foster real learning through meaning-making activity rather than focus on “content delivery” from a teacher. Students truly learn when they explore and arrive at conclusions rather than being fed “answers”. In this manner the resulting knowledge will be “owned” by them because they figured it out: that’s called learning.
  5. deliver outcomes that truly prepare students for living their lives effectively and successfully: collaboration, leadership, creativity, adaptability, communication, empathy and resourcefulness. We need a culture of adaptability and creative innovation that will allow students to develop into people who can solve the problems when they do emerge.



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The Chicago Tribute ran a story today about the value of teaching social skills and empathy in elementary schools.  As the story goes, “students are expected to meet certain benchmarks, such as recognizing and managing feelings, building empathy and making responsible decisions.”

Now these are indeed valuable skills for life, essential even.  The only problem is that you don’t go about teaching them any more than you can teach creativity by having art class.

You can’t decide at 9:45 AM that it’s “social learning time” and give lessons with role playing to demonstrate how to be kind, generous, understanding or caring.  These are things that have to be lived in the real give and take of daily life, yes, even at school.  You need to have a culture that functions with these as part of its fabric so that there’s a natural development of healthy social capabilities.

I’ve said before in this space the same thing about creativity: it needs to be part of the culture and live beyond art class.  Most art classes amount to the teacher presenting the project of the moment and everyone “makes one”.  The elements are provided, the plan given and “they’re off”. The children can all be observed running off to pick-up line with their  project in hand: all small variants of the same thing.  Creativity in motion?  Hardly.

The root of the problem here is of course the same: if we care to think in PRINCIPLES.  The issue is this: you can’t TEACH this stuff any more than you can TEACH most of what’s taught in traditional schools these days.  Children require experiences that will  allow them to construct themselves.  That is why schools should be “experience labs” more than they should be “teacher-lead classrooms”.  That is why the Montessori model works so well: it doesn’t try to hard-teach content, be it geometry, language arts, history or empathy.  Yet, Montessori children regularly turn out to be the most justice-oriented, peaceful, and capable children one could want.

Yes, we need to change what’s going on in our traditional schools, but if anyone thinks that this latest social skills effort is going to change who children will  become they are sorely mistaken.  Let’s go back and REEVALUATE THE MODEL.

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