Fascination with the Brain

Walking along Jericho Beach as a little girl, this piece of wood screamed “brain” to me.  This was long before the fascination with the brain had extended beyond neuroscientists and doctors, to psychologists, to educators, to anyone aging and fearing cognitive decline.  The brain held secrets that were not readily apparent to the naked eye.  It was the also the basis of the best bonding with my neurosurgeon father.

Dr. Peter Dyck is not a man who relished talk of feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations or divergent opinions.  However he has always been an example of the consummate learner.  He survived war times in Germany.  When he was 12 years old, he was sponsored to come to Canada with his mother and siblings by his uncle in Alberta.  He learned English and excelled in school.  He ended up working on his step-fathers farm in Abbotsford while attending school.  When a cow would die, he did not shed a tear.  He would dissect it behind the barn.   My aunt boiled many a chicken bones so he could reassemble them.  When I would go on rounds with him during summer visits to Los Angeles, the nurses would run when they heard his footsteps.  He was demanding of staff and took patient care very seriously.  Dad became fascinated with the possibility of destroying, rather than removing a brain tumour by using a local anaesthetic and a three dimensional C/T scanner to avoid the trauma of opening the skull.  Radioactive material in a small tube was targeted through a tiny hole in the skull into the centre of the brain tumour.  The concentration used would result in the radioactivity reaching only the tumour cells.  A team was formed including him as the neurosurgeon, Armand Bouzaglou, the radiation oncologist and Livia Bohman, the radiologist, to travel to Germany in 1981 to study the technique for stereotactic isotope implantation with Professor Fritz Mundinger at the University of Freiburg.   This technique was brought back to the USA and his first book about it’s success in avoiding the trauma of a full craniotomy was dedicated to the patients whose hope against overwhelming odds brought about this endeavour.

Not even neuroscientists agree on the inner workings of the brain.  However asking a question and our attitude seem to be the key components informing our brain and resulting in amazing accomplishments and sometimes survival.  Viktor Frankl’s answer to his question, “Why do I need to survive?” allowed him to walk out of Auschwitz and go on to develop his theory of logotherapy, write his influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and help many people find a way to cope with the challenges in their lives.   Norman Doidge details many examples of therapies that have allowed the brain to heal in ways that are still outside of mainstream medical practice in The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of  Neuroplasticity .  John J. Ratey, MD, in his book SPARK – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, provides a compelling argument as to why exercise is integral to our ability to cope with stress, learn, as well as maintain good mental and physical health.  The brain is central in all facets of our lives yet understanding how it works is still somewhat elusive.

Educators, such as Eric Jensen started to focus educators’s attention on Teaching with the Brain in Mind  in the 90’s.  Educators are now seriously considering the implications of what neuroplasticity means in the classroom.  Previously held conceptions about the limits of some learners no longer apply, and standardized testing has become one indicator of specific learning strengths and weaknesses, but not an accurate measure of future success.    Perhaps the greatest outcome has been talking to children about how their brain works and how they learn best.   This puts the responsibility and joy learning with the child and allows them to move beyond just looking for a good mark on an assignment.  Giving children the capacity to talk about the connections they are making in their learning and providing numerous opportunities to share their ideas and discoveries, opens up the possibilities to ask new questions and see their peers, teachers and parents as partners in a collaborative process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Complexity Theory: Collaboration in Schools

I listened to a great TedTalk today (Zurich, Switzerland 2013) by Nicholas Perony called ” Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory.”  Perony studies animals to understand how they maintain individualized stable social relationships over long periods of time.  Complex social systems in the animal kingdom are identified and broken down into interacting parts based on simple rules with emergent properties.  He grabs our attention with the picture of puppies pinwheeling around a bowl with the sole purpose of accessing the milk.  The dance is deconstructed to identify the one rule – get the milk.  Bats demonstrate simple association rules that result in complex social structures.  Meerkats teach us about the basis for their complex social hierarchy.  Animals show extraordinary complexity that allows them to adapt and respond.  Simplicity becomes complexity that ultimately emerges as resiliency.

Perony acknowledges that the more complex the machine, the more likely something unexpected will go wrong.  What could be more complex than a school community?  Particularly a school community at the end of the school year.   In days gone by or in strict hierarchical systems, perhaps decision making was easier because one person determined the direction.  Ultimately the stress came from the fact that the decisions didn’t reflect the needs of the diverse elements of the school community.

Perony identifies collaboration as an example of a complex system.   We aspire to a democratic process that best reflects the voices at the table and the needs in the school community.  The first time I participated in an Aboriginal Talking Circle, I was itching with impatience as everyone took the time they needed to express their thoughts.  What I have learned over the years is that I just need to be more patient.  Giving people the opportunity to voice their thoughts and provide the opportunity to participate in the decision making process allows us to all walk together on a common path.  With the end of the school year comes celebrations, reporting, ceremonies, transitions, staffing for the next year and planning for September.  All demand time that is in too short supply and requires collaboration.   If we try to break down collaboration to simple rules, does it increase our resiliency?  I can identify two simple rules that I believe facilitate the longevity of positive collaborative relationships.  1.  Respectfully listen to other people’s ideas.  2.  Be willing to change your mind based on what you’ve heard.

What would are your simple rules be to maintain longevity of positive collaborative relationships?  How do you go about defining them in your decision making structures?

 Beyond Routine

I have never been a creature of habit.  When things get to be too predictable, I get an anxious feeling that life is passing me by.  Perhaps this is the reason that eduction has been such a good fit for me.  Change and new learning are always afoot!  Meeting new people, changing grade levels, attending professional development and navigating through the politics of the time provide food for thought and a landscape to navigate that takes all of my personal and professional resources.  The quest for me is to maintain a larger perspective of what really matters and not get sucked into the vortex of ever increasing demands.


I work hard and play hard.  A good friend of mine use to marvel that one hot tub after I arrived at “The Secret Garden”, her B&B on Bowen Island, and I had geared down from “10” to a happy “2”.   This Spring Break, my play opportunity, aka Spring Break, has taken me to Vietnam for a much anticipated visit with my darling daughter.  We have escaped the humidity of Hanoi and are now settled in a little piece of tropical paradise in Phu Quoc.  One day on our secluded little beach with hammocks, a few kayaks for our use and a good book and I have officially geared down to a “2”.  I suspect the relaxation speed corresponds directly with the lush greenery surrounding us.  All that O2!  Although I must confess I pulled my hammock away from those green coconuts overhead on the beach with a remaining vestige of control.


My daughter, Larkyn, and her boyfriend, Justin, are both teaching in Vietnam at ILA, International Language Academy.  It has a carefully delineated program to ensure standardization in English language instruction in institutions around the world.  Yesterday Justin started to tell me about this new thing, PBL, that was being introduced into the courses with the higher level students.   The Project Based Learning is technology based and facilitates collaboration, communication and problem solving between students.  Students for the first time have the power to choose interest areas to pursue and develop vocabulary around those interests.

I taught practicing teachers at the Bureau of Education in Fuyang for two summer sessions in 2008 and 2009.  I worked with four other educators from Coquitlam, British Columbia, teaching educators English and ways to engage students in learning.  It was an amazing opportunity for personal learning.  I gained a much better understanding of my students from China and the challenges facing the educators in China trying to implement practices that were bringing such strong results in the Western World.  Rote learning was not just a philosophical position but a way to manage behaviour  and safety in classes of 50 or more students.  Teaching students how to write tests determined their ability to further their education, access opportunities and care for family.

Project based learning is an exciting possibility for implementing change in school systems.  My principal, Rosa Fazio, is off to China this Spring Break, to inspire educators with the ways teachers are using technology and student interest to inspire profound learning at the Kindergarten to Grade 8 level at Norma Rose Point.  There is part of me that is excited to go back to school after break to discuss what we have learned over the holidays.  Yes, I’m sitting with my coffee in  a little piece of paradise feeling very grateful to be an educator.

 

 

 

Exploring in the Digital Media Studio

I had the opportunity to spend the morning in the Digital Lab at Norma Rose Point School with middle school students yesterday.  There are just those days when just being in a buzzing room of completely engaged students fills my heart with an amazing sense of how much of a privilege it is to be an educator in this time and place in history.  We are part of unprecedented change and possibility in the school system.

Adrienne Wood is our Digital Media specialist.  Middle School students come to her for a three month rotation in the Digital Media Studio for 3 periods per week.  At this time they are exposed to a variety of applications on the computers / iPads and Maker Space using Raspberry Pi.  The teacher provides a link with the goals and expectations of this exploratory class. Students are required to complete ten projects in groups of three.  Each project is done with different group members to give students experience collaborating with a variety of people with a variety of approaches to the project work.

Yesterday students entered the Studio with a clear sense of what they needed to accomplish.  Students quickly broke off into groups to focus on completing their projects using:

3D design using Ignite

Raspberry Pi


Coding using Scratch or Codecademy

Ignition to learn about Digital Literacy and Responsibility

Comic Life

Stop Motion

Challenges included a broken wire on the Raspberry Pi, connectivity issues and the inability to edit existing work for the 3D designs but…  the kids had a plan of what needed to happen next.  They used a variety of strategies to problem solve, including the people in the room and online help. It was not enough to break anyone’s stride.  I think of my response when learning new technologies and the exasperation.  In some cases, students experiencing insurmountable issues shifted their attention to helping other students in the group with the realization that specific things would need to happen before they could get on with the project.  The only prompt from the teacher required was a reminder to save their work to OneDrive before the end of the class.

A room full of Grade 6 students are well on their way to establishing the skills that will be an integral part of their lives.  They will have a variety of ways to pursue their own interests and a full toolbox to pursue job opportunities.  The opportunities provided in this class have been orchestrated by a curious educator who is willing to take risks in her own learning to enable her students to engage with technology in purposeful learning.

The energy in the room is palpable.

 

 

 

Spaces to Think

In January, I was transferred to Norma Rose Point School, located beside The University of British Columbia.  My route to work now takes me along the same path I trekked along 4th Avenue with my older sister and the neighbourhood kids to Queen Mary Elementary School.  The one day that I biked to NRP, confirmed that my perception as a five year old was correct in assessing that it was a REALLY big hill to get to Queen Mary Elementary School.  The daily drive along memory lane has also precipitated reflections on my early school memories in the Kindergarten house at Queen Mary.

Mrs. Hicks “lived” in the very welcoming Kindergarten house, an outbuilding of Queen Mary Elementary School and was immune to the dominant “cells and bells” of the Ford model of design.  It had big spaces to gather, a piano with a big oval rug for singing time, a cuckoo clock to ponder the notion of time and lots of stations to build, create and experience integrated learning.  I clearly remember mastering tying on the Fisher Price big shoe with laces and being able to predict how many times the bird would say cuckoo before it hit the hour.   Outside the ocean was close by and the forest provided endless building materials for recess and lunch projects, although it may have “officially” been out of bounds.  I do remember a hole in the fence.   It was a safe and happy place to explore that had some of the comforts of home and the collaborative possibility of friends.

 

Norma Rose Point is a rebuild on the site where University Hill Secondary School use to be.  The only thing that remains from the original school is the gym, which was impressive back in the day.  The visioning process for Rose Point School was led by FNI (Fielding Nair International)  and they consulted with the design architects,  Think Space.   It has allowed for a collaborative, iterative experience and celebrates that the school is on Musqueam ancestral lands and a perfect conduit to facilitate understanding of indigenous ways of knowing.  The building itself embodies the shift in school design.  For me it has pushed the question – How does site design impact learning opportunities?

When you walk into Rose Point School, the welcoming and friendly tone of the school is evident.  While it is delightful, it is something I have experienced in several schools in the three districts I have worked in as an educator.  It directly correlates with the strength of the relationships that the caring adults in the building have developed with the students.  What is unique in the school, is  the wide open spaces, natural light and beauty and the variety of spaces and places and ways that students are engaged in learning and their willingness to talk about it.  The school mantra of “learners at the centre” is clearly understood by the students.  They understand that teachers are their to support them in their learning journey rather than to simply rank them on what they are able to memorize and regurgitate on a test.


In his book Blueprint for Tomorrow:  Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning (2014), Prakash Nair shares the ethos that well-designed school buildings can be a catalyst for pedagogical change.   I suspect that when educators have embraced a child centered pedagogy which capitalizes on social learning practices and integration across disciplines, the site allows the collaborative practice and the learning to flourish.  That being said, there is no doubt that the brilliance of architectural design companies like ThinkSpace and FNI has been the willingness to identify current educational priorities and allow them to take form in amazing educational facilities. NRI has designed educational buildings in 47 countries across 6 continents, which speaks to the reach of the profound global shifts in education which are responsive to the needs of the learner.

Norma Rose Point School is in the enviable position of having both the educators and site which represent the same vision for learners.  Rosa Fazio, the principal of the school, frames the vision with the OECD’s Principles of Innovative Learning.  As you move through the building, you are able to see students working in several different configurations.  Sometimes they are in small groups or independently developing fluency in basic literacy and numeracy skills. Sometimes they are in collaborative groups developing a project concept or problem solving around an issue.  Nair outlines 20 Modalities of learning, and you can identify all of them as you move through both the K-5 and middle (6-8) school wings of the school on any given day.


As a 5 year old, I experienced an environment with comfortable and diversified spaces for taking risks in my learning.  My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hicks, understood the importance of creating a welcoming environment and planning for diversified opportunities, places and groupings to facilitate student learning.  Perhaps everything I needed to know I did learn in Kindergarten.  So glad this philosophy has permeated not only mainstream educational philosophy but also school design.

NOTE:  The Language of School Design:  Design Patterns for 21st Century School by Nair, Fielding and Lackney (2013) was also excellent reading to clarify current thinking around school design.