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.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” A quote from Albert Einstein that I love. Fun and play are often referenced as activities of the carefree, frivolous and sometimes careless. Albert Einstein places it exactly where it needs to be. Front and centre in learning. In order to play, you are committing to action. To participate. To risk the unfamiliar. To hypothesize. To imagine possibilities. To adjust to the unexpected. To find humour. To enjoy. To appreciate. To communicate.
I was at a conference recently where the speaker was casting aspersions on blanket statements about the merits of play. He referenced that play needed to take a specific form in order to result in meaningful learning. I don’t disagree that play can be structured to meet specific learning outcomes. Teaching kindergarten was very much about structuring play activities to guide children to learn specific skills or develop background knowledge. Opportunities were designed to encourage children to ask questions and go about finding the answers. However this is looking at play from a narrow perspective.
A willingness to be playful is a habit that opens up the world. It presumes a stance in the world that is positive and open to wonder and to other people. One of the learning teams at my last school would meet on the balcony on Friday after school to drink a pop, debrief the week and chat about the upcoming weekend. There was always laughter, a litany of responsibilities and plans for play on the weekend with family and friends. There was a shared belief that those “play” opportunities were an important part of how we experience new things and open ourselves up to getting to know people and come back to school refreshed.
At times I bemoan the fact that middle school students stay late after school to congregate around their handheld devices. I regularly prompt them to go play outside. Yet, when I step back, they are collaborating on best strategies to use in the game or mediating turn taking. When my nephews explained their fascination with the world of Minecraft, I finally came to the realization that higher order thinking skills were at play. They were engrossed in the possibilities before them. They were not focussing on the academics preferred by educators but they were learning things that mattered to them.
Roy Lichtenstein – Girl with Ball – 1961
Assuming a playful stance is engaging in structured play activities and more. It reflects a belief that having sense of curiosity and engagement and wonder and appreciation of successes along the way allows us explore new pathways to learning. Show me someone who is playful and I’ll show you a learner. I’ll show you someone who is having fun!
I have been described as a fast processor, divergent thinker, creative, the Tasmanian Devil (cartoon version) on speed and masterful multi-tasker. I have also been informed my desk is too messy, my purse too full and my overstuffed bags should not be carried back and forth from home to school. This being the case, I have engaged in a lifelong pursuit of the ultimate organizational system to allow me to expedite and coordinate family demands, professional responsibilities, social schedules, travel plans and provide the time to allow me to read, write, exercise, get outside and to sleep. This Christmas, Santa, in his infinite wisdom, put Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, in my stocking.
Daniel J. Levitin takes the reader not so much on a tour of the evolution of the brain, but the evolution of the demands on the brain. This book includes but moves beyond the typical self-help shelf about how to find keys and remember names. This book is neuroscience meets cognitive psychology. It is exceptionally well researched and provides the information about the workings of the brain that provides important considerations such as time, relaxation, focus, sleep and engagement to organize aspects of home, social and the business life.
Levitin brings to light the objections raised to the proliferation of books by 15th century intellectuals: The concern was “…people would stop talking to each other, burying themselves in books, polluting their minds with useless, fatuous ideas.” (p.15) Our concerns have shifted with what to do with our addiction to internet, cell phones and social media. New technologies are not to be dismissed, but considered in light of what we are gaining, what we are losing and how to best use them for our purposes. The primary consideration is the working of the prefrontal cortex and the ways that we can focus our attentional systems and assist our memory system in coping with the demands being made on them.
Strategies are suggested to organize our world so we don’t get lost in the endless pursuit of keys and cell phones. Bayesian probability models are explored through use of the fourfold table which sheds a whole new light on taking control of health related decisions. I am committed to only multi-task the minutia that does not require focused thinking. I will continue to call my Dad en route to the gym and unload the dishwasher while I make coffee, add to the grocery list and listen to Ted Talks. The shift is that I will jot down ideas and things to do on index cards (to be sorted, categorized and completed later) and close the door in order to focus on tasks requiring more focussed thinking and to maximize my creativity. Yet, the biggest take-away for me is making decisions about how I use time and organize based on information about how the brain works. Levitin has been able to provide the information required to take control over the barrage of information that is tossed our direction on a regular basis. I recently signed up for a two week online blogging class provided compliments of WordPress. I have been able to sift through the myriad of ideas and incorporate the tools that externalize memory and are conducive to focusing my attentional system. The mark of a great book for me is that it creeps into your thoughts and discussions long after it’s been read. Great book!