Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Pondering how to bring irrelevance to the classroom.

I recently visited the Big Apple.   Right now, if I close my eyes I can picture a kaleidoscope of images: neon lights, beautiful dresses, horns blaring, buildings towering overhead, a constant sea of people.  We “did” New York: the Met, the MoMA, the Frick, the Guggenheim, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the 9/ll Memorial, SoHo, Chelsea, Harlem, Battery Park, a Broadway show.   We walked and walked and walked and stopped and stared (being sure to step to the side so we didn't annoy New Yorkers).  

I wonder, my husband said, as he gazed up at the Freedom Tower, if my life would have been different if I’d come to New York as a youth.    

Who knows?  But it seems safe to say that the richer the array of possibilities that are set before us, the greater the probability that our path will diverge from the one mapped out by history, our parents’ lives, and proximity.  

Perhaps that’s why I feel frustrated by the calls for “relevance” and “student-driven passion” in education.  After all, relevance is defined by our community and our capacity to imagine; our passions – and our imaginations - are fueled by our experiences. How can a logger’s daughter understand the relevance of (never mind grow a passion for) quadratic equations that seems so obvious to the daughter of a nuclear physicist?  How many could imagine, fifty years ago, that anything to do with computers would be relevant for everything?  They weren't conceived of by people who had been taught about computers, obviously, but people who had imagination, tenacity, and a deep understanding of mathematics.  And the future?  Who knows?  The best we can do is teach the best we know, and that includes “irrelevant” things like Shakespeare and poetry and classical music and quantum theory, and yes, quadratic equations rather than only “financial literacy.”  An education is inevitably irrelevant, in part at least, to every individual.  Why not fill the day with those “irrelevant” ideas and tools that are the best of human thinking, not only because relevance is subjective, but because they are a means to create a relevant-to-us (that is, to say, passion-driven) path in an unfathomable future.  

I was once invited to tell a story for multicultural day at one of our “up-town” elementary schools.  I shared pictures from my trip to Uganda.  I began by asking how many of the students had travelled to another country.  Almost all the students raised their hands.  I was shaken.   In the neighbourhood where I teach – only 10 kilometers away -  almost none would.  Many haven’t even been out of town.  I knew the up-town students had advantages, but the sight of all the raised hands (50 or 60 students) was a visceral reminder. Each of these students, as they travelled, books and museum guides in hand, planes, trains and subways lifting geography and history off the incomprehensible pages of tatty textbook, stacked up advantages.  Their understanding of relevance and the breadth of their “passions” grew exponentially with every mile.  

I start a new job in September.  I've chosen to teach grade 6 and 7 students in a “down-town” school. How, I wonder, can I bring New York to my students?  We now have such vivid technologies, and although I don’t know if a mediated reality can stand in for miles traveled, I do know that reading books makes a difference.  Why not virtual travel?  It’s easy to go to the Met (they have gorgeous lesson plans complete with images), to the MoMA, to see and hear the crowds and sites of New York in the live cams.  Perhaps we can buddy with a New York school and Skype with them regularly.  All I need for a start is a computer, a projector and a reasonable Internet connection (not always available in our district where technology hasn't been a priority, but I’ll think if a way).  

Will their lives be different if they “go” to New York?  I’m not sure.  I know supporting children of poverty is complex.  But I also know that messages matter.  Rich, complex, beyond-literacy-and-numeracy lessons tell students that they will need these tools and this information for their rich, diverse, anything-is-possible future lives.  

Anyone interested in donating a half-dozen laptops?  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teaching at the intersection of storytelling and science

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher asserts, “Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live.”  The “great and vital ideas” we need can be found, rather, in the study of the Humanities and Arts.  He argues:
If the mind cannot bring to the world a set – or shall we say, a tool-box – of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as a chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events. Such a man is like a person in a strange land without any signs of civilization, without maps or signposts or indicators of any kind.  Nothing has any meaning to him; nothing can hold his vital interest; he has no means of making anything intelligible to himself.  
Forty years later, science is proving that he was right.  At the Brain and Learning Conference I recently attended, I listened to Dr. Dare Baldwin speak about event segmentation theory (EST).  The theory, based on extensive scientific research (you can check out the articles posted by key researcher Dr. Jeff Zacks), proposes that our brains organizes the continuous and massive input of our world by transforming it into discrete events.

Event segmentation, researchers are uncovering, depends on our noticing changes in the environment and on prior knowledge (our tool-box of powerful ideas). Event models - stories, we might call them - are constructed through the interaction of sensory input with stored knowledge.  These models allow us to predict, to understand, to make sense of our world.  To be useful, the models need to be regularly updated as new information is acquired and the model no longer adequately predicts. This connects with Jeff Hawkin’s theory of the brain and learning; intelligence, he says is a memory of patterns and sequences so we can predict.

For reading teachers, these ideas sound pretty familiar, so it won’t be surprising to learn that EST researchers have noted that the theory explains how we read as well: readers segment the narrative into discrete events in the same way they segment “real-time” events, using information about the actor’s goals and prior knowledge about conventional sequences; these are then stored as “schema” (event models). Researchers learned – and, again, this will be no surprise to teachers – that reading and listening to stories leads to robust event segmentation (that is, our understanding of the world and its events is improved through reading) and individuals who are good at segmenting events remember them better than do individuals who are poor at segmenting.  Thus, since learning is inextricably linked to memory, stronger “segmentors” are stronger learners and since segmenting is improved with stories (reading or listening), stories improves learning.  The theory proves what we have always known and is a good reminder to test new ideas, not only in the laboratory, but against practical knowledge.

Implications for the Classroom
  1. Despite the recent call to read more nonfiction in classrooms, perhaps, especially in the primary grades, it may impede rather than support learning, at least for those who do not yet have a rich schema of story patterns to organize the world and their thinking.  Stories aren't just “nice” (lately we hear a lot about how we don’t “use” fiction in “real life” so how can it be important); they are foundational for making sense of the data of nonfiction.  
  2. Event boundaries, researchers theorize, act as anchors in long term memory.  They discovered that if you insert a commercial in the middle of an event segment while people are watching a movie, they more often forgot what happened than when the commercial was at the event boundary.  Thus, we need to remember to teach as storytellers, being sure to organize our lessons in chunks that make sense (hard to do, sometimes, when bells determine the beginning and end of our stories).
  3. The information in the middle of a segment is harder to remember: we need to organize the chunks so that what’s most important is at the beginning and the end of the segment (as all storytellers know).  
  4. Strong event segmentation is predicated on noticing change.  Indeed, learning might be defined as recognizing prediction errors and updating schema. Multiple intelligence guru Howard Gardner noted how, often, despite years of education (even education at Harvard), students retain “unschooled thinking.”  They memorize the masses of information long enough to write the test, but maintain the “event model” from childhood, for example that the earth is warmer in the summer because it is closer to the sun.  They do not update the story when they “learn” the new information.  We need to help our students recognize changes, so they can change the stories that change their thinking.
  5. We need to find – or help students find – stories that makes sense of the masses of information we want them to know. When kids can’t remember anything they learned the month previously (a common complaint), then perhaps they didn't have a story to organize it with; perhaps all the bits and pieces of information were simply chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena and meaningless events. Perhaps, too, when nothing can hold their “vital interest,” it isn't because we haven’t done enough to engage them, but that they have no story for themselves, for their world, or for the information we are trying to help them understand. They need to see the stories that organizes math and science and socials studies – and their lives.  They can’t remember the many parts when they don’t know the whole.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


This summer we lost Chef Bruce Chandler: a colleague, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a husband, a father, a man who filled any room he walked in with laughter and generosity.  I shared some of the lessons I've learned from working with him over the past many years in a blog post.  A colleague commented:  “You've said it beautifully here Shelley. There's only one thing missing...our beloved Chef.”

It’s the kind of missing that can’t be alleviated by phone calls, pictures posted on Facebook, a text message to say “I love you,” a postcard.  Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 song “Missing” captures this:  “You're missing when I close my eyes/ You're missing when I see the sun rise.”  The world goes on, our lives go on, “everything is everything” as Springsteen says, “But you’re missing.”

What I loved best about the 9/11 site when I visited this summer is that it symbolizes this missing.  They didn't replace the towers or fill in the holes.  They remain like the holes in hearts.

Nine years ago today my brother Marc died.  I realize now that the hole in my heart will always be there.  But like the 9/11 site, lush gardens and tall towers can grow around it, life will hurry and throb and continue at its edges, and the deep hole has a kind of beauty.  But he’s still missing.  Every day.

Yesterday a friend posted a link on Facebook to “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” It’s an unsurprising list: to have had the courage to be true to myself, not to have worked so hard, to have expressed my feelings, to have stayed in touch with friends, to have let myself be happier.  But I was thinking that the deeper regrets are with the living.  When someone is missing, you can’t go back, restart, have coffee one more time, laugh together.  And you live with the missing for your whole life.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Response to Stephen Pinker: Science is Not My Enemy But...

I was startled by Stephen Pinker’s article in the New Republic this week:  Science is Not Your Enemy: an impassioned plea to neglected, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.  Even though “ignored and under-appreciated school-teachers” didn't make his list, I felt like his article was a direct response to my recent blog post – Smiling at all Science. In it, I suggested that our elevation of science over cultural and human understanding was not healthy and could even be harmful.  It turns out I’m thinking like a “humanist.” Pinker, as his sub-title hints, mocks humanists by characterizing them as outmoded, lacking a “progressive agenda” and rather hysterical demonizers of science.  He states that the “mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”

And he’s right.  Sort of.  But equally indispensable is the humanist mindset.  It isn't that science is “evil,” but that scientific approaches untempered by metaphysical values can be dangerous.  Consider the recent exposure of the unthinkable medical experiments performed on Aboriginal children.  In my beautiful, peaceful, “enlightened” backyard.  In living memory.  Science can’t be blamed for the heinous use of scientific methods to harm, but we must always remember how the mindset of science can be used against our quest for peace and good in the world.  As Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “Reason respects differences, and imagination the similitude of things.”  It is exactly, I think, a focus on differences that allows us to forget our common humanity.

Philosopher Simone Weil, in her essay “Human Personality” writes:
What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man’s eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?  Although it is the whole of him that is sacred to me, he is not sacred in all respects and from every point of view.  He is not sacred in as much as he happens to have long arms, blue eyes, or possibly commonplace thoughts.  Nor as a duke, if he is one; nor as a dustman, if that is what he is. Nothing of all this would stay my hand. What would stay it is the knowledge that if someone were to put out his eyes, his soul would be lacerated by the thought that harm was being done to him. At the bottom of the heart of every human being…there is something that goes on indominantly expecting…that good and not evil will be done to him.  
Stephen Pinker concludes that the humanities need to embrace science: “A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” And I agree.  But science, perhaps even more urgently, needs to embrace the humanities.  Let us bring story and faith and philosophy to our scientific endeavors.  Medicine, learning from the ancient wisdom that it once colluded against, is beginning to understand that healing the body cannot be done in isolation from healing the mind and spirit.   Teaching, too, while it may be informed by research, needs to be guided by human wisdom, the heart, the spirit and love.  It is when we lose sight of these guiding values that we risk harming our children.  I can’t “prove” it; I can only live it.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Smiling at All Science: Reflections on a Brain & Learning Conference

To betray philosophy is the gentle treason
Of poets, to smile at all science, scorning its instruments
Derek Walcott, XII, Midsummer.

It’s strange how often people insist that we use evidence or research-based practice – by which they mean scientifically proven – as if science has never been wrong.  It has been, of course.  Often.  Two personal examples:  my mother was recommended to bottle-feed us as infants – formula, after all, was proven to be as good as or even better than breast milk – and my grandmother was told to take up smoking to reduce her blood pressure.  Certainly that doesn't mean that I think we ought to disregard science, but surely it’s time that we re-balance, particularly when we think about complex systems – like people.  We need to smile a little more often at science and have a deeper faith in our cultural and human understanding of health and relationships.

At a recent Brain and Learning conference dedicated to helping professionals support children as learners, chalk full of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, physicians, and researchers from a variety of fields, the key messages from the cutting edge of science were old news: love the child, support inter-generational caregiving (rather than professionalized caretakers), and take up yoga and meditation.  We have known these things for thousands of years.  But now there is scientific proof.  Unfortunately, the past centuries are filled with practices that discounted what we have always known, because science hadn't told us so yet. And our children are paying for our ignorance.

Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School; loving families outside the fence.
1895 Library and Archives Canada