Sunday, November 29, 2009

Note to Shaun

When Shaun stomped in through the Learning Centre doors over two years ago, the first thing I noticed about him was his hair. It was a blue Mohawk carefully gelled into a series of 6 nearly foot-long spikes. He wore DM's that bucked up his calves and his jean jacket was embellished with hand-drawn gang and drug symbols. Everything about Shaun’s demeanor said: “I'm dangerous; you don't want to take me on.” But we did and thanks to the great work of a crew of teachers who could see through the outer armour to the funny and creative person inside, Shaun began trust school again and gradually let his guard down. This time last year he was the school’s Santa at the annual Christmas dinner. Now he's one course away from graduating and going to college in January. What's left? Math.

Shaun sees himself as terrible in math and like a little kid faced with a plate of food on which there’s one thing that he hates to eat -- he's left it to the very last. Now he's angrily pushing it around the plate, hoping that I (his math teacher) will let him get away without having to finish it. We've had a positive working relationship until now, but it's rapidly souring. Shaun has enrolled in a college program that starts in January, and every day the pressure to do what seems impossible -- finish math -- increases.

The lessons of my cognition course (of which this is the last week) say to recruit a student’s emotions into the service of learning, but Shaun's emotional triggers are so overwhelming that just sitting in math class floods him with feelings that he's stupid for even thinking he could do this and that the only smart response is to run. To Shaun’s credit, his goal of graduating is so strong that he hasn’t given up, but there’s so little time left before his new college program starts in January that the pressure on us both is becoming unbearable.

The only way I’m going to be able help Shaun if I can get him to turn this last educational threat into a personal challenge. He’s sealed off any connection to former math learning by deciding that his previous success in the last math course was a fluke. If I can use a little neuroscience to help him understand what's going on, I might be able to finally help this wonderful young man conquer this last and worst monster. It’s with that in mind that I’m writing this letter to Shaun. [Note: Shaun is an accomplished actor; hence the ‘thespian’ references.]

Dear Shaun:

I’ve been thinking hard about you and your math. In fact I’ve been taking a course about the brain and how it learns, and everything that I've learned says that the old skills that have been haunting you for so long can be mastered if: (a) you understand a little about what you're up against, (b) you stop trying to overcome your anxiety with deafening music because it’s blocking all the learning at the same time, and (c) I can create learning activities that will draw on all your strengths as an actor.

Your mum says that these problems in math go way back to about grade 2 or 3 when you had 2 inflexible teachers in a row. Since then you think you’ve had year after year of bad experiences in math. You probably even think that there’s some missing or malfunctioning region in your brain without which a guy can’t do math. But, Shaun, I had a look at all your old report cards yesterday. Your success in math has been uneven, but not nonexistent. It took a big dive in grade 6, but that’s not unusual. Many students I work with report that their serious problems in math go back to about grade 5 or 6 because that’s when kids generally begin to give up. What’s different about you is not that you’re feeling anxiety, but the way it’s been amplified to a brain-numbing level. The brain scientists say that 2 things will throw your brain offline: stress and trying to multitask. The nerve cells in your brain don’t fire properly if you’re under stress. The brain regions that need to function together like a symphony orchestra to turn experiences into learning can’t do that if you’re inputting competing messages at the same time.

There’s no black hole of math in your brain, Shaun. The process of learning math is handled by a collection of brain regions all acting together like a troupe of actors. They have to work as a collective under the leadership of a director who believes they can create a living experience out of lines in a script and props on a stage. Although the brain doesn’t find it easy to learn math, there are many natural talents it does have which can help -- the ability to find patterns, make predictions, and learn from experience, to estimate, problem solve, and think creatively -- these are all innate strengths that make math learning possible -- yes, Shaun, even for you. Finally you can grow your own brain -- not make it larger -- but create new neural pathways inside it which is how memories are stored.

We Learning Centre teachers did you a disservice, Shaun, by not insisting that you do your Math 11 right after you finished Math 10. All the neural pathways that developed and strengthened as you did that course are way harder to access now because we let so much time pass. The skills and memories you gained in Math 10 were real; they resided in real brain networks that we could have seen lighting inside your brain up if we’d hooked you up to a brain imaging MRI machine. The fact that we neglected them for so long is making your learning harder now than it needed to be, and for that I’m sorry. But it’s still possible to reactivate old neural networks and to grow new ones whenever you need them. In fact, every time you learn a new script, Shaun, that’s exactly what your brain is doing. If you can reframe the task of learning math that way and think of it as a script for a play you finally have to learn well enough so you can perform for a few weeks in order to get to closing night -- graduation -- then I can help you reach that goal.

I’m going to shift the metaphor for a moment, Shaun. I’m envisioning you now as the captain of naval ship in an old WWII movie. As I see it, you’re letting your emotions steer your boat when they should be the navigation system. They should be guiding you through the mine field of choices about which methods do and don't work when you're tackling a question, but all they're doing is shouting from the bridge: “Danger! Warning!” You're body is rightly responding by wanting to run away. It’s under the control of an ancient part of your brain that will always act to protect you when faced by a threat. The problem is that the warning system isn't serving you well any longer. It’s still running the old math/threat software, even though math is now your ticket to graduating and going on to college. Your ancient brain is now preventing you from doing what you need to do to get something you really want. The good news is that the modern part of your brain still wants to make meaning out of math for you, Shaun, but the conscious you must reclaim the role of steersman (if you’re thinking about the boat image) or director (if the play comparison is the one you like better) because you can’t trust your instincts to guide you safely to your goal.

I sometimes ask why certain students end up with me in math and it usually comes down to a life lesson that they need to come to grips with before they can let the old image of themselves as a “poor students” go and claim their new lives after high school. I think, Shaun, that your K-12 education will not be truly complete until you find a way to manage your emotions by deliberately morphing threats into challenges when the learning gets tough. Interestingly, the body experiences the same physical responses either way, but you can train your brain not to always leap from those physical cues to the conclusion that you’re in danger. I’m guessing that you have many of the same body responses when you’re on stage, but you don't try to escape or take nights off during the run. You probably even say that heightened emotions give you a mental sharpness that's helpful ……. and that's where we need to go with this math challenge.

There are 3 executive functions in your brain that are going to enable you to make this Shaun-directed transformation of seeing math as a challenge like you see being in a play as a challenge. The first is called “inhibitory control.” It helps us make better choices in difficult circumstances. The second is “working memory.” You use this one when you learn a big script and hold all of it in your mind. The last one is known as “cognitive flexibility. This is how we switch our point of view or how we’re thinking about something.

So, over the next few weeks, Shaun, we're going start steering your brain to think of your time in math class like being in rehearsal. It will be as if you’ve decided to accept a script that you turned down over and over before because it didn't have any value for you. Now they've upped the offer so you've decided to take it on. You’re going to have to bring all of those 3 high level, modern brain functions -- inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility -- to bear on the work of learning this script -- i.e on shifting math out of the threat category into the “can do” range.

Shaun, math will probably never be your favourite thing, but your anxiety about it should not govern your choices about what you will not do for the rest of your life. You have a long and wonderful future ahead. You don’t want this old clunky, junky program to always deter you from making certain career choices or from helping your own son with his homework when he comes home unhappy and upset because the got stumped by a math question. You want to be the dad who tells the story about how he finally made peace with math and in doing so learned once and for all that he was capable of facing life’s most difficult challenges and coming away unscathed.

We have some work ahead of us, Shaun. Let's get started.

Your teacher,


Monday, November 23, 2009

LOL -- Learning Online at the K12 Webased Conference

I'm planning my 2010 conference agenda this week and realised there's a great online event still to go in 2009, and that's K12 Online. I've joined the network in Ning. I've signed up on the "Frappr" map (can you find me?), posted a badge (see above), and provided a link to the list of archived pre-conference events (LAN parties that show parts of presentations from years past).

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K12 is all about forging connections without having to leave home. It's all about leveraging the power of internet tools to help educators learn from each other and figure out how to move their work with online tools and resources forward. This blurb from their website says it all.

As you can see, this thing is huge! I love the way it's spread over several months giving you time to try out one new tool or approach before you go to a session on another. As well, you can dialogue directly with presenters and other audience members over time to get help as you try to put these ideas into action.

The sample session I'm showing below is called "Kicking it up a Notch: Games in Education." Hosted by Dean Shareski (who hails from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan), this presentation by Sylvia Martinez makes a compelling case for using games as a motivational tool in classes. I particularly like what she had to say about simple games -- not specifically subject related -- being interesting ways of getting students to think about concepts. Using games that don't have specific subject connections takes more work on our part, but especially in math they become a metaphor that gives students the task of making a connection that will be memorable to them and leave a lasting 'neural imprint.'

This year's conference strands include:
  • Getting Started: using e-books, building a website, increasing interactivity
  • Leading the Change: deeper discussion on leadership and empowerment
  • A look at other people's classroom initiatives
  • Kicking It Up a Notch: enhancing instruction with more engaging instructional activities
If you're a first timer, there's a wiki just for you that covers everything from how to navigate through the K12 Online conference environment to how to obtain professional development credit for hours in attendance. They've thoughtfully provided a map (show below) in the wiki page to help with time zone conversions.

The one thing I'd add is that a USB mike and headset are really helpful. Sometimes when people connect to sessions using their computer sound system and then try to talk, there can be a lot of feedback or echoing. If you're going to attend more than one session and think you might want to dialogue online, this piece of equipment is worth the purchase price.

TTFN from the Pacific time zone. I hope to see you at the conference.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Using my whole brain to think about Daniel Pink

Psssst ... I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, is very popular with Wilkes Instructional Media (IM) course writers. If you want to do a little advance reading in order to get the flavour of IM courses, this book is a great place to start. In order to write it, Pink went on a tour of his own brain. Mashing together a lawyer's analytical approach with a story teller's talent to both teach and entertain, Pink created a slim volume that packs a huge punch. It conveys a simple but compelling message for our times: using all of your brain is better than using just just half (i.e the left side) of it.

Pink writes of the importance of strengthening the right sides or our brains by developing six new "senses" in order to meet the challenges of transitioning from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age:
  • design -- the ability to shape our environment (both things and experiences) to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives (p. 69)
  • story -- "sharpening our understanding of one thing by showing in the context of something else" (p. 103)
  • symphony -- big picture thinking -- seeing the forest as more than just a collection of trees
  • empathy -- feeling what another feels ('walk a mile in another person's shoes' thinking)
  • play -- "a move away from sober seriousness as [the primary] measure of ability" (p. 186) -- aka: fun
  • meaning -- "The search for meaning is a drive that exists in all of us -- and a combination of external circumstances and internal will can bring it to the surface." (p. 217)

As I reread some of the passages in Pink's book this morning, I found myself wondering what had spurred his journey from law school graduate to famous author and speaker. A little 'googling' led me to the answer.

Pink's transition came from the same desire that motivates many educators to get up and go to school each day: the desire to make a difference. Disheartened by the limited scope of a life dedicated to the legal profession to help him do that, he gravitated to politics first as a policy maker and eventually as a speech writer. Eventually a new interest in the "outside world" -- in people doing things in new ways and the role technology plays in that -- superseded his passion for politics. Believing this was going to "matter more in people's lives," he made the decision to to "go out on his own" and start writing both for himself and for a broader audience.

Pink has learned the fine art of acting on his passions, of pursuing his interests, of paying attention to what intrigues him, of nurturing his curiosity, and of moving his life forward towards a heartfelt larger purpose. In the Educators' Discussion Guide found at his website, he challenges educators to do the same.

Wilkes courses typically require students to discuss a key question in a forum (due Tuesday with responses to 2 other student's posts no later than Friday) and to also write a longer piece -- either a blog or a paper.

In good Wilkes fashion, here's your discussion question: (#15 from the Pink's Guide with a bit of my own tagged on for good measure):

As you watch William McDonough's TEDtalk video below, look for examples of each of Pink's six right-brained senses.

What R-directed skills do you use in your work? Which of the six senses is a priority for teachers to develop? Why? Which of these six are your students learning by watching you every day? How?
Your longer assignment for the week (due Friday at midnight) is to show how you could change an existing assignment or project in your teaching area to better foster the development of these six senses in your students. [P.S. Use both sides or your own brain as you create this project, and have some fun with it!]

Friday, November 6, 2009

Cognition and Technology (501): making a start with Voicethread

[Image from: eHow: How to Learn the Theory of Psychology (Eraxion istock photo#7549747)]

I love this course!!!!! It's fascinating. The only extra I'd ask for is an "Ask an Expert" drop box where students from all sections could ask questions and all the profs and the course writer would help with answers, links, suggestions, possibly even follow-up questions. I'm finding that a little knowledge of brain function can lead me to jump to big conclusions that are probably not well supported with facts. Nevertheless, I'm taking the advise of Eric Jensen in A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education and am not letting fears about the limits of my knowledge stop me from making some guesses and working on new strategies to use with my students:
"Brain-based education suggests that we not wait 20 years until each of these correlations is proven beyond any possible doubt. Many theories might never be proven beyond reasonable doubt. It's possible that the sheer quantity of school, home, and genetic factors will render any generalizable principle impossible to prove as 100% accurate. As educators, we must live in the world of "likely" and "unlikely" as opposed to the world of 'certainty'."
There are 2 Voicethreads (VT) required for this course and so I thought I'd do one for those of you who are not familiar with this resource. At the moment it's a work in progress because there will be additional links added to the various slides to connect you with help documents and other resources if you have problems (as I did).

As you'll see in the first slide, the technology threatened to let me down about half way through the process and as ever in this master's program, what initially threatened to be a 'ship-sinking storm' turned out inspire a series of important reflections about the emotional elements of learning. Later today these remarks will become the core of my first VT assignment for 501 -- due tonight!! (Question for my wished-for "expert": I wonder whether procrastination is a left- or a right-brained function?)

So here's my VT Starter Kit; I've left the comment function in this VT wide open if you have comments, observations, or reflections you'd like to add. Because of the limited page width in this blog, it's kind of hard to see. The caption on the cartoon says: "It's the latest innovation in office safety. When your computer crashes, an air bag is activated so you won't bang your head in frustration." Here is a link that will take you to the regular sized version of my presentation: Enjoy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Remembrance Day (Canada), Veterans' Day (US), and Thanksgiving

[Image Source: Matt 21/07/97 at]

We are approaching November 11 which is Remembrance Day (in Canada) and Veterans' Day (in the US). In my school the ceremony is conducted with a solemnity that honours our nations' Armed Forces personnel (past and present) and that gives students of all cultures an opportunity to remember their own peoples' struggles for freedom and peace. But we also try to anchor the meaning of peace in our students' hearts by choosing a theme that will be more personal to them. We believe in the importance of living the values of peace and thanksgiving every day, so this year have adopted the theme of 'compassion' -- people helping people.

If you're looking for an interesting global project for your students, I suggest PowerPoint for Peace sponsored by the people at Authorstream. Inspired by the AIDS Memorial quilts, this project invites people to add one slide to the presentation.

Here are the instructions:

Create a single standard size PowerPoint slide of 500 KB or smaller that represents your idea for a positive contribution to the world.
  • Do not criticize anyone, anything, etc. Critical, negative slides will not be approved.
  • Use Creative Commons and public domain media. Pictures, sounds, video, etc. must be embedded in the presentation. Linked items will not be converted and uploaded to the site.
  • Animations may be used, but all may not convert accurately.
  • Slides must contain the names of individual, group, or company.
  • Save the slide as a PPT file (Don't have PowerPoint? Impress is free at
  • Go to and log on. Registration is free.
  • Upload your slide and test it to see how it looks. Delete and upload the file as many times as needed.
  • When you're satisfied with your slide, go to and upload your slide.
  • Slides are reviewed and approved on Fridays. Slides can be deleted and re-uploaded until approval. Once approved slides cannot be deleted.

The people at TED have an inspirational project underway. This first is called the Charter for Compassion which was the idea of the first winner of the TEDPrize -- Karen Armstrong.

The Charter which embodies the ideas, words, and spirit of collaborators from all over the world is a "cry for return to the central principle" of the Golden Rule. It requires that we use "empathy ... to put ourselves in others' shoes." When I scrolled through the list of participants and their projects, I was struck by the lack of entries from schools. My school's November ceremony ties in with this theme and so I will be adding our name to the list. Perhaps we can invite our students to read the document: Reflections on Compassion and add their own reflections to the Charter website or join the Facebook group, the Flickr Group, or the YouTube Channel and post a contribution.

Finally here's a video project done with cell phones that we should be able to get kids to try. It's mostly images of words, but assembled this way, they communicate a powerful message about empathy and compassion.