Monday, April 06, 2009

Our amazing brain

An enlightening book written by by the 'owner' of one of the most remarkable brains on the planet - Daniel Trammet. A brilliant book about how we think, learn, remember and create. And a good read as well.

Daniel dedicates his book to the beauty found in every mind.

Our brains hum with the work of making meaning weaving together thousands of threads of information into all means of thoughts, memories and ideas.

As teachers our job is to capitalize on on this natural desire to learn.
If we can do this no one need fail.

Daniel writes that each child's birth is a Big Bang - the dawning of tiny yet extremely complex cerebral cosmos. And that all brains are unique. Daniel ought to know as a 'prodigious savant' with one of the most intelligent brains on the planet.

Every brain is amazing and Daniel believes that anyone with the passion and dedication can master, or succeed, in any field or subject. Genius is not due to some quirk in the brain, he says, but requires qualities such as perseverance, imagination, intuition and even love.

It seems our role as adults is not so much to teach but to create the conditions for all sorts of innate talents to grow. Imagine a school system based on this premise.

Such a system would be a truly creative one providing a range of experiences for student's brains to make their own meaning from. The role of the teacher is in such an environment, according to Jerome Bruner, 'is the canny art of intellectual temptation'.

To believe our brains are equipped for self learning that automatically build up a model of the world over time, through the senses, would change our conception of being a teacher. Brains reuse past information to help it learn something new - it is all about seeing patterns and connections. Receiving relevant feedback help students avoid pitfalls and help them focus on good choices.

And finding, or expecting, pleasure in a task help our brains remember and learn and encourages persistence. And practice obviously help our ability to perform if seen as relevant. Expertise comes from continuous process of structured diligent study

Ultimately, Daniel writes, it what we learn, more than how, that determines the shape of our lives and even the kind of people we become. For this reason , he says, how we use our minds remains a personal choice we each have to make. After all , what brains help give us, more than anything else, is our own uniqueness and the myriad tastes and talents that emerge from it. It is part of the adventure of becoming ourselves.

Few schools follow such a creative personalised approach. This, maybe , is why so many students fail - or rather the schools fail them. Students, Daniel says, are bent to the expectations of others. As an autistic /aspergers student he ought to know.

Daniel struggled during his school years because his style of imaginative and idiosyncratic thinking did not suit a 'one size fits all' schooling. His is a typical story for many wasted minds brimming with talent but starved of opportunities to exercise it. Luckily he found other ways to feed his gifts and in the process learnt to trust his minds ability to do wonderful things.

Daniel gives standardized and intelligence tests a short shrift but is supportive of the multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner. He quotes schools using Gardner's idea where there was ' a culture of hard work, respect, and caring' , schools that, ' engaged students through constrained but meaningful choices, and a sharp focus on enabling students to produce high quality work.'

The recognition of student talent is vital as a talent pushes a person in a particular direction.Daniel believes everyone is born with certain talents which need to be recognised and nurtured.

Daniel's particular talent lie in the field of mathematics for which he feels a great joy towards. He believes, although his ability is exceptional, that we all have within us from birth mathematical abilities that only need the right conditions to develop. Daniel compares this with the facility young children have to intuitively develop language given the right conditions.That so many people dislike mathematics goes to show what misguided teaching can do.

To recognise and develop this innate 'hard wired' number sense might do much to solve current numeracy problems.Even very young babies have been shown to have intuitive counting skills or a 'number instinct'.

When it comes to creativity a sense of connectivity between all form of learning is critical. This is not obviously helped by fragmented subject teaching. All forms of creativity comes from making novel connections and is best realised in a nurturing environment ( family or school or the wider culture) that values such imaginative thinking. 'Creativity' Daniel writes, ' is not about following rules to reach a result, but rather bending or even braking the rules to create something truly original'. It is hyper connectivity that Daniel describes as, ' a kind of beautiful swirling chaos that draws on information from all over the brain to arrive at results that are truly breathtaking'.

To be creative is to be 'open to new information, new ideas' but that you , 'have to carefully edit and choose ideas...otherwise you'll get swamped'. A dash of autism may well be valuable Daniel comments as those withs aspergers have the ability to intensely focus on a topic showing great powers of persistence and an enormous curiosity and compulsion to make sense of their world.

Very early childhood is a unique period of creative opportunity which needs to be valued if we are to protect each learners creativity.

Our minds depend on information, every idea, image , story, helps shape our memory and our perceptions - in real sense, Daniel writes- data determines our destiny by creating our 'worldview'.

Conversely information overload can damage our minds as can having too little - both extremes dampen down careful reflective thinking and our ability to make meaningful connections between disparate facts.

Information is meaningless unless it can be made sense of and to do this requires an internal system of thought and ideas that can provide the context to relate it to other information we have already learnt.

Creating a creative worldview in our minds starts with a healthy curiosity about yourself and the lives, and the world, around you. Daniel advises us to never stop asking questions; to find joy in learning; to exercise our innate desire to discover truth about our existence; and to use our imagination as much as possible. Perhaps the most important thing, he says, is to treat each new piece of information as a potential piece in a puzzle and avoid simplistic solutions. Acquiring information is not the same as learning or thinking Daniel reminds us. Information only makes sense when it builds reflection and understanding and contributes to something greater.

Good thinking takes effort , or as Carl Sagan says the 'fine art of baloney detection'. Daniel quotes Sagan by saying science is about both the 'openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre...a propensity to wonder...but at the same time .. the most vigorous and uncompromising scepticism because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong'.

It is this delicate balance - between an openness to the beauty and wonder of novel ideas and ways of seeing and understanding our world, and a capacity to pause, to analyse, to question, and quite often, to doubt- that is at the heart of thinking well. By keeping our feet on the ground we have the best view of the stars above us.

Daniel's book is an argument for valuing individuals with different minds and to value the extraordinary abilities of everyone.

For schools the message is to develop an awareness of the wide variability of their students talents and energies. The future requires every person to be helped make the best use of their minds possible so all are in position be able to 'imagine a better and brighter tomorrow.'

This is certainly not the case at present.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fascinating book Bruce.Thanks for sharing it with us. I wonder how many creative kids have been sacrificed in our conformist schools?

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many creative dispostions we destroy with our heavy handed teaching?

@judypdrsn said...

You and the author of this book share some very good ideas; ones that I have been contemplating.

You quoted, "It seems our role as adults is not so much to teach but to create the conditions for all sorts of innate talents to grow. Imagine a school system based on this premise."

It reminds me of Csikszentmihalyi in "Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention:"

It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.

Csikszentmihalyi does not elaborate on what those conditions would be for a classroom (I'm hoping the book you recommended here will); however, some of the ideas he proposes for individuals can be useful. He suggests making a home a place filled with personal symbols of times, people, and places of value. The same can be said of a classroom. He also wrote about the importance of rhythm to a creative mind, and a teacher can establish a rhythm conducive to creativity. More importantly, though, are the habits of mind that creative people share in the development of their skills. Times of activity and times of reflection. I think it's equally important to teach the process and habits of creativity as it is to teach the creative acts themselves.

Thank you for this topic. I look forward to reading this book you recommended and finding ways (rebelliously) to bring more creativity into my classroom.

My biggest impediment to nurturing creativity, though, is the lack of curiosity in students (for whatever reason). Where did I read that this lack of curiosity begins to show in 5th grade? Without curiosity, can there be imagination? Without imagination can there be creativity?

Any thoughts on how to develop curiosity in high schools?

Bruce said...

Thanks for your comments Judy.

I have read the book you refer to and have heard the author talk long ago.

It is all about creating the conditions as you/he says. To quote John Dewey, 'chidren grow into people tomorrow as they live today.' The idea of making clasrooms full of personal symbols and places appeals to me; full of both the creative process and reflection.

The book I refered to I don't think will explain the conditions as explicitly you would like but it is still an inspirational read.

It is a real worry that students' curiosity wanes after being at school a few years. Curiosity - the desire to know is basic to all learning. Without it there are only teachers who 'tell'.

As for High Schools the conditions, the fragmentation, the focus on academics, the testing, are all against creativity. We need to re-imagine secondary education.