Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Einstein in Your Classroom

One of the best things I did this summer (apart from participating in the unique Canadian educational summit, Unplug'd) was to listen to almost all of Dr. Virgina Campbell's episodes of the Brainsciencepodcast.  I recommend this podcast to anyone who is interested in understanding the brain and I urge teachers to listen because it will give them rich insight into their students.  (For example, this episode explain the neuroscience of why we 'choke' and 'freeze' before a big exam or performance.)

Dr. Campbell, is an emergency room physician with an abiding interest in neuroscience, philosophy of mind and the area where those two connect.  She reads books about the brain and interviews their author, making the material 'layperson friendly'.  Most of her title choices are accessible and interesting, even for a non-neuroscienctist.  A friend told me about this podcast in mid June and since then, I have listened to at least one a day; most often on morning walks with my mini Schnauzer.  I am up to episode #63 - of 75!

Today I listened with interest to an interview with Dr. Bainbridge, the author of Teenagers: A Natural History.  He explained the neurological basis for much teenager behaviour that can be challenging for some parents and teachers: the inability to wake up in the morning, the intense need for friends, the seeming lack of inhibitions and risk taking behaviour.  Some of what I heard was not new to me: the teenage brain actually 'shrinks' (relative to the prepubescent one) because it is engaged in a necessary 'pruning' of unnecessary synapses.  The brain works by the 'use it or lose it' principle and will eliminate synapses that have been abundantly overproduced in early childhood.  I was surprised to hear Dr. Brainbridge talk about how little impact hormones actually has on the teenage brain!  (You'll have to listen to that one and see what you think.)

But this is what really caught my attention, my heart and is the reason for this blog post. Dr. Bainbridge maintains that the teenage brain is intensely creative.  This is his description from the episode transcript:
Many of the great human flights of creativity that have really made the difference to us, I think have often been based on ideas which people have had when they were teenagers. I don’t think they could necessarily exploit them fully when they were teenagers, because they didn’t have enough experience or skill yet.
People like Einstein, many writers, many artists, although they didn’t necessarily produce the work when they were teenagers, would often hark back to ideas or thoughts that they’d had when they were teenagers. So, the teenage creativity, I think, is very important, even though they often don’t seem to do anything tangible with it.
His words resonated deeply for me.  I have long been convinced of this part of the teenage psyche and their creative insights and work is in no short supply from my vantage point.  (Part of my reason for becoming a teacher was rooted in my own transformational and creative experiences as a teenager which I shared with my Unplug'd participants and will be released soon in chapter 3.)

Teachers reading this blog post will not need to be convinced of the creative teen sitting in their classroom.  They have tons of experience in that arena.  So why do I write this?  What's the point of 'preaching to the choir'?  Simply because this book gives us good science to support why the teaching of 21st skills is absolutely critical.  I do not suggest that science is the sole legitimizer of pedagogical practice and policy.    But I am using this author and his findings to impress upon teachers the importance of using technology to truly leverage the naturally creative thinker in their classroom.

To honour our students' creativity is essential and even, imperative, given the teacher's privileged access to the teenage mind.  This might mean more than giving students several options in the essay topics we assign.  This might actually mean giving up some control, moving over a tad, and letting them design their own learning, using the tools of their choice, after you have co-constructed a rubric of what evidence of learning might look like.  (A topic best suited for another post.)

 I encourage every teacher who reads this blog to pass on Dr. Bainbridge's name and his book title (as well as Dr. Campbell's Brainsciencepodcast to those teachers who consistently pass up on opportunities to infuse their teaching with web 2.0 tools, who hand out the same stencils year after year, and who have a golden opportunity to be the catalyst in some teenager's creative moment of insight that might only express itself years later.

If you don't have the time to listen to the podcast, you might want to quickly look over the show transcript.  I know that I am not alone in my conviction that under the surface of that teenage face, lies great possibilities.

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