Saturday, September 15, 2012

Stories, Brains and Human Evolution

Teachers understand the power of the story. When we share personal anecdotes, we capture the students’ full attention. We explain concepts with metaphors and images, sort of snapshots or thumbnails of a possible story. Effective presentations use visuals to create the emotional resonance necessary for the listener who is considering the veracity of your message. Presentation gurus like Nancy Duarte and Gar Reyonolds teach us that the story arc in the presentation is just as important as the slides and visuals that we use.

 Like many others from a liberal arts background, I understand the power of stories from a Jungian perspective: the story’s universal appeal is explained by the archetypal self who seeks to individuate. Essentially, you must be the hero of your own story as you grow to adulthood and psychic maturity. Jungian depth psychology has been how I understand the power of the story. 

But today I considered other explanations after listening to Dr. Ginger Campbell (Books and Ideas Podcast) interview Jonathan Gottschull’s new book, How Storytelling Makes Us Human.
 Gottschull is an literary scholar at Washington and Jefferson College who was struck by the dangerous landscape of the make-believe stories he observed in his two young daughters. He wondered about why children create gore, death and danger in their play and storytelling. Gottschull began to think about the evolutionary forces that would shape the need to tell such stories and explain why we derive such pleasure from danger. In Dr. Campbell’s interview, he notes that fiction and fantasy of children (think of Neverland and Grimm’s fairytales) is a scary and dangerous place fraught with violence, filled with hobgoblins and moral abomination. From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of this conflict was to provide the brain with vicarious experiences so we could learn possible responses to potential danger. Fiction's purpose is biological. It prepares us for what could be; a kind of ‘training manual for the big dilemmas of life’.

 Gottschull is interested in the neural underpinnings of the imaginary experience. Recent experiments suggests that the brain responds as a participant when reading about the emotions of the protagonist. It is in the ‘this is real and happening to me’ mode. Dr. Campbell talked about her own emotional investment in the character she was role playing in the video game Mass Effect. Video games are a modern version of the ancient story. Dr. Campbell’s interview with Gottschull was well worth one hour of listening time and important enough for me to commit to sharing it on this blog. We intuitively understand why stories are important and now we can look forward to neurological explanations for the power of the story. I encourage you to listen to this interview and the next time you give a presentation or read a great story with your students, remember that fully engaged brain wants to experience the conflict, problems and everything else that comes with the story as a real event.

Interesting Post Script:

I taught in the same school with a teacher for one entire year before we realized that she had been my student in my first year of teaching.  Neither one of us remembered the other's name or face but she remembered my stories.  One day when she was telling me about a teacher she had in high school and sharing the stories this teacher had told, I realized that those were my stories and that teacher was me!  Think of it.  She did not remember the content of the class, my name or my face but she remembered my stories.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Find the Sweet Spot in the Change

I spend a lot of time thinking about change and why people (especially in education) resist change. I wonder about why we experience change as difficult.  I read books about it and gravitate to discussions about how to facilitate change, how to anticipate it and how to manage the new dynamics that it creates.

This is a year of change for me and for my school.  I have moved into a new administrative position and our beloved Director of Studies is preparing for his retirement in January of 2013.  My questions about change feel urgent to me right now.  There is no resistance to the change in this situation.  I am thrilled about my new position and our Director is happy to retire.  He looks forward to spending more time with his granddaughter, has plans to fix up his house and wants to become like one of those old men in the TD bank commercial who refuse to accept advice.  But despite the joy connected to this change, I am aware of my own fears, probably the culprit for recent sleepless nights.  Last night, ruminating about change, this occurred to me.  Allow me to draw you a mental picture.

You are standing with your back to the wall trying to look cool and carefree at the dance.  An attractive person crosses the floor and with irresistible style asks you to dance.  At that moment, for one second, you freeze.  You are a great dancer and everyone knows it.  He (or she) is exactly who you were hoping would ask you to dance.  So why freeze?  Hold this picture in your mind and consider this idea: change is an invitation to show yourself.  Change creates an empty space.  What once filled that space is gone and now, that space demands to be filled.  What will take its place? 

@Photo's Flick stream

Obviously dancing is my metaphor for the art and science of teaching.  We are passionate dancers (teachers) and we know our steps well.  When new dances come along, we learn the steps because dancing is exhilarating, life affirming and we do it so well.  So what to say to the dancer who hesitates, despite her (his) skill?  

Here is what I want to say to all the dancers: your talent and your passion for the craft is all you need to fill the space and accept the invitation.  You will not be perfect the first few times out on the floor but the thrill of the dance and the grace of the movements will renew your desire to become the best dancer you can be.  The sweet spot in the never ending change that is the educator’s life in the 21st century learning spaces is the knowledge that you can do this and you are talented.  Show yourself.  Step into the space that the invitation to change makes and have confidence that in time, you will become the graceful dancer that you know you are.

Our soon-to-retire Director of studies has had 32 years to perfect the art of change.  His ‘sweet spot’ is his dedication to the pursuit of excellence.  He knows that as long as he holds this pursuit as his goal, he will eventually be successful.  Mistakes are inevitable but his commitment to the pursuit of excellence has been his ‘sweet spot’ and the source of his graceful confidence throughout the years.  

Find your sweet spot and accept the invitation to the dance that never ends.  Show yourself.  You never looked so good.