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Posts tagged ‘neuroscience’


Students ‘Making Up’ Their Own Minds

“The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”

–Marvin L. Minsky (from The Society of Mind, 1986)

Human Brain Drawing itself

I want students to be busy building their own minds.

As an educator, this is my main goal. I want students to be in charge of their own learning—to be effectively constructing their brains. We must focus our work so that they have both the opportunity, and the skills, to do so. This is the professional mission in my life.

Ethereal? No.

Although it may sound rather ethereal if we talk about students building their own minds, it is not. The reality is exactly that! Whether we take an historical view based on Jean Piaget’s work or adopt a current neuroscience perspective, the reality is the same—brain structures are being altered as we learn and we can control that both quantitatively and qualitatively—to a greater or lesser degree.

Don’t worry! I’m not going to get super technical about all that. I’ll leave that to those more expert than I.

Jean Piaget and ConstructivismPiaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied learning in children. He articulated various stages of development and developed a theory of constructivism. He spoke of schemas or mental structures. If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into a previous pattern of ideas and knowledge—our schemas—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore adding a new schema. Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

…we either assimilate or accommodate new information…or toss it out…

Consider, for example, a schema that a young child might hold for a fish. Fish live in water and have tails and fins with which to swim. She then sees many different kinds of fish—large, small, single coloured, multi-coloured and assimilates them all into her schemas for fish thus increasing the richness and texture of the fish schema. The first time that this child encounters a whale, she might call it a fish. Once her caregivers explain that it is a different animal called a whale and that it breathes air by coming to the surface of the water and that it is a mammal, the child will accommodate it by creating a new schema for whale. All of this is driven by the human need for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium or balance with no dissonance.

…the human need is for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium


Let’s consider new learning from a perspective of neuroscience—that of brain plasticity. Neurons sprout dendrites and send and receive thousands of signals with other parts of the brain thus creating neural pathways. Any new experiences and new learnings reorder neural pathways in the brain. In the same way that a piece of film must change in reaction to an image coming through the lens, our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences. Any neural pathways that are not frequently used simply disappear and new ones are continually being created as we develop new skills and knowledge.

…our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences…

Dr. Norman Doidge defines neuroplasticity as: the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function in response to thinking and acting in response to mental experience—in other words, in sensing and perceiving and what we do.

We are literally building our brains

Regardless of whether we think about this in Piagetian or in neuroscientific terms, when we are learning, we are literally building our brains.

We, as human beings of free will, have the option to build, and to mold, the structures of our brain.

I have spent a career questioning, exploring, discovering, and predicting how technologies can assist students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’. What ideas do you have?



Belief Can Outrank Reality!

Watch on Vimeo for larger image and a greater impact – so to speak! 

“I’m an idiot!”

That was my thought about my crash landing shown in the video clip. I didn’t flare to slow down for the landing. Why not!?

I came to the most fascinating conclusion as I watched this video countless times on a large screen in an attempt to determine where it all went wrong,

My belief outranked reality.

My expectation outweighed all the other information that I was perceiving.

The Story

I was taking paragliding instruction. (Some people think this is why I was an idjit. LOL) I had completed ground school and some canopy handling on the ground. Now it was time for my first training flight.

You get attached to a tow rope connected to a winch placed some hundreds of metres away. This winch has a tension indicator on it so that the tow operator knows how much tension is on the rope. For the first flight, you get towed fairly strongly at first and fly several metres off the ground. At the right moment, the tow operator reduces the tension enough to stop the forward pull but still have the rope advancing ahead of the pilot so it doesn’t get in the way.

In the video, you will see that the take-off went quite well as I, at first, resisted the tension, as I was supposed to, and then took many small steps ‘til take off! Good one Peter! J

A couple of seconds later, the canopy started to turn, so I acted properly and pulled the correct line to straighten it out.

Then, I was expecting to continue my flight. I was moving forward still. I believed I was to continue flying. It was a strong belief. But, alas, it was the wrong belief! The operator had reduced the tension so I could land.

But I didn’t flare. I didn’t pull on the brakes.

My expectation–my belief–was more powerful than the ground approaching quickly!

Information that should have been extremely vivid and impactful eluded me.

The Lesson

How often, do we as educators, not see the obvious because our beliefs are so strongly interfering with reality?



Should We Gamify Meditation? ;-)

I ask this somewhat in cheek. In fact, it is rather an oxymoron.


Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 5.08.05 PMThere is a lot of evidence about the positive effects of mindfulness these days. It is becoming ‘de rigueur’ in the K-12 education space. For example, Mindfulness Without Borders offers workshops to schools. So does the Mindfulness Institute. The Association for Mindfulness in Education and also attend to this issue. Just to name a few.

On a personal note, I studied transcendental meditation when I was 20.  That is also when I first learned of Jon Kabat-Zinn – although I didn’t take the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course until a few years ago.

Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself. The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation is often used to clear the mind. (Roughly taken from Wikipedia.)


I have also played around with biofeedback.  I have found it quite useful.gsr2image
“Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of many physiological functions primarily using instruments that provide information on the activity of those same systems, with a goal of being able to manipulate them at will.” Wikipedia

Biofeedback may give you insights into meditative practice and indeed may assist you in reaching goals of ‘calmness’ and ‘stress reduction’.  There are many more biofeedback tools available these days due to advances in technologies and in neuroscience. Some give you feedback on muscle tension, some on skin temperature and others on skin conductance (galvanic skin response -GSR*).  (It is, in fact, a GSR device that I have owned for some 25 years.) These are all indicators of psychological or physiological arousal. So, if you can ‘meditate’ in some fashion and reduce the arousal, you will get good feedback on which techniques work effectively for you.

Major Research

Important to note that this is not some pie-in-the-sky notion — the Affective Computing Group at MIT Media Lab has been investigating many educational issues leveraging biofeedback devices.  Susanne Lajoie at McGill has also been studying education with this lens too. And, you can bet that the big publishers are involved as well!  (But, that’s a topic for another day!)


And guess what!

With all the advances in computer technologies and biofeedback devices – and, with the onslaught of ‘gaming’ and ‘gamification’, there are a slew of biofeedback games available both online and downloadable!
I am actually not familiar with any of those at all but am simply asking myself – and you – the question.

Should we gamify meditation?

*SideNote: Heck. If you are into robotics, get yourself an RCX Lego brick and make a GSR yourself — but, be aware only do this with your RCX on battery power. If it’s plugged in, you could electrocute yourself!

GSR from RCX brick - courtesy of

GSR from RCX brick – courtesy of









Question Authority – (6 of 6)

Humankind is Both Art and Science – The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities

Sixth, and final, in the series of Humankind is Both Art & Science based on the TEDx talk given on Oct. 1, 2011 at TEDxYMCAAcademy.

  1. Humankind is Both Art and Science; 2. Limited, and Fooled, by Our Senses; 3. The Trickery of Temporary Truths; 4. Post Gutenberg Parenthesis; 5. Emotional Rescue; 6. Question Authority

Question Authority

Question Authority!

I am often in trouble. Perhaps it is because I am a product of the sixties – of (r)evolution  – of anti-establishment.

But, I think not. It is because I really like to question authority – because authority – the common wisdom – sometimes just does not make sense to me.

So I ‘question authority’.

In fact, I used to have a sticker for my motorcycle helmet.

Honestly Officer – It’s an Academic Comment!

Question Authority

Unfortunately the police didn’t find it as intellectually stimulating as I do.   LOL

I have questioned some common practices in classrooms where kids have been identified with various LDs. Now these things may not work for you – but I have had tremendous success with these on various occasions. They fly in the face of common recommendations. That’s the way I roll. 🙂

In schools, common practices often include a very reductionist approach. I understand why – to reduce the complexity of competing stimuli, to simplify the material, take it to its barest elements and to logically sequence it.

I think there is a place for that.

However, I do not believe it should be the main course of a student’s school life.

Natural Complexity Brings a Context

Learn within the Natural Complexity

I think that the complexity of life is essential for a passionate engagement with the world. I believe that the complexity is required for making sense of the whole and its parts.

“…young children are able to steal that which they need to know…”


The Construction Zone

I have had a classroom in the YMCA Academy that is called The Construction Zone.

By all rights, ‘learning disabled’ kids should not have done well in that space. Too busy. Too distracting. Too ‘unmanaged’.

The Construction Zone

I have been accused of being too laissez-faire …. but I expect kids not just to learn the content at hand, but indeed I expect them to manage the learning of that content as well.

How ‘meta’ of me.  😉

People should make their learning as explicit and as visible as possible – that includes the teacher.

So I would have multiple projectors running with kids working ontheir tasks and everyone else able to see the content AND the processes as they worked.

I would always have my twitter stream running and projected so that kids would understand and see how I engage and how I learn with my PLN.

The students, like very young children, seemed to be able to ‘steal that which they needed to know’.

Build Thoughtful Environments

Create Thoughtful Environments

We need to build thoughtful environments, both F2F and with Blogs, Wikis, FaceBook, Twitter, Nings, etc. – ones that support multimedial minds in natural collaborative endeavours.

Such ‘thoughtful’ environments can be supported with many Web 2.0 tools these days.

But, alas, today I wanted to share the ‘why

There is no time for the ‘what’ and ‘how’!

The ‘what’ and ‘how’ will be part of the TEDxYMCAAcademy 2.0!

Or read some other posts in this blog if you can’t wait!  🙂

The Ying and Yang of Art & Science


At this point, I invite you all to think about the issues I have raised here.

When you are studying learning disabilities consider the science of us – but also remember that what we experience is also art. We are both art and science.

Recognize that our view of the world is both limited by our senses and that we impose meaning based on what we already understand. That may not be an accurate picture.

Remember that humankind’s knowledge base is constantly under revision.

What we see as ‘truth’ today, may not be the ‘truth’ of tomorrow. 

Educate for these times – not past times

Look at natural models of learning that engender passion – for that enhances learning.

So, therefore, I ask you to question authority.

Question Authoritatively!

But, be wise. Be smart. Be open. Be learned. Be a learner!

And, question authoritatively.

Thank you.


This brings to a close this series. Thank you so much.


Emotional Rescue (5 of 6)

Humankind is Both Art and Science – The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities

Fifth in the series of Humankind is Both Art & Science based on the TEDx talk given on Oct. 1, 2011 at TEDxYMCAAcademy.

  1. Humankind is Both Art and Science; 2. Limited, and Fooled, by Our Senses; 3. The Trickery of Temporary Truths; 4. Post Gutenberg Parenthesis; 5. Emotional Rescue; 6. Question Authority

Emotions Impact Cognition

Emotional Rescue

So what else can we do – besides recognizing this different giftedness?

We need kids to love learning – to love themselves. It is the natural way.

Let’s follow their path – not impose ours.

Emotions impact cognition.

Again, intuitively many of us have understood this over time.

And guess what? The neuroscience literature is now bursting with evidence in support.

“Emotions impact cognition.”

If You Fall In Love with It You Become an Expert

“Emotions are essential to the decision-making process since they are the engine of the limbic system – our emotional brain which is connected to learning and motivation”,  says Antonio Damasio in a wonderful book called Pedagogy in (E)motion, by Zambrana-Ortiz.

Cognitive science has typically studied how people perceive, learn, remember, and think.

The role of emotions has been largely absent in the literature – until recently.

The neurosciences have now explicitly accepted the importance of emotions in the production of knowledge.

“Emotions influence the development and efficacy of executive functioning.”

Emotions influence the development and efficacy of executive functioning.

Bring Love - Gain Expertise!

I have always posted a sign on my classroom doors – “If you fall in love with it, you’ll become an expert.”

Remember seeing that those of you who have visited the academy? That is why.

So engage the emotions of your students by engaging them in authentic tasks – real tasks that are meaningful to them.

Give them power over their learning by encouraging and supporting their development of deep, driving questions that arouse their passion.

Allow them to work with others so that they can find their place – and work in their areas of strengths – with their assets – not let them suffer in their deficit areas.

I have spoken and written tons about that and so I’d ask you to check throughout this blog for more details on passion-driven, inquiry-based, collaborative project-based learning.

Read Part 6 in the series  – Question Authority!


Post Gutenberg Parenthesis – (4 of 6)

Humankind is Both Art and Science – The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities

Fourth in the series of Humankind is Both Art & Science based on the TEDx talk given on Oct. 1, 2011 at TEDxYMCAAcademy.

  1. Humankind is Both Art and Science; 2. Limited, and Fooled, by Our Senses; 3. The Trickery of Temporary Truths; 4. Post Gutenberg Parenthesis; 5. Emotional Rescue; 6. Question Authority

Post Gutenberg Parenthesis

Post Gutenberg Parenthesis

As we saw, we impose our meaning  on our world – and on others!

So we take our best guess – educated guesses – at all we that we try to understand, explain and ‘fix’.

Maryanne Wolfe, and others, claim that the brain isn’t necessarily pre-wired to read – check Proust and the Squid for that convincing discussion.

We know these kids suffer in our world..

But, as you also know, there are other gifts and strengths that often accompany ‘LD’s.

It is said that dyslexics could be our most talented data visualizers.


In the Mind's Eye

In the Mind’s Eye

Thomas West says (paraphrased),

“For some four hundred or five hundred years we have had our schools teaching basically the skills of the medieval clerk—reading, writing, counting, and memorizing texts.

Now we are on the verge of a new era,

and will emphasize a very different set of skills—those of a Renaissance man such as Leonardo da Vinci.

Traits that are considered desirable today will be obsolete and unwanted tomorrow.

Instead of the qualities of a well-trained clerk, we might want a habit of innovation in many diverse fields, the perspective of the global generalist rather than the narrowly focused specialist, and an emphasis on visual content and analysis over parallel verbal modes.”

Gutenberg - the Analog Divide

Post Gutenberg Parenthesis

We are into the 21st century now – past the Gutenberg Parenthesis

– that era that lived and breathed text and text alone.

That era that celebrated letteracy and…

served to exclude those who were challenged by it. Not so socially inclusive.


Our next Crop of LD Kids?

Visual Imagery & Visualizations

We are now entering a world that is immersed in the production and interpretation of visual imagery and visualizations.

Those who are not literate in those areas may well be our next Learning Disabled kids.


Read Part 5 in the series  – Emotional Rescue


The Trickery of Temporary Truths (3 of 6)

Humankind is Both Art and Science- The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities

Third in the series of Humankind is Both Art & Science based on the TEDx talk given on Oct. 1, 2011 at TEDxYMCAAcademy – The Art & Science of Learning Disabilities:

  1. Humankind is Both Art and Science; 2. Limited, and Fooled, by Our Senses; 3. The Trickery of Temporary Truths; 4. Post Gutenberg Parenthesis; 5. Emotional Rescue; 6. Question Authority

The Trickery of Temporary Truths

There is another minor problem with ‘truths’. A lot of facts that have been discovered – aren’t facts at all! Simply not true!


The Earth is Flat

They appeared really true at the time – but other truths replaced them at some point – once the ‘science’ changed – or once our perceptions changed – or our tools to perceive changed!


At one point, the Earth was deemed to be flat. And…


Not Around the Earth?

At one point, everything revolved around the Earth.

That was the geocentric model of Ptolemy . And Galileo was in big trouble in the early 1600s – for contradicting the Aristotelian view – which was also that of the church.


Heard of Phrenology?


Basically, the shape and size of parts of the head were correlated with personality characteristics. Thats what Franz Joseph Gall claimed in the early 1800s.

But, this was a great advance from the 4 humors – black bileyellow bilephlegm, and blood.


Faster than Light?

…how about the discovery last week regarding the questioning of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Anyone know about that?

Yes…particles have been observed to be traveling faster than the speed of light.

These were temporary truths.

The Brain that Changes Itself

The Brain That Changes Itself

We have many claims and facts about learning disabilities too.

Maybe some of those are temporary truths. I may be totally wrong!! I’m good with that. Just like to question it. Especially with new findings about neuroplasticity and the like.

As an example, once you ‘have’ a learning disability, you have it for life. All you can do is work with it – accommodate it.

Well, to me – being somewhat of an old Piagetian dude – the very definition of accommodation infers a change in the structures of the brain!

We need to be cautious of the trickery of temporary truths.

We need to be cautious of the trickery of temporary truths.

But there is ONE truth that I sorta like!

Neuroscientist Peter Snyder says, “…what neuroscientists don’t know about the mechanisms of cognition—about what is physically different between a dumb brain and a smart one and how to make the first more like the second—could fill volumes. Actually, it does.”

He suggests that  “We’re sort of in the Wild West.””

The scientists, in their brilliance, have developed theories and beliefs based on their interpretations and previous experiences. Their knowledge arose, as mine does, out of how they experienced the world.

Their scientific discoveries were a result of both art and science.


Read the next in the series – Post Gutenberg Parenthesis.


Limited, and Fooled, By Our Senses (2 of 6)

Humankind is Both Art and Science

The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities

Second in the series of Humankind is Both Art & Science based on the TEDx talk given on Oct. 1, 2011 at TEDxYMCAAcademy.

  1. Humankind is Both Art and Science; 2. Limited, and Fooled, by Our Senses; 3. The Trickery of Temporary Truths; 4. Post Gutenberg Parenthesis; 5. Emotional Rescue; 6. Question Authority

Limited, and Fooled, By Our Senses

Limited, and Fooled, By Our Senses

So let’s take a look at some of the science of us.

Our ‘reality’ is limited by our senses.

That is why we develop tools.

To better understand what is real.

To better understand our world around us.

What we ‘sense’ is not the full picture. Not even close.

So we develop tools.


  • stretch our edges,
  • magnify our sensitivities,
  • detect and measure things of which we aren’t even aware.

Tools Augment Our Senses

Reality is Not Only What We Can Perceive

Our ears and eyes have physical limits in terms of what we can hear and see, right?

What we detect is limited.

But is our reality. It is what we think of as our reality.

Same with smell, touch and taste.

So we create machines.

Machines to augment our limited apparatus!

Now we have fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging.

It registers blood flow to functioning areas of the brain.

Active neurons consume more blood than idle neurons.

This is where a great deal of our ‘current reality’ is being defined.

Cool stuff.

But, we are still limited. 

Just please remember…

when you are trying to figure out  something – like Learning Disabilities – you are really looking at it in a very limited way –

With a limited set of senses.

With a limited set of lenses.

It is only a limited view of the reality.

The Table Illusion

And… We are Fooled by Our Senses!

We are not just ‘limited’ by our senses.

We are also ‘fooled’ by our senses- because our minds impose meaning on what our physical selves perceive.

These table tops are EXACTLY the same size and shape!

Our brain circuitry is triggered to see the tables in three dimensions.

It’s as Lehrer says regarding ‘taste’ -“it’s our neurological reality. when we sense something, that sensation is immediately analyzed in terms of previous experience”.

Gestaltists said that “form is dictated from the top down.” The reductionist Wundtians argued that what we perceived was a result of ‘elemental sensations‘.

But what we experience is the art in us – the art of us.

The mind is not a camera — so what we perceive is a result of art not science.

The mind is not a camera — so what we perceive is a result of art not science.

We are both art and science.


 Read the next in the series – The Trickery of Temporary Truths

The Series of Posts

Humankind is Both Art & Science (1 of 6)

Humankind is Both Art and Science

The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities

“It is not enough to judge humankind on scientific principles which historically have often been temporary truths.  Schooling must respect the art of human-ness and so we should design natural learning environments to maximize our children’s innate assets.” Read more »