RSA of Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” Talk

3036254720_052d0020ccIn the video below, the clever folks over at RSA Animate give visual engagement to Steven Johnson’s brief talk on Where Good Ideas Come From, an excerpt from his TEDtalk.

One of the things we love about this talk is that it confirms what we intrinsically know to be true — innovation is more about interaction and engagement than sitting and listening.

Why is this important?

When we think about involving and investing all learners in education, we run up against the contrast between the traditional practices that sustain a factory “batch and queue” model of education with the reality of how people actually learn. Out of this contrast is born the dichotomous tension between focusing on efficiency and “teacher effectiveness” (an inherently top-down approach geared toward achievement on standardized tests) with that of focusing on the learners and their strengths/affinities/needs as a starting point (an inherently bottom-up approach focused on the whole child).

That the top-down version is currently the dominant paradigm is easy to see. There is more talk about accountability and outcomes than student engagement or motivation. Yet this video lays out the simple truth: innovation, via creativity, necessitates interaction and connections. If we want the strengths of dyslexia and other learning differences to be harnessed and applied, we need to think differently about how we involve students in learning. What is the role of the teacher? What is the role of the student? What patterns, norms, and habits of mind do we want for our graduates and what kind of learning experiences will help cultivate those?

Such questions will not be quickly answered. So, in the meantime, check out the clever video below.

 Photo Credit: zetson via Compfight cc

11 Characteristic of Meaningful Work (and Learning)

Meaning_People_700x300In a recent repost of Shawn Murphy’s “11 Characteristics of Meaningful Work,” the editors at QED’s blog noted that,

While this piece by Shawn Murphy is related to business practices and targeted to managers and business leaders, the parallels to education and student learning are striking. Teachers, curricula developers, and education leaders can find plenty herein to ponder, reflect on, and apply in practice.

We couldn’t agree more. Switch a few key words (for example: “work” to “learning experiences,” “employees” to students,” and  “the organization” to “school.”) and, voila!, some great advice for educators and education leaders.

Below are the 11 characteristics of meaningful work in title only. To read the explanations for each, you can visit Shawn’s original post here, or QED’s repost here

1. Basic needs are met

2. Strengths are leveraged

3. Pull personal satisfaction from work

4. Being in on things

5. Treated with respect by peers and managers

6. See how one’s work fits into the bigger picture

7. Personal sense of independence and interdependence

8. Employees believe they are valued by the organization, by management

9. Opportunities to know self

10. Promotion of other’s satisfaction

11. Recognized — give recognition for good work

Image: Shawn Murphy

The Mind Matters Show: Study Tip — The Format Shift

Here is the latest video from Dr. Craig Pohlman’s “The Mind Matters Show.” Ben Berg describes the video on this blog post as such,

When it comes to studying for a test, some methods give you a better chance for success. On this episode of the Mind Matters Show, Dr. Craig Pohlman explains the difference between active and passive studying (and how a strategy called the “format shift” can help):

  • Passive Studiers –simply go over the material and let it skim across their minds
  • Active Studiers – engage with the information, such as by transforming it so it embeds into long term memory

This is where the format shift comes in. An active studier would take information they are studying and re-organize it. For example, they would take the content from a textbook paragraph and create a schematic diagram, pictorial diagram, or a compare/contrast table.

The key to the format shift is the process. The act of transforming the information from one format to another embeds the information much more deeply. The multiple formats are more compelling than a plain paragraph in a textbook, so this also makes studying more interesting!

The next time you have to study for a test, consider the format shift in order to get the most out of your study session.

Stay connected: Mind Matters Facebook | @MindMatters_SEP

Storytelling’s Impact on Empathy (and the Architecture of the Brain)

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 9.00.18 AMPaul Zak, who TED Talks describes as, “a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics,” shares his thoughts and insights on the power of storytelling to affect change in the architecture of the brain in the below video — a collaboration between him, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, and animator Henrique Barone for the Future of Storytelling conference.

He opens with a powerful story that will pull at your heart strings, and uses these emotions as a gateway to reveal the complex workings of the moral and ethical brain. He concludes from his research that stories, with the right narrative arc, have a powerful impact on the brain, and the actions and behaviors that follow.

The implications for education in the design of learning environments and experiences cannot be understated. While we often put skills at the center of learning, what if we put people at the core — students’ well being and the stories that matter to them?

For more information about the collaborators of this video, check out:

  1. Paul Zak’s research.
  2. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” website.
  3. Animator Henrique Barone’s website.
  4. The “Future of Storytelling” conference.
Image Source: ScreenShot from above video

Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.


Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

Photo Credit: BrittneyBush via Compfight cc

Transforming Batch and Queue

4782496500_273a4c7d29_bKim Carter, the Executive Director of our parent organization, Q.E.D. Foundation, was recently interviewed by the the good folks over at KQED’s Mindshift blog for a piece on competency-based learning.

As a leading expert in the field, she had a number of insights into both the benefits of competency-based learning and critiques of the traditional “batch and queue” model.  Among the many valuable ideas embedded in the the article, we found one of particular importance for working with a neuro-diverse student body. The author, Katrina Schwartz, writes,

If a student gets 50 percent in a class in a traditional school, she fails and has to repeat the course or grade level until she scores higher, even if the score means that she understood half the material. Forcing her to repeat everything is inefficient and puts the student at a disadvantage for the rest of her academic career. In competency-based classrooms, students relearn and demonstrate competencies in only the areas that challenge them before moving forward.

“‘Batch and queue’ is horribly inefficient and destroys kids’ concept of self,” Carter said. “It’s like manufacturing, where you put everything through the same system and compare it to standards at the end. If it doesn’t match, put it through again.”

How often do students experience failure not as a stepping stone toward success, but as a road block to progress? Far too often, in our opinion. Too many students find themselves branded and labeled by a system not designed for unique strengths, affinities, and, ultimately, individuals. This lack of personalization, by proxy, communicates to the students that they are of value when they fit into the system, and not necessarily when they do not.

A competency-based model ensures that students are recognized for their growth while encouraging their involvement, contributions, and unique insights. It gives students a platform for employing their strengths toward achieving their goals / the standards.

This sort of empowerment transcends the walls of the school building and prepares the students for achieving success in life beyond graduation.

Photo Credit: Yvonne Thompson via Compfight cc

John Cleese Explains the Brain


Below is a video from John Cleese’s very “informative” brain podcast (actual content begins around 35 seconds). You’ll notice, of course, that nearly every sentence is almost entirely gibberish.

It is humorous to us in large part because . . .

  1. John Cleese is a masterful humorist who can make gobbledygook sound sensical, and . . .
  2. It is a low stakes environment. None of us will be held accountable for his 1.5 minutes worth of “content.” We’ll watch, marvel and share it, and then go on with our lives.

However, the video offers an instructive peek into the daily experience of scores of students who struggle to decipher language — either because of receptive language challenges or immersion in a new language such as English. We know that stress inhibits learning, so the question becomes, how can we alleviate/manage our content delivery to minimize student stress so as to best capitalize on their learning potential?

If we needed to truly understand this information, how might Mr. Cleese revise his methods? How would you deliver this “content” to ensure students understood it?


 Photo Credit: Adrian J Wallace via Compfight cc

One Story About Embracing Diversity and Empowering Students

In this powerful and inspiring TEDxManhattan talk, teacher Stephen Ritz shares a program he started with his students called Green Bronx Machine. More important than the program itself, though, is how the experiences have transformed and empowered his students — their present and their future.

Jackie Gerstein describes his work in her post “Learners as Entrepreneurs,”

Stephen Ritz’s Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

One of the things that makes his talk so incredible, besides the breakneck pace of it and his constant stream of witticisms, is how the program embraces the diversity — of mind, body, class, and culture — of his students. The student variation becomes a proof point for the validity and integrity of the program. Take a look and see for yourself.

What other projects / programs do you know of that support diverse student profiles and bring about good in a community? Share in the comments.

Walking the (Learning) Walk

We find ourselves in something of a paradoxical education landscape. On the one hand we are learning more and more about the science of learning. Neuroscience is pushing the boundaries of the known world on a near daily basis. As a result, our knowledge about working with a variety of minds continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Yet, numerous policy mandates bent on increasing “achievement” (as often measured by reading and math scores on standardized tests) require that we minimize the amount of time spent on some things that actually lead to increased learning.

In effect, we have removed tires from cars we want to go faster and farther.

Take exercise for example. We know that exercise is very good for cognitive functioning —  in youth, adults, and especially so in the elderly. However, there is a significant decrease in the amount of time given to students for recess, PE, and other active engagement.

The result isn’t just that we increase the risk of childhood obesity, we also reduce access to physical activity for students who need it for their own intellectual and physical well being. We are, consequently, leaving students behind.

However, the need to help all students reach their potential does not translate into a need for more seat time.  Quite the opposite in fact.

Educators know this. A student who is challenged in sustaining attention can find success through more active learning opportunities. Students who are lethargic or low on energy can get pepped up with a few in-class movement activities. These are tried and true tricks for most educators.

What happens, though, when the decrease in activity is systematically mandated and increased expectations become the norm? Should teachers just become accomplice in denying students the physical activity they need?  Not likely.

Former 5th grade teacher, Laura Fenn, found herself more and more troubled by the lack of activity and the resulting negative consequences on her students — both in terms of health and engagement. Through a clever use of technology, she found a way to meet both needs: activity and learning. In a recent blog post on Q.E.D. Foundation’s blog she wrote,

I witnessed an increase in the weight of the students at school and a decrease in the time allocated to physical activity.  Knowing how much I enjoyed going for a walk while listening to podcasts after school and on weekends, I thought that maybe my students might enjoy doing the same.  I scoured the Internet for educational podcasts that were *somewhat* related to our curriculum, and I loaded up a class set of mp3 players. My students would get some fresh air and exercise, but I could also convince my principal that we weren’t sacrificing any instructional time.

She went on to report,

Away we went–walking, listening and learning.  My students went nuts for the walking program—they thought they were getting out of something, but in fact, they got so much more:  they returned to class in better moods, more focused, and more productive. The best surprise was how effective walking while learning was for my non-traditional learners.  I had several ADHD boys who struggled in class simply because they poured every ounce of energy they had into trying to stay out of trouble.  While we walked, they could jiggle and wiggle as much as their bodies needed to, so their minds were freed up to absorb the content they were listening to.   I also had autistic students and dyslexic students who, for the first time in their academic career, regularly started participating in class discussions after our walks.  Kinesthetic learning was a preferred style of learning for these children that they didn’t know about.

We can tell our students all about different learning styles until we’re blue in the face, but until a child experiences a style of learning in which s/he succeeds, the words are empty.  To witness a child enjoy feeling smart is like no other joy that a teacher can experience.

Since making this discovery, Laura has since left the classroom and is now co-founder and Executive Director at The Walking Classroom, working to provide other classrooms and schools with podcasts and mp3 players aligned with the Common Core State Standards. One very encouraging outcome of her endeavor: others are reporting similar findings and increased levels of engagement. (You can learn more at The Walking Classroom.)

Where else are innovations meeting the needs of students in creative and inclusive ways? What other programs might we highlight?

Image: Jen McNulty

Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.


  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

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