If you’re looking for a whole new perspective on the value of mathematics, Stanford University’s Keith Devlin shall provide. With his wonderfully lilting English (Yorkshire?) accent and as sharp of a mind as you can imagine, he compares mathematical equations to sonnets and says that what most of us learn in school doesn’t begin to convey what mathematics is. That technology may free more of us to discover the wonder of mathematical thinking — as a reflection of the inner world of our minds.
Despite the growth of e-readers and digital technology, New Yorkers are spending more time in libraries than ever, says a new report out today from the Center for an Urban Future about the changing role of our city’s public libraries in the digital age. This week on WNYC’s New Tech City, host Manoush Zomorodi delves into the topic and finds the contemporary library is about more than just digitizing documents and lending e-books to patrons on their Kindles and iPads.
This ought to be interesting. Words make worlds.
Thinking of My Past Education and of Those to Come
by Krista Tippett, host
Adele Diamond is a formative figure in the emerging field of developmental cognitive neuroscience. And she is the kind of person I love to interview — a person with an important body of knowledge who never stops growing and asking new questions and making big ideas come to life in her person. She has nurtured a lifelong love of dancing alongside her love of learning, and so she embodies the delightfully challenging story her research has to tell.
Here, in a very simplified nutshell, is that story — the piece of it that I have been able to internalize, in any case, and that has fundamentally changed the way I think about the education I received and what I want for my own children. Among other things, breakthroughs in neuroscience are helping us understand the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the latest part of the brain to develop in our species (“the new kid on the block,” as Adele Diamond puts it) and the last to fully mature — as late as our 20s — in every individual life.
The prefrontal cortex is vital to how we learn more than what we learn. It controls the cognitive disciplines and flexibility we need to access, apply, and creatively build on what we learn across our life spans. Such skills are a manifestation of the brain’s capacity for what neuroscientists call “executive function.” Adele Diamond’s groundbreaking research has focused on an educational approach called "Tools of the Mind" that strengthens executive function in pre-school age children. It has also shown intriguing promise for children with autism and ADHD, and for helping close the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Serious ideas, all. Yet, wonderfully, play is at the heart of this show. Tools of the Mind and related science-inspired initiatives encourage a child’s natural inclination for dramatic play. They mine that experience for the discipline it holds: of creativity, of putting oneself in another’s shoes, of listening and yielding to others, of character and perseverance.
Cutting-edge science is bringing us back to some very traditional, intuitive, and — as it turns out — educationally savvy modes of human interaction in and beyond school. It is scientifically explaining the educational power of things like drama, music, and physical activity. It is revealing memorization as a form of exercise for the brain and demonstrating that joyful environments are also more efficacious. Stress shuts down the prefrontal cortex. And the kinds of mental discipline the prefrontal cortex enables — manifest, for example, in a child’s ability to interact with others in play at an early age — is a more definitive indicator of future thriving, academic and otherwise, than IQ.
I am also naturally drawn to the spiritual implications of Adele Diamond’s work. Her emphasis is as much on reflection as on information. The kind of science she and others are doing has led the school system of British Columbia to incorporate reflection as a part of the development of whole, healthy human beings within its educational philosophy. I hear echoes of my conversation with Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan in Los Angeles, who are cultivating curiosity and listening between Muslims and Jews as a civic discipline that can enlarge our souls and our practical ability to be present to difference and possibility in ourselves and in the world.
Adele Diamond herself references Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as well as the Dalai Lama as she reflects on the spiritual connections she uncovers between learning, doing, and being. Her robust Jewish identity flows into the way she makes sense of the larger meaning of what she does, and she has also been deeply influenced by her encounter with the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute conversations between scientists and spiritual thinkers. In fact, I met her at a conference in Vancouver, where she interacted with the Dalai Lama and other scientists, educators, and spiritual thinkers.
And next week, we’ll bring another, recent encounter with the Dalai Lama and religious leaders — the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and a preeminent Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. I moderated that public discussion, on the subject of human happiness. It was a lively and felicitously unpredictable conversation, and I hope you’ll listen in.
…unfortunately, society does not generally invest enough in innovation—especially in areas where it would help the poor (who aren’t an attractive market) and where there isn’t an agreed-upon measure of excellence. In the U.S., that means we have not invested nearly what we should in innovation for education.
-from "My Turn: Bill Gates on Education and Innovation" in the recent edition of Newsweek.
This brief commentary by Bill Gates’ nicely accentuates a point made by Jacqueline Novogratz for our show to be released this Thursday (via podcast). She sees an opportunity for social investors to take risks in these unattractive markets abroad that actually might serve as new models for how we operate here in the States.
Perhaps this experimental work is going on now in more places than many of us realize. It’s just not funded properly or recognized. More directly, I’m thinking of two recent conversations we’ve had with Adele Diamond and Mike Rose. Both are challenging the stagnation in the U.S. education system that Gates’ later mentions — Diamond couples scientific knowledge of the brain with observations of children in classroom settings; Rose pairs his decades of teaching and education at all levels with his conversations with folks in all parts of the country.
Are we really listening and paying attention to what’s going on in our backyard (including Canada)? And, how are we willing to give those ideas a fighting chance of going mainstream?
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Being Educated in Not-So-Obvious Places
Krista Tippett, host
Wonderful reactions to our show on the meaning of intelligence with Mike Rose. Here’s a line from his book Why School?, which didn’t make it into my interview or the script, but that I love:
We are driven — as surely as we are driven to survive — to find meaning in our lives, to interpret what befalls us, the events that swirl around us, the people who cross our paths, the objects and rhythms of the natural world. We do this instinctively; it is essential to being human. So we do it with or without education. But we are getting educated all the time, of course: by family, community, teachers, pals, bullies, and saints.
I’ve been on a bit of a trajectory of realization about that process — of being educated in not-so-obvious places — through my conversation this past fall with Adele Diamond, and now Mike Rose. They’ve given me a whole new appreciation for aspects of my experience that I had always characterized as on the sidelines of my education — debate teams and theater productions and choirs that kept me thinking and creative even as I was woefully under-challenged by schools in a small town in Oklahoma where advanced classes in everything were cut to keep up the football budget.
I’ve told myself that I had a failed primary and secondary educational experience. Now I can glorify joyful and energizing possibilities that did come my way with the word “education.” Adele Diamond even gives me scientific language to explain the fact that debate and drama quite legitimately gave me the tools to “learn how to learn” and to use what I learn into the present.
I’m also watching my children’s education with new eyes in ways that surprise me. I’m grasping why my daughter’s two years in a Waldorf School were so fundamentally transformative. Waldorf’s focus on storytelling, drama, handiwork, and music could come prescribed from the new science that Adele is part of. But I’m even appreciating my son’s touch football games where so much negotiation and strategizing goes on alongside the physical.
And so life, and education, come full circle.
I look back at the fork in my road and often wonder if I should have, could have, taken the vocational, farming route. But, at the time, nobody valued that route. Everyone valued ‘education.’
Kindred Spirits: Studs Terkel and Mike Rose
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
In our program with Mike Rose, we are asking you to share your memories of school — moments when your mind came to life in a new way and shaped who you are in terms of becoming, longing, hope, and possibility. One of the memories that came up for me as we produced this program was reading Studs Terkel’s American Dreams: Lost and Found in a college sociology class.
That book inspired me, in the same way I feel inspired by Mike Rose, to consider the meaning of intelligence, to look below the radar and across lines of race, class, and occupation for what’s real, and to grasp how the reality of American lives often defies stereotypes I may attach to them. It also influenced my a love of storytelling, of oral history — Studs style — and an appreciation for the beauty that can be found in matters and people our culture often considers “average.”
So, it was fun for me to discover an interview that Studs Terkel did with Mike Rose in 1996 for Studs’ radio program out of Chicago. It’s classic Studs — filled with curiosity, passion, and his signature chatter. They wander through Rose’s book, Possible Lives, highlighting the public school teachers that Rose chronicled in four years traveling across the U.S. There’s a kindred spirit in their work, and even though it’s over a decade old, I found their conversation about imaginative educators defying the odds still very inspiring for today.
Moving to Think
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Listening to neuroscientist Adele Diamond’s conversation with Krista, I couldn’t help but think of the talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson has written several books on education, the arts, and creativity, and he’s on our “big list” of potential future guests.
One thing Diamond mentions is a lifelong love of dance, which brought to mind Robinson’s story about Gillian Lynne, who’s best known for choreographing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. He tells the story about how Lynne’s “learning disorder” turned out to be her life’s calling (jump to 15:15 in the video for the story, or read the transcript below):
"… Gillian and I had lunch together one day and I said, ‘Gillian how did you get to be a dancer?’ And she said it was interesting; when she was at school she was really hopeless. And the school in the thirties wrote to her parents and said, ‘We think Julian has a learning disorder.’ She couldn’t concentrate, she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD, wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930’s and ADHD hadn’t been invented, you know, at this point, so it wasn’t an available condition, you know. People weren’t aware they could have that.
Anyway, she went to see this specialist in this oak-paneled room and she was there with her mother and she was led and sat on this chair at the end. And she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school.
And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people and her homework was always late and so on, a little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said ‘I’ve listened to all these things your mother has told me. I need to speak to her privately.’ So he said, ‘Wait here. We’ll be back. We won’t be very long,’ and they went and left her. But as they went out of the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk, and when they got out of the room, he said to her mother, ‘Just stand and watch her.’ The minute they left the room she said she was on her feet moving to the music and they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, ‘You know, Mrs. Lynn, Julian isn’t sick — she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.’
I said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘She did. I can’t tell you, sir, how wonderful it was. We walked into this room and it was full of people like me; people who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.’”