Monthly Archives: June 2008

Let Your Creativity Soar

This post’s title comes directly from the June/July Scientific American Mind print article of the same name. (The online version is named How to Unleash Your Creativity.) Mariette DiChristina interviews three artists to spearhead a discussion of how they get their creativity soaring. The artists are Julia Cameron, poet, playwright and filmmaker; Robert Epstein, author and visiting scholar; and John Houtz, psychologist, professor and author.

As stated by others, including Sir Ken Robinson, the consensus among these folks is that “creativity is shut down in most people by early socialization.” And like Robinson, they believe that risk taking and failure are important components of creativity. Indeed, “the creative individual thinks of failure as a new opportunity.”

While Cameron, Epstein, and Houtz do not all use the same vocabulary, they often describe similar activities for stimulating their creativity, which are…

Hold that thought! Write it down, record it, do whatever is needed so you don’t forget it. Ideas come to you during sleep? No problem, just keep a pad and pen nearby. Not enough, or too many ideas in your head? Allow whatever you are thinking to topple out, unedited. Julia Cameron writes her “morning pages” on a daily basis – “three pages of longhand writing about anything.” She notes that as she writes those pages, “new ideas began to walk in.”

Try something different! At least once a week, break your routine, feed your head visuals, sounds, and text that are not your standard fare. Give your brain ideas to ponder. Cameron teaches “the artist ‘date’ or ‘outing’ [which] is to take an adventure once a week.” According to Robert Epstein, “the more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections – so you can boost your creativity simply by learning interesting new things.”

Make yourself think! Look for problems to solve, but not just any problems. Rather, challenge yourself to solve more complex or unusual problems. John Houtz reminds us that people “have to work at it; creativity isn’t necessarily going to come naturally.”

Get out and about! Epstein says “the more interesting and diverse the things and the people around you, the more interesting your own ideas become.” Cameron adds that simply taking a “walk out the door for 20 minutes or so” will have an impact on your thinking. “When people walk, they often begin to integrate the insights and intuitions that they have had through morning pages and outings.”

Ah yes, this has happened to me multiple times when I take walks by myself. My thoughts flow freely and it is not unusual, if there is an issue I am dealing with, for me to have a conversation out loud with myself. Indeed, this is an easy way to get “off the grid”.

Houtz talks about how our personalities can impact the manner in which we stimulate our creativity. Someone who is more introspective and less outgoing might prefer quiet reflection; a more extroverted person may benefit from the hubbub of other people.

These suggestions read like a “how to” manual for fostering creativity but before you say they are silly, give them a try and then let me know what you think.

Images: pad and bicycle on beach from iStockPhoto; squiggles and stonewalls done in SketchUp by Fred Bartels

[p.s. August 9, 2008 – I stumbled upon this related Encefalus post, How to Bolster your Creativity. The author hasn't "written in english for a loooooong time", which explains any quirks in the prose.]

Design and Innovation with Arnold Wasserman

Arnold Wasserman is the man behind The Idea Factory. I discovered him thanks to a recent interview by Joan Badger and Ben Hazzard for their SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast.

Wasserman echoes Sir Ken Robinson in saying that we all come hard wired to be creative, and we then teach that feature right out of our children as they progress through school.

In discussing his company’s work with Singapore’s education system, Wasserman asks how we go about reintroducing our two hemispheres to one another, and concludes that we need to figure out how to use the ideas of K-6 education in the upper grades. He says:

“The brain knows how to be creative and the mind gets in its way.”

In other words, as we get older (and more “educated”) the mind encounters enough information that it begins to put a harness on the brain, stifling it from using ideas that do not mesh with the reality to which the mind has been exposed.

Wasserman references Google’s 80/20 rule as a way to nurture innovation. The rule states that employees can spend twenty percent of their time focused on their own ideas. This allows “the mind to get out of the way of the brain.”

“The Learning Journey” is a method that his company uses to “get the mind out of the way of the brain” by shakings things up. He suggests that to innovate it helps to see how innovation is working in other fields in order to understand how innovation works, in general, as opposed to within a specific field.

Wasserman’s tips to discover the principles of innovation:
First – see how it is done in other fields
Then – try to solve a problem in yet another field, completely different from your own (the proverbial “sandbox”)
Now – translate this to your field

The main reason for getting out of your comfort zone and exploring a completely different field, where you then have to solve a problem, is that “expertise is the killer of innovation.” The more you know about your own field, the more difficult it is to innovate. What is required is to “think back into the company from the minds of those outside it.”

This last bit reminds me of teaching. It is said that the best way to learn something is to have to teach it, and I agree with this concept. However, sometimes if you know a thing too well, it becomes very difficult to think back into the learning from the mind of someone who is struggling to learn that very thing. Yet more food for thought for educators on summer break.

What we educators know, and sometimes forget

In December 2007, I participated in a three-day training session to become a Smart Master’s Certified Trainer. At the time, my school had close to 50 Smart Boards installed, and this summer another 20 are being set up. Thus, it should not surprise you that I follow several blogs geared to the Smart Board and interactive white boards.

One such resource is the SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast by Canadians Joan Badger and Ben Hazzard. I confess to usually not listening to the podcast (because I learn better visually) but to always checking out their links and often checking out their lessons.

This week’s lesson is about Design & Innovation with “Arnold Wasserman, a legendary human systems designer, is the Chairman and Co-Founder of the Idea Factory who is redesigning the nation state of Singapore. Wasserman talks about design principles in an education context, innovation in education, and his ideas about the brain versus the mind.” Given the topic, I couldn’t pass up listening to the podcast, which I will write about in my next post.

Before listening, I visited the The Idea Factory and did a bit of exploring. Curious to know more, I downloaded the pdf An Introduction to the Idea Factory and was immediately struck by three of the six beliefs of the company:

Hazaah! These beliefs coincide with what is known about how we best learn, and the third one is quite in harmony with what I have written about professional development. These ideas have been around since the days of John Dewey, but it’s always a little disconcerting how many in education tend to forget them. Food for thought as we educators transition to the summer.

Creating Off the Grid

Garr Reynolds writes about “going analog” during the beginning process of creating. In his June 17th post, Creativity, nature, & getting off the grid, he even shares a one-minute video of his favorite “off the grid” location, which is on the coast of Oregon.

I’ve been thinking about that for the past few days as I’ve kayaked on Long Island Sound, just out of Mamaroneck Harbor.

Otter Creek, behind our house, is a tidal creek that serpentines out to Mamaroneck Harbor:

Some of the many types of birds and water fowl that hang out on the rocks:

Long Island Sound, facing Long Island – Larchmont, New Rochelle, and eventually NYC to the right; Rye and Greenwich to the left:

Greeted by an egret upon returning to Otter Creek (yes, it’s said there used to be otters swimming in this creek):

There’s no doubt that my most creative thinking happens when I am not thinking about the topic in question. While that could be during any number of activities, it typically seems to be during recreational moments, such as kayaking or lap swimming or taking long walks. Interestingly, when I’m fully engaged in yoga, the breathing has me so focused that there is no room in my brain for any other thoughts to enter. The same is true for when I’m drawing or sketching; I am so absorbed in the process that my brain silences all other thoughts.

The June/July 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind includes a panel interview with three people who focus on creativity: John Houtz, psychologist and professor; Julia Cameron, poet, playwright and filmmaker; and Robert Epstein, former editor of Psychology Today and currently a visiting scholar. How to Unleash Your Creativity is an interesting discussion between the three of them and interviewer Mariette DiChristina, executive editor of Scientific American and Scientific American Mind.

Each of these individuals has similar approaches to stimulating their creativity, and all of them seem to get off the grid, meaning they walk away from whatever it is they are thinking about. They “take breaks and learn to use them strategically; use daydreams as sources of new ideas.”

I spend a lot of time using my computer, not only related to school but also writing and blogging, and communicating with friends and family via email, iChat or web pages. In this past year much has been written in the press about email and related technology information overload; it’s even become a big topic on the tech listservs I read.

The solution – Get Off the Grid. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, but for those who manage to do it, I’m willing to bet all sorts of interesting ideas will pop into your head.

Summertime & the Body Is Moving

Exercise and diet seem to be popular topics of conversation these days, probably because summer is just around the bend. The weather has turned warm and sunny, even hot on some days with high humidity. And this change in weather, along with the ending of another school year, brings out the inner exerciser in many of us. To paraphrase the Gershwins: Summertime and the Body Is (should be) Moving.

A 14-year old blogger from my school, in his June 13th blog post, wrote:

Mark is a bit of a health crazy (at least compared to me), so we decided to enter into an arrangement. For these summer months, Mark and I are going to meet and he is going to try to make me at least a little athletic. I’m optimistic, especially if I don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.

And my 51-year old brother just this weekend told me that the recent death of Tim Russert, moderator of Meet the Press, has inspired him to try and change his eating habits. My brother was shaken by the fact that there were just seven years between their ages.

People have often talked about and made changes to their eating and exercise habits in terms of how they look or what might be good for their hearts. Rarely, though, have I heard people consider these in terms of what might be good for their brains, yet healthy eating is good for your entire body, starting at the top! You can read more about diet specifics at The Franklin Institute’s page on nourishing your brain with a healthy diet.

And while there are many folks who may choose to skip breakfast, the fact is that when you wake up in the morning your brain needs to be replenished with a fresh stock of glucose. Don’t take my word for it; you can listen to NPR’s A Better Breakfast Can Boost a Child’s Brainpower. Just this morning, as my 17 year old was heading off to his English Regents and was in no mood for breakfast, he finally succumbed to the offer of a crunchy peanut butter and blueberry jam sandwich (much to his mother’s delight :-) .)

NPR (National Public Radio) has two additional short pieces on the benefits of exercise. At the younger years, Exercise Helps Students in the Classroom, discusses how brain cells are strengthened by exercise. In the older years, Study: Exercise Lowers Dementia Risk, details the results of a study done on people age “65 and older who did moderate exercise had a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia.” The fascinating part of this study is that folks who had already started to show signs of decline benefitted the most from the exercise. As Eric Larson, the interviewee from the Center for Health Studies – Group Health Cooperative says:

Use it or lose it.
Use it even after you start to lose it!

There have been a number of articles written about the benefits of exercise for the brain. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has written the book SPARK, which is all about “the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance”. Ginger Campbell has a 2008 interview with Ratey on her Brain Science Podcast.

I’d really rather you stopped reading this post and headed outdoors to move your body! But if you need one more ounce of convincing, read through the rest of The Franklin Institute’s pages devoted to The Human Brain, particularly the Nourish and Renew sections that cover eating, exercise, and sleep.

p.s. Yes, to answer the questions some of you may be posing, I DO get out and move, especially in the summer when I kayak and swim. Our neighborhood has an outdoor pool where 72 laps is a mile. I am up to daily half-miles and am aiming for 3/4 of a mile by July and daily miles by August. Will keep you posted.

p.p.s. Happy 24th Birthday J!

The Urban Trance

Psychologist Daniel Goleman uses the term “The Urban Trance” in his TED Talk: Why aren’t we all Good Samaritans? Goleman is best known for his writing and work on Emotional Intelligence.

You can also watch his author talk at Google, where he talks about his book “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships”.

So back to the urban trance. In his TED Talk, Goleman discusses empathy, mirror neurons, and the process of simply attending to someone when they talk to you. The “urban trance” refers to the state that many of us are in when we get caught up in what we are doing and tune out the world around us. People may talk to us, but we are not listening. We may observe others, but we do not see them. We are, in effect, in our own “urban trance”. Goleman tells the story of the man in the subway station to demonstrate the urban trance and its counter balance, that of empathy and attending. If you haven’t already watched his TED Talk, see if you can imagine the content of this story before tuning in to what Goleman has to say.

Goleman goes on to share a number of stories about people, many of who lack emotional intelligence, including one man with an astonishingly high IQ but no capacity for feeling how others may feel, in other words, no ability to empathize.

Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, focuses on emotion and affective disorders in the Lab for Affective Neuroscience using the tools of brain imaging.

Goleman and Davidson come together on the More Than Sound Productions website, which has the goal of sharing “ideas that increase our understanding of the human condition.” This site was brought to my attention by a reader who left the following comment on my previous post:

hi, there’s a conversation between Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman which discusses Neuroplasticity which I thought you might find of interest. It’s available on the publisher’s website at

Their ideas mesh well with the discussions on stress, plasticity, and children’s developing brains that were mentioned in my previous post. Thanks to David, who left a comment on my previous post pointing me to Davidson and Goleman!

Learning & the Brain – assorted

Having written a lot about the various Learning & the Brain sessions I attended, there are just two more about which I will eventually write in greater detail. However, that will mean skipping over the Monday afternoon Keynotes on Brain Plasticity, Stress & Adverse Experiences. Not to diminish their importance, I will give them their due now.

What struck me at first about Bruce McEwen was his initial resemblance to Mel Levine. McEwen talked about Stress and Neuroplasticity in Learning. He noted there are three types of stress:

1. positive, which consists of positive challenges
2. tolerable, which consists of adverse life events coupled with good social and emotional support
3. toxic, which consists of a sustained stress agent and a lack of social and emotional support

McEwen went on to state that “Structural plasticity in the adult brain is modulated by experience”, so stressful experiences will take their toll on neuronal activity. He further discussed the impact of stress on various developmental stages and concluded with some additional concepts.


Seth Pollak gave a funny, personal talk about Developing Brains and At-risk Children. He left the podium and walked around making eye contact with those in the front. He engaged us with his slides, which were packed with visual imagery and very little text. (Garr Reynolds would have quite approved!)

Pollak talked about how “emotions tend to emerge in the same order and same time frame across cultures, and questioned if this is due to the hard-wiring of emotions or that cultures tend to treat infants and children in the same manner.” The focus of his engaging talk was about how neglect and other types of negative behavior can impact the development of an infant’s and child’s brain. He concluded with three points:

1. Experience matters, and early experience REALLY matters in terms of the development of the emotional system.
2. The type and pattern of deficits reflect the specific kinds of experiences children encounter.
3. Development = Experience + Biology


The last speaker of the day was Elkhonon Goldberg. I had been eager to hear him talk, as I have seen him referenced in quite a number of books and articles. As Goldberg began his talk on Brain Plasticity and Cognitive Fitness, I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say. However, despite my interest in his topic, it became difficult for me to follow his talk as he digressed and then skipped over information in order to end on time. More helpful in understanding his points was watching A Change of Character, the movie made by Neal Goodman that focuses on a patient of Goldberg’s.

Goldberg did make some early points about novelty and pattern recognition. “As we age, our expert knowledge remains strong, and our capacity for solving problems within our areas of expertise can often exceed that of those who are younger.” He went on to state that the main cognitive asset of aging is pattern recognition, and that our arsenal of patterns grows with age. “As one ages, the domain of the novel shrinks, and the domain of what is known (pattern recognition) grows”. Goldberg employed us to “turn neuroplasticity to your advantage” by:

1. Welcoming novel challenges.
2. Beware of being on mental autopilot.
3. Remain cognitively active.
4. Take note that cognitive fitness will be the trend of the future and be sure to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when considering these programs.


You can read more about any of these presenters at the following sites.

[July 4, 2013 UPDATE: These last two links are no longer valid, but you can read a pdf of the article here.]

And Now For Something Completely Different*

School is officially over, with graduation having taken place this past Friday. Coupled with this weekend’s warm temperatures in the 90s, it is starting to feel a lot like summer. :-)

My sons grew up being big computer gamers, and I suspect they will be tickled by the game systems noted in Anne Eisenberg’s New York Times article Moving Mountains With the Brain, Not a Joystick. Eisenberg writes of two headsets that use electrodes to help the respective game systems read brain waves and facial muscles, which in turn are used to control the onscreen action. The technology is derived from that used by EEGs.

But the “something completely different” of this title is referring to the amazing and historic campaign to become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ran intense campaigns fueled by desire and determination. Collectively they and their campaigns are responsible for brining in thousands of new voters and energizing a large portion of the disenfranchised electorate. Either of them would have made history by becoming the nominee, and I am proud to have witnessed this positive turn of events in my country.

* To borrow a title from Monty Python, thank you.

Learning & the Brain – Taylor & Lamoreaux (adult learning)

At their Teaching with the Adult Brain in Mind page at Saint Mary’s College of Education of California, you can read Kathleen Taylor’s and Annalee Lamoreaux’s description of their Learning and the Brain session. I found Kathleen and Annalee to be relaxed yet passionate facilitators, eager to help all of us in the audience be active learners as we thought about our roles as adult learners and our roles in helping adult learners to learn.

This session was very much interactive, and a number of times we were asked to break into small groups to discuss specific questions, the outcomes of which were then shared with the larger group. Aided by our responses, the message imparted by Taylor and Lamoreaux included the following as it applies to learning that lasts:

  • involve people in experiences, or to paraphrase that Chinese proverb: Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
  • provide time for reflection – time to mull over ideas, allowing them to jell
  • encourage conscious construction of narratives, which to me translates as relating this to your own life and pondering ways to make it useful
  • and now that you’ve thought about a way to apply the narrative, go test it out in the world beyond ideas and see where it leads

While the process above, which is very much akin to Kolb’s and Zull’s models, is practical and relates to dealing with content, the next step involves thinking about how this impacts the learning process. Thinking about one’s thinking and learning (known as metacognition) can help bring about a change in mental models, ideally leading to transformative learning.

Understanding that we have the ability to change our mental models, also known as an epistemological change (a change in the way of knowing), will let us open the door to transformative learning (being willing to change and having an understanding of how to change).

Taylor and Lamoreaux sum this up quite simply:

Information adds to and fills the form.

Transformational learning CHANGES the form itself.

How do we make use of this in actual practice? They suggest it is useful to foster learners’ awareness:
• of their tacit assumptions
• of multiple perspectives
• of themselves as makers of meaning and constructors of knowledge
• of their capacity to make meaning in new ways
• of their responsibility for the meaning they make

This very much reminds me of the research done by Carol Dweck relating to a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset”.

In my role of working with faculty, I am always trying to find ways to engage people in moving beyond their current positions of comfort. Kathleen and Annalee point out that one reason for adult anxiety in learning stems from dredging up memories associated with their past learning experiences. Think back to your learning experiences in elementary school, for instance. Maybe you can recall a teacher who said something that just squashed your hopes for a day, or embarrassed you in front of classmates. According to Kathleen and Annalee, those past experiences can inhibit one’s interest in further learning as an adult.

Another obstacle related to learning is the realization that something new is going to be learned. This, in itself, can make people nervous as they contemplate… will I be able to learn this, will I look silly in front of others, it’s been a long time since I had to do this, why do I need to do this. Hmm, some of those questions sound just like what younger students may be thinking when sitting in a class…

Feel free to view the slides related to this presentation, including some thoughtful quotes.

Learning & the Brain – Taylor & Lamoreaux (adult learning, Zull’s model)

After Kathleen Taylor and Annalee Lamoreaux introduced David Kolb’s Model of Experiential Learning, they next tied in James Zull and his 4 PIllars of Learning. Zull is a Professor of Biology at Case Western Reserve University, which happens to also be home to David Kolb.

Here together are Kolb’s Model and Zull’s Pillars. You can see that they utilize similar vocabulary and refer to similar practices.

What Zull appears to have done is provide the biology for Kolb’s model by ascribing the areas of the brain that experience the cycle of learning.

The image above is my drawing of Zull’s model, which is on his Case Western page. and is best explained in his words, also from his site:

According to our current model of the connection between brain function, human learning, and education, we believe that education can engage the learner’s brain to the fullest extent when students follow a cycle of concrete experience with their subject, reflection on their experience and connecting it to their prior knowledge, generation of their own abstract hypotheses about their experience and testing their hypotheses through action, which produces a new sensory (concrete) experience.

Given these two models of learning, what does this imply for adult learners and the people who teach adults? That is what Taylor and Lamoreaux focused on in the remainder of their session, and what I will focus on in my next post.

For more of James Zull’s words, please visit the following two sites.