Third (and Final) Day’s Distillation

Ah, awake since 4:30 this morning, I write this post from the comfort of home, still percolating from the intellectual and emotional bubbling of being in Cambridge and attending the Learning & the Brain conference.

Being one who likes to sit near the action, yesterday afternoon I situated myself up close, front and center, to better tune in to the four keynotes. My neighbor to the left turned out to be a fascinating 68 year old woman who, back in 1985, was the founding President of a public charter boarding school – the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. A few years ago she stepped down from that position to focus on consulting and writing a book, and in the course of her work has traveled to Australia and Africa, among other places. I couldn’t help but be interested in hearing more of her story, and peppered her with questions that she kindly obliged me in answering. She epitomizes, for me, what it means to be a lifelong learner and an intellecutal entrepreneur. And then I realized, as Monday’s afternoon session was beginning, that this multi-faceted woman was Tuesday’s opening keynote speaker!

Stephanie Pace Marshall received a rousing reception from an audience of approxmiately 600 as she finished her hour talk Igniting and Nurturing Whole Minds – How Advances in the Learning Sciences Can Frame and Shape the Transformation of Learning and Schooling. While it may be a lengthy title for a talk, which was full of stories, not-so-subtle pokes at the current state of spending on school and family services, and NCLB (No Child Left Behind), Marshall left us wanting to hear more.

She talked about transforming schools rather than reforming them, and ardently urged us – the teachers in the audience – to politicize the discussion. She brought up A Private Universe, a movie that pointedly shows how basic concepts can be misunderstood and carried around with us until and unless someone sets us straight, yet teachers thought they had taught and students thought they had learned. You can download Marshall’s notes for her talk here. Among her closing thoughts:

We don’t have time for pessimism. Pessimissm only works in good times.

The second keynote of the morning was really not a talk but an interactive workshop with Robert Kegan, whose book, How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work, I read prior to the conference. The workshop, Understanding and Overturning the Immunity to Change: An Interactive, Experiential Presentation, was all that and more, because if any part of this entire conference was going to transform us, this was it!

Funny, engaging, and thought provoking, Kegan walked around the room making eye contact as he encouraged us in our exploration of what it is we are committed to and what we are doing that prevents us from realizing this committment. That was the easy part. Next we had to take this apart and get into the real nitty gritty of what stops us from doing that which we say we want to accomplish. This is psychology and brain science taken to the most personal level.

Kegan left us with a Russian tale complete with three morals, but you will have to wait till tomorrow for that tale, as this one has reached its end!

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