Category Archives: Learning

Learning & the Brain conference – 1 week to go!

Back in February I expressed my delight at hearing the news that my grant proposal for funding attendance at April’s Learning & the Brain conference was approved. Well, the conference begins next weekend!

Also sometime in February, I began email correspondence with a graduate student/teacher who has similar interests to mine. (Ah, the benefits of blogging; that is how we met.) We’ve emailed about books, grad school, Smart Boards, and the April Brain conference. And now we have plans to meet in person at the conference.

And then, there are the books. Reaching the last chapter in my current book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, I realized that I had read the books by the opening and closing (Kegan) keynote speakers of the upcoming Brain conference. This seems rather fitting, though at the time of reading Norman Doidge’s book I did not know he was the opening speaker for the conference.


Imagination: Norman Doidge & Others

Norman Doidge writes, in The Brain That Changes Itself, “experiments have shown that we can change our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations.” Using various methods for scanning the brain, researchers have discovered that “from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound.

Doidge discusses the topic of imagination in detail in chapter eight, and presents tantalizing evidence, based upon experiments, that “imagination and action are” integrated, “despite the fact that we tend to think of imagination and action as completely different and subject to different rules.” And he goes even further, stating “But consider this: in some cases, the faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it.” This reminds me hugely of the process of visualization.

Karin Wells, of CBC Radio Canada, did an interview with Norman Doidge. You can read more about the interview, and even listen to it, on the Feldenkrais Manitoba blog in Feldenkrais ahead of his time: CBC Radio on Rebuilding the Brain. In the blog, Feldenkrais is quoted as writing that “…[Learning] is also the foundation of imagination…

In discussing what he is doing to stave off cognitive decline, Doidge leaves us with this message about new learning:

It’s really important to do something you enjoy, that you’ve always wanted to do….because….you turn on the same neurochemical system, the dopamine system, which both gives you the thrill of completing the goal and consolidates that network that led you to the goal. So it’s much better to do something that’s fun; fun and a challenge.

There is so much yet to understand about imagination. Take, for instance, the following two short films. In the first, author Neil Gaiman tries to answer a question from the audience about his imagination. The second is a Japanese commercial on children’s imagination.

Above: Neil Gaiman and His Imagination (4/13/08 – Just watched the 2007 movie Stardust, based upon Gaiman’s novel. If you are not familiar with his writing, this is a delightful display of his imagination. He also wrote the English translation of Princess Mononoke.)

Above: A Japanese commerical on children’s imagination

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

I have referenced Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain multiple times in past posts, and it is also noted in the Links section at the right. Thus, you may understand what prompted me to send the following email to Faculty and Staff at my school. As folks respond to my email, I will copy and paste their comments to the Comments at the end of this post, withholding names to keep the authors anonymous. Feel free to view the results of my participation in the workshop.



In the summer of 2005 RCDS financed, through an auxiliary grant, my participation in a five day drawing workshop, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Traveling to Soho everyday for a week, I spent hours under the expert guidance of Brian Bomeisler, immersed in learning to redraw.

At the time, I made the case that taking such a workshop would facilitate creative thinking, which would benefit me in my role as a teacher and someone charged with helping folks to make use of technology. I also believe that participating in professional development outside of one’s area of expertise is a phenomenal way to foster personal growth.

The act of drawing is also useful in helping with recall. Robert Greenleaf (our opening speaker this past August), shares research (pg 22 of the 2005 edition of Brain Based Teaching: Making Connections for Long–Term Memory & Recall) showing that when learners create illustrations they improve their recall by up to four times more than without the use of illustrations

Now an article in the Business section of Sunday’s New York Times, Let Computers Compute. It’s the Age of the Right Brain., by Janet Rae-Dupree,  describes how the art of drawing, and the art of being more creative and more right brain oriented, is taking center stage at a number of companies. Those of you who have read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind know that this is an approach he considers crucial to succeeding in the post–Information Age.

It should come as no surprise to you that I wish everyone of us could participate in a Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop. In fact, I’d love to see us have Brian come to RCDS for our opening meetings in August and guide us through the art of learning to redraw and discovering “an entirely new way to see.” I think our creative sides would feel nourished, and that, in turn, would nourish our teaching and mentoring, which in turn would nourish our students. 

Any takers?


Imagination: Ramachandran

Phantoms in the Brain is an engaging tale of individuals who have odd and curious brain quirks, often resulting from a malfunction in their brain such as a stroke, which display in sometimes unbelievable manifestations.

Ramachandran begins with an overview of the brain’s physiology, coupled with sharing how he approaches study of the brain. He likens the work to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the pursuit of solving mysteries. As a youngster, Ramachandran was intrigued by science, concocting unusual experiments with simple tools, and with “being drawn to the exception rather than to the rule in every science” he studied. He believes that “the odd behavior of these patients can help us solve the mystery of how various parts of the brain create a useful representation of the external world and generate the illusion of a “self” that endures in space and time.”

Once explained, the experiments that Ramachandran designed sounded deceptively simple and logical. What impressed me was his imaginative insight in concocting them in the first place.

Chapter Five describes patients who have discrepancies between what they visually see, and what they believe they see. Damage to some portion of the visual cortex can result in hallucinations, and depending upon the type of damage, the hallucinations can impact specific portions of the visual field, such as the lower half or the left half. As an example, there is the story of one patient who sustained damage to his eyes and optic nerves as the result of an auto accident. Greatly, though not wholly, recovered, he had visual hallucinations in just “the lower half of his field of vision, where he was completely blind. That is, he would only see imaginary objects below a center line extending form his nose outward.”

Ramachandran goes on to describe how the patient discerns between what is real and what is an hallucination. At one point, the patient says he sees a monkey sitting on Ramachandran’s lap. The patient notes that while “it looks extremely vivid and real”, “it’s unlikely there would be a professor here with a monkey sitting in his lap so I think there probably isn’t one.” The patient goes on to state that the images “often look too good to be true. The colors are vibrant, extraordinarily vivid, and the images actually look more real that real objects, if you see what I mean.” The hallucinations tend to fade fairly soon after being “seen”, and while they usually blend in with the rest of what is actually being seen, the patient knows that they are part of his visual imagination. He enjoys the surprise of what he conjures up, and is more concerned about his partial blindness.

By the end of this chapter, which has a number of other interesting and curious vision tales, Ramachandran hypothesizes that “all these bizarre visual hallucinations are simply an exaggerated version of the processes that occur in your brain and mine every time we let our imagination run free. Somewhere in the confused welter of interconnecting forward and backward pathways is the interface between vision and imagination. … what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past.”

What starts to emerge is an explanation of imagination as a combination of that which we have visually seen, processed and stored in memory, coupled with crafting something new based upon those conceptions. Interesting questions arise…

  • If we had no prior knowledge, would we be able to imagine?
  • Do we consciously conjure our imagination, or is it a subconscious process, or a little of both depending upon the situation?
  • When we are feeling stymied and need a nudge to get our imagination going, how do we do that under our own power?
  • When we totally zone out (like I do when getting in the groove of swimming laps), how is it that thoughts can just “pop” into my head?

Response Essay – most of the second part

National Educator Workshop – Response Essay
Summer Session 2002 / July 8-12

A conversation with Catherine (colleague from my school who also participated in this workshop) after the first music workshop yielded these observations:

  • Everyone did something and was able to do something.
  • There was no “wrong” or “right” approach or answer.
  • Using our imagination it is possible to create something out of nothing, in this case just using our voices and bodies to make music.

Five days into the workshop I heard Tenesh (one of the group leaders) say that we are developing skills to focus, and that we try to go to the core of what the thing is all about. Being able to release our imaginations to focus in a multitude of ways and thereby get to the core of what we are learning…wow, very powerful ideas which this workshop modeled and helped me experience.

Eric Booth’s talk continued to model the ideas of the workshop and provided a more concrete framework for implementing those ideas. The brainstorming guide Entering the World of the Work of Art also provides a substantive model to use. And the two basic questions of the inquiry method: What’s going on? and Why do you say that? form the backbone of how to get started. Couple this with a work of art and you have a jumping off point. On the last day of the workshop I wrote the following notes in my journal. I don’t recall whose words they were but they sum up my feelings about this workshop experience, and the goal I have for my students (and myself):

There is excitement in experiencing something intrinsically. This experience makes you the expert; it empowers you and draws out your imagination. The result is self-confidence and a depth of knowledge.

It is more difficult to apply the concepts from this workshop to my work with faculty, not for lack of ideas or how to approach aesthetic education, but more because people tend to be protective of what they already do. Many faculty have invested time and energy in developing their curriculums, and those curriculums seem fine as they are. Tweaking those approaches ever so slightly to alter a lesson requires much conversation and modeling, and a willing audience/participant. But then again, that is the approach I have to take anyway when talking about technology!

Response Essay – first part

National Educator Workshop – Response Essay
Summer Session 2002 / July 8-12

An article in the October 3, 2001 Metro section of The New York TImes piqued my interest in Maxine Greene. I had never heard of her beforehand yet the ideas she espoused about education gave direction to the thoughts about which I had been ruminating. This prompted me to read her book Releasing the Imagination, which in turn led me to John Dewey’s Experience & Education. And all of that pointed me to the National Educator Workshop. My expectation for the workshop was to give my imagination some much needed prodding and help me look at what I do through a different perspective. With that in mind, the most significant ideas embraced during the workshop include:

  • The aesthetic approach is one of self-discovery which can be guided through a series of carefully crafted questions and activities.
  • This self-discovery is a process, and that process should tap into what people can do and help them expand their thought repertoire.
  • Collaboration, questioning, and experiential learning (all part of the process) help to make learning intrinsic and give it meaning within the context of the student’s life.

To borrow from others (Maxine Greene and Apple Computer): With aesthetic education we are “releasing the imagination” and enhancing our perspective to “think different”. Imagination is an entry point into something that might otherwise by ordinary.

My perception of the works of art (each piece seen and heard twice) changed substantially over the course of the workshop. In both cases, viewing and listening to the art without any prior knowledge of the artist or piece was very satisfying. This let me form my own response to the art, modified a little by the comments of my workshop mates. In the case of Poulenc’s music, I listened “hard” the first time as I concentrated on what was being played; this was not listening for pleasure? The Chuck Close portrait interested me for its size and colors. The subject of the portrait intrigued me and I wanted to know more about him.

The early hands-on activities were enjoyable to do but I did not yet make connections between those activities and how I felt about the art of Poulenc and Close. The collaborative brainstorming (of questions we would like to ask about the artists/works of art) was highly satisfying. Indeed, it almost did not matter to me if the questions were ever answered. The very act of collaborative discussion and questioning was exhilarating, cementing ideas and possibilities for me to ponder. It was the satisfaction of thinking and the interaction with others concerned with the same topic.

Lincoln Center institute for the arts in education

In my post about Maxine Greene, I mentioned the Lincoln Center institute for the arts in education. During the summer of 2002 I participated in The National Educator Workshop: Introduction to Aesthetic Education. Everyday for the week of July 8 through 12, I trekked to New York City and spent my days at Lincoln Center. As a child growing up in the Long Island suburbs of the City, I had my fill of concerts, opera and ballet at Lincoln Center, but for that week in 2002 it was a treat to enter buildings that for years had seemed out of range to me as a theatre attendee. The location, and having access to these buildings that are home to artistic endeavors, made me feel artistically inclined; it was as though my surroundings could rub off on me and cause me to feel like an artist!

Wikipedia has some pictures of Lincoln Center’s buildings, and Carthalia contains a compilation of history about the buildings along with some postcard pictures of the complex. In fact, if you have an interest in old postcards or theatres and concert halls worldwide, you should check out Carthalia – Theatres on Postcards.

During the week long workshop I participated in activities designed to expose me to the sensations of aesthetic education. There were hands-on art workshops, hands-on music workshops, attendance at a concert, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and attendance at a dance performance. There was also a lecture by Maxine Greene, which was one of the many highlights of the week. I was immersed in the arts, and loved every minute of the process!

Throughout the week each of us (there were about 40, if memory serves correct) were encouraged to keep a journal. After the workshop concluded, we were asked to submit a Response Essay about the week long experience. In addition to various handouts provided during the workshop, we were also given a booklet entitled Entering the World of the Work of Art – A Brainstorming Guide. The booklet’s purpose was to guide us in bringing art into the world of education, particularly as a way of expanding imagination. From the booklet:

“At Lincoln Center we believe that works of art provide an inexhaustible resource for exploration, reflection, and understanding. Children and adults have the capacity to respond to a work of art in ways that can stimulate fresh insights, encourage deeper understandings, and challenge preconceived notions. Without the limitations imposed by “right” or “wrong” answers, the process of responding to a work of art develops each student’s ability to think in fundamental and powerful ways.”

“As a result, unexpected connections are made, alternative points of view considered, complexities explored, and doors to new and imagined worlds opened.”

To read more about this experiential program, lcsi.pngfirst visit the Lincoln Center page and then scroll down to the lower right corner, under Arts and Education, and click the link for Lincoln Center Institute.