Tag Archives: Mel Levine

Pulling Rabbits out of Habits

Earlier in May of this year, Janet Rae-Dupree wrote an article about the impact of habits on creativity. Published in the New York Times, Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? mentioned a number of issues that I have touched upon in Neurons Firing. Rae-Dupree does an excellent job of making her points, so you might want to read her article before reading the rest of my post.

Mel Levine has always championed finding out what you like or what you are good at, and then forging ahead in that area. He  has written, “All students should have experience savoring true expertise, having one or more areas of deep knowledge and passion/obsession.” In his book A Mind at a Time, Levine states that “The young have a basic right and a need to develop their affinities over time.” He is “convinced that many students who appear to have significant learning problems (and in a real sense they do) in reality have highly specialized minds, brains that were never designed to be well rounded.” Levine sums up the importance of affinities and strengths:

Parents and our educational system must provide opportunities for kids to utilize and strengthen their strengths and their affinities–no matter what those assets happen to be. To deny a developing mind access to its specialty is cruel. To judge one’s worthiness in the specialties of others is equally inhumane.

Sir Ken Robinson makes very similar points in his oft-referenced TED Talk. He has suggested that schools squash creativity, in essence that we “educate people out of their creative capacities.” I’ve written extensively about Robinson, and you can summon up all the posts from the tag cloud at the right.

This brings me back to Rae-Dupree’s article. She talks about developing new habits, indeed, that it IS POSSIBLE to develop new habits, and there are benefits to doing so: “…brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”

She concludes with a quote from one of the authors interviewed. “You cannot have innovation,” she [Dawna Markova] adds, “unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder.”

Pour all of these complementary ideas into a hat, and you increase the likelihood of being able to pull out the metaphorical rabbit.

Mel meet Ken, Ken meet Mel

Just imagine a conversation between Dr Mel Levine and Sir Ken Robinson. They’d both be telling stories about individuals, education, and the process of learning. They really should meet each other, if they haven’t already, as they both advocate for finding your passion and pursuing it, and they both would like to see education change to better serve all students.

Mel Levine aims to help demystify kids and youngmellevinephoto.jpg adults to themselves, so they better understand how they learn by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. A person’s strengths can serve as the foundation around which their learning and maturing take place. Sometimes it is difficult to assess one’s own strengths, though, particularly when one’s weaknesses can seem insurmountable or simply overshadowing. The goal of Mel’s program is to assist individuals in overcoming or circumventing their weaknesses, while highlighting, enjoying and celebrating their strengths.

Ken Robinson believes that individuals should pursue their passions, sirken.jpgand that many times in education the educators school individuals out of their passions. Schools should retune themselves to place equal emphasis on the nontraditional areas, such as the arts, thus permitting students who enjoy or excel in these areas ample opportunity to pursue their studies while being lauded for those skills, regardless of their aptitude in more traditional areas.

Both Mel and Ken feel that having a passion and being able to pursue it are highly motivating and important aspects of education, and are often downplayed (when not in typical academic areas) in favor of more traditional areas. I think they would have a fine time chatting with one another!

Don’t take my word for it! Here they are, in their own words (except for Garr’s blog entry.)

On his Presentation Zen blog Garr Reynold’s has an excellent summary of Sir Ken Robinson on the art of public speaking.

Interviews with Ken Robinson

Interviews with Mel Levine

A Niche in Time

Mel Levine says that once you find your niche, all else will fall (eventually) in place. The idea behind his thinking is that as you pursue your passion, you develop an assortment of skills that will hold you in good stead in other areas of your life. He outlines a process for assisting young adults with figuring out what interests them, and makes a point of the need to differentiate recreational past–times from true interests. In the NY Times article Hobbies Are Rich in Psychic Rewards the author notes that “hobbies can enhance your creativity, help you think more clearly and sharpen your focus” but urges caution in making the switch from enjoyment of the hobby to pursuing it as a full time profession.

According to Levine, the process of assessing one’s interests begins with asking the question “What am I drawn to?” He suggests there should be three items to consider in answering this question, and for all of the following considerations he notes that brainstorming can be a very useful part of the process..

  1. What are my affinities? Make a list of your interests, and leave nothing out.
  2. What are my strengths? Make a list of your strengths. Ideally, you want to align your affinities with your strengths, which is much less taxing then riding against your natural wave.
  3. What are the recurring themes? As you scan both lists, notice which features begin to stand out for similarities or being noted more than once.

After self-assessing to figure out what interests you, the next step is to consider what you would value in a job. Is it money, leadership, service to others, collaboration…the list can be as long as you make it. Take a look at the emerging list and see how it gels with your previous assessment of interests.

Finally, take an honest look at your neurodevelopmental strengths and consider how your strengths position you for what you think you want to do in life. Take another look at the first list you compiled and reconsider your affinities and strengths. Make “an effort to deal directly with any potential career-obstructing dysfunctions” so that you can make realistic choices about career paths.

My last note on Levine’s talk deals with stages. Levine believes there are three stages involved in pursuing a career, with the first being a general interest, the second being the preparation, and the third being the career. As he noted rather bluntly but quite accurately, “preparation (Stage 2) is what you put up with to get to the career”. It is the practicing and learning and apprenticing that must be done in order to reach that next stage.

At issue, from what he has gathered in his many conversations and listenings, is that young adults seem to want to be at Stage 3 without having to go through the labors of Stage 2. Ah yes, who among us has balked, at one point or another, at the thought of another round of piano practicing, theatre rehearsal, studying of class notes, revising of writing, running of a sports play, and so on. And yet, when we stick with it, we often improve, and if we stick with it enough, we improve to the point of fluency and beyond. (More on this thought to come in a future post.)

Dealing with the Issues

My previous post described the beginning of Mel Levine’s January talk, and ended with a case in point describing a young child and the learning issues with which he was diagnosed. This post describes one avenue for dealing with those issues, along with how Mel Levine, in general, deals with children and young adults who come his way.

There are a number of ways to deal with wiring issues (that often translate to learning issues), some of which can be overcome or circumvented.

The young man mentioned in the previous post, diagnosed with an auditory processing issue and dyslexia, learned the letters of the alphabet over a two year period. From second to third grade he met regularly with a speech and language therapist who used the Orton-Gillingham method. He also met for several weeks with an occupational therapist, where the focus was on understanding where his body was in relation to the space around him.

By the middle of third grade he was reading, and as a young adult he is described as an avid reader with an outstanding vocabulary. His penmanship has not changed much in the intervening years; while legible, a quick glance at his writing might cause you to think the writer was younger than his late teenage years. He is better able to follow directions when they are phrased precisely and clearly, and for oral directions, stated slower rather than hastily spewed out. Other areas impacted by the dyslexia include processing abstract information, which in this case translates to mathematics. One-on-one tutorials have been found helpful for developing an understanding of some of the mathematical concepts.

Mel Levine noted that his approach in dealing with “students who are innocent victims of their own wiring” is to “strengthen strengths.” This plays a large role in the demystification process championed by his organization, All Kinds of Minds. Mel explains the process in this brief article, Demystification: Taking the Mystery Out of Disappointing Mastery. You can gain further insight into the philosophy behind the practice by viewing any of the videos or listening to the audio interviews on the Media page. (There are also transcripts available for all talks). Essentially, the student is made a partner in the process, and the process involves having the student understand their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the student learns about how s/he learns. Another word for that is metacognition 🙂

In conjunction with Dr Levine, Channel Thirteen, the New York public television station, produced Misunderstood Minds, a content rich site that “profiles a variety of learning problems and expert opinions”. The site includes many simulations and hands-on activities related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics. It is well worth the time to investigate these activities, as they provide a glimpse in to what it is like to have wiring anomalies that impact learning.

The other key, not just for kids with wiring anomalies but for all young adults (indeed, for each of us), is to find your niche and “then all else will fall into place”. My next post on Levine’s talk will continue with this idea.

Meanwhile, if you or someone you know has learning issues, below are organizations that have plenty of helpful information to get you started in understanding your or their wiring. The first site focuses on dyslexia, but the other three include extensive information on a range of topics.

Dyslexia Teacher: Symptoms of Dyslexia

Kids Health – Dyslexia

Learning Disabilities Worldwide

National Center for Learning Disabilities: Dyslexia

Next post: A Niche in Time, continuation of Mel Levine’s talk

Work Life Readiness: Equipping Kids’ Minds Before 24

The title of this post is the title of the talk given by Dr Mel Levine in mid-January to parents and teachers in my community on the coast, some 30 miles north of New York City. He captivated us, an audience of about 400, for two complete hours, as he spoke and took questions.

Levine is a pro at presenting, having been doing this for probably over 19 years. (I first heard him speak 19 years ago.) His life’s work is filled with counseling children and young adults, so it is no surprise that both his books and talks are peppered with anecdotes. He looks out at his audience and makes eye contact with those in the front rows, he uses humor but gets serious where needed, and he appreciates that we all listen differently. To that end, he hands out an extensive outline of his talk for those who want to follow along, take notes, or just relax and listen but have something to jog their memory when they’ve gone home. This talk revolved around his 2005 book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, which I have not read.

Levine’s handout runs ten typed pages; my notes span one and a half. I attended his talk for many reasons: because I have two sons, one age 23 and the other soon to be 17; because I have always enjoyed hearing Levine speak; because I am a teacher; because I know a student who will be doing a related independent study next year; and because I am interested in the brain and how we learn. So what did he have to say?

Dr Levine began by describing young adults, particularly those who have learning difficulties. These students, he said, are “innocent victims of their own wiring.” That line hits home. Sadly, there have been, and continue to be, teachers who blame the student when work is not done and information is not learned, rather than acknowledging there is always a reason behind the action (or lack of action), figuring out what that reason is (or getting help to figure it out), and then working with the student to deal with that “it”.

Case in point: When a young man I know was in first grade, his teacher was indignant that he did not know his ABCs, and complained that he was not trying hard enough. He was six years old and told his parents that he wasn’t smart because his teacher said he did not know his alphabet. It turned out he had an auditory processing dysfunction and was dyslexic. Can you imagine what it feels like, at the young age of six, to already feel you are not smart?

Having an auditory processing issue coupled with dyslexia meant, for this child, that he was unable to put sounds to letters of the alphabet and often misheard words that did not have definitive sounds, thus misinterpreting what he heard. Multistep oral directions were difficult for him to process and follow. Reversals filled his writing, meaning that several letters and numbers resembling other letters or numbers were flipped with one another. (For instance, upper case “E” and the number “3”, the numbers “9” and “6”, lower case “p” and “q”, and so on.) The hearing of language, which comes naturally to most of us, was a foreign affair. An intense finger grip made written language both physically and mentally tiring to write. He was, as Mel Levine says, an innocent victim of his own wiring.

Next post: Dealing with the issues.

Here Comes Mel Levine

readyornotherelifecomes.jpgReady or Not, Here Life Comes is Mel Levine’s most recent book. Published in 2005, it covers a range of topics dealing with preparing young adults (and their parents) for life after high school and college. On January 17th my husband and I had the pleasure of settling in to a packed auditorium where Dr Levine talked about this topic. This was our third time in about eighteen years hearing Dr Levine speak, so we were already familiar with his engaging style. We’ve predisposed to hear his update about the many animals he raises on his farm in North Carolina, among them geese, dogs, swans, peacocks, pheasants, and donkeys, to name a few!

Before I tell you about Levine’s talk, though, for those of you who do not know him, here is an introduction. Dr Mel Levine is a pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School. He is best known, though, for being the co-founder with Charles Schwab of All Kinds of Minds and the Schools Attuned program. Schools Attuned provides training to teachers in, and assists schools with implementing, the programs of All Kinds of Minds. The All Kinds of Minds approach is compelling because it does away with the negative labels that so often stymie both the students who are labeled and the faculty who are charged with teaching them.

amindatatime.jpgLevine’s approach is to uncover what is not functioning well within the student’s brain while also determining a student’s strengths. This process is called demystification, and can become an eye-opener for a struggling student and his or her parents. It is often the beginning of a fresh, positive approach to dealing with learning issues, and doing away with the stigma that often travels with kids who have been negatively labeled from year to year. In 2002 Dr Levine wrote A Mind at a Time, which is a most helpful primer for parents and teachers that covers the neurodevelopmental constructs behind the All Kinds of Minds approach.

You can get to know Dr Levine a bit more in this insightful September 2006 interview with Marge Scherer, Editor in Chief of Educational Leadership. The interview, Celebrate Strengths, Nurture Affinities: A Conversation with Mel Levine, is a well-focused lens both on Levine as an individual, as well as on his philosophy. And if you blinked in surprise that he lives on a farm with a multitude of animals, you can hear them at the beginning of this January 2005 NPR interview, Mel Levine: Teaching All Kinds of Minds, which begins on his farm. The NPR site also has seven additional audio clips of Dr Levine giving his views on a number of related issues. If you are interested in learning more, here are some additional books by Mel Levine:

themythoflaziness.jpg

Keeping a Head in School: A Student’s Book About Learning Abilities and Learning Disorders

All Kinds of Minds: A Young Student’s Book About Learning Abilities and Learning Disorders

Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

[UPDATE: CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) broadcast Fixing My Brain, an interview with Barbara Arrowsmith, June 16, 2009. I found out about this piece thanks to a post by Jason Atwood at playthink, which took me back to a post I wrote for SharpBrains reviewing Doidge’s book. A comment on that post included the link to the CBC piece. I love a good trail!]

Barbara Arrowsmith is another one of the amazing people who populate Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Even more amazing, though, is her perseverance, which led her to bust her chops and pursue college and graduate school, earning a degree in Education.

Arrowsmith’s keen interest in learning is based upon her own experience which, along with research that crossed her desk while a student, led her to develop methods for teaching students with learning disabilities. And this led to the creation, in 1980, of the Arrowsmith School located in Toronto, Canada. Barbara knew that it was possible to retrain the brain, for that is precisely what she had done for herself as she willed herself through school.

Here is a description of the Arrowsmith methodology from the school’s site:

The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are the source of the learning disabilities. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify the specific learning difficulties.


I am a big fan of Mel Levine, a pediatrician, author, speaker, and founder of All Kinds of Minds. In my 26 years of teaching I have heard Levine speak three times, and later this week will be hearing him speak for a fourth time. In 2002 he published the book A Mind at a Time, which crystallized the work being done by All Kinds of Minds. Also in 2002, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) partnered with All Kinds of Minds to create the broadcast Misunderstood Minds, which focused on learning issues related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics.

When reading Doidge’s chapter about Barbara Arrowsmith, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mel Levine would make of her approach. Arrowsmith’s system seems to be a head-on assault of an individual’s learning difficulties by using intensive practice to retrain those parts of the brain that cause the difficulty. Levine, on the other hand, attacks learning difficulties by utilizing the individual’s strengths to tackle specific difficulties. It is not an issue of “fixing” the problem, but rather of finding ways around the problem. Arrowsmith and Levine have the same goal, to make it possible for the individual to learn, but different methods for getting there.