Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Venturing Together - An Interview with Bill Rossi (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of an interview with Venturing Together author, Bill Rossi.

You wrote about the specific benefits students receive when they participate in a substantial, in-depth arts program. I think the components of being substantial and in-depth components were key to providing these benefits - can you talk about the benefits and what you mean by the depth of the arts program?

No matter how technically sophisticated, art is about expression and therefore rooted in emotional experience. A good arts program will develop sophisticated techniques and skills in such a way that they’re attached to the student’s emotional state – there’s no conflict between the two; rather than treating them as something separate, it will work with them in tandem to enhance a more complete expression. When you have the technical and emotional working together you have an in-depth arts program. This can help channel negative emotions into positive expression, which can lead to conflict resolution.

In order to refine their expression, students need to be given both opportunity and good guidance to open emotional avenues and explore their inner landscape while they refine their technical skills. This requires an experienced teacher. The major benefit of this emotional development is that it leads to personal integration – it gets students in touch with inner areas that aren’t really known to them. It also help students with socialization and communication beyond the arts, and can help them come to understand their own learning style – what’s unique in their style - so they get to know themselves. There should be an empowerment thing that happens.

You mention the cost of an arts program for struggling students being a good investment as compared with the cost of social service treatment or incarceration. I don’t think people really get just how important the arts are to some students and how important it is to try to reach them in some positive way. You also talk about the numerous studies done on how the arts improve academic performance and shape community-oriented, well-rounded citizens, yet they are continually marginalized in schools. The arts are held back as a reward for those that can earn them through academic achievement or for those that can afford them, which leaves the students who need them the most. Please explain your thoughts on this.

Regardless of the statistics and abundant living proof of our need for them, the arts don’t share the same status as the other academic subjects or sports. Because they don’t exist shoulder to shoulder with these endeavors, they are often used as supplemental activities - add-ons that are also expendable. It can make for a neat behavioral category if they’re used as reward or punishment or are just expendable.

Established systems naturally resist change – there’s a survival and/or security instinct in play here. And even though people within the system may talk about change or actually try to implement change, it has to fit into their boundaries of financial and emotional security – two very powerful forces. In most established systems, the boundaries are usually pretty narrow, making any real change difficult, and often what’s touted as new is just a makeover of what’s already done - or is something that’s very similar.

A good, in-depth arts program promotes freedom in learning, as it should be. But because the creative arts can take people into different areas than the system is used to, students can seem like random “loose cannons” – difficult to manage in traditional ways, and threatening to those not experienced enough with them. This can seem disruptive and uppity to a system, and the more rigid the system is the more disruptive it can seem.

It’s the nature of the creative arts to enhance, expand, and even challenge the status quo – to try to build on it, push the envelope – that’s the nature of growth and the beauty of the arts. Of course in many instances, systems don’t like to be challenged.

An additional problem the arts can encounter within schools is that schools often don’t encourage and facilitate different ways of thinking or paces of learning, and don’t place much emphasis on alternative ways of viewing the world or personal experience.

The approach for Merge Education is said to combine strengths-based education and mentoring. Can you explain what that looks like?

Passion in learning that taps into what’s right with the student are the key points here – Identifying the student’s natural inclinations, skills, and talents and building on them while developing strategies to work through challenges.
Again, there is an emotional basis at work in the mentoring part, where a mutual relationship develops between equals who share relevant parts of themselves and their experiences that involve both some of their strengths and their challenges.

Please talk more about how creativity helps students in HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think.

WHAT has to do with memorization and accepting and restating other people’s views, and doesn’t offer students the opportunity to explore the subject on their own and to more deeply arrive at their own conclusions.

HOW has to do with developing abilities to explore, think about, and come to personal understandings and realizations, and find ways of expressing those understandings. A student who learns HOW to think is better able to meet and process life experience and emotional conflicts –better able to process what he went through and the impact that experience had on him, positive or negative, so he learns about himself and better understands his personal reactions.

Examining and sorting through a conflict can lead to resolving it through his mode of communication. He’s able to consider his experience in such a way that he comes to a place where he understand something new or forms a new way of thinking about something, and understands how he can apply these insights to his life. He realizes he can start by encapsulating that experience and then can put it into his way of being and articulate it through his art. Then if he’s insightful enough he can apply that to the way he lives his life and interacts with other people. The more whole a person becomes, the healthier he is -- we’re talking about a unification of one’s actions. These are basic principles in creativity.

What is available with your programs and who can access them?

We’ve created a comprehensive system of books, manuals, and evaluation software to help people become more creative in their teaching, parenting, and mentoring, and to help an organization develop its own arts program. Individuals wanting to further explore the teaching approach might enjoy Venturing Together; musicians, artists, and even non-artists who want to work with the approach might find our arts curricula useful (Draw on Experience and Play by Heart are currently available), and we’ve just begun offering our software evaluation tool in beta, for assessment and management of all sorts of programs. We also offer Risks Worth Taking, a soup-to-nuts manual for developing and managing an arts mentoring program. And finally, we offer consultation for any and all of the above.

For more information on Venturing Together go to: http://www.merge-education.com or http://www.amazon.com/Venturing-Together-Empowering-Students-Succeed/dp/0984132309/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Venturing Together - An Interview with Bill Rossi (Part 1)

In Venturing Together, Bill Rossi smartly convinces educators, human service providers, and parents, that students’ creative spirit is what drives learning and personal growth. His approach is student-focused and strength-based, guiding facilitating discovery of each student's intrinsic motivation. Although Venturing Together focuses on mentoring through the arts, the principles described easily translate to many subjects and can offer struggling students a robust way to achievement and success (not to mention...happy). After reading the book, Bill graciously granted me an interview that will be done in two parts because there is a lot to say!

You mention working with two students early on in your career who influenced your approach. One student seemed to be a quick and compliant learner, the kind prized in our education system. The other student seemed “spacey”, didn’t work in a way that seemed systematic, and was slow to make connections. The surprise for you was that once the latter student had explored the music in his own way, he played the piece of music with a depth and creativity that far surpassed the quick and compliant student. Can you explain what you think happened in the different learning approaches and the outcome? Why is it good to become comfortable (for the student and the teacher) to not have an answer right away?

I should probably start by saying that my teaching approach partly grew out of my own learning experience, and also evolved over the course of almost two decades of teaching – a sort of personal inquiry. And as I say in the book, an integral component of the approach is that no matter what type of student we’re teaching, the teacher needs to always be in a dynamic state of learning, addressing and responding to the relationship that’s developing. So while many of my students have provided me with insights into some of the more subtle nuances inherent in individual learning processes, I thought these two in examples presented a very useful contrast.

Take the “spacey” student, for example. One of the things I have found is that the way we learn at any given time is dependent upon many factors – not only on the environment, but very much on what we’re learning. Someone can seem to be more random and global, for example, when they have more of an affinity for what they’re doing because that affinity – or natural ability or talent – will absorb them. When we really like something, we interact with it differently and will exhibit a more depthful kind of approach to learning. So there is actually a dynamic between us and the activity … our learning style sets up a particular way of learning something.

Those students provided a clear contrast of two of the overarching learning styles – often defined as linear learning and global/random learning. But I’m very hesitant to use any label here at all, because that limits our exploration and subsequent understanding. There was a relative logic for each student I described, by which I mean that even their inherent and different ways of learning took a different shape because of their relationship to what they were learning. As I said, the learning process is complex and different for each of us and different dynamics can occur between the student and the activity. Those are the subtle things to look for, the things that matter – the other things are much more general and while they can be useful, too much emphasis is placed on them. While it’s true that each of us has a predominant style, most of us also utilize many other ways of learning in different ways at different times, and our unique and dynamic process creates an inner architecture which – if we learn to understand and work with it – can become one of our greatest strengths.

This leads us to the other part of your question as to why it’s a good thing for both student and teacher to be comfortable with not having an answer right away. Here too, the “spacey” student is a good example because in addition to being a nontraditional learner, his natural inclination to music allowed him to hear things in the music in a deeper way. This ability (and his acceptance of the process) allowed the sound to take him to new places to listen and explore. He was more confident in giving in to the music.

So, “not having the answer right away” can mean coming to enjoy the process of exploration, which can result in looking (listening) deeper so as to bring new perspectives, which can lead to understanding the perspectives of others and appreciating more than one answer, one way. Basically, our not having the answer right away creates many more choices to branch out from and explore – makes for very creative ground.

I was surprised at the comparison to slavery in reference to how some students survive (or not) conventional school. The point seemed quite valid as I read further though. Can you elaborate on that comparison?

While the circumstances surrounding 19th century slavery and today’s students are clearly worlds apart, there are inherent qualities in oppression that exist in both, including the lack of individual freedom to be who you are – the oppression of a person’s basic nature. Of course the comparison stops when you get to the question of severity, as very little can compare to the horrific circumstances of slavery.

The other point I was making regarding oppression was that a person can overcome their circumstances through creativity. In really difficult times (such as those which I believe we are experiencing today), creativity can be found by digging deep into yourself to find new forms of expression and ways of dealing with the circumstance. This develops the individual strength that’s needed to really transcend the experience.

This interview will continue in a subsequent posting, but for now, if you would like more information on Venturing Together go to: http://www.merge-education.com or http://www.amazon.com/Venturing-Together-Empowering-Students-Succeed/dp/0984132309/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina

I was recently invited to attend the annual luncheon of the Public Education and Business Coalition (PE+BC). The keynote speaker was John Medina, who wrote the fascinating book “Brain Rules”. Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. He is also a Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. After listening to him speak at the conference I was inspired to read his book and I do not regret it. I was worried I would have to slog through a difficult, esoteric book, but the truth is I couldn't’t put it down.

Brain Rules presents 12 facts:

1. Exercise: Exercise boosts brain power
2. Survival: The human brain evolved too
3. Wiring: Every brain is wired differently
4. Attention: we don’t pay attention to boring things
5. Short-term memory: Repeat to remember
6. Long-term memory: Remember to repeat
7. Sleep: Sleep well, think well
8. Stress: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way
9. Sensory Integration: Stimulate more of the senses
10. Vision: Vision trumps all other senses
11. Gender: Male and female brains are different
12. Exploration: We are powerful and natural explorers

The book devotes a chapter to each brain rule, explaining how the brain works with regard to each fact, how it evolved, case studies and stories to illustrate the rule, and how these rules impact education and the workplace. I will highlight each of the brain rules chapters, especially how it is relevant to classrooms across the nation.

It turns out that our brains are designed to walk up to 12 miles a day. Exercise increases the blood vessels created throughout the body and brain. The more blood vessels you have, the more oxygen your brain gets, making it stronger. Not only does exercise significantly cut our risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke and heart attack, it also “improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.” In one study children jogged for 30 minutes two or three times a week. After 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly compared with pre-jogging levels. When the jogging program stopped, the cognitive performance gains were lost. Dr. Medina says that the way our classrooms are set up, with kids sitting still for many hours a day and the erosion of recess and physical education is to completely ignore this unavoidable fact. He says that cutting off exercise to do better on a test score is like trying to gain weight by starving yourself, and he advocates even more recess (not less) and movement in the classroom – anything to get our brains enough exercise to be at its best.

Our brains are a constant interaction between two features: the database to store knowledge and the ability to improvise off of that. We are designed to use both of these, yet we are often expected to turn off one and prize the other. If we ignore the improvisatory instincts, creativity suffers. To just focus on improvisation, gives no depth of knowledge or mastery. Also, because we have evolved to cooperate, relationships and the emotional environment greatly affect the learning that is possible. If the relationship is not close enough (say, in a classroom of 30 kids where it would be difficult to get to know each student well) or there is a negative relationship, learning will suffer. The success of a student in a classroom is dependent on feelings, so we must attend to them.

Dr. Medina compares a picture of a class in Junior High with brain development. Just as the students in Junior High show incredibly varied physical development (some get to puberty much faster than others, some are growing taller faster than others), so too is their intellectual development incredibly uneven. To expect certain learning goals to be achieved at certain ages is to ignore this rule. He says that 10% of students are not ready to read when we expect them to do so and that these lock-step models based on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology. A classroom that obeys that brain rule to optimize success for all students would have fewer students so that teachers could understand what is understood by each and every student and enable them to provide individualized instruction. In fact, he advocates for dismantling grade structures based on age.

Back to emotions: they get our attention and impact retention and understanding. Also, we process meaning before detail, so it is important to go from the core concept to the specifics, with plenty of emotion-eliciting examples that support that. Doing so improves learning by 40%. To optimize this rule, he suggests breaking up instruction into 10 minute cycles, with a relevant emotional hook at the beginning or the end of each cycle. Any longer, or with no hooks loses the audience.

Short-Term (Working Memory) and Long-Term Memory
Dr. Medina states that we forget 90% of what we learn within 30 days, the majority of which is forgotten in the first few hours. Repetition in timed intervals is the best way to boost retention. Cramming in one session is significantly less effective than spreading the studying over time. Also, concepts that are richly detailed, meaningful and contextual are also powerful ways to aid retention, so an interesting, relevant story will help to fasten a core concept into memory. This is because our brains have a natural predilection for pattern matching and we immediately associate with information that has already been assimilated. He suggests that instead of our typical 50-minute classes, we should perhaps devote 25 minutes to a subject, then after 90 minutes return to that same subject, then do return to it one more time. He finds that learning that is segmented and interleaved is more effective than the way we do it now. He looks at this on a micro and macro level, giving importance to this repetition in intervals daily, weekly (he thinks every third or fourth day should be review days) and even reviews of key concepts reviewed throughout the years. Oh, and he also suggests that we do away with summer vacation in schools if we want to optimize the memory.

Getting enough sleep and taking naps is important to aid learning. By accident scientist discovered that when we sleep, our brains do not rest, but instead seem to constantly rehearse and repeat what is learned while we are awake. This mental rehearsal is critical to learning and retention. A lack of sleep “hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.” Dr. Medina says that the “biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal” and says that naps should be part of the work and school day for everyone (not just Kindergartners, who don’t get naps any more now anyway). Just 26 minutes of napping results in a 34% improvement in performance. What other strategy would improve test scores by that much?

Stressed brains don’t learn as well. Researchers noticed that a stressful home life greatly impacts learning capacity, so they tried a marital intervention program with impressive results. Not only did that extra help cause family harmony, but that harmony led to significantly higher achievement in the students whose families received the marital intervention. Dr. Medina feels that this kind of program could be more effective and economically feasible than any academic intervention.

Sensory Integration
A multi-sensory learning environment produces better recall that is longer lasting and more accurate. Learners integrate new information better when more senses are employed in the learning process. In one experiment, the students who were given multi-sensory presentations generated 50%-75% more creative solutions on a problem-solving test than those who saw uni-sensory presentations.

The apparatus in our brain that gives us vision takes up half of the brain’s resources and, not coincidentally, is the strongest sense we have. Simply put, pictures are powerful – more powerful than words alone. A study that was done showed that subjects who received text only presentations remembered only 10% of it 72 hours later, while those who had pictures and text retained 65% of the presentation.

Like it or not, male and female brains work differently and social differences affect language, retention, perception, learning, and more. For example, the language girls use emphasizes their focus on relationships, while boys’ use of language is more indicative of their tendency to negotiate status in groups. Dr. Medina states that the difference between the genders could be described as the addition of a single powerful word. Boys might say, “Do this.” Girls would say “Let’s do this.” Boys who give orders are perceived as leaders and girls who do so are perceived as bossy. Study after study has shown this gender bias solidifies into adulthood.

It seems that the divide in Language Arts that girls excel in and the math and science that boys excel in can be largely attributed to inherent social styles of both genders. A third grade teacher noticed the growing performance gap with consternation and chose to separately teach each gender. After only two weeks of single gender instruction the performance gap was closed!

Babies model how we learn. They do not learn passively, but instead they are active little scientists who test their environment through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. We must take advantage of our innate curiosity and learning style and construct active learning environments that take full advantage of this rule, rather than to fight it.
I appreciated Dr. Medina’s efforts not only to explain each brain rule so thoroughly and entertainingly, but that he also gave concrete suggestions for how we could make specific, reasonable changes that will capitalize on these brain rules. Wouldn’t it be great if schools acknowledged these inexorable facts and did everything possible to create environments that obey them?