adventures in neuroplasticity

I’m reading about neuroplasticity in Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing. The first chapter is based on Michael Moskovitz and Marla Golden’s work.  The friend who recommended the book sent me this link to Moskovitz and Golden’s therapeutic animations.

The information in the animations alone is fascinating (and, frankly, easier to take in than the same might be in text form) and then a few have a soundtrack of singing bowls that I’ve been listening to over and over as an anecdote for the din of, well, everything else these days.

It’s fascinating to read about how pain (chronic pain in particular) actually works in the body, how the brain can get confused about what’s happening, and what can be done to un-confuse it. As usual, I’m here recommending a book early in my reading of it.  So maybe it’s more reasonable to say I highly recommend the first chapter, and have high hopes for the rest of the book based on my reading so far…



Beyond “You can do it!”

As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it.  When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.

A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”

We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”

While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.

But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.

Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.

Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.

“Educability, humanity’s species characteristic, is not simply a matter of learning the answers to old questions, but, more importantly, the increasing ability to ask new questions that may lead to new answers.  There is always the danger that old answers will discourage the raising of new and appropriate questions, with the result that the error becomes institutionalized, often as a way of life.”

Ashley Montagu, Growing Young


This week I have developed a new appreciation for those who are learning to write or draw for the first time, thanks to a foray into ambidextrosity.  As I have mentioned here recently, my right shoulder has been giving me trouble, and so I was distressed to think that I couldn’t participate in a 100-day art-making challenge I heard about.  I realized that while my right hand works considerably better than my left, I do have two hands, and if I really wanted to participate without over-straining my right shoulder, I could use my left hand. It might even make an interesting creative challenge/constraint/improvisational score.

It is hard.  I often want to switch back to my right hand for things I know it can do that the left cannot.  Straight lines, for example.  So many things my right hand does without any intentional thinking require planning and troubleshooting, if they can be done at all (and many can’t).  Then there’s the challenge of writing against the flow of traffic, as it were.  My father and brother are both left-handed and so I have watched plenty of left-handed writing-utensil-wielding but not ever given thought to the degree of difficulty involved.

I’ve also been thinking about what it’s like for kids to sort these things out, and how much practice they need, and how much easier it would be without someone breathing down your neck about how neat it is, or how to do it “right.”

While we’re on the subject, here’s a little thing I posted on the subject a few years back:

I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.

words, numbers, and the culture of offering

This is sort of another plug for Ed Zaccaro, but also an observation about language and dignity in the context of math.

I posted a while back about Ed Zaccaro’s Challenge Math series, which I think was written for kids who needed more than the classroom could provide, but also seems to work well with kids with all sorts of different relationships with math.

This week I was surprised when one of the eight year-olds I work with asked specifically if we could work in the Zaccaro book.  I’d done a quick bit of one page with her once before, and she was OK with it, but tends to balk at anything she has to stop and think about, anything that requires reading as the Zaccaro problems do.  This is not because she doesn’t like to read or isn’t a good reader. She is.  But as a math student, she tends to balk at reading. We’d mostly been working on quick little problems I’d chosen for the purpose of letting her see that she is more capable when it comes to math than she has learned to believe.

She leaned right in as soon as I opened the book in front of her.  She remarked on the illustration of the large sweating ants and then started reading the first problem on the page.  She sped through three in a row, understanding exactly what the problems were asking for and doing much of the computation in her head.  This is exactly what she doesn’t do when she’s interacting with her Pearson pages from school (which, as far as I can tell, were written and issued very quickly after the Common Core standards went into effect).  She’s constantly choosing operations that don’t fit the situations in the word problems.

I’ve been frustrated with the language of many of these problems ever since the materials were issued, but in watching this child with the Zaccaro problems, I realized something new about how they are tripping kids up.  The Pearson word problem language is often ambiguous, which is terribly troublesome in the context of math, but it’s also just plain dull.  For kids who are readers, accustomed to sentences written with care and intention, poorly written problems are not just potentially confusing.  They’re an insult to the sensibilities of the literate child.  The literate person.

I realized that what this student has been doing with her classroom math work is to scan each word problem and attempt to match it with a procedure.  If it looks like the kind of problem for which one should divide, she’ll divide.  If it looks like you have to trace your finger across the table shown and fill in a number according to a pattern, she’ll do that.  No matter that often the problem is asking for something slightly different.  In order to notice that, she’d have to subject herself to the agony of reading the dull text slowly. As a result, her actual ability and number sense is obscured. In a situation in which the reading is in and of itself engaging, she is freed up to think fluidly and flexibly about what there is to do with the numbers.

What the Zaccaro book does for her (that the Pearson book does not) is offer something.  That sounds too simple to matter, but I don’t think it is. An offering concerns itself with presentation and connection, free of attachment to result. It is the fundamental unit of authentic human exchange. It says “Here.  This is for you to have and use if you choose.” It grants dignity, agency, autonomy. In the course of our deep but desperate commitment to educate, we’ve moved away from offering toward mandate and decree, often undermining our ability to pass on what there is of useful knowledge and skill to our young.
The good news is we can resume a culture of offering any time we want.


On Thursday last week, I spoke with the mom of a child who had asked her to find out if someone could help him control his behavior in school.  (I’ll call him Owen.) He has a tendency to interrupt his teacher, to speak up without being called on first, and to have difficulty staying in his seat long enough to finish assignments.  Owen’s nine.

In our first conversation, his mom and I talked about how it’s easy to confuse and confound the symptoms of attention deficit disorder and profound intellectual strength.  The two can look quite similar in the context of a classroom in which children are expected to perform repetitive, stationary, lower-level cognitive tasks.  Owen, his mother told me, has tons of physical energy, and is very curious and interested in learning. He can’t always stand to wait for other students to catch up with where his brain is. He was recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder/executive function. I told her that what I’d be able to provide for him is support in building strategies for managing his school work and that this work would most likely be successful if combined with intellectual (in the form of logic puzzles, creative problem-solving activities, and other tasks that involve higher-order thinking) that would meet his craving for intellectual engagement.

In our second conversation, after she had spoken with Owen’s teacher, his mom told me that there didn’t seem to be any evidence of the executive function difficulty in the classroom, and what the teacher was more concerned about was impulsivity – the interrupting, the speaking up without being called on, the scooting around the classroom when he was supposed to be in his seat.

This mom originally called me at the recommendation of the neuropsychologist who evaluated her son.  This evaluator has referred several children to me and I have worked with some of them.  I think it’s expected that I will be able to help children with their executive function difficulties.  It’s true that I have been able to help some children (as well as some adults) with executive function difficulty.  But as often as I help with that (which is only when the person him or herself experiences the executive function difficulty as an impairment), I end up helping with something else that makes a different kind of difference.

Helping children with executive function is usually a matter of helping them comply with environmental demands in which they don’t have much intrinsic investment.  It’s not that they don’t notice or feel the effects of not being able to comply with the demands; it’s that if given the choice, they would rather not be required to.  If you offered them the chance to exist in an environment that didn’t make those demands, and they could exist there without being ostracized for it, they would choose that.

If this is the case with a child, helping with the executive function tends to be a losing battle.  Kids who fit this description tend to undermine their own efforts to improve their ability to stay on task in school, get their homework done, and generally keep track of their assignments.

So executive function is for most children a matter of adaptation.  They’ve been assigned an environment, and in order to succeed there, to be deemed successful according to the measures of the environment, they must alter their tendencies and habits.

Owen’s teacher doesn’t think that he needed help with executive function, but the concerns she does have are also about his adaptive performance.  A typical classroom is not a natural fit for a person with a lot of physical energy, who needs motion and activity in order to keep calm, to think clearly, to feel at ease.

In my second conversation with Owen’s mom, she asked if I might be able to help with the impulsivity. Now that the executive function concern was out of the way, the focus would be staying seated and not interrupting or speaking without being called on by the teacher.

It’s at this point that my job becomes a little weird.  Weird is probably not the right word.  Agonizing is a better word, if you want one that describes my experience of it.  Here’s why: I could do what this mom is asking.  I could help her son get himself to stay in his seat.  I could help him build and use strategies for keeping quiet when he was expected to in the classroom.   And if I did, some things would be better for him than they are now.  He would feel less self-conscious.  He would be embarrassed by his behavior less often.  He might finish more of his work. His parents and teachers would stop worrying about his behavior and about his future.

Is there a cost, though, to staying in your seat when you have the impulse to move?  Or to completing a page of problems you already know how to do rather than thinking about something that intrigues or otherwise engages you?  Or to slowing your own thinking to meet that of a group of age-peers simply because they’re the same age as you are, and thus the only classmates you are entitled to?

In some ways, I wish there weren’t.  I wish I could sit down with a child and coach him or her to adapt to the environment that is the current reality for most children and believe that it would only help.  The push for adaptation, and quick, is tremendous.  I hear so many times a week that children need to be prepared for the way the world is.  They need to learn to do things they don’t want to do, to learn to be told what to do, to find out that life is hard, to get used to not getting their way. I do know that some adaptation is crucial to survival, and not just in the wilderness.  There are ways that the world is, and to be able to navigate them helps.  But to only adapt is not necessarily, in my opinion, to optimize the potential of the human organism.  And sometimes, to become accustomed to adapting without advocating for one’s needs and strengths is to shortchange the species, to deny it the potential for growth and progress.

A few years ago I was working with a fourth grader whose mom was concerned about his math skills.  One week he came into my office and sighed a great, heavy sigh as he settled into a chair across from me.

“What happened?” I asked him.
“I need you to show me the second way of subtracting,” he said.
I asked him to tell me more.
“Well, last week my teacher showed us how to subtract, where you cross out the one number and then add the one to the number next to it…” he looked up at me to confirm that I knew what he was talking about. I nodded, and he continued.  “So then today at math time she wrote another problem like the ones we were doing last week up on the board and started talking.  I thought she was just showing us that same way of subtracting again so… I… stopped… listening.”  He said this quietly.
“It’s OK,” I said.
He sighed. I waited for a moment to see if there was more.
“Is that the end of the story?
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s all.  I mean, I found out later that we were supposed to be learning a second way of subtracting that we have to do for homework and now I don’t know how to do it because I wasn’t listening.”
“OK.  I have a question.”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“OK if I ask it?”
“You don’t have to answer me unless you want to, but I’m wondering what you were doing with your mind instead of listening to the teacher about the second way of subtracting.”
He took a deep breath.  “Well, my brother and I got a Lego Millenium Falcon for Christmas, and after we built it with the instructions, we took it apart and started building another one with our own design, but we’ve been having trouble getting it to support its own weight.  I had an idea about adding these struts in the back like this (he demonstrated the angle he had in mind) and I was trying to imagine how they could attach.”

I’ve asked kids this question, about what they were thinking about when the classroom environment demanded they be thinking about something else, attending to something chosen by the adult in charge, and it’s not always a complicated engineering problem as it was this time for this child, but it’s rarely frivolous. I suppose that frivolity is a matter of opinion, so I should add that it’s rarely frivolous in my opinion.  A wise friend of mine told me once that his primary reason for considering the possibility of not sending his children to school as soon as they turned five was that it was important to him that they have access to their own thoughts – that they have a chance to figure out what they were interested in, what mattered to them, and he thought that if they were hurried off to school, where they would much of the time be told what to think about and when, that they might not have the chance to get acquainted with the contents of their own minds and imaginations.

This fourth grader, once he thought he was all set with subtraction, turned his attention to a fairly complicated problem of engineering.

From a very young age, humans go looking for good uses to put their minds to.

From a very young age, humans go looking for good uses to put their minds to. There’s an extent to which we sometimes undermine and interrupt that process in the name of adaptation and presumed survival.  We imagine that if we just force a kid like this one to comply with our curricular plans for him, that later, once he’s been taught (and re-taught) everything we consider basic, he can turn his attention to contribution and participation.

There are a few problems with this model.  One is that the curiosities of a young person don’t necessarily hang in there in the face of being ignored, suppressed, or otherwise dishonored.  A child who is fascinated by technical problems as a five and six and seven year-old but is not free to explore such problems and is told that the most important thing is to do well in his schoolwork, his spelling and his multiplication, will often not remain loyal to his earlier curiosities.  (In fact, a child who does remain loyal is often considered a behavior problem, or difficult, or resistant, at risk for failure as a student.)

Also, we know that the brain is most elastic when it’s young. The flexibility and openness to new ways of thinking is not confined to language learning. If we spend all that elasticity on predetermined and prescribed content, we leave little room for the thoughts and unique creative potentials of the individual.  (And I don’t mean creative in an artistic sense, though I include the artistic – I mean creative in its basic sense, making things up, thinking of things that haven’t been thought of or haven’t been thought of in a particular way.)

This is all to say, I suppose, in many many paragraphs, that I think there’s a balance to be struck, to be sought, between adaptation and actualization.  Between supporting an individual in finding his or her way among the obstacles erected around him over time and supporting him or her in exploring and realizing the fullest possible extent of her capacities and curiosities. A balance which, if struck or even aspired to, could save a lot of frustration for a lot of students (and teachers) and offer all of us better access to the extent of potential contained in our human selves.

the sorter is broken

I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college.  She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.

You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is.  I think it’s a sorting problem.  Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions.  And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.

This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science.  She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science.  Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.

What would we have to do to make it otherwise?  First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data.  Must one?  I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything.  Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought?  Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me.  To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise.  Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.

what matters

I was on the phone with a mom today who told me this story about her son, who thinks of himself as a lousy student who can’t do math and isn’t much better at other things.

“I was filling out the form [for school] and I asked him what he thought his new teacher should know about him.  If there were one thing he’d want her to know, what would it be.  He sat there for a minute, looking out the window, and then as he went back to what he was doing he said ‘Tell them I’m kind.'”

This child knows that kindness is not the currency of schooling.  He knows that it isn’t what anyone will be measuring when he gets there. And maybe he thinks that kindness is all he has to offer, in spite of its relatively low value in the eyes of the institution (as indicated by the fact that it doesn’t appear on any report card he’s ever seen or heard of).

Or maybe he thinks it’s important, and thinks that while his past performance on timed math tests suggests he doesn’t have what school is looking for, but does have something that matters, or should.