The other day I mentioned Rebecca Solnit in a post about finding the motivation to take action when it may not seem to make a difference. My mention of her was somewhat peripheral (preliminary?) to the point of the post, so I had a good laugh at myself yesterday when this happened: I was listening to an old interview with her from On Being and was reminded that I’d been very moved and affected the first time I heard her talk about the thing that was the point of the post – the slippery business of what does and doesn’t make an impact. It’s very likely that it was her work that gave me the idea to write about the topic in the way I did; I just didn’t remember that it had. Which further proves the point itself, leaving me with the feeling (which I have no doubt passed on to you reading this paragraph) of going ’round in circles, which again proves the point. (Assuming that at least one of the circles moves something forward, as opposed to keeping us in place.)

As it turns out, none of this business of difference-making and idea-forming is linear or traceable.

So, now, back to the more lucid words of Rebecca Solnit herself. From a piece she wrote in December of 2013, The Arc of Justice and the Long Run: “Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve…”

In other words (I trust she would not mind my saying), we should keep at it.

I’m rereading George Dennison’s The Lives of Children and was floored by this passage regarding the role of an adult in the life of a young person:


“…elders of the community rather than heads of organizations…”

More on that here in an old post.

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

Peter Gray, on the tendency to study children only in the context of school:

If we want to understand human potential, and not just how people adapt to schools and school-like environments, then we must widen our scope of research to include research on children in a wide variety of settings and research using a wide variety of methods.

And Carol Black, same:

Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

It’s tricky because the culture of schooling lives outside of school, too.  This is one of the puzzles I struggle with the most – how to imagine and render embraceable something that we can’t study, though of course anything that requires imagination can’t be studied because it hasn’t happened yet…

old habits

From Dan Baum’s recent Harper’s piece about drug legalization: “After telling the BBC in December that ‘if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,’ Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree.” (I recommend reading the whole piece and I will likely mention it again in the next few days; here I just have this small thing to say about the Santos quotation.)

This reminded me of an old story in The New Yorker about artificial leaf technology.  Harvard professor Daniel Nocera is quoted: “For the past two hundred years, we’ve run this other experiment, with fossil fuels, and it’s not working out so well.”

We forget that the things we try are experiments.  They become truths, or mandates, part of the fabric of life and society.  So if and when they are not working, it can be hard to abandon them and try new ones. It feels like we have no choice but to keep trying variations on whatever approach we’ve grown accustomed to, without rethinking the basis of the experiment.

I cannot think of many realms in which this is more true than it is in education.