One Teacher’s Most Important Lesson: How to Save a Life

In a common core world where teaching is sometimes more concerned with evaluating pupils’ aptitudes for test-taking than with evaluating their well-being, one teacher has developed an ingenious method of tracking her children’s thoughts and feelings, and possibly saving lives in the process.

lonely child

On Glennon Doyle Merton’s “Momastery” blog, she writes of her son’s math teacher, an unnamed, unsung hero. What makes her so? One afternoon, Merton dropped by her son’s fifth-grade classroom for help on how to better guide him with his homework, and she and his teacher got to talking. After some time they moved on from methods of long division to philosophies of teaching, both agreeing that “subjects like math and reading are the least important things that are learned in a classroom,” that we owe it to students to instill in them kindness, compassion, and bravery above all. And that’s when this teacher shared a secret method with Merton.

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Are You Right or Left Brained?

Ah, the secret life of the human brain. It’s hard to imagine that something that exists inside of each of us, that governs our every waking moment (and every sleeping moment for that matter), can be too complex for us to completely understand–more mysterious than the depths of the deepest ocean. In just one second, for instance, our brains can form one million new connections. One million. To keep up with everything your brain does, well, you’d need another brain.

One aspect of the brain that has always perplexed me is the concept of the left vs right brain. There is a persistent idea that the world is divided into left-brained and right-brained people–the former latching onto logic and analytical thinking, the latter made up of loosey-goosey, emotionally intuitive types. Throughout our lives, many of us purport to be either one or the other–an identity that is forged and enforced in school. Students proficient in Math and Science will adopt the idea that they are left-brainers, while those most skilled in Arts will identify themselves as right-brainers.

But if you’re not certain yet as to whether you are right or left brained, well, there’s an infographic for that:

left_right_infographic

It’s interesting how this infographic ties in to information that is already quite commonplace. The idea, for example, that left-handed people possess greater creativity (given the fact that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body). I had thought this idea was simply an old-wives’ tale. It turns out, this is only slightly the case…

“Right-Brain, Left-Brain Theory” was actually formed as a result of neuropsychologist Roger W. Sperry’s work with epileptic patients. His treatment for epilepsy involved severing the corpus collosum (the membrane that separates the halves of the brain). This effectively reduced a patient’s number of seizures, but drastically affected other aspects of their lives:

Many split-brain patients found themselves unable to name objects that were processed by the right side of the brain, but were able to name objects that were processed by the left-side of the brain. Based on this information, Sperry suggested that language was controlled by the left-side of the brain. (Source)

So, it is true that each side of the brain is better able to handle certain tasks. It is simply the theory itself that is over-generalized when speaking of individuals. While the right brain may be better suited to expressing and reading emotions, recognizing faces, and creativity, and the left may focus more on language, logic, and numbers, it is really how the halves of your brain work in unison that makes up the type of learner and thinker that you are. All Mathies are not entirely left-brained, and all creative types are not completely right-brained–something that may make you feel better when you find, like I did, that your apparently dominant side doesn’t describe what you feel you are truly best at. (Numbers? Who, me??)

That being said, there is some use for dominance theory in curating good study habits.

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses in certain areas can help you develop better ways to learn and study. For example, students who have a difficult time following verbal instructions (often cited as a right-brain characteristic) can benefit from writing down directions and developing better organizational skills.

In particular, I can recall a mnemonic that worked well for me all the way back when I was preparing for my AP Psychology exam–a rhyme centering around numbers that helped me to memorize Erikson’s eight stages of development. Maybe I have always been numbers-oriented after all?

So, after identifying from the graphic above whether you are  left or right brained, here are some tips to help you learn and study most efficiently:

Left Brain Dominant:

  • To Do lists will work well for you, and you’re probably already an expert at them!
  • You might find that you’re more partial to non-fiction reading
  • You probably work better alone than in a group. If you must be in a group, volunteer as leader
  • Take advantage of your organizational skills in taking notes and scheduling
  • Push yourself to take risks! They can pay off

Right Brain Dominant:

  • You’ll excel in essays, more so than on factual, T/F-type questions
  • You probably don’t always read directions carefully–make that a priority
  • Use images and charts in your studies
  • Use your imagination and creativity to its fullest on all projects
  • Organize your thoughts by getting them down on paper

Are you left brain or right brain dominant? Take the test to find out! And if you have any study tips to help others with your learning type, we’d love to hear them in a comment!


How Reading Kafka Can Make You Smarter

Got a big test coming up? Think you’ve tried every study tip available? Think again…

Here’s one you likely haven’t heard of: read a short story by Franz Kafka before your exam and you may come out of it with an improved test score. The short story in question is a surreal work by Kafka called “A Country Doctor.” It was selected by post-doctoral researcher Travis Proulx (of the University of California, Santa Barbara) and Professor of Psychology Steven J. Heine (University of British Columbia) in their 2009 study specifically because of its absurdist elements. The hypothesis behind their research was that the exposure to a strange and unnerving stimulus would lead the brain to look for structure and order in any subsequent activity.

The Method:

The method of Proulx and Heine’s study involved exposing a test group to the surreal stimulus (in this case “A Country Doctor”) and then administering a grammar test to the group. The test was made up of “an artificial-grammar learning task in which [subjects] were exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings. They were asked to copy the individual letter strings and then to put a mark next to those that followed a similar pattern.” A control group was also tested; these subjects’ pre-test reading consisted of a substantially edited version of Kafka’s text, which arranged the story in a more straightforward plot structure. Proulx and Heine labeled the surreal stimulus as a “Meaning Threat”–“something that fundamentally does not make sense”–while the absence of a surreal stimulus was categorized as having No-Meaning Threat.

The Results:

It was quickly apparent that Proulx and Heine’s hypothesis was correct; the test subjects who had been exposed to the Meaning Threat (“A Country Doctor”) not only found more patterns within the letter strings presented to them, but they were also correct in their findings more of the time than the test subjects who were not exposed to that surreal stimulus.

“People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings.” -Travis Proulx

It turns out that the test subjects were so unsettled by the absurdism in Kafka’s short story that their brains felt compelled to find order and meaning afterwards, as if to make up for the nonsensical nature of what came before it.

So, how can this be applied to your studies?

Well, besides reading “A Country Doctor” before a test, there are a number of other Meaning Threats you could apply to your life. You just have to understand what exactly a Meaning Threat is. You need something that challenges your very nature and the way you innately look at the world. When, for example, we think of fire, we instinctively associate it with heat. Now imagine placing your hand over a flame and feeling an icy coldness, the exact opposite of your expectations. Pretty disturbing, right? That’s exactly what a threat to meaning is. Meaning “is an expected association within one’s environment.” A Meaning Threat is therefore something that doesn’t make sense.

When a committed meaning framework is threatened, people experience an arousal state that prompts them to affirm any other meaning framework to which they are committed.

Exposing yourself to mind-opening (or mind-bending) works similar to Kafka’s will spur you to find patterns and structure in other works. These can include the works of Surrealist painters, or certain movies, like “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch or “Un Chien Andalou” by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel.


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