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Get Neuro-Psyched!

Connecting the science of the brain, psychology, and health with EFL

July 03, 2011

EFL Annual Brain Days (FAB1) debut in Japan!

It's a dream come true and an important charity for the children of Tohoku. Since I embarked in my MA at the University of Birmingham years ago, I had desired to see a stronger focus on neuroscience in general TEFL literature. Because there was so little of it in the available TEFL books at the time, I turned to the Harvard Graduate School of Education -specifically to their Mind, Brain, and Education program. The work there, led by Dr. Kurt Fischer, paved the way for me to bring neuroscience to TEFL here in Japan. With the great help of three sempai colleagues in the forefront of TEFL in Japan, I have been given the chance to realize a big dream - to create an annual conference with the goal of discussing and promoting cutting-edge neuroscience for the sake of TEFL in Japan/Asia. It is called FAB1 (First Annual Brain days) and it will be held in Kitakyushu on July 9th, and in Kansai on July 10th this year.

If you have the chance to attend, I highly recommend joining us. As a reader of this column, I'm sure you must be at least mildly interested in how neuroscience can inform TEFL. What will the FAB1 conference be like? FAB1 is probably like no other conference that you have been to! The whole day is designed as a single coherent package. What you learn in the first session will connect and compound with every other session at the FAB conference! We believe in active learning -so be prepared to focus on the content and speak up during the "Power Sessions". By the end of the conference, you will have a notebook full of take home activities and a brain full of new ideas and inspiration for your classrooms!

Speaking of the plenaries, here are "sneak peak interviews" with Marc Helgesen, Curtis Kelly, and Tim Murphey.

Hello Curtis!
1) Why are you involved in FAB?
Curtis: There are so many new things coming out in brain science and many impact our teaching.  We need to know!

2) What will you discuss in your session?
Curtis: Fingers (findings in brain science) pointing at things as yet undiscovered, that might completely change our way of thinking about how language is learned. For example,... No, I don’t want to give it away here...

3) What can people take home from your session?
Curtis: Let’s see…, better understanding of how learning works on the neurological level, craving for Dopamine, a couple good stories, action plans for their 8-month old babies, greater trust in their teaching intuitions, an altered view of extensive reading, who knows?... I’m a constructivist.

4) The future (you or fab or both!)….
Curtis: I want to learn more about the role the reward system plays in learning.

Hello Marc!
1) Why are you involved in FAB?
Marc: This is all very organic. Most of the presenters have been talking to each other and going to each others’ sessions for years. And, I think, the common thread is humanism. So what is really interesting and exciting is that we are looking to some of the science behind that humanism – what is going on in our brains.

2) What will you discuss in your session?
Marc: I’ve been working with and talking about positive emotion for several years. I’ve been sharing activities that help EFL students work on the 8 behaviors that happy, mentally healthy people do. So I still do that and believe in those things. In the past couple years, I’ve gotten more interested savoring – looking at ways we can focus in on positive emotion and ways we can increase those feelings. And there is a lot of evidence that when we do this, it makes a real difference – in our brains and in our lives.

3) What can people take home from your session?
Marc: At a simple level, some activities you can use next week. And that is always useful. At a more complex level, some things I’m trying to work with now. I don’t know how to make “flow” (in Csikszentmihalyi’s sense) work day to day), I’m frustrated-- knowing how important spirituality is – that it is hard to get Japanese students interested. Goal setting is more complex than it first appears. So participants will take home both things they can use and some questions.

4) The future (you or fab or both!)….
Marc: Yes, and yes!

Hello Tim!
1) Why are you involved with FAB?
Tim: My brain saw the title and could not resist -- it is hooked on exciting things!

2) What will you discuss in your session?
Tim: Small things - neurons, the history of humanity, altruism, getting naturally high!

3) What can people take home from your session?
Tim: An appreciation for that which challenges and excites (the unknown). Thank golly, there is much unknown out there to play with!

4) The future (you or FAB or both!)...
Tim: Beneficial cycles of excitement integration and consolidation (sleep) with ever more appreciation for social networks and learning toward altruistic agency.

Thanks for the interview Curtis, Marc, and Tim!

FAB1 Plenary Schedule:

Robert S. Murphy
Plenary #1: 
5 Powerful Teaching Techniques: 
Improve Memory and Learning in the Classroom!

10:00 - 10:40 (July 9 in Kitakyushu, July 10 in Kansai)
What can teachers do to dramatically enhance student memory and learning in the EFL classroom? Five easy to implement techniques will be provided for teachers to take home and put on their classroom walls. This session will discuss provocative new discoveries in brain research and learning. The content, stemming from Robert's research at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is cutting-edge yet highly practical. Plenty of powerful take-home activities for your EFL classroom. Make your life easier -and your students happier with these neuro-'logical' EFL techniques!

Curtis Kelly
Plenary #2: 
How Emotion, Cognition and Movement Shape Learning

10:50 - 11:30 (July 9 in Kitakyushu, July 10 in Kansai)
We learn because the brain is plastic.  It is not hard-wired nor are processing areas fixed, as was long believed.  Of special interest to us is how the reward system of the brain affects plasticity and learning, including the super-learning we call addiction.  While we still do not have a complete view on the influence of dopamine, the fact that the reward system connects the cognitive, emotional, memory, and movement parts of our brains give us clues as to what might or might not work in the language learning.

Marc Helgesen
Plenary #3: 
ELT and “The Science of Happiness”

14:00 - 14:40 (July 9 in Kitakyushu, July 10 in Kansai)
As ELT teachers, we all deal with educational psychology – either with awareness or by default. This activity-based session looks at ways positive psychology (TIME magazine calls it “The science of happiness”) can be combined with clear language learning goals for active, invested learning.

Traditional psychology deals with mental illness. Positive psychology investigates mental health: What do happy, mentally healthy people do? How much of our happiness is predetermined (the “set point”)? This is more than “the power of positive thinking”. It is sharing with our students the concrete behaviors that elicit positive emotion (and endorphins!) and connecting them to language learning/practice tasks.

Tim Murphey
Plenary #4: 
The Brain on Agency

14:50 - 15:30 (July 9 in Kitakyushu, July 10 in Kansai)
Organizing our classes to allow students to feel some control (agency) over language, by actually using it, can create routes to intense motivation. The resulting excitement is something students often want to repeat. This presentation briefly describes what happens in the brain and why it is so exciting and outlines practical ways that teachers can help their students use a foreign language agentively in order to feel this excitement repeatedly in and out of classes. This presentation of course overlaps with positive psychology, memory studies, and general learning principles of the brain, and seeks to examine directly the setting up of activities to provide more of the thrill of agency.

We will also have fantastic local presenters!
Robert Croker, Brian Cullen, Lesley Ito, Adam Jenkins, Maggie Lieb, Kevin Maher, Sarah Mulvey, Mari Nakamura, Aoi Nasu, Margaget Orleans, Christopher Stillwell, Hideyuki Taura, Clair Taylor, and Matthew Walsh.

Plenary presenters will donate their honorariums directly to these children's charities of the Tohoku disaster (below). All FAB1 proceeds after costs will also be donated to these two charities.

For details, or online registration, please visit
Hope to see you there!!

*FAB1 charity fund will go directly to SAVE THE CHILDREN JAPAN and PLAN JAPAN

March 29, 2011

Maslow, your feelings, and the tsunami

It is not easy to get grips on the entire situation unfolding in Japan. In fact, I'd say that it is impossible to fully understand everything that is happening. Yet, we try to. Indeed, that is why we turn on the news isn't it? Today I would like to focus on the dynamics of our own reactions to the devastation and the media coverage of it. To do this, let's first look as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - a useful model for attempting to understand human motivation. Then, we'll use his model to examine the dynamics of our actions and reactions to the tsunami disaster. By the end of the article, I think we will be able to cover some very interesting ground that I hope will be of practical use to us all, even after all of this settles.

First, let's look at Maslow's work. He is most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs:'s_hierarchy_of_needs

5. Self-actualization needs
4. Esteem needs
3. Love/Belonging needs
2. Safety needs
1. Physiological needs

At the bottom of the pyramid we have Physiological needs, our most basic needs to function as animals on this earth -air, food, water, sleep, etc. When these needs are met, we then start engaging more seriously in our Safety needs - protection of body, family, work, resources, etc. When we feel relatively safe, we then spend more time with our Love/Belonging needs - joining clubs, taking up group-based hobbies, having quality family time, dating, etc. Let's think about these three and put them to the test. For example, if you had little air to breathe in a strange place with no food or water, would you be thinking about joining a club or taking someone out on a date? Perhaps if you were delusional by then, yes, but typically speaking, no; you would be hunting for clean air, food and water. You would not be thinking about the higher levels of needs. Similarly, let's focus on the second level now -Safety needs. If you realized that you were unemployed, unhealthy and someone was taking away your resources, you would be focused on getting those back, and not emphasizing higher needs. So, the Hierarchy of Needs, seems to be logical so far.

Now, if your third level (Love/Belonging) needs are being met -by having stable friendships, family and sexual intimacy, then your aspirations go to the fourth level, to Esteem needs -respect for others, respect for yourself. This is very sensible too. Only when you have all of the lower three levels met do you feel confident enough to really feel the need for mutual respect for fellow humans. Then, when all of your other needs are met -you are surrounded by mutual supporters and high-achievers - you may enter the top shelf, the Self-actualization level. In short, you actually fulfill your potential as a "full" human. You become all that you can become. Maslow admitted that very few people actually get to that pinnacle of humanity and it makes sense that most people cannot get there -they need to have utter confidence in their entire foundation and must be in a high-support context conducive of extremely high achievement. In a perfect world, most of us adults should be somewhere between the Esteem level and the Self-actualization level. I don't want to sound overly naive, but I'd say universities and their grad schools should be places conducive of such achievement. Universities should be filled with professors at their Self-actualization level and those profs should be helping their students get there too. What better reason could there be for universities? Having to work part time jobs at restaurants to pay the bills knocks students back down to level 1-2. They (as I was when I was a BA student) are worried about how to get food and not get evicted. This situation makes their pyramid foundation shaky and not conducive of higher level achievement. Universities should therefore seriously consider this and let their students focus keenly on their studies at their optimal levels by not letting them suffer from problems arising from level 1-2 needs. But this is a side rant. Let's return to the main topics.

Japan is experiencing its worst crisis since post-WWII. The rest of the world is appalled at the situation while at the same time applauds the Japanese for being so respectful to each other. This applause stems from knowledge of situations such as the Katrina and Haiti aftermaths. It baffles so many people. How can the Japanese just respectfully stand in line when their cities are now rubble? First of all, let's not bend the truth. It's not like there is no looting or robbery in Japan. If you believed the news, it's as if all of the thieves in Japan somehow disappeared when the quake arrived. Could that be true? The media downplays Japanese looting - a smart thing to do because visuals of looting can easily prompt more looting. The Japanese media is very good at taming potential hysteria ( ). That being said, it is overly naive to believe that no looting exists in Japan. Here is one example of Japanese looting after the tsunami:

I provide this example to keep my analysis here as balanced as possible. The calmness, or shall I say the nonchalance of the looters in that video clip is eerie -almost laughable. The discourse of the interview is interesting, but the quiet looters in the background take the show. Now, even considering this revelation, the Japanese still seem to be showing much more respect for their neighbors then when similar situation arise in other countries/cultures. Why is that? Let's include the Maslow model to make an analysis.

I am half Japanese and have lived most of my life in Japan. Socially, perhaps I am more Japanese than I am American. So, read these words as if they are coming from a Japanese person. From my Japanese perspective, I can say that most Japanese that I have come in contact with over my entire lifetime seem to agree that Japan is currently practically "classless". That is to say that most Japanese tend to believe that most of us here in Japan belong to some sort of a middle class and that we all have similar values -hence practically "classless". The Japanese differentiate with age far, far more commonly than they do with class levels. This stems from the Tokugawa Shogunate when the warring regions of Japan were deliberately unified by Tokugawa's version of confucianism. This neo-confucianism, and namely it's filial piety (respect for elders, etc.), has become an integral part of the Japanese mentality. Now combine this with the fact that if you look at Japanese history since as far back as 1000 AD, Japan has been at war and/or was a dominant Empire for most of this time. Japan's social and educational systems are therefore necessarily traditionally heavily militaristic at the core. Look no further than the public school systems. The uniforms that they wear to this day are still often military uniforms aren't they? Tradition and obedience is still favored over creativity and individuality isn't it? As many Japanese people (such as me) will admit if given a chance, Japan is not a real democracy (which was an ideology forced on Japan, post WWII by the US). At the core of its traditional values, Japan is still more of a socialist-militaristic state that has been whimpering ever since it has been castrated and has had its teeth plucked out by the US after the war. Why am I bringing this up? Whether you like it or not, this toothless and castrated whimpering socialist-militaristic country has convinced its population that we have enough in life just by living here. All we have to do is listen to the government, be obedient, and ganbaru (roughly, do your best ) and the rest will be taken care of. Oddly enough, that puts a significant portion of the Japanese population at level 4 in Maslow's pyramid. It lets the Japanese people feel confident enough to pursue mutual respect. I feel this roughly explains the psychology behind the so-called social obedience of the Japanese. Tokugawa profoundly affected the Japanese back then, and is still affecting them now even after all these years. So, quasi-democratic/pseudo-socialist societies may have their benefits. But will those benefits continue through this current tragedy?

In Haiti and after Katrina, there were extreme cases of looting. From what I have gathered, it seems that much of the looting was started by people who were living their lives in or around the poverty level. On Maslow's pyramid, they would be living at level 1-2. Some may have been at level 3. This is interesting. Remember that Esteem is at level 4. When faced with a dire situation, people who are already living with level 1-2 problems do not jump up to level 4's Esteem needs. Why should they? Now, let's consider Japan, where we all are convinced that we are all living at level 4 (or perhaps 5). We actually believe that most of us have mutual respect. In fact, our culture expects this from us. (From the outside, this may be deemed circular. We are at level 4 because we believe we are at level 4. However, for the most part, it seems to be working). We have lived this way for so long in our adult lives that most of our mental circuits upstairs have been developed within and by this context. Simplistically speaking, most Japanese adult brains are naturally formed to function at level 4 -as opposed to a poverty-stricken person (level 1-2). This, albeit simplistically, explains why a wallet dropped on the streets of Tokyo can often get recovered at the local Police station, while the rest of the world gasps at the notion. In other words, there seem to be so many people outside of Japan that are living at levels 1-2 that the social norms of their societies are being significantly pulled down by them, instead of being significantly pulled up by the level 4-5 people. This is a shame. Perhaps we should do something about this. But to answer my own question about whether this will continue in Japan, I have a negative response.

What is neuroplasticity? In short, it is how the brain learns. The brain is not really very book-like nor is is very computer-like. Our neurons connect to form massive networks in the brain for the purpose of deep analyzation of our world. Those networks constantly change -depending upon the immediate context. They need to change to the context or else they wouldn't serve much purpose, would they? If you have ever felt culture-shock and then gotten over it, that's neuroplasticity at work. The first shock comes when your currently existing networks are not capable of interpreting and comprehending the massively different input that they are receiving from the new cultural context. You slowly get over it because your brain rewires itself to get better and better at analyzing the newer contexts. The very odd "reverse culture-shock" phenomenon happens because by the time you return to your original cultural context, your brain has been rewired significantly by that second culture -your first culture now seems out of whack!

If you have ever seen the movie TRADING PLACES (1983) with Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy, you may recall that when a rich man's and a poor man's lives are exchanged, although it took some time, eventually, the originally rich, now poor man begins stealing things and the originally poor, now rich man develops great esteem and makes humane decisions. Their neuroplasticity is what let them change so significantly. Of course that was a piece of fiction, but the story works very well for what I am about to say. What we bring to the table does not stay significant forever; our immediate context has a huge affect on us. Current research now tells us that our context and our behavior within contexts even affects the roles our genes play. So although so many Japanese adults may be currently wired at the Esteem level, if their context remains at the dire level 1-2 for extend periods, we are going to see a significant change in those peoples' attitudes. Don't blame them when this happens.

And finally, I would like to add that we, the English speaking community in Japan, have witnessed an interesting gradation of our own emotions, actions, and reactions. In the beginning it was mostly shock and "What can I do about this?". Nobody really cared about the intensity of language being used by CNN and other non-Japanese news agencies at that time. But by around the 5-7 day mark, post-tsunami, a significant number of foreigners in Japan began voicing strong opposition to the strong language. The attitude from many people in the foreign community in Japan was, "Hey! Will you stop with the never-ending CRISIS announcements! WE ARE OK!". Let's take one final look at Maslow's pyramid. For us in the foreign community, we were all scared and not sure of our safety -all of us were at level 1-2, if only briefly, and if only in our heads. Then, it took several days for us to reestablish our networks and make sure our loved ones, friends, etc., were all ok. Most of us were back up to level 3 meaning that level 4 (Esteem) was close to being in reach -but every time CNN cried, "CRISIS IN JAPAN!!", it shook our foundations and smothered our hopes to get back our esteem. This frustration compounded and angered many of us (along with those incessant AC ads on the local channels). We publicly announced our anger. We made videos and uploaded them to YouTube pleading the foreign news agencies to stop exaggerating. They were robbing us of our esteem -how dare they! … but now the Japanese government is slowly letting us know that the situation is a lot worse than they had originally (and cleverly) led us to believe. That put some of us are back down to levels 1-2. Some of us actually never left those levels. But those cries to CNN have mostly died down, haven't they? However, soon we may begin voicing more anger toward the government and TEPCO. Soon we may become more irrational and erupt with anger at anything in our paths. Think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs when you see this happening.

In conclusion, I want to say that Maslow was a wise man but his work is not without criticism. Just google his hierarchy and you'll have all the information at your fingertips. There is criticism because his pyramid does not explain all human motivation in all circumstances. It is also criticized because he's American, so the pyramid works best for Americans and may not suit people from other cultures. To the criticisms, I somewhat agree. There is no 'perfect' model that explains human motivation in all situations -but his work is commendable and is useful because it makes our motivation something tangible. We can talk about motivation and their levels because of his model. We can also provide better care for those in need with this model. It is therefore used in hospitals by doctors and nurses to gauge the needs of children and lone patients, to cite a couple of examples. In short, although it may not be perfect, it fills an important need. It has helped me work out my feelings many times, and has helped me help my own students with their problems from time to time. I have brought this up today hoping that it may help us all make sense of our current situation in Japan, and allow us to better understand the psychological states that we experience and the motivations behind them.

If you try using Maslow in your classrooms, or at home, please let me know. I'd love to hear your stories! (comment below or send me a direct email:

March 18, 2011

Bereavement and Grief: What to do?

It has been a week since the quake and tsunami news began. Thousands of people have been killed by this disaster, more are on the way… and now I hear that my Japanese relative just committed suicide. That relative was not living in the affected area. His suicide is seemingly not connected to the tsunami deaths -why choose to kill yourself when so many thousands are visibly struggling for their own lives? It is hard to make sense of this, but my research and academic background is actually helping me walk me through these horrific times. Writing this article, with the help of notes that I have taken over the years, will help me heal my own wounds, and I hope it will provide information and motivation to people who are in need of psychological support -the kind of support that often comes last, or does not come at all, especially here in Japan.

Many of us are currently going through what is called survivor's guilt. It is somewhat comforting to be able to put a label on it, isn't it? That being said, I still feel depressed. This article is about bereavement, grief and some worthy counseling procedures, for adults and for children. Children's feelings are often lost in the mix when there is so much turmoil in the world. I hope this article will help adults notice potential problems with children and help alleviate them.

What is bereavement? Grief? What can we do about it?
Grief is a reaction to a loss. It can be a real loss or an anticipated loss. This is inclusive of the distress that we may feel when people have died or are dying. By understanding the function of our grief, we may arrive at some relief. However because such grief is often overwhelmingly powerful, simple words of consolation can easily be grossly insufficient. Bereavement is identified as being deprived of life or hope.

According to J. W. Worden in Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy (1988) we go through:

Phase 1. Numbness
Phase 2. Yearning
Phase 3. Disorganization and Despair
Phase 4. Reorganized Behavior

However, the phases overlap greatly and are not necessarily formed in a stair-like progression. Another way to look at the phenomenon is by looking at 'tasks' (Leick and Davidson, Healing Pain: Attachment, Loss and Grief Therapy, 1991):

Task 1: Accept the loss as a reality (intellectually and emotionally)
Task 2: Address the emotions and deal with them as they are encountered
Task 3: Acquire new skills to make a new lifestyle possible
Task 4: Put energy into making new relationships possible

Again, the progression is not stair-like and it is normal to have to go back and forth between the tasks. If you are not feeling yourself, try these tasks. They may help you get through your struggles.

These are some signs of typical (normal) grief:
-yearning and anxiety often alternating with depression
- preoccupied with thoughts of the dead one (or the cause of death)
-social withdrawal

Now, although some of us have lost loved ones in this tragedy, many of us perhaps have not directly lost a loved one, yet both groups will commonly feel guilt. As I stated earlier, a feeling of guilt is considered natural. Knowing this can help alleviate the problems that may arise from these feelings.

Why do we naturally feel guilty? There are several theories, but perhaps it is sufficient to say that as humans we find it difficult to be logical when it comes to death. In the struggle to find logic in death we inevitably arrive at questions regarding our own actions --"Did I do something to cause this?", "Could this have been my fault?", "What could I have done differently?". These are common questions that race through our minds even if we 'know' that the questions may be absurd. However illogical these questions may be, the process alone seems to be able to bring up our guilt levels. This is especially true if you happened to be harboring negative feelings toward the deceased at the time of death. In our current situation here in Japan, other (absurd) questions may arise such as, "Is global warming to blame?", "If I conserved more energy, could I have prevented this?". Again, although these questions may in fact be absurd, the natural questioning process alone can help bring upon feelings of guilt. Remember: In the brain, imaginary occurrences can conjure up the same emotions as real occurrences -the same places of the brain light up!

Letting go of the grief does not mean that you don't care anymore. Let your brain relax when it can.

What can we do about the children?
Death is a topic that children need to talk about -but many adults do not take the time to discuss death with children. Let's try to do something about this. If a child looses a family member or a friend, they need to discuss it. Don't let them go at it alone. Think about it - where does a child's concept of death come from? It comes from their immediate context. More specifically, children observe adults and acquire the emotional reactions that they witness. Children draw inferences from adults' reactions.

Let's look at cognitive development for a moment -this is my specialty. Children below the age of around six don't really understand finality, so death is quite on the same level as 'not available now' to them. Such young children may cry over deaths at funerals, but it is probably because the context facilitated the response, not the deeper actual understanding of the consequences of death. However, after around the age of 10, children begin to reach the level of cognitive development when they can understanding abstract concepts. Unfortunately, this level of intelligence marks the beginning of a deeper/darker understanding of death - it makes the death more haunting and menacing for the child. Avoidance of the subject, or deflection of the child's questions helps establish a taboo within the child and the non-information, or deliberate dis-information provided by adults may remain as misguided manifestations (harmful myths) within the child that may last way into adulthood. It is important to realize that children are necessarily egocentric. I don't mean egotistical. I mean egocentric -their cognitive development has not reached a level that allows them see themselves from an outside perspective. They are the center of their universe. What does this lead to? It often leads them to blame themselves for the deaths that they have witnessed. Sadly, if a parent verbally blames a child for the death of a loved one, the child will readily believe it. Because children do not have the mental capacity to understand adult concepts, they automatically believe in 'magic' - anything that happens that they don't understand basically seems to be happening by this magic. Anything they can imagine is basically real to them at some level, so, in this gullible state, any reasoning/rationale provided by us 'all-knowing' adults is often readily believed and is incorporated into their own belief systems. The things we say shape our children. This is why we must be responsible for what we tell our children, especially in highly emotional times, because as we all know from experience, highly emotional times carve our memories the most vividly. Now is the time to set things straight with our kids.

How should we talk about death with children?
Children usually accept authoritative statements. It helps them understand the world. Unless it was a suicide, counselors are often trained to make it clear to the child that 'the death' was:

-unwished by the person
-not the responsibility of any living person

and that the dead person:

-did not wish to go
-was sorry to leave the family
-had no choice
-does not feel grief now

By making these points clear, psychiatrists report that there were fewer and briefer behavior problems, less health problems, and less academic problems for the children. Of course there is no guarantee, but the counseling procedure seems sensible to me and I therefore recommend having similar conversations with your children -even with your classroom children if you teach kids. I recommend this because you may be the only adult that has the knowledge and motivation to provide the children with the guidance that they may be lacking.

In conclusion, I admit that writing this article has helped me heal my own wounds. It is helping me with my own bereavement and grief. We may never know why my relative took his life, but I cannot dismiss the possibility that the quake and tsunami disaster was a catalyst for his suicide. It is my hope that by publishing this article, I can help others help others in dealing with their bereavement and grief. I am especially concerned with the children of Japan. Please pass this information along to parents and teachers of children that you know that my have been affected by this unfolding atrocity. I pray that we can be of some help to them.

August 30, 2010

Kinky neurons in your brain! (or, Why should emotions be center stage in the classroom?)

Kinky neurons!?
What do I mean by this month's title? With my recent studies with Dr. Kurt Fischer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I have come to realize the tremendous importance of emotion in learning. In 2008 I was lucky to be the first person to conduct SiR (Self in Relationship) Interview studies in Japan (Murphy, 2009). Although that particular project was only my pilot study, it quickly became obvious that the subjects and concepts that students have strong feelings for (be it positive or negative feelings) make much easier discussion topics than subjects and ideas that students are indifferent about. Put in these terms, I'm sure this conclusion is hardly earth shaking. In fact, the conclusion is quite mundane, isn't it? However, when it comes to pedagogic design, I think most of us are guilty of not putting students' emotions into serious consideration. Why is this so? Whatever that answer may be, it seems to be the crux of the problem. Not such a mundane point anymore is it?

We have a hundred billion neurons in our brains. What do they do up there? They have dendrites (entry port 'branches') that collect information, a nucleus that processes the information, and then an axon (the tail of the neuron for the 'export' of information to the next neuron). Those are the basics of the neurons. These neurons are also massively connected to each other. Those hundred billion neurons make up about a quadrillion connections. Let's think about this. What kind of crunching power do each of these neurons have individually? -and more importantly, what makes them kinky?

In a nutshell, individual neurons are as dumb as the circuit breakers that are collecting dust on one of your walls at home. Well, almost as dumb.The big difference is that a circuit breaker terminates the signal when too much power comes down the circuit. This protects your living room from exploding when you turn your home theater's volume up too high, rIght? However, in the case of neurons, the opposite is true -the signal is terminated if not enough power comes down the line. In other words, neurons must get thoroughly excited to function as information relays. So, if a neuron's nucleus goes gaga over some data, it will send impulses down the axon shaft and 'ejaculate' neurotransmitters into the synaptic gap in the hopes that the next neuron's 'womb-like' structures will accept them. If that adjacent 'inseminated' neuron gets excited enough by the first neuron's commitment, it will also 'ejaculate' neurotransmitters into the next synaptic gap in the hopes of exciting a third neuron -and so on down the line. If this sounds kind of kinky to you, you are certainly on the right track. It is kind of kinky. Our neurons work very much like the birds and the bees -and the flowers too. However, just as copulation never has a 100% success rate, the exchange between neurons is also naturally fallible. But we are talking about our brain processes aren't we! What could be more important? Why on earth would our brains be based on such a kinky (and utterly clumsy) system!? Well, that's a matter we will just have to take up with mother evolution… there isn't much else we can do about it.

Or is there? If we as teachers embrace the fact that our neurons must be excited enough to pass on information, and if we realize that there are unique individual thresholds within each of us that must be surpassed, perhaps we, as teachers, can find the motivation to add more individualized pizazz into our classroom pedagogies. By that I don't mean to say that we all have to turn into first-rate entertainers for our students. Indeed, what Student A might find entertaining may be downright boring for Student B, so even the most entertaining teacher may not reach every student in the classroom.

What am I saying then? A realistic solution is to let our students have freedom to follow their own passions during the learning process. In normal circumstances, students who are allowed to follow their individual passions during class time will generally be motivated to push their learning further than students who are just being forced to do activities that are uninspiring for them. This is one of the major benefits of student centered and differentiated learning. Student centered and differentiated learning actually make neuroscientific sense. So, the next time you are in class, remember that each one of your students has their own unique 'birds and the bees' context in their heads, and as it is your job to get all of them working as actively and as efficiently as possible, you must attempt to raise every student's interest levels above each of their own individual thresholds. This sounds like a daunting task. Indeed it would be quite impossible in many cases if you adhered to only teacher centered pedagogies. However, as discussed above, student centered activities are a fantastic remedy for these situations. By putting students' emotions centerstage, we solve many classroom problems with one clean sweep!

Remember: Let your students get emotional! Give them opportunities to follow their own passions!

Neuro-myth busters: We've all heard it a million times - if you are cool and logical, you are a left-brained person -if you are imaginative and emotional then you must be right brained… or something along those lines. The neuro-myth often goes even further by saying that we can teach for the left brain, or enhance the right brain. In reality, both hemispheres in our brains are so massively convoluted that it is impossible to perform tasks with only one particular part of the brain being involved. We use huge networks of neurons that span both hemispheres of the brain for even seemingly simplistic processes -such as recognizing a friend's face or drawing stick figures. So, there is no such thing as a left-brained person. There is no such thing as teaching to the left brain. The only people on the earth who are truly left-brained or right-brained are people who have had a hemispherectomy - removal of one hemisphere of the brain, not to be confused with a lobotomy -the removal of some of the frontal parts of the brain.

Next article I will have an interview with a professor that actually studies people who have had a hemispherectomy. They function remarkably well!! We are just getting our feet wet with this topic. Be sure to come back next month for some astonishing findings about the brain!! See you then!

As always, please send in comments and/or questions to, or add to the discussion below!

July 14, 2010

What's wrong with testing and drilling? What if you were dyslexic?

This month we have our first interview! Let me introduce Zachary Stein. I first met Zak a couple of years ago on the Harvard campus at their Mind, Brain and Education Institute. He is a philosopher and a fantastic academic. He is heavily involved in the new field of Mind, Brain and Education at Harvard. One of his strongest focuses is on testing -and he is dyslexic.

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Zak on his current research which is highly relevant to all classroom teachers and school administrators. Part 1 of this interview is about testing. Part 2 is a discussion regarding reading and dyslexia. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to send them to me! I'll make sure they get to Zak.

Murphy (M): Thanks for joining us today, Zak! Can you first tell us a bit about your academic background?

Zak Stein (ZS): I went to Hampshire College, a place with no tests and no grades. And then I snuck into the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I'm now a doctoral candidate.

Broadly speaking, my work is on the philosophy of education. But I also focus on cognitive development, psychometrics, and I am actively engaged with the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education. 

Part 1 Testing - a necessary evil?

M: What do you think is 'wrong' with typical testing?

ZS: It's important to understand that testing (or assessment) is a necessary part of any educational situation. Anytime anyone is teaching something to someone, the teacher needs to figure out what the learner knows and could most benefit from learning next. That entails some kind of assessment, some kind of test, to check in on where the learner is at.

The problem is when tests are used for some other purpose, such as distributing educational opportunities or holding schools or teachers accountable. Now, you can claim that these help students learn in a round about way. But the farther the test is from serving as a diagnostic in the learning process itself the greater the risk that the test is doing more harm than good.   

M: What can you say about the so-called standardized tests?

ZS: We (at DTS) build standardized, embedded, formative assessments, which provide richly educative feedback to learners and teachers. So just because a test is standardized doesn't mean its got to serve some abstract bureaucratic function. Although, at least in the USA, this is what people think of when they think of standardized tests: sorting kids; accountability; high stakes. 


M: What vision and goals do you have regarding testing?

ZS: Our long term goal is to change the nature of the standardized testing infrastructure at multiple levels in the social system--from K-12 to college entrance, human resource management, and professional development.

We think that assessments should be based on research about human development and learning, and that they should not just be used to sort individuals or dole out rewards and punishments.

Our vision is of a society that values radically educative institutional arrangements, wherein assessments play one role in fostering the full development of individual's potentials. 

M: What is DTS? What do you do at DTS?

ZS: The Developmental Testing Service, Inc. (DTS) is a non-profit research and development organization focusing on issues at the interface of developmental psychology, psychometrics, and test design.

I started DTS with my mentor, colleague, and friend, Theo Dawson. She's the director, I'm the deputy director. The organization has three branches. One focuses on adult development, doing research and building assessments for use in a variety of contexts, such as business, government, and higher education. The second branch focuses on K-12 standardized testing reform--we call this the DiscoTest initiative (disco is latin for I learn; and the etymology goes to discovery, discourse, etc). Here we are building assessments for use in the classroom. The third branch is basically like a think tank that focuses on analyzing the copious amounts of data generated by our assessments, and on big picture questions about learning, education, and society.

(Information is available at:

Part II Dyslexia and reading...

M: You continuously amaze me with your contributions to the field of academics even though you have been diagnosed with dyslexia. How do you cope with all the academic reading and writing?

ZS: I am dyslexic, but I read a ton! I think with any learning disabled student motivation is the key. I got obsessed with philosophical issues in my early 20's, and the only way to get into them was to read. So I read and read and read, until it became second nature.  

It is also worth noting that dyslexia is a catchall term for poor readers, so not all dyslexics have the same problems. I don't think the form I have is a language disability--it's more like I have an a-typical visual field. For example, all my proof-reading problems went away when I got a larger computer monitor and enlarged the text on my display 200%. 

M: There are many teachers of children reading this column. Dyslexia may not be apparent in children using Japanese, but it may surface in English class. Is there a 'wrong' approach to teaching children with reading problems? What advice can you provide for teaching children with dyslexia, and other reading problems?

ZS: Emotion is critical to consider. Many of the most significant problems learning disabled students have often have nothing to do with their specific disability. Their biggest problems come from years of emotional negativity surrounding schooling. Often, learning disabled students are required to spend extra time on the things they are worst at, and they are reminded again and again of their deficiencies. That's just unfair. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone should have a chance to work on both.  

M: Thanks Zak!

Murphy's comments:

I am always inspired when I think about Zak. He is a deep thinker and a very caring person. One can only imagine how much extra work he had to put in to combat his dyslexia and become a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is mind-boggling, isn't it?

Let's think about what he had to say in this interview. I found a lot to think about in Part 1 regarding testing. How much of our own testing here in Japan is not guilty of having some "bureaucratic function"? What should we do about this? What can we do about this? Part 2 of the interview introduces the importance of emotion. My own research tells me that emotion should be centerstage in pedagogic design (more on this in future columns!). What really hit me was Zak's comment about students being "required to spend extra time on things that they are worst at." As teachers we often assume that practice makes perfect -drilling a student over and over will help them master it. But what of the student's emotions? If the drilling is traumatic, how much learning will occur? Is it actually worth the mental scarring? Some teachers may just shrug their shoulders and say shikataganai (It can't be helped). What do you think? I'd like you hear your comments!

Next month (Aug 15th): Why "emotion should be centerstage in the classroom" and more neuro-myth busting! 

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