Tag Archives: Thoughts on Thinking

Learning is About Enhancing Brain Pathways

living_circuts_Whatever the ability is, it is located in the brain.  So, when we pick up a dime from the table – that is a neural activity.  When we really focus our listening as we experience a beloved concert – we are activating and working our brain.  So for anyone of us to stretch or grow our ability in any way – the brain is a big part of that growth.

Growth means to deepen your knowledge, increase the effectiveness of your performances and/or shape your dispositions.  Personal growth is about you intentionally working at increasing your own growth at your own “edges”.  And, any growth you make becomes portable and it shows up where you are.  Because it is part of you, it is rooted.

In this post I’ll be sharing information form The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle (2009).  This book explains a how ‘talent’ is grown by looking at how our brains work.  Coyle reports”

Useful Brain Science Insight Number 1:

All actions are really the result of electrical impulses sent along chains of nerve fibers.  Basically, our brains are bundles of wires – 100 billion wires called neurons, connected to each other by synapses. Whenever you do something, your brain sends a signal through those chains of nerve fibers to your muscles.  Each time you practice anything – sing a tune, swing a club, read this sentence – a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of like a string of Christmas lights.

Useful Brain Science Insight Number 2:

The more we develop a skill circuit, the less we’re aware that we’re using it.   We are built to make skills automatic, to stash them in our unconscious mind.  This process, which is called automaticity, exists for powerful evolutionary reasons. It also creates a powerfully convincing illusion: a skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.

These two insights – skills as brain circuits and automaticity – create a paradoxical combination: we’re forever building vast, intricate circuits, and we’re simultaneously forgetting that we built them.  (Pages 36, 37 and 38)

So, if you want to get better at throwing a baseball, thinking more abstractly, dancing the jig, creating homemade birthday cards or developing your ability to communicate: with individuals, with groups, with subordinates, and/or with those you report to then – find your edge and start trying to throw that ball or dance that jig!  Growing, developing and becoming are not passive or lucky ‘brain events’.

For a person to grow and develop that person needs to go to his or her ‘edge’ of the skill, disposition, knowledge and/or understanding and they will need to work through the disequilibrium that comes from moving beyond the ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’.  So, learning, growing and developing surely is a courageous journey.  Whether it is a song you are learning on your clarinet or a new way of actively listening deeply to the members of your family.

Coyle explains that “struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.  Or, put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”  (page 18)

A person has to be willing to “address” his or her “growth edges” if he or she wants to change and grow.  Coyle has reported the science behind this.  And he shares how it is that our brains respond to practice, when we are ‘operating at the edges’: To do that he tells the story of myelin.

You are likely asking: What is myelin? Here is how Coyle explains where myelin fits into learning.

“(1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of fibers.  (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.  (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.” (page 32) he sums things up this way: “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.  The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.” (page 33)

Myelin is “universal: everyone can grow it, most swiftly during childhood but also throughout life. It’s indiscriminate: its growth enables all manner of skills, mental and physical.  It’s imperceptible: we can’t see it or feel it, and we can sense its increase only by its magical-seeming effects.  Most of all, however, myelin is important because it provides us with a vivid new model for understanding skill.  Skill is a cellular insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows in response to certain signals.” (page 6)

So, learning is about enhancing brain pathways to be open and ready for use.  Learning is about putting in time in ways that stretch us. And as we stretch we need to try to process our way to higher progress. These are the rules.  These rules are not to be ignored.  Working through the challenges at our growth edges is how we progress.

“All skills, all language, all music, all movements, are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules.” ~ Dr. George Bartozokis


Forging the Future by Effectively and Honestly Working Across Differences

I hope to probe some thinking and possible discussions stimulated by excerpts from Giants: the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer, 2008.

The following text is from the book jacket.  It helps to set the stage for the quote you will be asked to consider and respond to.

Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were preeminent self-made men of their time.  In this masterful dual biography, award-winning Harvard University scholar John Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these two giants during a major shift in cultural history, when men rejected the status quo and embraced new ideals of personal liberty.  As Douglass and Lincoln reinvented themselves and ultimately became friends, they transformed America.

Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal schooling, and became the nation’s greatest president.  Douglass spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling – in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write – and became one of the nation’s greatest writers and activists, as well as a spellbinding orator and messenger of audacious hope, the pioneer who blazed the path traveled by future African-American leaders.

 At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln invited Douglass into the White House.  Lincoln recognized that he needed Douglas to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union; Douglass realized that Lincoln’s shrewd sense of public opinion would serve his own goal of freeing the nation’s blacks. ~ Quoted from the Book Jacket of Giants: the parallel lives of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

John Eaton (a chaplain who organized freedmen) considered Lincoln’s friendship with Douglass a testament to the president’s bipartisan diplomacy.  One of the president’s great skills, he said, was “in handling the men who were inclined to find fault with his policy,” Eaton had no way of knowing that Lincoln had developed his skill on the Illinois frontier with adversaries ranging from Jack Armstrong to Stephen Douglas.  “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” He had declared twenty-two years earlier.  The doctrine had served him well, for he had done exactly that with countless blacks.

Douglass could befriend Lincoln because the president had finally converted to his abolition cause.  He too had remained faithful to his principle of friendship, which depended upon a shared cause.  The two men needed each other.  Lincoln needed Douglass to help him save the Union, and he served Douglass’s own goal of freeing the slaves.  At their August 1864 meeting both men recognized that these twin goals were mutually reinforcing.

But their friendship also hinged on their capacity to forgive.  As self-made men who continually transformed themselves, Douglass and Lincoln understood that former enemies may become future friends and vice versa.  They refused to see themselves as fixed or static.  In order to achieve transformation, they needed to forgive their former enemies of wrongdoing and credit them with the potential for change.  Their faith in the power of forgiveness led to the possibility of rapprochement and gave them the strength continue evolving.  (pages 291-292)

Something to think about:

There are countless situations in a career as a leader that stimulate growth.  Think through the lens of the probe below about any of the times you have developed as a person or a leader.

Think about (and share by posting, if you wish) yourself as a leader/person who has:

forged friendships with those you disagree with,

demonstrated the capacity to forgive,

sees yourself as a self-made woman or man,

sees yourself as continually transforming or evolving yourself,

refused to see yourselves as fixed or static, and/or

found that in order for you to achieve transformation – you have needed to forgive your former antagonists of wrongdoing and credit them with the potential for change.


It is worth our effort to begin this journey toward developing our social brain

From my point of view, the challenge of being intentional about connecting – mind-to-mind is worth accepting – because the stakes are so very high.  I believe that we live in times where interdependent thinking holds real value for all mankind.

People engaging in conversations where transformation has the potential of occurring are people who can help form adaptive interactions.  Adaptive responses to the status quo can help create futures focused on the common good.  Yes, I use the word “can” because there is no assurance that common good will be the shared focus.

Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (2009) write about adaptive leadership.  Their definition: Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive (page 14) sounds like the kind of leadership many of us might want to experience.  Tackling tough challenges and thriving is the direction to the future that I want to put my energy into. For me that sounds like the ‘common good’.

These conversations need to be more intentional than casual.  Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman in their chapter Creating Communities of Thought: Skills, Tasks, and Practices from The Power of the Social Brain edited by Arthur Costa and Pat Wilson O’Leary (2013) write: “When, how and with whom we participate shapes the possibilities of our lives.  Participation fuses with purpose when catalytic questions energize the cognitive reaction.

Purpose, process, and reflection are the essential components of provocative and thoughtful inquiry.  The challenge of the questions that we ask ourselves, and now we ask those questions, make the difference between committees and communities.

Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman offer the following formulation:  Purpose + Participation + Catalytic Questions = A Sustainable Community of Thought

purpose_ParticipationThe ‘with whom’ part of the above quote is crucial to think deeply about.  I suggest that we need to get very good at engaging with people across differences.

The ‘how and when’ part of the above quote is not to be taken lightly either.  These two components are fundamental to reaching the potential that is possible when people think together across differences. Working toward reaching a solid consensus is a worthy goal as is being sure to tackle tough problems when there are engaged people ‘in the room’ who look at the issue or topic from varied perspectives and are willing to work together to attempt to find a consensus agreement.

Thinking together in complex times requires being willing to develop our skills, abilities, and dispositions. We have knowledge to gain.  We have capabilities to develop.  Connecting mind-to-mind is worth the effort.  Thinking well across differences is essential in these challenging times.  It is worth our effort to begin this journey toward developing our social brain.

Individuals can and do (at times) become walled silos of thought

Below are words I wrote as part of the Foreword for The Power of the Social Brain by Arthur Costa and Pat Wilson O’Leary.  I share these thoughts to encourage others to develop themselves as people capable of interdependent thinking.

There are many hurdles for those engaged in intentionally improving as an interdependent thinker. Individuals intent on independence, faced with the fact that others think differently about a given problem, often engage in aggressive or avoidant techniques. These techniques vary and can include holding onto past thinking, refusing to interact with other thinkers, labeling other thinkers as the enemy, and jumping to conclusions. The stability of a person’s status-quo thinking is often very attractive. It can be challenging to move into the instability and tentativeness of shared thinking. Patterson et al. (2008) explain that unpleasant endeavors “require a motivation that can come only from within. People stimulate this internal motivation by investing themselves in an activity. That is, they make the activity an issue of personal significance. They set high standards of who they’ll be, high enough to create a worthy challenge, and then they work hard to become that very person” (p. 93). Being internally motivated to grow and develop as a person who thinks well with others is a value for the person and for the common good.

Some individuals and like-minded groups of individuals can and do become walled silos of thought. Often adults in one specialty or with one point of view are certain that individuals who hold different worldviews won’t be willing to connect openly and think together without tensions erupting or without having the discussants fall back into unproductive “winner” and “loser” arguments.

Many others make no attempt even to politely associate with those who think differently.  Those committed to having their thoughts become the winning thoughts harbor hostility toward those who think differently. The other extreme is to be polite and settle for superficial interactions.

The promise of people thinking interdependently through contentious problem-solving situations is that such efforts ultimately can achieve significant positive outcomes for society and/or the individual. When we engage in interdependent thinking, we can all influence and be part of positive change. We all will not get our way or be the “argument winner.”

But if we invest in the concepts of thinking together with an open mind, a willingness to understand how others think and feel, and a desire to reflect and rethink throughout the process of coming to an actionable decision, we can accomplish much together.


The Emotional Challenges of the Social Brain:

Collective_ThinkingI might not know;

I have to think in public;

I might be wrong;

I might be judged by others . . .

Thinking with others does not necessarily come easy for any of us.  We may want to think well with others and at the same time we may look at thinking well together with others as one of our own individual growth edges we want to address.   I suggest that addressing our own growth and development requires being committed to growing.  And while we intentionally work on our own growth we will also can benefit from accepting that we aren’t perfect and others might judge us in some unflattering way.

To nurture own own abilities to think interdependently Lipton and Wellman give us much to think about.  Hear are some of their observations:

“To be a community of thought means to think interdependently.

This complex exchange requires both cognitive and emotional energy and cognitive and emotional risk.

A community of thought shares an intellectual and emotional commons.

Like the village greens of old, groups gain sustenance and energy from shared pastures. These energy sources include systematic experimentation and complex problem solving. When groups meet, physically or virtually, they create and re-create this commons.

Collective thinking draws on the resources of individuals to produce ideas and insights, and to support and extend the production of ideas and insights of others.

This rich and deep collaboration comes with emotional challenges: I might not know; I have to think in public; I might be wrong; I might be judged by others.”

Creating Communities of Thought Skills, Tasks, and Practices by Laura Lipton & Bruce Wellman From:  The Power of the Social Brain: Teaching, Learning and Interdependent Thinking by Arthur L. Costa and Pat Wilson O’Leary, 2013, Teacher’s College Press, Page 62


Researchers (Woolley et al., 2010) find three individual-level features that correlate in a statistically significant way to collective intelligence:

 1. The greater the social sensitivity of group members, the smarter the group.

2. The more turn taking within the group, the better the group performs.

3. The more women in the group, the higher the group IQ.

Woolley and her colleagues surmised that groups with more women are smarter because women tend to be more socially sensitive than men. Thus, the gender factor is real but indirect—that is, it is mediated by the property of social sensitivity.

The women’s collective problem-solving capabilities were enhanced by their collaborative style, while the mens efforts to assert their own solutions led them to get in one another’s way. The difference in collective intelligence did not occur because the individual women were smarter than the individual men, but rather because of a difference in gender-related group dynamics.

While social movements and changes since the mid-1970s might or might not result in different results today in terms of the style of men and women’s participation in groups, the important point is that collaboration trumped assertiveness as a productive path to group results.

Others emphasize creating collaboration to build collective intelligence. Tapscott and. Williams (2008) promote four elements to develop collective intelligence: openness, peering (allowing members to adapt and build on one another’s ideas), sharing ideas, and acting globally to access ideas.many_many_shared_idea-scaled500

From : Developing Smart Groups by Robert J. Garmston  Hord in The Power of the Social Brain: Teaching, Learning and Interdependent Thinking by Arthur L. Costa and Pat Wilson O’Leary, 2013, Teacher’s College Press, pages 76 & 77.

As School Leaders We Need To Have Intentional Conversation To Increase Our Understanding

When school leaders think about teachers they may like to think their perspective (the perspective of a school leader)  would be fair and accurate.

My experience in understanding how people “think together” suggests that thinking interdependently requires truly seeking first to understand, as Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People challenges us to do. This means deeply listening to and not arguing and instead probing to understand further.

Follow this hyperlink to an article an ex-teacher wrote.  Kevin Walsh brings up what he calls, “four ignored elephants of quality in the classroom”.  I ask that you read the Huffington Post article.  And that you consider his points.  Might you want to have conversations with others in education (school board members, teachers, parents etc.) about the four “elephants” he identifies?  As you have these conversation – consider probing and paraphrasing to show you understand the point of view being shared.

Kevin_Walsh_Seek to understand!

My belief is that understandings can lead to collaboration, cooperation, idea generation and/or interdependence.  As we work to serve the learning needs of all children collaboration, cooperation, idea generation and/or interdependence will definitely be needed!!!!