I will preface this post by saying I have never taken a psychology class with the exception of a SUNY Potsdam course entitled “Child Development” which briefly touched on the ideas of: Maslow, Piaget, Freud, Erikson, and Pavlov, etc... I didn't commit much psychological theory or theorists to memory, in fact, I found the class completely yawn inducing. That being said, I have always had a fascination with behavioral science and I have been accused of armchair psychiatry by many members of my family, more than once.
Based on that underlying curiosity, when I tuned into RadioLab, a couple weeks ago, to hear the introduction of an episode called Choice about the various and numerous psychological studies that look at how humans make decisions, I was mildly interested. Then when hosts Robert and Jad started talking about a particular research project that looked like a simple memory test, but was actually an investigation into how the brain is hard-wired to resist self-control in certain circumstances, I was completely hooked. In this study, the researchers gave participants either two or seven numbers to memorize and sent them to another room to recite the number. On their way to the other room, however, while they are saying the number over and over to keep it in their heads, someone approached them and asked if they would like a snack of either a bowl of fruit salad or a piece of gooey, frosted chocolate cake. Overwhelmingly, the people trying to keep two numbers in their head chose the bowl of fruit and the people memorizing the seven numbers chose the chocolate cake. The researchers concluded that the people who had two numbers were able to stay rational and choose the healthier snack; where as, the people trying to keep track of the seven numbers were distracted, frustrated, and overwhelmed, so their brains short-circuited and they chose the unhealthy, but more mouth pleasing snack.
In another study, a researcher showed the same written profile of one individual to participants and asked if they liked the person based on just the qualities written in the profile. But first, he contrived a way for them to hold either a paper-cup of hot or iced coffee for about one second before looking at the profile. Again, with overwhelming numbers, the people who held the warm cup said they liked the person and the people who held the cold cup said they didn't. Whoa, their perception of the person was based solely on the feeling of the cup- warm represents a comforting, loving person and cold is characteristic of a hard and unyielding person. Their brains did not even assess the actual profile. He also did another study using color instead of temperature and discovered black has negative connotations and white represents positive. This is fairly disturbing to even consider. We talk about teaching color-blindness in terms of race relations and social justice, however, as it turns out, our brains are not color blind at all, they associate definite feelings with each color.
Psychologists have developed an iceberg diagram to represent conscious and subconscious thought. Everything below the water line is our subconscious and we are only cognizant of the very small tip peaking above the waves. Our brains are working overtime and we aren't even aware of what they are doing most of the time.
Therefore, our rational, socially evolved selves can acknowledge equity for all, environmental and social justice, peace, and love, but underneath our brains may be sabotaging all that. Is it really true that we can't outrun or outsmart our biology?
The amazing Jane Goodall was the first to discover that chimps were not the peace loving, docile vegetarians they were believed to be. During her forty plus year career of documenting chimpanzee behavior, she has watched them kill and eat colobus monkeys, take part in kidnapping and infanticide, and participate in full blown war between distinct groups and clans.
Yes, our closest living biological relatives (they share 98% of our DNA) can be war mongering, malicious, self-centered, and downright nasty. This information along with the many psychological studies showing our lack of will power in certain circumstances, as well as our brain's manipulative powers is fairly damning for the human species.
Can humans rise above our basic biological inclinations? Could that possibly be the next evolutionary step for man-kind?
These are questions I was considering, feeling more depressed as the thoughts swirled through my head. Then, I listened to an episode of This American Life with Ira Glass called Batman which was profiling the brand new radio show Invisibilia. What I heard gave me considerably more information to contemplate as well as raise my dejected spirits.
The hosts of this new show, Alix and Lulu interviewed a scientist who did a study about perceptions and expectations using rats and humans. The evening before the study began, he went into the lab and randomly labeled the rat's cages, “smart” or “dumb” indicating the intelligence of each rat. These signs, however, were not true; all of the rats were of the same average intelligence. The people who were part of the study were asked to put these rats through a maze. It was noted that the rats with a “dumb” label did poorly and the rodents identified as “smart” did very well. Now remember all of the rats were exactly the same level of intelligence! What was going on? The researcher observed that the rats labeled “dumb were treated coldly and handled with little emotion, while the rats labeled “smart” were loved up and treated with kindness. He determined that our preconceptions and expectations alone determine how we treat someone/thing and the outcome matches those sentiments. I don't even want to consider how this plays out in a classroom--- but the 1964 Harvard University study I mentioned in the previous post entitled the Problem with Labeling gives us some clues...
The hosts went on to explore the idea of how expectations influence a persons abilities and behavior. They spent time with, Daniel, a blind man who could “see.” At a very young age, his eyes were removed because of cancer and he developed a clicking, sonar like system, similar to a bats. He was a very rambunctious, energetic, over the top child and his mother refused to hold him back or coddle him just because he didn't have eyes. He climbed trees and other tall structures; he ran; he rode a bicycle; he hiked in the wilderness; he did all the things any wildly rambunctious, outdoor loving kid would do. As the story progressed, the audience learns that when a scan was taken of the part of his brain that indicates sight, his lit up like a Christmas tree. According to this brain scan, he can see! His mother treats him like any normal sighted person and Daniel behaves as one. Sounds crazy, right?
Now back to my question about humans: is it possible to outrun or outsmart our basic biology? After listening to and contemplating these stories as well as my own experience, I personally would say “yes.”
If we choose to live with awareness, intention, and integrity (take responsibility for our feelings and actions), and if we choose to be honest and kind with ourselves, that grace will spill over into our interactions with others. And, as we have seen from these psychological studies, warmth, good intentions, favorable perceptions, and positive expectations towards others, influences their behavior.
Yes, a major portion of our psyche is buried deep within our brains, but, in the end, I believe, life is all about making conscious choices. Will you be kind, warm, and honest or will you be condescending, sly, and unpleasant? Will you be empathetic or will you be cruel? Will you interact with humor and affection or will you be aloof and cold?
This is not to say that we can't have an occasional grouchy day, we've all been there. But think about the times you have been in the company of someone who puts zing into everything they do---made you feel like zinging too, right? Sometimes it takes effort, but seeing, and feeling, the results of emitting positive vibes and embracing life is worth taking the time to think your actions through. Eventually those conscious choices become internalized and your subconscious will takeover. Before you know it, you will be embracing your genuine, weird, warm, honest, giving, and zany self with abandon and it will feel as natural as breathing.
My family often views and expresses our experiences through the comic filters of Looney Tunes, Monty Python, and of course, Sesame Street and the creative genius of Jim Henson's muppets. I mean who doesn't love the classic Road Runner when Sam the sheep dog is behind the Coyote at the time clock, and their exchange of “....Morning Sam, Morning Ralph....” and of course Foghorn Leghorn and his interactions with the little chickenhawk, "I say boy...". Or, the time tested witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “...what else floats?” ...very small rocks.” But my very favorite will always be the Sesame Street skit that features Guy Smiley as the Pied Piper of Hamlin. He goes into the town and tries unsuccessfully to get the mice to follow, so he says, in his awesome hippie, Guy Smiley voice, “Hey man, I'm laying this stuff down, but these mice just ain't picking it up.” Yes, I laugh every single time!
When I reflect on the extraordinarily full, fun, and exhilarating past week, I think of that Sesame Street skit and realize, I am laying down this message and people are “picking it up”. Within the past seven day period, I have communicated with at least five families, through facebook, email, and phone, who want to explore Deep Root Center as an educational option for their family. And, I assisted two students, face to face, with homeschool documentation, one of whom signed on as our latest member. I forgot to mention the three boys who came on Tuesday to hang out and play Magic.
DRC is sending a message of hope, encouragement, and support to all of those families who have children who are miserable, bored, and who are not thriving in the school setting; who are willing to embrace the homeschool paradigm because they recognize the positive impact it will have on their lives, but don't know how to negotiate the documentation required to pull their child from school. They may be worried that they won't have access to educational materials, or have the time. In some cases, families are concerned about social opportunities, or that their child will fall behind academically.
To help dispel common myths and provide clear information, Deep Root Center is sponsoring the film Class Dismissed during Canton's Winterfest, Sunday, February 8th – 7pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Main Street in Canton. This amazing documentary looks closely at and explores all of the above issues with compassion, honesty, and clarity.
Viewing this film is an important first step in the process of understanding how homeschooling can fit into your family's life, but DRC can offer immediate information and assistance, as well. If you have read the New York State homeschool regulations (all gazillion pages) and came away confused and discouraged, DRC has simplified the process. We have created templates of the three required documents and can help write them.
Deep Root Center is also the resource center and space for busy families who believe they don't have time or access to the appropriate materials to homeschool. DRC offers classes, space for creative, hands-on projects, independent research, help finding internships, assistance building portfolios, mentoring, books, a myriad of oddities (including a collection of painted animal bones), art supplies, and a safe social environment.
Students also have access to one-on-one tutorials, based on their particular interest, with extended staff who may be professionals, college students or professors from our community. These are often rigorous academic opportunities that exceed any class within the traditional educational system. Youth can come to Deep Root Center as often as they want and use it in anyway that works best for them.
In letting go of cultural norms and expectations, you will discover that learning is active, vital and alive; the opportunity to learn something new is around every corner. Learning happens outside on a sledding hill, on a hiking trail, or in a patch of grass in your backyard; it occurs while watching National Geographic, The History Channel, PBS, Sesame Street, or YouTube; it takes place during a trip to the library, post office, or museum, it can even result from sitting at the dinner table, as a family, discussing your day.
This is a message whose time has come. A world of information is literally wide open to anyone who has the desire to tap into it or “pick it up”. Deep Root Center is here to assist you with your journey into that expanse of endless knowledge. How will you use us?
Wait! Before you go all disapproving and judgmental on me, “ain't” is being used intentionally (which by the way is a real word, even spell check doesn't freak out with a red underline) for dramatic effect and flair and as a device to draw you in to the real meat of this post. See, even when I try to be surreptitious, I end up explaining the motivation---to completely understand the reference, please read the post entitled Transparency.
While Deep Root Center is relatively new (we opened our doors almost exactly a year ago), the self-directed learning model is not. We, along with eight other Centers in the US and Canada, are members of the Liberated Learners network that replicate North Star; Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Hadley, MA.
North Star has a proven track record, since 1996, of assisting over five hundred teens in the Amherst/Northampton area leave school and get a life. That is nineteen years of mentoring and advising kids who are miserable, disenfranchised, and who want to engage with the world on their own terms. Nineteen years of providing an individualized, non-coercive education to those youth who choose to leave school. Nineteen years of proclaiming: Learning is natural. School is optional. Nineteen years of listening with compassion to teens who are bursting to tell their story. These kids are so grateful to North Star they are delighted to share their stories with others who are considering the self-directed learning path at open houses and information sessions for North Star and the other Liberated Learner Centers.
In truth, however, this method of educating children has been around much longer than nineteen years. In fact, it has been around since anatomically, modern humans have roamed the earth (that is a really long time). As primates we are designed to learn. How could we survive to pass on our genes, if that was not true? And despite current cultural beliefs, that desire to learn does not turn off just because a child turns 5, 8, or 13. It remains with us our entire lives. Personally, I am not entirely happy unless I am in the midst of a learning experience. Think of all the stories on NPR or CBC (for those of you in Canada or on the border), or the Internet that capture your attention; you are engaged, thinking, and learning. My beloved Grandma used to say, “it has been a wasted day if you didn't learn something new.”
Ken Danford and Joshua Hornick, the founders of North Star, just took the concept of self-directed learning that has been around forever and created this “new” educational model. I will contend that this form of education only appears revolutionary, unfamiliar, and scary because our society accepted compulsory education as the norm a little over 100 years ago. Public education became the law of the land as a way to combat child labor in factories and mines and to create a pliable, obedient industrial workforce for the future, not necessarily to promote learning. But even then, up till 50 or so years ago, discretion and common sense ruled. For example, children who lived on farms were excused during important seasonal work that was essential to the livelihood and survival of the family.
Common sense is what the self-directed educational experience encompasses. Each individual is empowered to make the most logical choices based on their individual needs, desires, and interests. I will repeat, it ain't new and it ain't rocket science, we humans have been doing it for a few millennium. These visionaries in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts just brought it into the modern age and we are very fortunate they decided to share their model with the rest of the world.
Many are curious why I founded Deep Root Center. When the question arises I never have to think very hard before answering. DRC and our sister organizations exist for all of those kids who need an educational model that says, “you are a unique individual with unique interests, a unique learning style, and a unique way of looking at the world.” We are here for all of the youth who have heard, in one form or another, “we can not meet your needs here.” Which really means, “we are not willing to spend the time to get to know you as an individual and you are not worth our time.”
I am passionate about creating a space where kids are empowered to design their own education based upon their specific interests and desires, a space with mentors that offer compassionate understanding of their particular strengths and challenges, a space that is open and free of judgment, and a space that is comfortable and safe for everyone.
Deep Root Center, along with eight other Centers in the US and Canada, is part of the Liberated Learners network and follows the seven basic principles that were originated by North Star in Hadley, MA. These principles act as DRC's philosophy. They are the building blocks of self-directed learning and inform everything we do.
The one that speaks the loudest to me is number four: how people behave under one set of circumstances does not predict how they will behave under a very different set of circumstances.
In other words, if a student is acting out, getting bad grades, or is simply not thriving in a particular educational setting, it does not mean they are doomed to academic failure. It only means they are not in the correct environment. The inability to recognize and nurture the individual is, I believe, at the root of most of these academic mismatches. When an institution is inflexible and tied to particular standards and regulations, they will naturally be unable to provide for everyone who comes through their doors.
I work tirelessly and joyously to ensure that every youth who wants to leave school to follow their passion is able to do so. I thrive in a creative atmosphere that provides a compassionate ear, problem solving opportunities, time for personal research and introspection, and hands on, inventive, and imaginative projects for all who enter.
At Deep Root Center we pride ourselves on listening deeply to all you have to say and on meeting your individual needs. That, quite simply, is why we are here.