Driving Einstein's Brain
In his book "Driving Mr. Albert," Michael Paterniti describes a cross-country journey with former Princeton pathologist Dr. Thomas Harvey and, neatly stored in the truck of the teal-colored Buick Skylark, Albert Einstein's brain. Together, they set off on an eight-day quest, heading to California to bring some closure to what was clearly a strange series of events.
Fascinated by this unbelievable journey, I started reading about the tangential events leading to, and following, this trip. Of particular interest were the studies of a neuroscientist from UC Berkeley. This scientist had been studying the effect of enrichment activities on brain development in rats. The research discovered that the brains of rats in enriched environments had thicker cortexes and more complex dendrites, and were able to process events faster. With this data in hand, the scientist undertook a study of Einstein's brain to determine the essence of genius, bringing to question whether "escaping an everyday life of raw monotony to take refuge in a world crowded with images of our own creation" makes us smarter? Do these activities change the composition of the brain, or simply awaken the potential? The question of nature versus nurture, and the quality of the research will be for others to decide. It is fascinating, however, that the research discovered a larger number of glial cells in Einstein's brain, and those rats from enriched environments than in those of the other brains in the study.
Intuitively, we all know that engaging activities and sensory stimulation awaken the portals to understanding. We see it in our students as they animatedly participate in classroom projects and activities that generate an enthusiastic flow of questions, punctuated with palpable excitement. There is nothing greater than having students energetically engaged in learning and exchanging ideas with their teacher and peers. I cannot determine if this has led to an increase number of glial cells in their brains, but I can attest to the joy they express in recounting their classroom experiences to me in the hallway. This joy can stem from their latest garden project, to manipulating numbers in new ways, or dipping a simulated, blubbery hand in ice water to understand how seals and penguins survive in Antarctica.
If enrichment activities stimulate the brain enough to place one in the arbitrary classification of genius, then we now have, or will have, a lot more geniuses in the world. A far more likely outcome, I believe, is that we will have students at Alta Vista who are excited about learning, seek out knowledge, and derive joy from the process. For me, this is school at its best.
Back to School 2012
Remarks at 2012 End of Year Celebration
Education and The Art of Tinkering
Welcome to the Alta Vista School end of the year ceremonies. This is a time when an alchemy of emotions heightens our celebratory spirit in recognition of all that has been accomplished over the past year – A year filled with activities and the excitement of discovery, a year when the connectiveness of math was examined, and the wonders of science explored, while being immersed in the beauty of the literary world around us. Now, here we are at the end of a fantastic Alta Vista year, gathered in celebration.
Alta Vista School was founded based on a vision of emphasizing math, science, and technology in the teaching of young children, and with the understanding that we were going to approach education, and teaching, a little differently. Here we were not going to focus on memorization and the use of multiple worksheets, but on relevance and understanding. In other words, at AVS we are going to focus on the learner. I believe that an excellent education measures a student’s level of creativity, comprehension and practicality, and how they confluence information to identify the connections between related and seemingly unrelated data points. At AVS, eloquence of thought is gauged by the simplicity of the execution, not by its complexity.
Having spent most of my youth traveling with my family in rural Latin America, I was exposed to what I now realize were diametrically opposed, but fascinating, methods of looking at problems and finding solutions. My engineer father, like most in his profession, found great satisfaction in finding solutions to problems, in his case, how to best bring water and remove waste from emerging cities in Latin America. Once the solution was found and determined to be effective, plans were drawn, and materials ordered so the job could begin.
Recently, I took a trip to visit my daughter in Bozeman, Montana. As most of you who have taken that trip know, you can’t get there directly from here. The first part of the trip was a great time to relax and read a book. The second leg, a short hop from Salt Lake City to Bozeman – and with the excitement and anticipation of the visit – a good time to just stare out the window. Having made this trip a few times in the past, I thought I was familiar with the terrain and the mountain vistas down below. I don’t know if it was the lack of overwhelming mountain snowfall, or the altered path of the plane due to inclement weather aversion, but I noticed something I had not seen on previous trips. Tucked high on a rugged mountain and next to what looked like a thumbnail-sized lake, was what appeared to be a small, crudely built cabin, with puffs of smoke emerging from its chimney. There were no visible means of ingress or egress, no roads or footpaths, just blankets of green pine trees and scattered patches of snow.
Seeing this structure, I was reminded of my youthful days with my father, and our travels to the remote villages of our host countries. For years the inhabitants of these villages had found eloquent, simple solutions to daunting problems without the use of specialized tools and materials. They had correctly identified the relationships between the items they had at hand, and devised solutions to their pressing needs.
They were, for lack of a better word, TINKERERS. The Art of Tinkering is celebrated when the realities of isolation or scant resources force people to find creative solutions to common problems or needs. They focus on using the tools and materials on hand to solve problems and create solutions in an eloquent, simple manner; a process I speculate was used to build the secluded cabin in the remote mountain region of Montana.
Although the Alta Vista classroom resources are plentiful, our teachers’ spirit of resourcefulness has no boundaries. Part actor, part wizard, our teachers are skilled in facilitating inventive opportunities for learning. The often-quoted “teachable moment” is reached and used to create a mystical aura, as they unveil the mysteries of the world with the ultimate goal of student understanding. They have the discipline and subject mastery that enable them to develop creative lessons, filled with clarity and relevance, and thus bringing complex concepts and ideas to their students. They practice and teach the Art of the Tinkerer. In this 21st century world of limitless data, they give our students the tools to practice eloquence of thought by helping them find the thin, sometimes unrelated, strands that bind problems and solutions. This is what I would classify as true teaching that leads to understanding. At AVS, our teachers are teaching and celebrating the Art of Tinkering.
a progressive learning environment
an emphasis on science, math and technology
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