Intellectual Risk: What tethers us?

Intellectual Risks: A lesson from the high ropes. Recognize your supports when pushing the limit.

One of the ten International Baccalaureate (IB) Learner Profile attributes is Risk-taker. As we know that our brains react to both physical and emotional threats in a similar fashion, physical challenges can teach us a lot about meeting  the demands of an intellectual challenge, with all the emotional threat that this may involve.

The dreaded classroom presentation is a great example to compare to the high ropes course; it being particularly apt due to that primitive amygdala of ours, which takes over when we think that things may not go well for us, either on a wooden platform 20 meters above the ground or in front of the class.

On the high ropes, we manage our fear because we are tethered in a physical sense, or at least I hope you are if you ever go up. When students get up in front of the class to present, what tethers them? What can they use to override their self-preserving fight or flight responses in the face of an emotional threat.

Having observed a class of Grade 7 students encouraging each other on the high ropes last week, I would say that the supportive culture of classmates is as much a tether as the safety rope connected to their harness. Knowing that you will be supported by your peers, regardless of how you do, is the strongest tether we can have when taking an intellectual risk. Building this supportive culture in the classroom and recognizing its impact is a vital step in the empowerment of our students as risk-takers. How explicit do we make this in our classrooms?


Wild meat, bully burgers & honest advice

Students received some very honest advice last week from Lois-Ann Yamanaka, prominent contemporary Hawaiian author. As a former English teacher (although I am guessing that Lois-Ann will always be a teacher at heart), she is well positioned to help our aspiring young writers and also those who do not yet know that they are aspiring – because that’s what school’s about. Lois-Ann told our students to write from their heart, not their head. Heart to Hand. The consequence of not writing from the heart, Lois-Ann explained, is poor writing, this being expressed by the author with greater clarity, of course. It is our own stories and emotions (the fears, the hope, the anger, the love) that should provide our inspiration to move the reader with our writing. Successful writing is measured in laughter and tears.

This powerful piece of advice resonated with the audience, students and teachers alike. We enjoyed the stories and were confronted with the insidious reality of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of minority groups in Hawaii. With a wonderfully vivid character like Lovey to place these complex ideas in context, I think we all left with a deeper understanding of this world in which we live and an awareness of issues to confront as we move through our lives. Afterwards, one of my students remarked that she had never considered how powerful words could be – to empower and also to repress. It was a new thought, a new idea in her mind, a new kernel of truth in her heart – and who knows where this will lead. Thank you Lois-Ann Yamanaka for sharing your stories.


Enthusiasm & Engagement

I was recently in Rochester, NY for a few days and had the opportunity to visit Susan B. Anthony House. With no idea who Susan B. Anthony was, except that she was associated with campaigning for the right of woman to vote in the U.S., I didn’t know what to expect from the expedition. We were there for an hour and I emerged from this three story wooden house with a new hero – Susan B. Anthony. It’s an incredible story of strength, courage and resilience.  Our guide was an amazing person as well, drawing us into the story as we walked the wooden floors, retelling tales in magnificent detail, with a passion that was infectious.

I had been running a teacher-training workshop at the time and we had been exploring ways to engage students through service learning opportunities. Listening to the guide in this house so full of history, I was reminded that the love of the subject matter by the teacher is an important ingredient.  It was a fortunate moment to reflect on how powerful a teacher’s enthusiasm can be in helping to engage a student.  It certainly worked on me. The question is, how can we foster enthusiasm in the classroom? A good question as we continue to search for ways to deepen levels of engagement in the learning process in our schools.


A wooden brain

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A human brain, of sorts. Beautiful shot by @amyburvall.

What does the image represent to me in an educational context? A #blimage challenge per Amy Burvall & Steve Wheeler.

My first impression was that of the human brain with all of the swaying, splitting and reforming neurons, impossibly close in their fickle connections, sparking us to life and learning. How could it have been anything else?

On closer inspection the image could appear to be some type of ornamental decoration, but I had just been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules (wonderful, by the way if you haven’t come across it yet), so my brain was already wired to make that connection. It couldn’t have been anything else for me at that moment in time. So I guess that for me, this image is a brain, but also a reminder that we are at the mercy of our existing neural networks, formed by what was, not necessarily what is or what should be – the reason we learn for life.


You have to walk the dog.


Me, 40 years since I walked into my Grade 1 classroom not knowing an A from a B. Having learnt a few lessons along the way and experimented with different types of writing, I wonder what the next 40 years will bring?

My third takeaway from writing is that… You have to walk the dog. (Part of the ‘3 for Me’ project by @AmyBurvall)

I think that I learnt the necessity of keeping focused on the things that really matter, like familial responsibilities and using those times to really take a break. For many parents this may be soccer practice or parental taxi duties. The one that sticks in my mind was walking our dog. Soba was his name, a beautiful Vizsla who loved to run on the Ara riverbanks in Tokyo. I was in charge of these escapes and my daughters often came. There were times when university deadlines approached, the fragile novel seemed at a standstill and work (my real job as a principal) was busy and one or two hours in the evening that it took to walk the dog seemed like precious time indeed. At these moments, I consciously lengthened his walk rather than shortening it. This time was as therapeutic for him as it was for me. I took the time to let my mind wander and oftentimes, out of the blue, an idea would come. I carried a little notebook with me always and jotted down whatever came up. In this sense, the takeaway was to embrace those responsibilities in your life, use them as a time of escape from your creativity – a forced procrastination of sorts. Enjoy these times away from your projects and you’ll probably find them surprisingly productive.


Creativity requires us to cultivate our procrastination, not reject it.

Damian_Shaun Wedding

Me, roughly 15 years after learning to write. Just finished a degree in English Literature. All dressed up and nowhere to go, literally. I had published not a single word outside of a classroom, but this was 1990, before the internet. Was there such a time?

My second takeaway from writing projects is that… Creativity requires us to cultivate our procrastination, not reject it. (Part of the ‘3 for Me’ project by @AmyBurvall)

I had always assumed that procrastination is a devilish state of being, just a step above throwing away good food – waste, waste, waste. However, just like all other physical responses, our brains do things for a reason. I tired of thinking about my PhD in the very early stages. I could have cleaned my room, but decided to start writing a novel, or at least the first chapter of a story that I had been talking about with my daughters on our evening dog walks. It seemed so much more interesting than a literature review of discourse patterns in International Baccalaureate classrooms, as surprising as that may seem. I was on a timeline and had to get my literature review done. Writing the first chapter of a yet to be named story at that specific time was pure procrastination folly, but my brain was telling me that I needed a break from academic literature. After writing the chapter, I needed a break from fiction and it felt great to get back to a world of pretend facts. My brain was telling me that I needed a break. I bounced back and forth like this for about five years, reveling in my productive procrastination. My room was only cleaned when I became completely desperate and needed a break from them both. I think that we need a small bank of diverse creative work to continue with, so that we can cultivate our procrastination like this. Trust your brain. You’re never so focused on one thing, as you are when you’re trying to avoid another. We know this. Select a few interesting projects. Jump around, but keep coming back. Procrastinate, and be productively proud of it.


We decide whom we see in the mirror tomorrow.


Me, on the right with a green shirt that says, ‘Here comes trouble’. I had just started Grade 1 which meant, in the early 70s at least, that I had yet to learn how to write. This photo was taken in Papua New Guinea with my brother (the tall one) and a couple of friends. We didn’t write, we played.

My first takeaway (what I’ve learnt from writing) is that… We decide whom we see in the mirror tomorrow. (Part of the ‘3 for Me’ project by @AmyBurvall)

This comes back to our old friend self-doubt (Loved your bubble sketch of that one by the way Amy, from your Bursting Bubbles, Trashing Trolls post). Writing the novels and even more so with an academic monster like a PhD, taught me that doubt is all about self. In fact, in order to doubt someone else, you have to care pretty strongly about what they are doing and in my experience at least, people are too wrapped up in their own bubbles to  take the time to doubt you. Yet, we continue to perceive it, invent it. If they do doubt you, take it as a compliment as they are seeing beyond their own bubble. Self-doubt is self-defeating, it is self-depreciating, it is self-inhibiting and it is self-denying. However, it is not self-destroying, quite the opposite, in fact. It is actually self-preserving, which is very safe, but it is preserving the old you, the one that you saw in the mirror this morning. It is holding back the one you could potentially be seeing in the mirror tomorrow. This is your choice. In this sense, I came to understand through my inner struggles during the writing process that we decide whom we see in the mirror tomorrow by rejecting the self-preserving self-doubt, as safe as it may seem. We do this by taking the plunge, despite the doubt. How bad could it be?