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Articulate Minds and Hands

Written by Charles James

Articulate Minds and Hands

There is a saying that if you put four scientists in a room, you are sure to have a musical quartet. Some of the most accomplished musicians I know are also avid scientists. What is the connection between the arts and the brain? Albert Einstein had his violin, Richard Fenynman had his bongos, and Robert Hazen has his trumpet. There is a research report by Michigan State University psychologist showing that most Nobel Prize winning scientists and members of the National Academies of Science have arts related hobbies. Perhaps our scientific side is nourished and animated by the expressive side that the arts encourage. If there is such a link, design technology is perhaps the best hope education has of linking these two worlds because exploring materials, crafting, and constructing actually rewire the brain’s circuitry. We have yet to discover whether science rewires the brain toward the arts or whether the arts expand our scientific thinking, but the link between the pairing is mutually beneficial.

According to Ronald Kotulak in his 1996 book Inside the Brain, an enriched environment that includes the visual arts can contribute to a 25% increase in the number of brain’s neural connections both early and later in life. In fact, it seems that the environment actually changes the brain — no matter the subject matter. Frank R. Wilson in his book, The Hand, contends that the environment simultaneously shaped and formed both the brain and the arm. He says, “As one changed, so did the other into the articulate mind and hands we have today.” If environment is so crucial to what Wilson calls the “hand-thought nexus,” then shouldn’t we be incorporating the best principles for shaping the environments our students experience? And what are some of those principles?

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 Innovation Visual

In design thinking, students combine content with creative and critical thinking skills necessary to create products and systems that solve all sorts of problems. Schools should be the campus where students consider current technologies and the development of future ones as well.  Design thinking expands the way students experience content. In so doing, a critical evaluation of past and present designs develops discriminating thinkers who both apply creative thinking and learn to innovate. In the minds of students resides the future, but let’s enter through the past.

Consider the toothbrush.  The toothbrush is a great idea, but where did it come from? The toothbrush is ubiquitous and has been around for hundreds of years. Evidently some innovator in ancient Egypt and later in 15th century China invented solutions to the age-old problem of dirty teeth. I have two toothbrushes I am fond of – the one I use and the one that sits on my bookcase at home.  The latter is an 18th century toothbrush made from animal bone and pig bristles I found at an archaeological dig in central Virginia. However distasteful the idea, pig bristles on the 18th century model demonstrate just how adaptable materials are in meeting people’s innovative ideas.  

Could students in one of our classrooms today create the modern equivalent of the toothbrush? By that I mean, could the students in today’s world step into the generative process that produces a new technology for the future?  In many classrooms, the answer is unfortunately, “No.” This is what needs to change.

How do we start the process? I believe, (and research informs this idea) that innovation arises in clouds of disparate thoughts and neural connections. Clouds are a good analogy because, they are accumulations of molecules filled with kinetic motion and prone to some turbulence and tremendous bursts of energy. Cloud thinking is the ultimate form of mental “computing.” It is the place and conditions that allow ideas to coalesce, to spark and to pour forth. In order for all that to happen, the constituent ideas need to be adjacent or at least near other clouds of in order to connect. For many, education has become the ultimate anti-cloud. We separate our students, fill their time, reduce their conversations and resist the resulting energy from their collective clouds of thought. 

Cloud thinking actually changes the brain.  Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco studied the brain of primates struggling to solve a problem. Over time, the struggle to solve problems actually increased the size of the performance areas of the primates’ brain. Innovation is physiological. Design thinking changes the brain!  Imagine a classroom full of students solving a particularly challenging problem. Imagine the expanding cognitive and contemplative areas of a student’s brain and how that physical change begets additional educational progress.

Cloud potential actually depends on connecting all of the clouds in a classroom. Being in the cloud allows ideas to be carried by the eddies and currents of ideas that naturally exist in and around your own cloud of thought. Classroom activities centered around design can amplify the energy within separate and very different clouds. The half-baked idea that is partially and maybe even sloppily formed may find affinity, connection and conclusion in another person's cloud of ideas.

Innovation is an accretive process. The toothbrush was not invented by one person’s cloud but the cloud potential of many people over hundreds of years. While we hold tight to our toothbrush, it is hard to imagine the storm of ideas it took to design this one simple implement. The toothbrush was designed in an innovative moment when a unified idea emerged fresh from a constellation of smaller insights and changing brains. Creating this potential in our classroom produces so many reasons to smile.

Ⓒ Charles C. James 2018

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Charles (Chuck) James is an educator and curriculum development specialist in science and design education. Chuck’s experience education spans three decades and includes work as Director of Education and Public Outreach for the NASA’s Astrobiology Division and Carnegie Institution’s CASE program. His instructional work in Design, technology, and innovation, includes creating curricula for The National Science Foundation, NASA, The American Geologic Institute, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the American Chemical Society. He is a Director of St. Andrew’s D! Lab and a faculty member at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning in Potomac, Maryland.

The Instructional Power of Creativity, Design and Empathy in High School Curriculum

Written by Charles James

website testimageIt is time to connect our classrooms and students with the world.

Food for the Soul

When you walk into the large basement of the church and look at the faces and ages of the group, you are looking at the reality of homelessness in Washington, D.C. Each person’s story and struggle vary. As part of our school’s Identity and Service Learning class, ninth grade students from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland are dining with the meal participants as a way to hear and understand the stories and apply a creative and empathic design process to solve some of the challenges they hear about. One student, (we will call him) John, is speaking with an elderly gentleman named, (we will call him) Adam. As they talk, the conversation stops abruptly as Adam rifles through his backpack in search of his nitro-glycerin tablets. The students sense the urgency of the search and once the tablets are found, they hear the story about the medical necessity of the prescription that Adam was so keen to find. After about an hour, lunch and conversation come to an end. If the service learning experience ended with that single interaction and lunchtime conversation, there is no doubt that the stories the students heard elicited strong emotions. But schools today must do more than simply illicit emotion – they must inspire creativity and engage students in the process of empathic design.

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