Friday, October 28, 2016

Use them or lose them

October 31, 2016
Dear LoMA Family,

I’ve been reading Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself.  It’s an amazing summary of the latest in neural research about how the brain works. Neurons are the brain cells that make us smart – the more robust they are, the better they connect to each other, the smarter we are.  These neurons grow very similarly to muscles.  The more they are used, the more they grow. In one experiment, scientists put one set of rats in a stimulating cage with wheels, toys and mazes that required them to do a lot of thinking and exercise.  Another set of rats were given all the food they wanted and did very little.  When they killed the rats and studied their brains, they found that the active rats had much more robust neural networks for two reasons: the physical exercise the active rats performed delivered more oxygen-enriched blood to the brain and thus helped the neurons grow; and the more the rats had to problem solve the more the neurons grew. Experiments on humans (that don’t involve brain autopsies) confirm that the more stimulating a person’s environment, the more robust the neuron networks become.  A stimulating human environment, however, doesn’t have mazes, cages and wheels; it has challenging academic classes, interaction with the arts, and a demanding gym class.
While I knew about these experiments, Doige’s book taught me one area of brain research that has changed significantly in the last twenty years. When I was learning to be a teacher, I was taught that most neurons have a critical growth period in young childhood, and if they don’t grow by the time adolescence sets in, then it’s often too late. In one gruesome example of this, scientists sewed shut the eyes of a newborn kitten.  When it was one-year old, they cut sutures. but the kitten remained blind for life because that visual part of the brain developed into something else, and the opportunity to learn to see had passed.  In humans, a similar dynamic occurs with language acquisition.  My niece learned English within six months of coming to America because she was nine years old; her mom, however, struggled for three years before becoming fluent.  The evidence always seemed to support that the younger we are, the faster we learn.
The new evidence, however, shows that learning is more complicated than this because robust neural networks can actually be a problem if they become overly stimulated .  For example, young children’s brains want them to try everything making them too unfocused to concentrate on complex problems like higher level math or reading.  To prevent this overstimulation, the brain is constantly trimming and shaping its neural connections especially in adolescence when the brain follows a rule of use them or lose them.  In other words, adolescence, not childhood, is the most critical period for developing higher-order thinking skills because it is the period when the brain is deciding which neurons are most important: the ones for watching TV and gossiping, or the ones for critical thinking.  This is why it is important that high school students be given as much demanding, thought provoking work as they can handle.  The more difficult math problems students do, the more challenging books, they read, and the more vocabulary they learn now, they smarter they will be for life.  It is not too late yet, but soon it will be.

Exercise your brain,

John Wenk

November 1                                                    Second Freshmen Arts Rotation begins
November 3                                                    Parent Teacher Conferences
November 4                1:00-3:00                    Parent Teacher Conferences (half day)
November 8                                                    Election Day-No Classes
November 10                                                  Senior Dinner at Benihana
November 11                                                  Veterans Day – no school

Thursday, October 20, 2016

LoMA Cares

Dear LoMA Family,

            One of the most strongly held values in American society is authenticity. Movies, books, friends and family often tell us to “be yourself.” Anything else is looked at as being dishonest, phony or fake. As Adam Grant, points out in a recent New York Times article, however, this can often be very poor advice. He combines the “be yourself” mantra with the idea of self-monitoring. People who self-monitor always consider the effects of their words and deeds before they act. Like everything else in life the ideal is somewhere between the two extremes, and as we grow up we learn to navigate those extremes to balance our self-monitoring with authenticity to live a balanced life.
            Even the most authentic people know to monitor their behavior in certain circumstances. They don’t talk to their grandmother like they speak to their friends and they know that they need to dress nicely for a job. When we self-monitor, we constantly scanning our environment for social cues and adjust accordingly. I do this when I go to parties where I don’t know many people. I consider more carefully what I will wear, what I say and even, subconsciously, my body language. I don’t act the same way at a party as I do when I’m clearing the halls at the end of the day.
            In his article, Grant summarizes some of the research on self-monitoring. In 136 studies of 20,000 employees, he found that people who self-monitor a lot are more likely to get promotions, understand and help their colleagues and be well-liked. They were also likely to experiment with different leadership styles and problem solve more creatively.
            I think the dilemma goes back to the idea of a fixed mindset. If I were to see my personality as just one thing, then I’m not likely to be capable of much change. In school, I can be loud and demanding. Most of the time, this serves the school well. With my family, especially my sick sibling, I need to be calm and patient. With my friends, I can actually be a little funny…really. Does this make me fake? As my favorite poet, Walt Whitman, wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
            I am so proud when I see students who can navigate this with sincerity. They can be scholars in the classroom, competitive athletes on the court and silly at lunchtime. Watching what we say and adjusting our actions to the situation doesn’t make us fake; it just makes us more caring.

Work hard,

John Wenk

October 27      4:00-800                     Halloween Party
November 3    5:45-8:00                    Parent Teacher Conferences
November 4    1:00-3:00                    Parent Teacher Conferences
November 8                                        Election Day – No classes
November 11                                      Veteran’s Day – No school

Friday, October 14, 2016

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." — Stephen R. Covey
                                                                                                                                     October 17, 2016
Dear LoMA Family,

            A friend recently sent me an interesting article from the website Early to Rise by Bob Bly called, “What Good Listeners Do Differently.” He cites research that suggests that most people know that they are not really good listeners, and the people that think they are are often proven wrong. They get into arguments about what people say, misunderstand what they were supposed to do and have difficulty learning. To understand this, he makes a distinction between hearing, which is very passive, and listening. Listening requires effort in order to interpret the vocabulary, make mental connections with what we already know and pick up on attitude and intent through body language and intonation. For instance, a speaker uses tone of voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms to help make the message clear to the listener. If we don’t watch the speaker, we miss out on a lot of what he or she is saying. Finally, we have to constantly be making judgements about what we are hearing: Is this really important? Can I trust that it is true? Why is she telling me this? There is a whole lot going on when we listen properly, and to help us, he has a series of strategies:
1.     Be Patient: Many of us are more interested in what we have to say next rather than actually listening and taking time to understand what is being said to us. Being New Yorkers certainly doesn’t help with this given our fast talking and reputation for impatience.  
2.     Don’t jump to conclusions: Too often, when we hear a little bit of something, we assume we know the rest of what the speaker is going to say and interrupt or lose interest. Instead, it pays to keep an open mind. Don’t just listen for statements that back up your own opinions and support your beliefs or for certain parts that interest you. The point of listening, after all, is to gain new information.
3.     Listen "between the lines:” Concentrate on what is not being said as well as what is being said. Remember, a lot of clues to meaning come from the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. People don't always say what they mean, but their body language is usually an important indication of their attitude and emotional state.
4.     Check for understanding: Rather than jumping in with your opinion on the topic, take time to make sure you understand what the person is saying by asking questions or summarizing their point.
5.     Don’t let yourself be distracted: This one is probably the hardest for many high school students, especially in our world of technology. Our friends, loud classmates, the speaker's appearance, accent or mannerisms are all often more interesting than what the teacher is actually saying. I certainly understand that a text from a friend can seem more important than the causes of imperialism, but it is less likely to help you succeed.
Ultimately, how well you listen will not simply determine how well you do in college; it will determine the kind of job you are qualified for, the quality of your relationships and your understanding of the world and your place in it.

Listen hard,

John Wenk