Thursday, October 18, 2012

The curse of Max Headroom in the classroom...and everywhere?

Many years ago there was a short lived T.V. program called “Max Headroom”. It was a spoof on egotistical T.V presenters and supposedly hosted by the worlds first “computer generated host”. It wasn’t -  it was a heavily “made up” actor.  Part of the scenario was that the world had evolved into a place where there was a TV everywhere - in every private room, in every public place - everywhere. Everywhere you went in this future world Max was there with you, babbling away in the annoying smarmy language that is the domain of television hosts. There was no way to escape this for the TVs came with no “off” switch. The television could never be turned off, never be silenced - it was a constant aspect of people’s lives.

What was once a parody is now almost reality. Screens are with us now far more than even in the Max Headroom scenario - screens are not only everywhere but they are mobile; computers, tablets and smart phones mean that we now have screens with us everywhere all the time.  Children in cars now don’t have to ask “Are we there yet?” They may have DVDs to watch or PSPs (or equivalents) to keep them occupied.The social impact of this is debated frequently in social media and serious literature.   

I’m far from a luddite. In fact, I am a huge fan of technology. I enjoy being online and consider the web as much a part of my recreation as of my employment.  

But it occurs to me that, in an age of “screenagers”, we are actually missing something. Our students are conditioned to rapidly respond and react to stimuli via the screens. They can find out what other people think in an instant.  But what do they think? When do we teach them how to reflect?

I’m not simply speaking here of using the powerful  “wait time” approach when asking questions in the classroom. When do we teach students that there are some things that Google can’t answer, that merely “liking” something on Facebook is not really making a social contribution or a sign of involvement?

I’m talking about giving students time in which to think about matters of substance to them.  But what are these significant questions? What is important to our students?

Perhaps we should ask them.  
In person.
Face to face. 

As Miles Kington said, "Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad."  

Since knowledge is now effectively available at the press of a button we need to develop wisdom and understanding - and that means giving students time to think for themselves.

Unless of course there’s an app for that.

Active links go to original sources.
Image via Google images:

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How an apple changed my world...

I’m a little uneasy writing this post.  It takes me so far outside my professional comfort zone that actually committing my thoughts to screen is challenging.  But, if there is even a grain of truth in what follows, the implications are significant...

I was intrigued when shown some isolated images from Masuro Emoto’s book “The Hidden Messages in Water”.    In essence the claims are simple - that our thoughts and words can impact upon water. When water exposed to various influences is frozen and photographed under certain conditions crystals are often visible - and there can be significant differences in the shape of these crystals. Emoto claims that positive thoughts, words and music result in well formed, balanced “snow flake” like crystals whereas negative thoughts and words produce malformed murky crystals that are not pleasing to the eye.  

The clip below provides a clever introduction to Emoto’s work.

Those who would like to see more might enjoy this slideshow via Youtube.

My reaction was one of scepticism; I dismissed it as new-age pseudo-science.  Even a layman such as myself could see flaws in Emoto’s work.  The information about how the images were captured is superficial - meaning it would be hard to replicate the work.  Only one image of each stimulus is provided.  Were all samples identical - or even similar? Were there “failures”? If so what did they look like?  How many “successful” images followed each stimulus?    These and a host of other questions flowed readily. Reading Emoto’s book did not answer these questions.  The fact that the answers to such obvious questions were not provided was, to my mind,  daming.  However, it haunted me.  What if there was some truth to it?

I soon discovered this clip which suggests that Emoto’s work may not be as obscure and off-beat as I had first thought. 

This would suggest that something odd is actually going on - unless this is an elaborate hoax, there is support for the notion that water is influenced by the people who come in contact with it.

While researching further I came across a balanced critique of Emoto’s work which asks many of the same questions that I had and is well worth reading. As worthy as the article is, the comments following  are also worth exploring. Hidden amongst the range of sceptical responses and uncritical acceptance was a link to a personal blog which showed both initiative and religious belief - in equal parts.  In a variation on a process mentioned in Emoto’s book an apple was substituted for water. Given that living things are mostly water, the theory goes, if you subject any living thing to the stimuli mentioned by Emoto then you might be able to produce an observable effect.  Quanita Rizy’s blog contains photos where the apple does in fact show such effects.  Rizy had replaced the generic positive messages with quotations from the Quran but the photos seemed to indicate that something odd was certainly occurring.  Two sides of the apple were clearly aging differently. Moreover, they provided an easily replicated procedure to test the hypothesis.
So I did just that.  I cut an apple in half and placed each half in a sealed “sandwich” bag. Then I spoke to each half - using the terminology used by Emoto himself. The positive message was “Love and gratitude” whilst the negative message was “You fool”.  (The irony of the situation did not escape me - here was me calling half an apple a fool yet I was the one talking to a piece of fruit.) The apple halves were then placed side by side in a disused room with conditions which, to all intents and purposes, were identical.Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, I spoke the words to the fruit. After six days I asked an interested observer (you might not be surprised to see how much interest is generated when you start talking to fruit!) was asked to identify which half was in the better condition - the “Love and gratitude” half was correctly identified easily.  

This experiment now leaves me with a challenge. My small scale experiment tends to support Emoto.  I find this fascinating … and the implications are significant.  If a piece of fruit really does respond to language then how much more so is a human being affected by harsh words?  

We do not need to adopt “new age” philosophies to know that feedback that we give to students is significant. (If you need a refresher on why this is so click here.)

Regardless of the “truth” or otherwise of the water crystal belief perhaps it is timely to remind ourselves that the youngsters in our classes are more than students - they are people. Each person on the planet deserves to be valued and respected - not because it improves student outcomes, but simply because people are so much more significant than apples - or even a pretty water crystal.


Challenge:  I will continue to “test” the hypothesis using the methods outlined above. I will also be trying a variation involving cooked rice mentioned in Emoto's book. There are examples of this on Youtube as well. I'd if I’d be REALLY interested in hearing from anyone else of a similar mind who also conducted their own investigations. “Failures” would be just as interesting as “success stories”.

All embedded links go to original sources.
Cover to Emoto’s book “The hidden messages of water” via Google images.

"Subway" clip via Youtube: Slide show of images from Emoto's book via youtube: 
Is emoto for real - critique:

Quanita Rizy’s blog:
"Water has memory" clip via Youtube:

Monday, October 1, 2012

Be kind to your mind

Rick Hanson, author of “Buddha’s brain”, has some fascinating things to say about brain neuroplasticity.

In this post on Hanson discusses neural plasticity - the concept that, contrary to the views of earlier generations, the brain is not permanently “hard wired” and that it changes with experience.  In brief - change the experiences and you change the brain. Few would find this a revelation.  But Hanson also suggests that changes in attitude can also change the brain / mind. It is fascinating work - and work with great significance for educators.

The post is structured around three key points:

Fact 1. As the brain changes, the mind changes, for better or for worse.
Fact 2. As the mind changes the brain changes.
Fact 3. You can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.

I’ll keep this post brief and simply encourage readers to follow this link to a more extensive discussion (which is still easily accessible and “blog” sized) of Hanson’s ideas. Both the text and the embedded video are well worth reflecting on over a cup of coffee.

Hanson suggests that we should be more mindful of our brain - and vice versa.  This may seem a little “on the fringe” for mainstream educators - but really it is our core function. We all know that the state of mind of our students impacts upon their learning.  If we can impact on their mental health in general terms we can help them become people with a positive outlook on life and their place in the world.  There is much of benefit here for students - and teachers;  some deliberate positive reflection would do much for the emotional and mental health of many teachers.


Rick Hanson offers a daily email of practices designed to assist using the mind to change the brain.  Subscription is via his website.

Buddha’s Brain cover via Google images:
Original source =