Exploding into the New Year. Happy year of the Dragon!

The sun is down and we have officially started the year of the dragon. The Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year celebration, started tonight and goes for the next few weeks. The state transportation board estimates that the 1.3 billion person population will be taking 3.1 billion trips over the next 40 days. Check out this Reuters story about the Spring Festival being the largest human migration on earth.

While there are many many new year's traditions I wanted to highlight a few food and cleaning superstitions.

"Many people also abstain from eating meat on the first day of Chinese New Year because it is believed that this will ensure a long and happy life. Some may eat a whole fish, that represents togetherness and abundance, or a chicken with its head and feet intact, which symbolizes prosperity. Any noodles in your bowl should be left uncut, as a sign of long life. Plants and flowers also play a significant role in symbolizing rebirth and new growth. A home is thought to be lucky if a plant blooms on New Year's Day, as this foretells the start of a prosperous year. "
"Another Chinese superstition is that the entire house should be cleaned before New Year's Day. On New Year's Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are put away. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year's Day for fear that good fortune will be swept away, which if you think about it does make some sense. After New Year's Day, the floors may be swept. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. In sweeping, there is a superstition that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the family members away. Also, to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be swept inwards and then carried out, then no harm will follow. All dirt and rubbish must be taken out the back door."

To celebrate the year of Dragon here is a Sancai pitcher from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). A closer look shows the double handle is topped with a dragon head. Happy New Year!


How we learn pt 4: Oregon Trail and Incentivized Learning

To join the conversation it might be helpful to read the other posts in this series.
How we learn pt. 1: Neural anatomy and the 15 minute teapot
How we learn pt. 2: Expanding the super highway of your mind
How we learn pt. 3: Empathy in the classroom

A teacher's challenge is to clue the student's brain to make neural pathways that can be reinforced for a durable memory. In this series I have focused on three methods for completing this challenge; repetitious exercises (building muscle memory by creating sets of objects), creating systems of thought (connecting new ideas with previous knowledge), and learning under dramatic stimulation (learning outside the comfort zone). I want to highlight a few more examples of each while discussing incentive systems that reward learning.

Of the three I mentioned, repetition is the most straight forward form of learning. The teacher administers a task and the student repeats the task until they are comfortable recalling the information. Unfortunately repetition can be one of the least engaging forms of learning. An exercise decreases in strength as the student looses interest. Think back to the boredom of elementary math class where you had to repeat problems over and over. I spent many days wanting to bang my head against the desk to prevent the numbing effects of multiplication tables. To break the monotony of repetition an incentive based assignment can be devised. The teacher harnesses the student's own desire for the reward to motivate them to complete the task. In a tutoring situation for younger children candy, or any sweet treat, could represent numbers in the student's daily problems. If the student successfully multiplies the red jelly beans by the green jelly beans eight out of ten times then they get to eat one bean. Beyond motivation the advantage of the sweet treat approach is that numbers move out of the abstract when objects represent their value. Using real objects engages parts of the brain that would be less active in a pen-to-paper exercise. In the public school arena, where a non food reward is more practical the student, could be rewarded with extra time playing an educational computer game. Anyone remember the computer stone age when Oregon Trail was the most popular educational game?

Competition can also be helpful in pushing a group of students out of the repetition rut. Partially replacing the standard ceramic production assignment with a skills based competition can be an engaging motivator. Instead of a class making 20 vase forms the goal could be to warm up with 10 before having a contest to see who can make the tallest vase. After the competition another 10 forms would be assigned to compare the difference before and after the competition. Two winners, one for tallest vase and one for most improvement, would be rewarded with a new horsehair brush for painting.  Even shy students can be sucked into the entertainment of wobbly vases being stretched to their maximum height. When focused on an incentive students push past their own perceived limits. A physical competition encourages the individual to observe their fellow participant's methods, which can broaden their skill base.

The second method I mentioned is expanding understanding by creating systems of information. In the previous post I highlighted teaching with metaphors. A slight hiccup with this method is that the student might not understand the individual parts of the metaphor, therefore loosing the comparison embedded in the example. This happens to me all the time when I use sports metaphors with Chinese students that don't play western sports. One way around the confusion is to set up a student teacher role reversal. In this exercise the class is broken into small groups where each student is given the directive to use an example from their experience to explain the topic (i.e. observations of color theory principles in everyday life.) One by one the students rotate through being both instructor and student. The head teacher can reinforce the lesson by visiting each group and offering insight. This seminar style format is great for creating ownership in educational environments as well as encouraging the students to connect new ideas to their own experience.

The last method I mentioned is using dramatic stimuli to engage student awareness. The core of this method is harnessing the stimulated brain's ability to take in large amounts of information in a short amount of time. The emotional tension created by a new experience effectively primes the brain for input. Unfortunately the brain is not always selective in what it takes in. For instance think back to the first time you kissed someone. What do you remember about that experience? If there was music playing do you remember the song? I bet you remember details of that experience that in hindsight don't seem that important. Why did your brain use it's precious neural capacity to remember the color of that person's shirt? The easy answer is that it didn't know it wasn't supposed too. Our hormone stimulated brain can be impartial to the type of stimulation we receive.

(When looking for a semi-cheesy kiss photo I found a great article questioning if men better remember their first girlfriend or their first car. My first car was a grey 1991 Subaru Legacy. My first girl...had brown hair... I think. Click here for a funny read.)

In practice dramatic stimuli can be anything that takes the learner outside of the normal perimeters of their daily life. Changing the physical learning environment is one way to trigger an increase in attention and retention. Hands-on workshops are a common example of changing location to enhance learning. I recently visited a ceramic symposium where 21 artists gathered at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts to exchange surface design techniques. The ceramic world is prone to communal gatherings like this for many reasons, including social networking, relaxation and not least of all education. When we leave the comfort zone of our studios/classrooms we pay closer attention to the people and environment around us.

The larger point of this blog series is that a teacher armed with an understanding of brain function can engineer a more potent learning experience. I never want to be the teacher whose students say "I didn't learn anything in that class." I share equal responsibility with my students during the course of a class. I want every student to absorb as much information as they are willing to handle. Employing repetition, expansion and dramatic stimuli are just a few of the methods that create the neural pathways that encode our ideas. After listening to Radio Lab's Memory and Forgetting I am glad to know that at least some of the information I give students is being physically encoded in their brains. Now wither they remember any of it five years from now is whole other story.

The series How we Learn was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org.


How we learn pt 3: Empathy in the classroom

To join the conversation it might be helpful to read the other posts in this series.
How we learn pt. 1: Neural anatomy and the 15 minute teapot
How we learn pt. 2: Expanding the super highway of your mind

Before I go deeper into the methods I described in the last How we learn post I want to mention an area of teaching that can be challenging. As the more experienced partner in a student/teacher relationship it can be difficult to empathize with my student's lack of understanding. At times I find myself thinking "How does this not make sense to you? Is my explanation sub par? Are you working hard enough?" An idea that seems rudimentary to the teacher can appear intellectually out of reach to a student. A closer look at the learning process can help ease the gap between teacher and student.

As neural pathways are created information becomes accessible for recall. Unless these connections are eroded by inactivity, or brain injury (click here for a brain map and corresponding injury deficits), the information is stored with little effort. Knowledge that originally was a struggle to learn becomes intuitive and the learning process can easily be taken for granted. Part of connecting with students is being conscious of the difficulty inherent in every learning process. In the brain all new ideas are equally hard to grasp. The experience the brain has when a child is learning to spell is no simpler, or harder, than a PhD student working to master an advanced physics proof. While these examples happen under different durations both learners are attempting to make basic neural connections. Being reminded of this helps me be more patient when my students are struggling with a topic. To be an effective teacher I have to deliver information while trusting the natural evolution of the educational process. Students need time and space to make their own connections. It is good to remember that learning happens on the student's timeline not the teacher's.

When working with struggling students it is helpful to retrace the steps of my own learning. Working backwards from a point of understanding to the beginning of the learning process helps me rediscover instructional steps that I often overlook. (Do you tract your learning process while you learn? If you are like me probably not very often because it is a completely different thought process than simple recall.) I never know which part of my explanation will lead to an educational breakthrough. I have watched students have eureka moments with small pieces of information that seemed inconsequential at the time. 

The last post in this series takes a deeper look at teaching techniques that strengthen neural pathways. I hope to post it in the next few days. Enjoy the day.

The series How we learn was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting, and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org.


Good bye 2011 - My top travel, music, and podcast favorites

It's never too late for best-of lists. In 2011 I was fortunate to travel to new places and meet many wonderful people. Here are my top lists for travel, music, and podcasts. I'd love to hear your lists on the same topics.


Shanghai, China 
Although I live in Shanghai full time I can have the "travel" experience just walking down the street.

Binzhou, Shandong Province, China
The first day of Chinese New Year was spent with a friend's family observing holiday rituals. They offered food, fake money and spirits to their ancestors. For more info click here. Boom Town pt. 2: The Shang Cemetery

Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China
The amount of human labor needed to construct Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army is mind blowing. One historical account lists that 700,000 laborers where used during the 40 years it took to complete the compound. Glad I got to see them late this summer. For more info click here. A few days in Xi'an pt. 2: The Terracotta Warriors

Yixing, Jiangsu Province, China
The labor of Yixing workers is equally impressive but very different from the Terracotta Warriors. Individuals often spend weeks working the surface of one teapot. This low volume/high price method of production is a dying scenario in China. I did a quick day trip to Yixing this fall. For more information click here. Yixing pt. 2: The Makers

Raglan, New Zealand
My favorite travel experience was the two weeks I spent in New Zealand last spring. The scenery and the people I met were first class. Between teaching engagements I had a blast playing adventure sports. For more information click here. Kiwi Kraft Pt 1: Dive, Jump, Climb, Paddle...I'm in love.


Southern Independent Vol. 3. 
Shooter Jennings describes this Southern Independent volume as "the rebel soundtrack of the summer of 2011". Amanda Shires offering What happened last night? is one of the sweetest tunes off this otherwise rowdy collection. Other songs include Have Gun Will Travel's To the victor goes the spoils and Outlaw Shit by Struggle ft. Yelawolf.   You can download the compilation for free here.

Alexander Alexander
The infectious off-kilter rhythm of Truth makes it my favorite of the album. The neo-psychedelic quality of the album is very similar to Alexander's band- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Click here to see the video.

Hanggai's Mongolian folk rock = Genghis Khan + Bon Jovi + Avett Brothers. This band caught me totally by surprise when I saw them at Shanghai's JZ Festival this fall. Click here to see a video.

Adele 21
The first  time I heard Rolling in the Deep was while watching the Sam Brown directed video. Click here to see the video. I love the combination of her Aretha Franklin-style voice, the breaking dishes, and the Ninja/dancer filling the room with dust as she moves. 

Fleet Foxes  Helplessness Blues
I am a big fan of their self titled release so I was glad that they hit a home run with the follow up. Great album start to finish. The Shrine/An Arguement is my favorite at the moment but like many good albums it keeps changing.


Brian R. Jonescast- Episode 7 The Molly Hatch Interview
Discussion with Molly Hatch about her studio life, design work with the company Anthropologie, and questions about success. Click here for more information.

Freakonomics Radio- Waiter there's a Physicist in my Soup!
Food science showdown- Molecular Gastronomy's Nathan Myhrvold vs Slow Food's Alice Waters. Click here for more info.

The Moth- Charlene Strong's It Wasn't Enough
Activist Charlene Strong tells a story of love and loss. (* Tear jerker alert *) Click here for more info. 

Fresh Air- Two episodes stood out as classics. They both were part of Fresh Air's food week.
Alice Waters 40 years of Sustainable Food
An interview with Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse and proponent of the slow food movement. Click here for more info. This is the same Alice Waters from the Freakanomics podcast that I mention above.

Grant Achatz: The Chef who Couldn't Taste
The story of avant-garde chef Grant Achatz. He started a popular and innovative restaurant but later lost his sense of taste after a bout with tongue cancer. Click here for more info.

1. Radio Lab- Memory and Forgetting
An explanation of the way our mind creates, stores, and forgets memories. Click here for more info.
This episode actually came out in 2007 but I only found it this summer. It sent me on a tangent, sparking a quest for me to understand neural anatomy and learning. The result was a blog series that I wrote about how we learn. Click here to read How we Learn Pt. 1: Neural Anatomy and the 15 minute teapot test.



In the Studio: Rim to rim, foot to foot in Swannanoa

I've had a blast during my recent studio vacation at Black Mountain Studios in Swannanoa, NC. I'm usually a heavy decorator so it's been a relaxing departure to only throw and trim forms. I worked full tilt making platters and serving bowls to help Maud with her production line. After running out of storage space we utilized that old stacking adage "rim to rim, foot to foot". I love to see the mirrored silhouettes of the bowls when they are stacked.

Over the course of the week I got to visit friends at the Arrowmont Surface Forum and Asheville's River Arts District. Ill post more pictures of those adventures in the near future. I head back to China Tuesday. Once I get settled I'll have more time to finish the recent blog series I started on learning and the brain. Until then happy potting!


How We Learn pt. 2 : Expanding the Super Highway of our Mind

This post takes a deeper look at the neural anatomy behind our ability to learn. There are three ways that we can consciously strengthen the neural pathways that codify our ideas- repetition, expansion, and the experience of dramatic stimuli. To join the discussion you can read How we learn pt 1. Neural Anatomy and the 15 minute Teapot by clicking here.

A repetitious action, like centering clay on the wheel, creates muscle "memory". This "memory" is the record of the movements our body has undergone to manipulate the spinning clay around the central axis of the wheel. Everything from our hand position, to our engaged stomach muscles, to the watery feeling of slip on our fingers is recorded in chains of connected neurons. In the brain each series of movements looks like a storm of electrochemical impulses shooting down jagged pathways.(Click here for another explanation of this process.) The more a pathway is used the easier it is for the impulse to travel. Think about this like a needle wearing a groove in a record. With more repetition the needle is less likely to jump out of the groove. The mental equivalent to repeated action is memorization. During memorization thought patterns are repeated in the hope that we will retain information. The successful ability to recall information is a reflection of deepening connections between neurons.

One fascinating aspect of learning is that we revise our neural pathways based on the success, or failure, of our actions. In both mental and physical action we adjust our efforts to accomplish the goal (center the clay, remember the fact, etc.) in the most efficient way possible. Our brain records the learning process by strengthening the neural pathway that corresponds to the most effective method for achieving our goal. In addition, when our pathways are strengthened we no longer have to consciously think to be able to complete the action. What once seemed foreign now becomes second nature. Where it used to take ten minutes to center a lump of clay it now only takes one minute.

Photo by Alex S. Maclean

Expansion of a neural pathway happens when we connect ideas into larger hierarchies of information. Think about this as building new side roads on the super highway of your mind. As a teaching tool expansion is extremely effective because it uses what the student already knows to explain a concept that is less familiar. The use of metaphors is an example of the practice of expansion in the classroom.

A metaphor that I frequently use compares pottery to spoken language. I explain that it is helpful for the parts of a pot (lip, body, foot) to communicate one idea within the same form language (angular, volumetric, gestural). I reinforce this by explaining that it would be hard to understand someone who explains an idea starting in English, before switching to Spanish, and concluding in Chinese. The student's prior experience with languages helps their understanding of ceramic form language.

Another way to strengthen a pathway is to learn under dramatic circumstances. This is not to say that universities should move their class rooms to the sides of cliffs in the hope that the student's fear will make them retain information. (Wait... What am I saying... This is a great idea! How about we teach art history while hanging off the edge of El Capitan? I bet you could remember the dates of the Tang Dynasty if your life depended on it.) As we experience dramatic stimulation our awareness broadens to assimilate more information in a shorter amount of time. We can thank our ancient predators for this trait because it evolved to keep them from eating us. When we were running from the bear in the forest we had to quickly decide if it was better to climb a tree, throw a rock, or jump in the nearby river.

We will however reach a point where too much stimulation is negative. We have a fail safe that makes complex thought more difficult if our bodies are filled with hormones like adrenaline. During extreme circumstances our thought process shifts from testing mode to a more direct approach. "Which rock is best for killing the bear?" turns into "Throw any rock right now!". (To test this try to balance your check book the next time you have a heated argument with your spouse. Simple tasks are amazingly hard when you are filled with adrenaline.) As the fear threshold is passed our adrenaline shifts to enhance our physical strength while weakening our ability to make decisions and retain information. Now that we have eliminated our predators a small amount of dramatic stimuli can increase our awareness and be used for learning purposes.

My next post will focus on how we can use knowledge of neural anatomy to make us better teachers and students. Check back later in the week for the next installment.

The series How we Learn was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org.