Amanda’s mother and I were very fortunate to be able to send her to an alternative neighborhood school – the Peninsula School, founded by Josephine Duvenek in 1925 on the San Francisco peninsula. I was recently reminded that it’s a true Tinkering School by the presentation here at this year’s TED conference by Gever Tulley. Peninsula was featured years ago as one of nine schools in Emmy-winning documentary film-maker, Dorothy Fadiman’s excellent account of early education in Why Do These Kids Love School?

The Benefits of Loving School

When kids go to a school they love, any number of important benefits for brain development takes place. Because there is little pressure to conform to national norms, it’s kids’ unique neurological wiring that tends to be prized and appreciated and validated. Being prized and appreciated and validated is one of many powerful ways of answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for kids. When that question is consistently answered “Yes,” some powerful benefits accrue for neural growth and connectivity. Here’s but ONE possible fun example: Superkids! (Seriously, click the link. You won’t be sorry!).

A Tinkering School for Grownup Kids

transpersonal-psychologyI am further fortunate to teach at a graduate school (The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology) where students enroll primarily because we offer classes in subjects they really want to learn. Most are not there just to get a degree. They tend to be highly engaged and motivated students unhindered by internal conflict, a state that allows them to go creatively and passionately into their studies, something we whole-heartedly embrace and encourage, not to mention, prize, appreciate and validate.  (My own dissertation research – in part, how spiritual communities provide shelter for their members – was something I was deeply interested in at the time. I was caught completely unaware when the president of ProQuest – where all American doctoral dissertations go to rest – called me personally one day to tell me mine was one of the most interesting studies he had ever read! I attribute much of that result to the support and encouragement I received from the school community. It was lack of such support that contributed to me transferring to ITP from UCLA way back when).

Learning as Art

Josh Waitzkin, a twenty-one time national martial arts champion and eight time national chess champion, was the subject of his father’s book and the subsequent movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. In his own book, The Art of Learning, he speaks in detail about how much learning often requires risk-taking, the giving up of comfort and safety that ultimately results in the drive and ambition that allows “the freedom to create like a child under world championship pressure!” To get there, learners often have to return to Tinkering School, go through a rough patch where we are “soft, in flux, vulnerable, broken-down or in a period of growth.” This description would also seem to apply to Michael Jackson, whose work was recently showcased in his memorial celebration this past week. It would also apply to Paul Simon, who was recently honored at the Library of Congress with the nation’s first George Gershwin prize.

Waitzkin further points out that “much of what separates the great from the good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered. This is a nuanced and largely misunderstood state of mind that when refined involves a subtle reintegration of the conscious mind into a free-flowing unconscious process.” In other words, high level brain integration that results from strong intention and committed practice.

To Last For the Long Run, Make It Fun

Aplysia CalifWhen I think of the 30 years that Eric Kandel spent studying just two neurons in Aplysia, the California sea snail, I marvel and wonder at what I imagine was his commitment and persistence. The fact that what he was doing was actually fun for him – something he really enjoyed getting out of bed and doing every day – I’m guessing played a big role as well. A fan of Freud, he originally set out to find the neural correlates of the ego, and Aplysia provided him with his own living Tinkering School. Stimulating the two neurons visible to the naked eye in Aplysia, allowed Kandel to devise countless creative experiments fueled by curiosity and wonder. The result: he discovered precisely how learning and memory operate in the human brain and won the Nobel Prize for that work.

That’s a pretty fine result from just playing around for 30 years. Would that we could relax and let all of our kids have so much fun for so much of their lives.

(To see a poem about Aplysia, hand-written by Kandel’s daughter Minouche, click here and scroll to the bottom of the screen).