I was never a very good student in any of the schools I attended. I was kicked out of Katherine Brennan Elementary School – which currently ranks 534th out of 543 Connecticut elementary schools (Because of kids like me?). But I wasn’t suspended for tromping Element No. 4 from the Periodic Table of Swearing in 20 foot high letters onto the pure white snow covering the hill behind the school. I was suspended when Mr. Fisher, the school principal, ordered me to erase what I originally wrote, and I promptly transformed the F into a B, and the U and C, into Os to spell “BOOK.” I thought I was simply being clever and energy-efficient. He decided I was an insolent, corrupting troublemaker and sent me packing.
From 7th through 12th grade, as the result of an early shaming experience, I never said a single word in any class. I would simply sit mute or pretend to be asleep. No teacher ever seemed to care. I spent a part of my senior high school year playing hookey at the downtown New Haven Public Library with my best pal reading about how to set up a whiskey still. We then set about to manufacture moonshine to sell to our friends. It was our own creative way of getting around the Card Law.
After high school, I waited three years before I enrolled in college and ended up dropping out of three different ones. Seven different graduate schools saw me come and go with no degree (UCLA twice!) until I finally completed a Ph.D. at a little startup school in Palo Alto, California – the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. That degree involved a lot of experiential learning, but it still took me ten years from start to finish.
A School a Mother Could Love
So, what would have made school a great place for learning for me and other kids like me? One thing might have been teaching me things I was really interested in learning, things I would have independently investigated and learned on my own. That’s exactly what Steve Jobs did after he dropped out of Reed College. No longer chained to a required curriculum, he stuck around Reed for 18 more months, only taking classes he was interested in, like Calligraphy and Zen Buddhism. He learned interesting things in interesting ways – a self-directed learning adventure that didn’t put his brain to sleep, staying “hungry and foolish” in the process. What this and the starting of Apple Computer also did for Jobs, was introduce him to others with similar interests where they could spark each other’s creative intelligence and wild talents. Jobs apparently kept intuitively asking himself The Two Perilous Questions at every turn.
One challenge for kids developing their own wild talents, of course, is that significant peers and parents might not understand or approve of them. What parent or teacher in their right mind would have encouraged me to do an “independent study” in moonshining? I can easily imagine the limbic highjacking. And yet, through that early entrepreneurial enterprise, I learned a lot about chemistry and manufacturing processes, taking creative initiative, and I learned about sales and marketing through actual real-world, hands on experience!
Neuro-Learning With Heart
Without realizing it, my own self-directed learning was following many of the neuro-learning principles of Dr. Renate Caine. Interestingly, she articulated twelve of them long before we had widespread access to brain scans. Here’s Renate’s list of principles:
BRAIN-MIND LEARNING PRINCIPLES
1. All learning is physiological.
2. The Brain-Mind is social.
3. The search for meaning is innate.
4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.
5. Emotions are critical to patterning.
6. The Brain-Mind processes parts and wholes simultaneously.
7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
9. There are at least two approaches to memory: archiving individual facts or skills and making sense of experience.
10. Learning is developmental.
11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat associated with helplessness.
12. Each brain is uniquely organized
I suspect the best public and private schools organize teaching and learning to follow many of these twelve principles. They also inspire people like Sal Khan and Jane Shirley. Sal Khan is a one-man transformational educator. He’s responsible for 1516 free videotaped, super-popular mini-lectures on Youtube dedicated to making learning short and sweet, fun and simple. His topics cover everything from simple addition to vector calculus to the Napoleonic Wars. Sal teaches in one way our brains learn best.
And when Jane Shirley took over as principal of “Last Chance High,” in Aurora, Colorado, she put many of these principles to work as well. In doing so, after five short years she raised the college application rate from 5% to 86% and the rate of parent participation at Last Chance High from 10% to 80%!
I have a suspicion that Jane Shirley and Sal Kahn would have found some creative ways to successfully channel my early entrepreneurial energy. Who knows: with my early propensities given proper encouragement and guidance, today instead of Samuel Adams, one of the nation’s most popular micro-brewed beers might be called Brady’s Dry-Hopped Patersbier