The power of “WOW”

I’m a bit of a knowledge geek.  Or, maybe, a lot of a knowledge geek.

One of the ways I increase my enjoyment factor when I exercise is to listen to podcasts that teach me things…pretty nerdy, huh?  But I like to hear about new and interesting things…it’s just quirky interesting learning…and I find I come back to things I’ve learned on these runs on occasions when I’m sorting things through, or trying to get a handle on a challenging situation.

Learning for the sake of learning…and it’s good.

One of the podcasts that rocks it for me is the NPR Ted Radio Hour.  I was listening to a program on Unstoppable Learning that stopped me in my tracks.  Sugata Mitra spoke of how he learned that children have the ability to teach themselves.

He put computers with English operating systems into a hole in the wall about 3 feet off the ground in various impoverished slums and villages in India leaving no instruction. The children taught themselves English and how to use the computer on their own. He was amazed at how expensive schools and teachers weren’t necessary to have children learn–these children learned effectively and spontaneously on their own…but he wanted to push the envelope yet further.

So he set up an impossible question: “Can Tamil speaking children in a South Indian village learn
the biotechnology of DNA replication in English from a streetside computer?” 

And the answer was, very surprisingly, “yep, some”.  No teacher.  No classroom. No prior English.


Amazing, huh?

But he wanted them to learn a lot, not just a little bit, about the biotechnology of DNA replication. So, he asked a 22 year old accountant that lived nearby who knew nothing about science to help them.  She refused, but he insisted her input would make a difference.  Her role was to be that of a “granny”, looking over their shoulder and saying, simply:


and then…
  • How did you do that?
  • I couldn’t do that when I was your age
  • What will the next page say, and what will you do then?

Encouragement is the key to effective learning. Don


She was simply to be an encourager. And when he came back a few months later, their scores, without a school or a teacher, were equivalent to that of bright youngsters at a private school with a skilled teacher.

Mitra says the key to children learning well is encouragement.

He encourages people to salute learning to enhance it.

He points out that:

There is evidence from neuroscience that the reptilian part of our brain, that sits in the center part of our brain, when it is threatened, it shuts down…the prefrontal cortex, the part which learns….Punishment and examinations are seen as threats.  We take our children and we make them shut their brains down and then we say, “perform”

Mitra was talking about this with regards to education…saying that it is no longer adaptive to put children on high alert and then test their skills. For me, this goes broader…beyond teaching my students, and on to how we raise our children, and relate to partners and others close to us.

The reptilian part of our brain sees any threat as a threat.
  • having a car screech its tires when you run out into traffic,
  • Friday’s spelling test that the teacher says you need to get a good grade
  • or your mother yelling at you that you didn’t clean your room in “that” tone

…are all seen as threats that put the body on high alert.  Different levels of emergency that the limbic system treats identically.

This has implications for classroom teaching methods to be sure.  But I’m much more interested in relationships, and how the need to listen well to each other goes down when the panic/threats go up.

Is it any wonder that when a conflict arises, and tempers flare, and voices are raised…and the brain perceives a threat…that the ability to communicate effectively deteriorates.  How often haven’t parents or partners yelled, “You better tell me right now or…” (shutting the brain down) and then expect the responder to competently produce a reasoned response.

I’ve been actively working on this for a while, myself…wanting my junior tribe members to learn life lessons well when they goof…not just scramble to deal with the threat of my anger.  I want them to discover their own lessons from their mistakes, because I have encouraged them to explore the situation, their actions, and the results. So, I’m working on waiting to respond when I find out something that puts my brain under threat which shuts my brain down, and I can’t perform well.

Because I’m realizing I’m not my best self when my family’s safety is threatened…by a near car accident, or poor grades, or watching one strike out at the other.  My reptilian brain gets threatened, and I’m not much an effective communicator…so a couple of times, I’ve managed to catch myself and say:

Thank you for telling me what you just said.  I think it was probably hard for you to tell me and I want you to be glad you did.  So, can you give me a day or two to process and then we can talk about this so that we can have a conversation that we both feel good about?


Then, I can come back and shape the conversation in an encouraging way, letting the junior tribe member learn from the mistake/goof/error. And it has produced remarkably effective conversations, once I can encourage learning, rather than lecture and blame.

It’s not gonna work all the time…sometimes immediate action is required.  But most things can wait for a bit, doncha think? And why wouldn’t we as parents or partners want to shape a conversation in such a way that actual learning can occur? Why wouldn’t I want to salute another’s learning to enhance it, rather than threaten and shame them?

Just something to think about…thank you, Sugata Mitra for teaching me something in such an encouraging way! 🙂

Here is his TEDx talk…the part that I really like starts at about 9 minutes and lasts for about 6 minutes.


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