Understanding stories, connecting messages


On 26 July the New Scientist carried news of research by Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and  Uri Hasson at Princeton University. New Scientist noted that “There’s now scientific backing for the old adage that when two people “click” in conversation, they have a meeting of minds. The evidence comes from fMRI scans of 11 people’s brains as they listened to a woman recounting a story.”

Research Findings

The abstract of the research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy indicates that:

Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. We used the speaker’s spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker’s activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener’s activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate.

The scans showed that:

  • the listeners’ brain patterns tracked those of the storyteller almost exactly…
  • though trailed 1 to 3 seconds behind. But in some listeners …
  • brain patterns even preceded those of the storyteller.

The article quoted Uri:

“We found that the participants’ brains became intimately coupled during the course of the ‘conversation’, with the responses in the listener’s brain mirroring those in the speaker’s”. Listeners with the best overlap were also judged to be the best at retelling the tale. Uri noted that “The more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other”.

Take Home

The Princeton research has some fascinating insights to share with coaches and teachers. In a mixed ability group it is interesting to note how each member of the group anticipates, stays with or misses a message.

Douglas Fields in his blog post about the research notes that:

Interestingly, in part of the prefrontal cortex in the listener’s brain, the researchers found that neural activity preceded the activity that was about to occur in the speaker’s brain. This only happened when the speaker was fully comprehending the story and anticipating what the speaker would say next.

The Princeton researchers found that there was no match between the brain patterns of the storyteller and the listeners, when they heard the same story in Russian, which they could not understand. Perhaps this is the equivalent of saying “They just did not get it.”

Photo Credits

Story Time at the North Library

Getting Coaching

Brain Games

This post has been in draft form for a while. This month a number of research reports have been sharpening discussion about the role the brain plays in learning compared to the mind.

Two items caught my attention and encouraged my own reflection on the brain and mind possibilities.

The Australian Stage reviewed Seven Boards of Skill performed at the Perth International Arts Festival. The performance is based upon the Chinese Tangram and in this stage version seven giant geometric shapes, five triangles, a square and a parallelogram are used as the set for fourteen performers. Paul Rand has suggested “that the main principle to be learned (about the Tangram) is that of economy of means – making the most of the least.”  Given the virtuosity of the performers in Seven Boards of Skill I wondered how coaches and teachers might transform learning environments and explore ‘the economy of means’. This is a French video report about the creator of the Seven Boards performance, Aurelien Bory.

In the same week that the Seven Boards was being performed in Perth, Deborah Ruf was in town too discussing pathways for gifted children. Her interview on Radio National’s Life Matters led me to her writings about giftedness. Her article on individualising opportunities for gifted children, for example, is a great stimulus to thinking about learning environments.

Photo Credits

Seven Boards


Erica McWilliam: The 21st Century Teacher: From Sage to Guide to Meddler

Erica McWilliam visited the University of Canberra this week (13 May) as part of the ACE on the Road program. The topic for her talk was The 21st Century Teacher: From Sage to Guide to Meddler. This post was written live at the talk.

67 Photo source

This is Erica’s Eduspaces profile and this is her blog page.


Stephen Parker welcomed Erica Mcwilliam to the University of Canberra.

Erica opened her presentation with the observation that “the great calling is to be a teacher who introduces young people to the pleasure of the rigour of the work”. She identified teaching as a moral and intellectual project. Erica made a passionate argument for low threat-high challenge and high expectation-high support classrooms.

She asked her audience what we will do in the 21sy century for our pupils? Many of the easy advances in education have been made.

Erica developed her theme with a discussion of assessment and the emergence of international standardised tests. She noted an initiative by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft to develop these tests (Barry McGaw will lead this project and it will be based at the University of Melbourne). An example of a test for fourteen year olds required complex, multifaceted, transdisciplinary skills. She noted that such tasks require precise skills, address specific (as well as general) cultural issues and appropriateness. Erica mused on the kind of school conditions are required for this task to be availalable to all children so that they are able to feel part of this kind of enquiry. This is activity beyond download and print out! It is a substantial move towards synthesis.

Teachers’ Roles

In the next part of her talk Erica discussed teachers’ roles and changes in professional behaviour.

In the classroom there are important moments for instruction. Erica argued strongly that some knowledge requires instruction and the presence of the sage (a teacher with a claim to expertise and energy). She talked in detail of the pleasure of the rigour of this approach and exemplified her discussion with approaches to the teaching of maths and spelling. She argued strongly for ‘in the bones’ development of basic skills through the energy of teachers and the creation of teachable moments that transform children’s understanding. Erica noted the persistence of rules used by sages and gave the example of ‘when two vowels go walking’. For Erica the best kind of sage teaching had a profound technical component and embodied a respect for scholarship through hard work.

The  teacher as a guide on the side was discussed next. Erica noted the move in teacher education and practice to a model of the teacher as a whisperer and counsellor. This change in role led to a move from teaching as theatre to teaching as therapeutics. Erica suggests that this change led to a loss of structure and technique. The teacher becomes a counsellor rather than teacher and there was an overemphasis on psychological second guessing. Erica argued strongly for teachers avoiding being a psychotherapist and urged the building of a learning culture in classrooms that is more than weedling the soul out of children. She discussed at length the passivity of classrooms that has emerged in many of the well-meaning guide on the side classrooms.

Erica argued strongly against classrooms that are worksheet rich and challenge poor. She argued strongly too against the role of teacher as a person who kept children happy as the main outcome of teaching. She made a telling point about the classroom becoming a place where attention deficit was a logistical outcome of lesson planning. Many classrooms did not support ‘stickability‘ nor can the children there tolerate discomfort. Erica made it clear that in her view creativity is hard work if children are to stay and work in the ‘grey of undecidability‘.  (Erica noted here Carol Dweck‘s work on motivation). Teacher librarians are seeing the dilemmas of children guided by worksheets with no pedagogical input.

In her discussion of the teacher as meddler in the middle, Erica identified three sets of 21st Century Skills:

  • academic functional
  • aesthetic digital
  • dynamic interactive

She suggested that intellectual clout was needed in this work to become  ‘usefully ignorant’ as the meddler in the middle. We must be pedadgogical experts but not knowledge experts. The 21st century classroom will need to be:

  • Seriously playful
  • Epistemologically agile
  • Low threat high challenge

Erica explored the skill set of the meddler and her fascination with design, disassembly and rediscovery. She illustrated her point with the story of her as a young child cutting up a tennis ball to find the bounce in(side) the ball.

The meddler’s classrom is:

  • Respect rich
  • Structure rich
  • Conversation rich
  • Information rich
  • Challenge rich

This envoronment is more than going digital.  Erica concluded her talk with an example of work in Singapore with 16 year old pupils using mind mapping tools to explore ideas. She invited the audience to consider the kinds of assessment procedures required to support wide and deep learning. The kind of work produced as a folio of such work will be:

  • Deep, wide and  transdisciplinary
  • Move from known to unknown
  • Unfolding as a series of responses to wondering
  • A tightly edited document of a learning journey that exhibits distilled sufficiency
  • Demonstrating growing complexity of thought and skills of editorship
  • Amenable to evaluation

The child is able to discuss this portfolio and the teach as meddler is a co-learner. This approach has clear pedagogical intention and significant affordances. The classroom is in design mode: what is the idea good for; what does it do and fail to do; does it have a future; how could it be improved; what is the value add? The design classroom is characterised by:

  • Knowledge more than facts
  • Deeply understand what is being built upon
  • Immersion
  • Social processes
  • Going past the labels to the activities

In the design mode disassassembly creates space for thinking. It welcomes error, strategy, instructive complication, and interesting ideas. Meddlers accept and create space for co-designing and are clear about looking for ideas and when error is welcomed. The classroom celebrates wonder, imagination, and step outside held views.

Erica’s concluding point was that creative workforces have literacies and numeracies as their bedroock. They facilitate discovery, autonomy and co-working.


This post is an attemplt to note points during Erica’s discussion. A large audience listened to Erica for ninety minutes. I hope they, like me, were fascinated by the critical wisdom she brought to 21st century educators concerned about equity and keen to develop a craft knowledge that will support creative learning through energy, passion and hard work.

This is a link to her PowerPoint presentation.