August 9, 2021
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching
Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.
As the summer starts to wind down and we begin gearing up for the fall, now is a good time to squeeze in a vacation, one final trip before the school year begins. So, where would you like to go? The Canadian Rockies? The Bahamas? Outer space? And when would you like to go? Today? The nineteenth-century? The 22nd century?
To get there, you won’t need to borrow a spaceship from Richard Branson, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos. You won’t even need Doctor Who’s TARDIS.
All you need is your mind.
According to popular science author Steven Johnson, a key factor that separates humans from other animals is our ability to analyze the past and contemplate the future.
I first learned about Steven Johnson’s work from my favorite podcast Clear+Vivid, hosted by the world’s greatest communicator, Alan Alda. Like all of Alan Alda’s guests, Steven Johnson opened my mind to new ways of understanding myself and others.
Johnson describes a scenario familiar to us all: walking your dog, or simply going for a walk, and allowing your mind to wander… Perhaps you recall a stressful meeting you had with a colleague last week, or look forward to a fun family reunion coming up next week, or run through the science experiment you’re planning to engage in with your students at the start of the school year. As your wandering mind envisions each scenario, it is traveling to different places and different times. You may find yourself traveling from the faculty lounge with your colleague four days ago, to the beach with your family next week, to your classroom with your students in late August. Your powerful human mind is traveling through space and time, even as your body is traversing the sidewalk near your home. And with each stop on your mental journey, you’re likely to experience emotions, sometimes strong ones. You may feel upset and tense as your mind visits the faculty lounge and you recall a terse exchange; you may feel joyful as you see yourself at the beach, and imagine hugging your cousin after a long time apart; perhaps you’re both excited and anxious as your picture yourself in your classroom learning together with your students.
When we don’t have something specific to do or think about, research shows that our brains are at least as active as when we do. According to Johnson, when your brain time travels, “you’ve moved seamlessly from actual events to imagined ones. And as you’ve navigated through time, your brain and body’s emotional system has generated distinct responses to each situation, real and imagined. The whole sequence is a master class in temporal gymnastics. In these moments of unstructured thinking, our minds dart back and forth between past and future, like a film editor scrubbing through the frames of a movie.”
We can time travel as we think about real events, like the ones described above. And we can travel even further when we daydream about visiting places that exist only in our imaginations. Exercising our brain’s time-traveling ability does even more than offer us late summer vacations. It’s a critical skill for learning.
As Johnson explains, referencing the work of several neuroscientists in the past two decades, “The seemingly trivial activity of mind-wandering is now believed to play a central role in the brain’s ‘deep learning,’ the mind’s sifting through past experiences, imagining future prospects and assessing them with emotional judgments: that flash of shame or pride or anxiety that each scenario elicits.” He goes on to point out that, as the presence of smartphones, social media, and new forms of artificial intelligence continues to increase in our lives, the ability to engage in prospection, to look to the future, and make intentional, well-informed decisions, will be more important than ever.
- When we ask students to make a prediction – about what might happen in the next step of a science experiment or the next chapter of a novel – we are inviting them to time travel into the future.
- When we ask students to recall what they ate for breakfast and calculate the nutritional content they’ve consumed so far that day, we are inviting them to time travel to the past.
- When we ask students to analyze letters from Washingtonians who were a part of the Great Migration and envision how the lives of Black Washingtonians may be different in a decade than they are today, we are challenging students to travel to the past and future simultaneously.
- When we assign projects that require days and weeks of planning, research, and information gathering and organizing, we help students strengthen their prospection and time travel skills.
- And when we offer our students unstructured time? Imagine where their amazing brains might travel then!
Which places, and times, have you traveled to so far this summer? Where, and when, will you go next? Mid-August is a perfect time to take a vacation and travel using the most powerful (and COVID-safe) vehicle available, your mind.