“Superhero Brain Man”—How a Silly Little Song Changed a Life

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

A while ago, I wrote about my nephew—how he was coming home from school telling his mother he was “stupid” because he was struggling with reading in first grade.  I was happy to work with him.  This is what I do. 

And I wasn’t worried.  I knew he wasn’t stupid.

But I also knew that—if he couldn’t develop a more powerful story about himself—fear of being stupid could grow like a dark, dank beanstalk and throw shadows on his life in ways all too depressingly familiar.  Shadows that could last a long, long time.

So I worked with him on his reading.  I coached him.  I used all the Read Right™ strategies that I know work.

But, honestly, I didn’t work with him that much.   I didn’t have time.  I was busy travelling and teaching other kids in other places how to more effectively push themselves up the learning curve. 

I think I probably worked with Kaemon on his reading about 10 or 15 hours total last year and I haven’t had time to work with him at all this school year.

 

And yet, he is doing amazingly better.

He is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.  He is loving school!  And he is reading—comfortably, naturally, and with meaning.  I overheard him on the phone the other night as he was reading his math homework out loud to himself and he sounded like a seasoned pro.

 

Wow!  How could 10 or 15 hours of tutoring have made that much of a difference?  I mean, this stuff is powerful and it works, but it doesn’t always work quite that fast.

 

I think there was something else at play.  In addition to using Read Right strategies, I threw in a couple of my own—well borrowed, of course, from other amazing educators and thinkers before me—and spent almost as much time coaching him on his mindset and his stories about himself as I did on his reading.

I taught him that ALL learners make mistakes when they are learning and that mistakes were not to be feared or avoided or hidden.  Mistakes were opportunities to try again.  Mistakes were opportunities for learning.

I taught him that he had an amazing, adaptable human brain that was DESIGNED for learning.  That learning was what his brain loved to do.

Then, one day, when his head hit the table and he scrunched his shoulders dejectedly and said he didn’t want to “do homework” (our term for reading coaching) after only five minutes of practice and a couple of miscues, I tried something new.

A power pose.

“Kaemon,” I said, “stand up and let’s try something.”

He got to his feet.

I stood my legs wide and puffed out my chest with my fists on my hips like a very Rubenesque Wonder Woman.

“Stand like this,” I suggested.  “Like you’re a superhero.”

Kaemon copied my pose and puffed out his little chest.

“Sometimes you can totally change your mood if you just stand like this.  It’s called a power pose and it’s designed to tell your brain that you are powerful and ready to learn!”

Some impish part of me—or perhaps the frustrated songwriter part—compelled me to add a little ditty to our power pose.  So I started singing.

“I’m a superhero brain man!  I like to make my brain work, a work, a work!”

Kaemon joined me in my singing with a seven-year-old’s joy in being silly all over his face.  After a few rounds of off-kilter singing, we got back to work reading with a renewed zest.

Since that day, when I get the chance to read with him, we always hum a few bars and occasionally power pose again as we remind ourselves that my man Kaemon is a superhero brain man who loves to learn!

And there’s nothing sweeter than listening to him begging his mom if I can come over to “do homework” because he is so proud of the progress he is making in mastering reading.

Nothing sweeter than noticing he is no longer coming home saying he is stupid.

Nothing sweeter than listening to him read his math homework to himself like a boss!

He’s a superhero brain man—that’s for sure!

And the sun has chased out the shadows in his story of himself and his capacity to learn.

New Words-New Paradigms

I learned a new word today.  And it is an ugly word.  At least that’s what David Price calls it.  Price, who introduced the word in his book, Open: How We’ll Work, Live, and Learn in the Future, calls it one of the “three ugliest words in the English language”.

But I—I thought it beautiful.  I thought it powerful.  I thought it captured in one swoop an idea I’ve been pondering for years.

The word is heutagogy.

My spell checker doesn’t even recognize it as a word and the average person like me wouldn’t begin to guess the meaning just by looking at it, but I think it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

I’ll let Price explain it, as he does so beautifully.

“There must be some unwritten academic maxim somewhere that if you want to dissuade people from attempting to understand how learning works, you give them the worst names you can think of.  I will attempt to explain this in simple language, but let’s start with a technical announcement:

Though it was happening anyway, ‘open’ has accelerated the shift from pedagogy, to andragogy, to heutagogy.

There, aren’t you glad I told you that?  Notwithstanding the fact that I managed to combine the three ugliest words in the English language in a single sentence, I like to think there’s quite a profound thought in there.  The word pedagogy derives from Greek and, literally translated, means ‘to lead the child’; andragogy is translated as ‘to lead the man (adult); heutagogy means ‘to lead to find’.  I know that’s not much clearer.  But, if we look at commonly-used interpretations, it gets better.

In pedagogy, the learner is led to a conclusion determined by the teacher, informed by the teacher’s knowledge and beliefs—it could be termed ‘instructional learning’.  In andragogy, though the destination may be decided by the tutor, the route involves greater learner involvement, acknowledging the importance of relevance, motivation, and problem solving.  Although andragogy is a term open to many interpretations, let’s use it here to denote ‘self-directed learning’.  In heutagogy, there is not necessarily a defined destination, nor a prescribed route—it is self-determined learning.”

Price writes about the shift from pedagogy to andragogy to heutagogy as if there was a hierarchy with one level being better than the next, but I see it a little differently.  I see these three ways of looking at my role as a teacher as three tools in my tool belt.  Three tools that I can master and then choose which one to use depending on the needs of the learner.

The schools and teachers of today need access to all of these types of ways of thinking about teaching and learning.  We have invested heavily in training ourselves in pedagogy.  When that is the only tool we use, however, learners suffer.  Learners who are never given the freedom to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, or how fast they must go when learning will begin to invent unhelpful stories about learning and their own capacities as learners.

I hear it all the time:

“Math is stupid.”

“I hate reading.”

“Why do I have to learn this?  I’ll never use it”

“I can’t do this.  It’s too hard.”

“This is boring.”

“I’m stupid.”

Some people might say that learners who say these things just have an attitude problem. If they’d just change their mindset, they might find they liked reading or math.  But I say that learners develop these unhelpful stories when the learning environments we create for them do not match what their brains need.  I have seen these stories change as the learning environment changes and we allow learners to start where they are-without judgement-and progress at their own pace.

Yet, given too much ‘self-determined’ learning or even ‘self-directed’ learning when we’re at the low end of the learning curve doesn’t work well either.  How many of us have shied away from learning because we didn’t have someone to guide us through the process?  We didn’t know where to start.  We didn’t know what we needed to learn.  I have put off for years (or abandoned altogether) learning about things—things I knew I could be passionately interested in if I could just develop a little skill—because I didn’t know how to teach myself.

Singing, Zumba, ballet, piano, videography—all abandoned almost as soon as I started because I didn’t have enough skill or enough of a growth mindset to persist through the tough beginning stages of learning.

Sometimes we need a little pedagogy.

But, often, we need more than that.  We need pedagogy, and andragogy, and heutagogy.   We need all three beautiful tools in our tool belts.