October 21, 2010
Adele Diamond
Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education

What Adele Diamond is learning about the brain challenges basic assumptions in modern education. Her work is scientifically illustrating the educational power of things like play, sports, music, memorization, and reflection. What nourishes the human spirit, the whole person, it turns out, also hones our minds.

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is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.


October 21, 2010

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: My thinking about the education I received, about school testing, and about what I want for my children will never be the same after the conversation I had with neuroscientist Adele Diamond. I spoke with her in 2009 at a gathering in Canada with the Dalai Lama, scientists, social activists and educators.

What Adele Diamond is learning about the brain is turning some of our most modern ideas about education on their heads. And it is scientifically illustrating the educational power of things like play, sports, music, memorization, and reflection. Adele Diamond herself has maintained a lifelong love of dancing alongside her science, and she embodies the delightfully challenging story her research has to tell. What nourishes the human spirit, the whole person, it turns out, also hones our minds.

From American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today on Being, “Learning, Doing, Being — A New Science of Education.”

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: American born and Harvard trained, Adele Diamond is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. She’s a formative figure in innovative networks in British Columbia and beyond that are bringing the fruits of unfolding science into classrooms and educational systems — informing environments where children learn how to pay attention, to problem solve, to collaborate, and to work creatively with what they know across the life span. Facility in these skills, research shows, is a stronger predictor of success — even academic success — than IQ.

Adele Diamond’s thinking has been influenced in the past year by her participation in the Mind and Life Institute — the Dalai Lama’s ongoing dialogue with scientists from diverse fields. She herself has a strong Jewish identity. And she never planned to be a scientist when she was growing up, she tells me, but she always loved learning. So how, I wondered, did Adele Diamond come to be a founder of a field called developmental cognitive neuroscience?

MS. ADELE DIAMOND: It happened because my original thesis topic didn’t work out. A lot of the sociology, psychology, philosophy I’ve read said that people needed to feel like they were masters of their fate. If you don’t feel like you’re in control of what’s going to happen to you, you feel helpless, you feel depressed, you feel suicidal. But it seemed to me that everybody I read was Western, and it didn’t seem to me to necessarily be intrinsically human like everybody was saying.

So I was going to go study in the South Pacific, which seemed to me the most idyllic place I could think of, and see if it was true in the culture there. But I didn’t think I was coming up with a good way to study this, and I didn’t think any of the famous people at Harvard advising me were coming up with a good way to study it either. They said, “You’ll go and you’ll do great work and it’ll be wonderful.” And I’m thinking, “You guys are crazy.” So I gave the money back.

And my first year in graduate school, Jerry Kagan was jumping up and down, literally jumping out of his seat, about all the changes we see in babies’ behavior in the first year of life. So in 1980, I started my dissertation following up on this idea that the changes we see in babies, in cognitive abilities, can’t be all maturation because their minds change all over the world in similar ways at the same time but they’re living in totally different circumstances. How can it just be experience and learning? There has to also be a maturational component. So that was the original spark that started my dissertation.

MS. TIPPETT: So there’s a lot of talk now from many different corners that our entire concept of education needs to change, needs to move out of the Industrial Age, into the 21st century. And you and I are talking as part of a conference where there are a lot of very creative people, including the Dalai Lama but also educators and scientists talking about this. So when I look at what you’re doing, it’s also suggesting a change in education and from a very specific vantage point, informed by science. So let me just say it this way and ask you if this is right. One of the things that you’re saying is education is also not just about what we teach and what kind of information we put into the brain but understanding what’s happening in the prefrontal cortex and working with that knowledge to help children develop and learn to learn better.

MS. DIAMOND: I think a lot of what you need in school is to learn skills because the content you’ll forget. A lot of the content you’re going to forget, and the content you can always look up anyway.

MS. TIPPETT: But we pretend like we’re learning that content and we’re supposed to remember it.

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. And, you know, educators are worried that you need that content for the exams that you’re going to take, but what’s more important is that you should want to learn. What’s more important is for you to know how to find that information if you need it. What’s more important is for you to learn how to problem solve and use that information.

But I agree that education needs to change. But the way your question started, which is move beyond the Industrial Age, suggested that we move forward, and a lot of what I see is that we need to look back because I think there was a lot of wisdom of previous generations of the evolutionary past of our species that we’re ignoring because we tend to think that we’re going to be modern and we can do better than our parents and grandparents did. But there are certain things that have been part of the human condition for thousands of years, and I think that they’ve probably been part of the human condition for a good reason.


MS. DIAMOND: Otherwise they would’ve been weeded out. Music has always been part. Dance has been part. Storytelling’s been part. The play of children’s been part. And there are good reasons why these have been part. And the schools are tending to think, “Oh, my god. We don’t have time for play. And we don’t have time for the arts because we …

MS. TIPPETT: And we don’t have a budget for music.

MS. DIAMOND: That’s right. “And we have to focus on the academic content, because you’re going to get tested at the end of the year and we have to make sure they do well on these tests.” But our research and others’ is showing that if the children have more time to play, they do better on these academic outcome measures than if they spend more time in direct academic instruction. And things like the arts or sports or any of these other things, they develop your cognitive skills dependant on prefrontal cortex. Like sustaining attention, like being able to hold information in mind. They speak to your social aspect because you’re part of a group.


MS. DIAMOND: Which is terribly important to doing well. They also use your body and we know that if you’re physically healthy, your prefrontal cortex and brain work better, specifically your prefrontal cortex. And leading a sedentary life is terrible for your brain health or your cognitive health.


MS. DIAMOND: So the arts and sports and play tend to incorporate all these things in an organic way.

MS. TIPPETT: So an implication of that that’s really interesting is that previous ways of not just educating but living, the whole context for education, was in fact more responsive to what science is now learning about the prefrontal cortex than what we developed especially in the 20th century.



MS. DIAMOND: Yes. A lot of the old practices had an awful lot of wisdom in them. One of the sessions with the Dalai Lama yesterday, Stephen Covey talked about the talking stick, which is tradition among many of the indigenous people of North America.


MS. DIAMOND: And with the talking stick only the person who has that stick can talk, and he’s supposed to keep that stick until he feels understood.

Now, the program I’ve studied in the schools is a little bit of a 20th-century version of this, though the developers didn’t know that. They have all of the four-year-olds and five-year-olds in the class, everybody get into pairs, and each gets a picture book. And they’re to tell the story that goes with the pictures in their book to the other child, like “The Ugly Duckling” or something. And they’re all excited. They want to tell their stories. Nobody wants to listen. Everybody wants to tell their story. And if you ask a four-year-old or a five-year-old to wait, it’s pretty worthless. So they give one child a picture of a mouth, and they give the other child a picture of an ear. And they explain that ears don’t talk; ears listen. And with that concrete reminder the child actually listens.

MS. TIPPETT: So the concept of the talking stick is, in fact, not cultivating talking; it’s cultivating listening. Right?

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. At two levels. One, it’s the simple level of not interrupting the other person and letting the other person finish and we take the turns. The norm of role-taking that young children need to learn. But at a more deep level, it’s also to really listen, to really listen and hear so that the person who’s talking feels understood. And that’s so important.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Learning, Doing, Being — A New Science of Education.”

The early childhood educational method that Adele Diamond has evaluated is called Tools of the Mind. It incorporates the kind of role-playing mouth-ear exercise she just described, as well as structured or formal dramatic play. This approach is based on new understanding of what is called “executive function.” Executive function describes the brain’s capacity to coordinate the many kinds of mental activity that are involved in any human experience and certainly in learning — from how we focus to how we feel. Executive function enables us to take charge of our responses and actions. It is different from innate intelligence. But Adele Diamond and others in this field say that, more directly than intelligence, this determines how well we learn, how much we achieve, and how we apply what we learn in real life. Executive function is in part about what Adele Diamond describes as inhibitory control.

MS. DIAMOND: You need inhibitory control to stay on task when you’re bored or when you meet initial failure. You need inhibitory control to focus in on something in the environment so that you’re not overwhelmed by all the other things around. You need inhibitory control — for example, let’s say you see an old friend that you haven’t seen in years. And your first reaction on seeing your old friend is, “My god, how much weight you’ve gained.” But you don’t say that. Instead you exercise inhibitory control and you instead say something to make your friend feel good.

And if you think about it more in terms of the things the Dalai Lama talks about, the Dalai Lama talks about how easy it is when you get hurt to react by hurting the next person. But if you exercise inhibitory control, you can say, “Wait a minute.”

Another aspect of executive function is working memory. It’s holding information in mind and playing with it, and you need working memory for anything that unfolds over time. You also need working memory for creativity because the essence of creativity is holding things in mind and disassembling them and putting them together in new ways. That’s where you need working memory.

And the last executive function is cognitive flexibility. It’s being able to switch your perspective or switching the way you’re thinking about things, being able to think outside the box. And of course, that’s also an aspect of creativity.

So those are the basic aspects of executive function, and out of that, more sophisticated executive functions like planning and problem solving get built up.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And negatively, poor executive function in pathology is associated with mental illness, right?

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. You see poor executive function in a lot of mental illnesses like ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, autism. Prefrontal cortex is the latest region of the brain to develop over evolution and the latest to develop within a lifespan. So it’s the new kid on the block and it’s the most fragile. It’s in the right place to get hurt if you ever fall. It’s the earliest to go in aging, the latest to develop. So often when anything goes wrong with the brain you’ll see some aspect of prefrontal function impaired.

MS. TIPPETT: So something …

MS. DIAMOND: Not always, but often.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, so something that really strikes me, just looking at the language around this, like this term executive function is very dry and then the program that you work in is “Tools of the Mind,” which sounds very serious also. But, intriguingly, a real centerpiece of actually cultivating this in children is dramatic play. Talk to me about the — there are some founding figures in this connection between executive function and dramatic play. Lev Vygotsky, a name that most of us haven’t heard but I’m suspecting that as this field grows may be a name that’s more common than now.

MS. DIAMOND: Vygotsky and Luria were giants in Russia in psychology and in neuroscience. And Vygotsky emphasized that social development and cognitive development were intimately integrated and if you want to develop one you need to develop the other. So we develop cognitively by interacting and being in a social world. And if you think about social dramatic play and the three executive functions I mentioned, first of all, let’s say you’re playing Cops and Robbers. You have to use working memory to remember what role you picked and what role your friends picked, right? Because if you want to go to the cop you don’t want to accidentally go to the robber. That could be disastrous. And you have to inhibit acting out of character. Let’s say you’re playing Mommy and Baby. You may know exactly what Mommy should do and she’s not doing it and you want to terribly go in there and correct the situation but you’re the baby. You can’t. You have to stay in character. And then your friends may take that scenario in new ways that you never expected. So on the fly in real time, you have to flexibly adjust. So in this play, you’re exercising working memory, you’re exercising inhibition, and you’re exercising cognitive flexibility. And you’re doing it in a natural situation.

MS. TIPPETT: I think, was it Vygotsky who maintained that a child’s ability to play creatively with other children is a better indicator of future academic success than IQ? And you’ve also said that discipline is a better indicator than IQ.


MS. TIPPETT: Which, when I was growing up in the 1960s, ’70s, you know, everybody got IQ tests, but I remember being aware even then that they didn’t know what to do with it. Right? And that they would …

MS. DIAMOND: Oh, you see, when I was growing up in the 1970s, they segregated us by IQ. So they had the intellectually gifted classes whose children had scored higher in IQ. And if you had a super-high IQ and you were a girl in New York City, you could go to Hunter High School.


MS. DIAMOND: So IQ meant a lot in terms of tracking back then. But it turns out, the work of Angela Duckworth and Marty Seligman shows that even in college discipline — being able to exercise discipline and keep at it and practice and study and finish your assignments and start your assignments when you need to — is much more important than IQ. Which is kind of hopeful because then you don’t have to worry, you know, gee, I wasn’t born with this high IQ so I can’t achieve. And the evidence is that that’s not so.

MS. TIPPETT: Here are some exchanges from a classroom at the Quest Academy in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a public charter school. The school does not use the Tools of the Mind program Adele Diamond studies, which is geared towards preschool-age children, but its curriculum across grades and subjects is developed around a kindred educational philosophy. This is an improvisational storytelling exercise in a class of fifth- and sixth-graders.

TEACHER: All right. We’re going to do another story. Switch around in line here. Switch up in position in line here. All right. So I’m going to give you the title of this story. The title of this story is “The Trash Bag Flew Into My House.” That’s the name of the story.

GIRL ONE: OK. Once upon a time there was a trash bag and he was in my house. I — we ran — I took him out to the garbage bin, but he didn’t want to leave so he flew.

BOY ONE: Back into my house, but this time he was bigger and smellier. He was filled with boogers this time. I don’t know why. Why was he even trying to fly into my house?

GIRL TWO: When he was in the house just flying around, a magical light hit him, and he turned into a good trash bag. He flew and got everyone living in the house.

BOY TWO: He gave them Big Macs from McDonald’s and $50 each in Canadian. So they really had trouble using that.

TEACHER: [Laughing]

MS. DIAMOND: So for example, in tools they have the children right down a plan of what they want to do in their dramatic play. It may be pictures or the first letter of the words of what they mean, but they write down something, which is their plan, and often initially in the beginning of the school year the children want to change it after a couple of minutes. “I’m tired of this. I want to go do something else.” And the teacher comes back and brings their plan and says, “Wait a minute. You committed to doing this. You need to continue to do it for another 10, 15 minutes,” and that’s really important because that’s really where the executive function comes in.


MS. DIAMOND: The having to do it when your first inclination isn’t to do it. An example in a math context is a lot of children will do mirror writing. Like, they’ll write a six reversed.


MS. DIAMOND: Now, that’s very normal, but a lot of teachers will pull their hair about this, so they might have the child write 6 a thousand times. It doesn’t help, but they’ll try whatever they can to try to get the child not to do it. And Elena Bodrova has a very simple way and after an afternoon or an evening, the mirror writing is gone. What she says is when you go home tonight and you do your math homework, every time you’re supposed to write a 6, put down your pencil and pick up a red pencil. That’s all she says. That’s the whole instruction. None of this “you’re a bad kid.” No. And the reason it works is because the child has an automaticity to do this mirror writing, and what the child really needs to do is take a moment and think and do what you really know you should do but is not your first inclination. But if you ask a child this young to wait it doesn’t help.

MS. TIPPETT: That is really interesting.

MS. DIAMOND: So it gives the child some way to wait, which is the time it takes to put down the pencil and pick up the red pencil.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know what my inquiry and conversation is always driving towards is how does this expand our understanding of who we are, of what it means to be human, and what you just said about part of what this does is help children stop; that’s an important spiritual discipline. I mean, I had written in my notes when I was preparing that executive function is related to an ability to reflect, which is also part of — we look at all the great spiritual traditions or even just what we know about being a whole human being, a very critical discipline not just to learning but to being. Do you think about things like that as you’re doing this work?

MS. DIAMOND: A little bit. It’s interesting that you talked about executive function as also disciplining attention or something like that because attention isn’t usually a word I use, but I think the difference is just a matter of semantics. So you could call working memory holding information in mind and working with it, or you could call it keeping your attention focused on something and working with it.


MS. DIAMOND: So I think it’s just semantics, and in fact, the neural basis of working memory and attention are pretty identical. It’s very much concerned with also resisting ways that could be hurtful to yourself or to another. So, for example, when you stop and reflect, you may realize that what’s hurting you is the meaning that you’ve read into what somebody else did. Not actually the act of what they did but the attention you’re impugning to it and that you might be wrong about the intention you’re impugning.


MS. DIAMOND: It may have been done for a totally different reason.

MS. TIPPETT: So these are real moral and ethical impulses that are cultivated in this.

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. Yes. I think also that — I think you learn things by doing, which is one of the reasons I think Tools of the Mind is so good. You know, if I asked you who’s going to learn more, the driver or the passenger, about the route, you’d say the driver without even thinking twice and you know why. The driver had to use it and the passenger’s passively sitting there. But somehow when we make schools we forget about that and we have the children passively sitting there and the teacher’s up in the front.

MS. TIPPETT: In really uncomfortable chairs.

MS. DIAMOND: Right. And the teacher’s up there actively using it. And they’re not going to learn as well if they’re just listening. They need to actively use it. And I think the way to learn the disciplines like reflection or being able to stop is to keep trying it, is to keep exercising it. That’s the way it develops, not to hear somebody tell you that you should do this or why it’s so important to do this, but to actually experience it and keep experiencing it and keep trying.


MS. DIAMOND: And have people help you in ways that maybe would help you develop it more.

MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean, if you think about the whole life span, someone saying to you that you should listen. I mean, especially as you go through life there’s lots of people you don’t want to listen to.

MS. DIAMOND: That’s right. That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: Or that you should have empathy. Those are easy words, very hard practices in so many real-life situations.

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. Yes. And it takes a long time. It’s not like you can say I can sit back on my chair and say I’ve solved that problem. It’s a lifetime of work.


MS. TIPPETT: Neuroscientist Adele Diamond.

GIRL THREE: But they didn’t understand what he said because they all spoke German and Swedish and Italian. So they couldn’t understand him.

GIRL FOUR: So the trash bag learned how to speak all those languages.

BOY TWO: But he didn’t want to stay there so he moved to Alaska. He thought it was too cold and all of the money that was in him was starting to freeze.

GIRL FIVE: Once his money started to freeze, he got really mad and went sight-seeing in Rome and went in the Coliseum.

BOY THREE: And in the Coliseum, he met the trash bag that he would fall in love with and lived happily ever after.

TEACHER: All right. Very nice.


MS. TIPPETT: Something that interests me about you is you’re also a dancer. I mean, it seems to me that this part of yourself, and I don’t think you had any kind of scientific or academic motivation, but you’ve actually kept that part of yourself alive. And we did kind of touch on this. I mean, when I was looking at your dancing, I was wondering is it possible at other times in history what we call formal play or structured play was actually part of regular human interaction. And, you know, a lot of the conversations I’ve had across the years, even, say, with the Pentecostals, a Pentecostal sociologist who talked about — and that’s one of the fastest-growing forms of Christianity globally — and she felt one thing that is so appealing and important to people is that it’s a full-body experience. It’s cathartic. And she talked about how in our cultures, all kinds of religion used to play this role where people would sing and dance and cry and it would be physical and emotional and spiritual all at the same time. And now, say, in Western Christianity, you sit in pews and you sit up straight and you listen, right?

MS. DIAMOND: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: And you listen to the monologue from up there. It’s actually very much like what happens in a classroom.

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. Yes. And the more of you that gets involved — the body, the emotions, everything — the more you get out of it in many ways because it changes the brain, nurtures the brain. The social nurtures the brain. The joy nurtures the brain. The physical activity nurtures the brain.


MS. DIAMOND: And it also nurtures your physical health. You’re going to be more physically healthy if you’re socially connected, if you’re physically fit, if you’re active, if you’re using your mind actively. And I love all kinds of partner things.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You’ve been in dance troupes, but it seems like you’ve always maintained this as part of your life.

MS. DIAMOND: Yes. But the dance that is my first love is American contra dance. And American contra dance was just what you’re talking about. It was a part of the social fabric. When the settlers came over, it was a way for everybody to get together on a Saturday night. And it had to be easy because all these non-dancers had to be able to do it. And it was also socially leveling because the banker’s wife might dance with the farmer because everybody got together for the dance. So it was very much a part of the social fabric of life. It wasn’t a little side activity.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Have you consciously experienced that part of yourself to flow into what you’ve come to understand and appreciate as a scientist in this Tools of the Mind work?

MS. DIAMOND: I don’t see Tools of the Mind connecting so much.


MS. DIAMOND: But I see other things connecting. In my talks, I often end my talks by talking about or showing a video about two programs. One is called El Sistema, the program of JosŽ Abreu, which is the Youth and Children’s Orchestra of Venezuela. And it’s been so successful in Venezuela that about 25 other Latin American countries have adopted it. And the National Dance Institute, NDI, which was founded by Jacques d’Amboise, a remarkable ballet dancer in New York. Both programs have been around since the early — the mid-1970s. They’ve reached hundreds of thousands of children, mostly poor children. They take all comers. They don’t charge anything. The orchestra program even includes children who are deaf. The dance program even includes children in wheelchairs. And both programs address all the parts of a human being. They both involve physical visual-motor coordination. They exercise executive functions. You have to sustain attention; you have to hold sequences in mind. They address your emotions. They give you joy. They give you self-confidence and pride. You feel like you’re a member of a social group.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. They’re collaborative in the extreme.

MS. DIAMOND: Where everybody contributes and you’re an important part of this group. And I would love to see research on these. You know, to the naked eye people give you testimonials all the time about how it’s changed their lives and you can see how amazing it is when you look at the video. But we need research to show that it does this. So I keep trying to encourage people to go do the research about this.

MS. TIPPETT: Maybe you’ll have to do it yourself one of these days.

(Sound bite of Danzón No. 2)

Here’s the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela performing Danzón No. 2 by composer Arturo M‡rquez. The orchestra features youth musicians from El Sistema, the program Adele Diamond just mentioned. Its director, 28-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, launched his life in music in El Sistema. He recently debuted as the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to high acclaim.

You can watch the dynamic conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead El Sistema’s top youth orchestra and hear more of their music on our website, onbeing.org. And as part of our SoundSeen series, watch a narrated slide show of children in the act of social dramatic play, and learn how these students exercise the three executive functions of inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Also, we continue to offer a behind-the-scenes look at our production process, including my unedited interview with Adele Diamond as a video or a downloadable MP3. Subscribe to our podcast and e-mail newsletter and discover much more at onbeing.org.

(Sound bite of Danzón No. 2)

MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, why our brains work better in joyful schools. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today on Being, “Learning, Doing, Being — A New Science of Education.”

My guest, Adele Diamond, is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Her learnings are challenging basic assumptions about education that took hold in modernity. Her focus on the brain’s capacity for executive function — also called the science of attention — has shown promise as well for children with ADHD and autism, and for narrowing the achievement gap between children of differing socioeconomic backgrounds.

I spoke with Adele Diamond in Vancouver at a series of gatherings with the Dalai Lama in conversation with social activists, scientists, and educators. The government of British Columbia has changed its educational philosophy and guidelines in response to research like that Adele Diamond is doing on the whole-body, whole-spirit nature of learning.

MS. DIAMOND: So British Columbia has said that socioemotional development, developing good people who are good citizens, is a critical goal of our education system, as critical as any of the other goals. And it’s something that parents and teachers and educational administrators take very seriously. And so they want very much to help develop children who are kind, who are caring, who are compassionate, who know that bullying is wrong, who know that helping another is right and who do it.

Also, one of the ways British Columbia and I think Canada in general differs from the U.S. is that government officials are much more open to research evidence and to having that research evidence inform what’s happening on the ground.

MS. TIPPETT: I should say you’re American and have spent more of your professional life in the United States, too, right?

MS. DIAMOND: Right. I’m American.


MS. DIAMOND: But I’m just amazed at how open the government of Canada is at all levels — the city level, the provincial level, and the national level, to hearing the research evidence and then modifying their policies in the light of evidence. They want to be evidence based and they listen to the evidence. I was here only three days in this country and they invited me to be in a press conference with the prime minister. I’ve never met the U.S. president. I will probably never meet the U.S. president.


MS. DIAMOND: And that’s a real difference, I think.

MS. TIPPETT: So the Dalai Lama came here a few years ago, and you’ve also been part of the — have you been part of the Mind Life?

MS. DIAMOND: Not for very long, but I was at the Mind Life meeting in Dharamsala in India in April.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So I don’t know if his visits here or the connections he’s forged, how much they’ve had to do with that, but I sense that it’s one factor, that it’s created a certain energy and a feeling that something needs to be done rather than just talked about. And, obviously there are some really interesting, well, let’s just say there are some really interesting parallels and overlap if you talk about attention, executive function, and then you think about the word “mindfulness.”

MS. DIAMOND: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: Clearly, those are kindred concepts.

MS. DIAMOND: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about your exposure, that encounter with this Buddhist-led dialogue between science and spiritual figures and how has that flowed in and formed, challenged you?

MS. DIAMOND: Well, the Dalai Lama is very concerned with taking nice-sounding statements and putting them into actions. And so when I visited him in Dharamsala and talked about Tools of the Mind program, I asked how they help young children to develop their attention in Dharamsala, how the schools help the Tibetan children. And first of all, the Tibetan schools assume that very young children can’t exercise executive function so they don’t try.




MS. DIAMOND: But Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s interpreter, said one thing that he thinks they do that helps is memorization. They emphasize memorization. So that they might have a very long passage, and each day you’ll get a small portion of it to memorize and you’ll have to remember that and all the portions you’ve gotten earlier, and eventually you’ve memorized the whole thing. And that sort of brought me back in my thinking to what we were talking about before, about our pushing aside the wisdom of the ages. I had to memorize stuff in school and I hated it, and we’ve advanced to the point where we now pooh-pooh memorization and that’s old fashioned and there’s no point.

MS. TIPPETT: We even pooh-pooh correct spelling, which drives me crazy.

MS. DIAMOND: Right. And it may be that while there’s no necessary reason to memorize things, you can always look them up, that the discipline of being able to remember like that is a real important skill that helps the mind discipline itself. And there’s some insights from the Dalai Lama that are so right on, that are so perfect. Like his insight that being compassionate to others will also be what makes you happiest. So you can be compassionate to others because you want to be charitable and good to others, or you can be compassionate to others because you want something just for yourself. You’re selfish. You can be compassionate for selfish reasons. And it works. You know, if you’re nice to others you feel better. And it can be as simple as just saying hello to a stranger on the street. When that stranger reacts with a big smile, you feel good. Or, you know, you pay for the cup of coffee on the person in line behind you. You don’t know that person but you feel good, especially when you see the surprise of the person when they come to the counter.

And also his insight about the stupidity of holding grudges. Right? Who gets hurt when you’re holding a grudge? You get hurt. You stay in this locked angry place, whereas the person you’re holding the grudge about is happily going on about their life. And there’s a lot of wisdom there.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s very pragmatic, too.

MS. DIAMOND: It’s very pragmatic and if you try it, you see the wisdom of it. You know, if I say to you the best way to make yourself happy is to try to make others happy, you say, “Well, that sounds very nice but I don’t believe it.” But if you try it, then you see that it really does work.

MS. DIAMOND: A lot of my perspective is based on Abraham Heschel and what he wrote. And one of the things he wrote is, I think, very applicable to child development because he said the act teaches you the meaning of the act. He said, I don’t care why you’re doing the good deed. Do the good deed. And the example he gives is a musician may be playing a concert to earn a lot of money, but if when he’s playing the concert he’s concentrating on all the money he’s going to make, he’s going to play a lousy concert. While he’s playing the concert, he has to be in the moment. He has to be concentrated on the music. And if he’s concentrated on the music, he’ll play well. So he talks about how the act can purify the motive if you really do the act fully. And I don’t know who he was talking to in this essay, but I imagine that he was talking to super-sincere Jewish theology students who were very worried that they wanted to be good people and do good deeds but that doing the good deed made them feel good and so were they doing it for selfish reasons or were they doing it for altruistic reasons? And I can imagine Rabbi Heschel telling them, “Don’t worry about. Forget about it. I don’t care why you’re doing it. Just do it. It doesn’t matter. If you do it with your whole heart, it will purify your motive.”

And that’s a wonderful lesson for children that say, “I want you to do this.” And you say, “Well, you know, I’m only doing it for you. How’s that going to be any good?” And you say, “Just do it. Just do it fully and do it and you’ll get something out of the doing. The act, the doing, is absolutely critical and will transform you.”

MS. TIPPETT: Before she went to Dharamsala for her first meeting of the Mind and Life conversations between Buddhist practitioners and scientists, Adele Diamond pulled together a book of readings to share with the Dalai Lama, writings of figures who formed her spiritually from her own Jewish tradition and others, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Henri Nouwen. Read some of these at onbeing.org.

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, exploring what neuroscientist Adele Diamond knows about the brain that might change all of our imagination about education and life.

MS. TIPPETT: I think of my own children, and I think my son is very resistant in a way that I wasn’t — and I think my generation wasn’t — to external expectations. You know, he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. This is a little different from what you just said but, you know, for me what’s really effective with him is to say, “Do the right thing. You know what the right thing is.” There’s something inherent in his makeup that makes that a powerful suggestion.


MS. TIPPETT: And also something that I’ve thought a lot about — this is divergence but we have a few minutes — he still does a huge amount of dramatic play. I would say less with his friends now as he gets older, but I do find that quite mysterious and intriguing. But I love in this conversation with you and reading about your work, thinking about play as something that actually is educational in the best sense of the word.

MS. DIAMOND: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, it’s really wonderful. It’s liberating to think we let our children play and that’s great.

MS. DIAMOND: Right. And we also tend to have this terrible notion that anything that’s important can’t be fun.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. Right.

MS. DIAMOND: You know, it’s got to be torture if it’s …


MS. DIAMOND: And that’s such a shame. School should be joyful. Why not? Then the children will want to be there. You learn more. Your brain works better. Your prefrontal cortex goes offline if you’re stressed, even mildly stressed. So the more you stress children in school the worse their executive function is going to be and the worse their higher cognitive functions are going to work. They work better if they’re not stressed, if they’re happy. And you can do things joyfully or you can do things making somebody miserable. Why not do it joyfully?


MS. DIAMOND: It can be fun. It’s so much fun to learn.

MS. TIPPETT: You put together this beautiful packet for the Dalai Lama when you were going to Dharamsala, including Heschel. And you included these words of Rachel Naomi Remen: “All life has in it the dimension of the unknown. It is a thing forever unfolding. It seems important to consider the possibility that science may have defined life too small.” And I just wondered, looking back on the trajectory of your work, you know, what have you learned in the course of your research, which really is very cutting edge, that you realized science had defined too small at the outset of your career?

MS. DIAMOND: Well, the little dedication at the beginning of my doctoral dissertation has the quote from someone else, I forget who right now, that no answer is a complete or final one. And I think that there’s so many times when we thought we understood something and then we realized we were totally wrong. I think that it’s chutzpah to think that we know all the answers or that we’ve understood something perfectly. And I think it’s wonderful that there’s mystery out there, that there are surprises. I love being surprised. And actually, you learn much more from the surprises than you do from what you expected. Right? If what you expected happens, then you just have confirmation you were right. But if what you didn’t expect happens, then it says, “Ah. This is an opportunity to learn because I was wrong. I expected something else and this happened.” So I think mysteries are just wonderful. It’s very interesting because when I made this book for the Dalai Lama, I put a lot of love and time and effort into it. And my husband said, who came with me to Dharamsala said, “If you’re going to give him a present, I want to give him a present too.” So he wanted to give him a kite because he didn’t think the Dalai Lama got to spend enough time playing.

MS. TIPPETT: Now your husband, is he a geneticist?

MS. DIAMOND: He was trained as a geneticist, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And he’s Mormon.

MS. DIAMOND: He’s Mormon. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. All right.

MS. DIAMOND: And his name is Don.


MS. DIAMOND: I don’t know if he would define himself in those terms, but he’s my husband.


MS. DIAMOND: And so then he found online that he could get a package of 10 plain undecorated kites for very inexpensively. So he asked me if I could find classes of school children to decorate them. So I contacted a colleague, Kim Schonert-Reichl, and she helped me find a class of children with developmental disorders, many of them ADHD, who were either not on medication or on reduced medication because they were doing mindfulness. So they had heard of the Dalai Lama, and they were very excited to be decorating these kites. And there were two children per kite. So on one side, they did self-portraits, so it looked like a Picasso because half of the kite is one child’s face and half of the kite was the other child’s face. Anyway, so my husband brings all these to Dharamsala and we get a private audience with His Holiness and we had the wisdom not to bring all the kites with us to the audience because the Dalai Lama said thank you but it was very clear he wasn’t going to fly any kites; he’s was going to put them in a drawer.

So after that we went to visit Matthieu Ricard at Katmandu, where he has a Tibetan monastery. And he has many humanitarian projects in connection with that and one of them are schools for poor children. Any background, doesn’t matter, religious or ethnic. They call it bamboo schools because the buildings are all made out of bamboo. So we went to these bamboo schools and we brought the rest of the kites and we gave it to the children there. They had never flown kites before, and they were so happy to be flying these kites. And Matthieu was so happy to see the children so happy. And we took photos and videos and I brought them back to the class in Vancouver to the children who had been studying mindfulness and I showed them the pictures and they were so happy to see how happy they had made the other children.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a great story.

MS. DIAMOND: And one of them said, “You know, they’re on the other side of the world but we’re all connected.”

[Children laughing and talking]

MALE: You are fast. You have to be fast.

MS. DIAMOND: Oh, oh, oh.

MALE: What was that?

MS. DIAMOND: The kites caught each other. I saw that coming.

MALE: The first fatality. Look at them. There’s a good one there. She’s running right towards me.


[Sound bite ends]

MS. TIPPETT: I think we should finish but is there anything else you want to say, anything this has sparked or any place you want to go that we haven’t gone?

MS. DIAMOND: No. Except that besides ignoring a lot of the wisdom of past generations, I think we also ignore the wisdom of people who don’t have the fancy degrees and the fancy positions. And I think that’s a shame because a lot of the people who are on the front lines working with kids, struggling to make ends meet, have a great deal of wisdom, and I think that we should be listening to that and honoring that more.

MS. TIPPETT: Adele Diamond is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

[Children laughing and talking]

MALE: Oh, there’s a good breeze right now. Good. Very good. Very good.

MS. TIPPETT: This, by the way, is the sound of those Nepalese children flying kites for the first time — audio Adele Diamond and her husband shared with us. On our staff blog, we’ve posted their video of this event. As Adele mentioned, it took place in the courtyard of one of the bamboo schools started by the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. He is also a past guest of ours, and you can download an MP3 of that program with him, “The Happiest Man in the World,” as well as this current program all at onbeing.org.

And this is a chance for us to hear from you — as you reflect on the ideas in this show about the new science of learning — the educational power of things like play, sports, music, memorization, reflection. What nourishes your spirit and also hones your mind — or that of the children or adults around you? Look for the “Your Voices, Your Stories” link on our home page, onbeing.org.

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Special thanks this week to the students and staff at Quest Academy in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is managing producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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