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Monday, January 24, 2011

Testing Your Vision

Mid-term exams and several Regents tests are scheduled for this week. These are demanding assessments that undoubtedly raise anxiety among learners. There are almost as many different ways to prepare for tests as there are people who take them. We each find a preferred form of preparation that works for us and we sustain that strategy across subject areas.

However, beyond studying for the tests by reviewing content, making lists, memorizing data, and practicing with classmates, there are methods that really don’t involve subject matter at all. Instead, learners can approach any test by expanding their vision. I don’t mean getting a new prescription for eye glasses or contacts. I am referring to tapping into our own minds by developing an image of the desired outcome. I’ll explain in the following paragraphs. Also, we must make sure that we don’t limit ourselves by our immediate surroundings, or perceptions, whether self-made or adopted from others, of our capabilities, skills, and attitude. More on that later.

First, let’s look at generating a vision of our personal objective, in this case success on the exam. Stanford neurophysiologist Dr. Karl Pribram calls this “feedforward.” He uses the term to describe those images of achievement that stimulate creative action. A clear and persistent mental image prompts the same neural connections in the autonomic nervous system as an actual experience, and research has shown that the body has difficulty distinguishing between the two. That's why a vivid mental picture of ultimate success helps steer an individual intuitively to a desired objective.                      

At one time the record for running a mile was 4 minutes and 1.4 seconds. That standard was set by the great Swedish runner Gunder Hagg in 1945. No one thought it was humanly possible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Runners had apparently accepted that belief as if it was fact. That opinion placed severe limitations on the performances of competitors. That mark stood as immutable for nine years. And then, in May of 1954, Englishman Roger Bannister ran the distance in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Interestingly, within a short time period thereafter 26 different men broke the four minute barrier. It was a matter of breaking through a wall firmly constructed of opinions and beliefs.

I have shared the following quote in an earlier Blog. The remarkable Italian artist Michelangelo once offered an explanation for his ability to create works of wonder. He said that instead of accepting the cynical phrase - “I’ll believe it when I see it” he followed the reverse of that adage- “I’ll see it when I believe it.” We have to believe in possibilities and imagine the desired outcome before we engage in the challenge. Will it insure success? No, but it will certainly increase the chances compared to a pessimistic or skeptical perception of our future.

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate situations is one in which we impose restrictions on ourselves by limiting our own opportunities. This takes many forms. Notable among them is placing blinders on our vision. We do that when we fail to explore options, create choices, search for alternative solutions, or imagine different possibilities. Let’s look at an example from the field of anthropology.

Anthropology Professor Colin Turnbull of Columbia University studied the members of a rainforest tribe. The subjects lived entirely within a lush environment of dense vegetation that surrounded them and therefore prevented them from looking at any great distance. Their visual perceptions were confined by the plant growth around their habitat, and the canopy of trees that loomed above their heads and obscured the sky. Turnbull developed a good working relationship with a native named Kengee. One day he took a very long hike with Kengee, all the way to the edge of the rainforest. They stood atop a hill and looked down to the land below. It was the first time Kengee had the opportunity to see beyond the thick green plants that encircled his small village. There were water buffalo standing in the field below. "Insects" cried Kengee. He had incredibly poor depth perception from his years in the rainforest that suffocated the ability to see far. They walked down to the field below and naturally the 'insects,' or water buffaloes, became larger and larger as they came closer and closer. "Magic" exclaimed Kengee, “You turned those insects into large animals.”

The French author, Marcel Proust, once wrote "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes."

Whether it’s success on tests or achievement in other endeavors, our personal vision is likely to determine our outcome. Finally, I’ll end this Blog with a quote from Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind. She reflected on people who could see but could not imagine possibilities and sadly remarked, “It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

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