Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Interview with Branton Shearer

Tom Beckett:  You’re a psychologist who has built a business on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  You’re also a friend of mine—a go to guy to play bad pool with—but when I first became acquainted with you, you were an aspiring poet.
So, where did/does poetry begin for you and how does it relate to what you’re doing for a living now?

Branton Shearer:  I suppose it is simplistic to say that words on the page define a great swath of my reality.  I like writing because it slows down my appreciation for the meaning and impact of individual and particular clusters of words.

As I transitioned into the role of psychologist from that of a poet I unconsciously found myself attracted to psychological theories and activities that were 'word focused.'

During therapy one listens to the other person's reality as it is captured in words and perhaps how the person is likewise 'captured' by those very words. Can changing our words change our reality -- for the better?   I could probably think of a lot of examples to support this but let me illustrate with the simple semantic shift that I've shared around the world and that has sustained me in my work for nearly 30 years.
   An IQ-based view of intelligence asks, "How smart are you?" but a multiple intelligences perspective asks, "How are you smart?"
The first implies one ladder of smartness while the latter assumes that there are numerous ladders.
   This subtle shift can have dramatic consequences for someone who has always been negatively labeled with “not smart” "low IQ" - "not college material" - "dull" or - horrors! "merely average". These labels are gross over simplifications and may completely neglect, denigrate or demean a person's true "intellectual potential".  I know that this semantic shift can be very good news for anyone for has been negatively compared to a sibling, i.e., "Ah, she has a nice personality but she's just not as smart as her brother."  This person's keen interpersonal intelligence may go unrecognized and undeveloped in the shadow of her "smart brother".

TB:  Do you have a theory of the Self?

BS: I notice that you capitalized the word Self. Does that imply that there is higher Self as well as a lower self?  Or perhaps many selves….Years ago I was attracted to the idea that we are each made up of many different voices of sub-personalities. Like that commonplace experience of hearing your father’s (or mother’s) voice coming out of your mouth, when you least expect it. I suspect that I envision that we are composites of all the different voice influences encoded in our brain neurons. Some voices ring louder in our ears than others over the years. Each sub-personality serves us – for better or worse – in different ways. Are we more than the sum of these voice parts woven into a higher Self? Perhaps.  That’s a bit too abstract for me and my daily purposes. I’m satisfied knowing that there is some voice that keeps my fingers pecking out words in some sort of meaningful order on this cold keyboard.

TB:  If I recall correctly, the trajectory of your career so far has been tripartite in nature.  You began by working with patients who had suffered brain injuries.  In the next phase you did therapy with individuals.  And for the larger part of your career you have been working on ways to assess how individuals learn.  Could you speak to your work experience and your sense of how you’ve arrived at the point you are at today?

BS: You've skipped over my earlier stints as roustabout on oil rigs and three miserable years as an apprentice carpenter where I learned the basics of building things. I continue to build things today but instead use materials and tools that I'm more adept with - words, ideas and people rather than wood, blueprints and sledge hammers.  These days I labor mostly with teachers, principals and students as we strive to redesign how learning takes place in classrooms and beyond. I use my carpentry knowledge often as a metaphor for this effort. In my fantasies I am the Frank Lloyd Wright of learning, except that I want my structures to be more liveable and easier to maintain. Hard to balance elegance with practicality, eh?  I strive to help teachers (and people-in-general!) to see beyond their conventional expectations of what it means to be smart and how best to learn. I have to paint word pictures to get people to move out of their square box homes and to see the potential in the neglected, ignored or denigrated aspects of their abilities.   For example, I have found that students who are strong in the Kinesthetic and Naturalist and Spatial thinking abilities can struggle in the classroom. Academic tasks are difficult for them so the challenge is to construct learning activities that embed academic content into their particular thinking strengths. We usually don't mix these things together. P.E. is only for physical games and math is for logical thinking. This is wrong headed. Real life is much more of a mixture of various abilities that allows for multiple entry points. If we force people to focus on their weaknesses in order to drive the round peg into the square hole then we inflict harm upon many people. This doesn't apply only to children in school. We're attempting to make similar shifts in thinking on the job. I think that too much of work is awful because of a mismatch between person - position. We choose our careers and jobs for all the wrong reasons. See above my misguided efforts to become a carpenter! But, I learned stuff from pounding my head and thumbs one too many times. I stumbled down many blind alleys before I found the path that promised to make the best use of my own particular cognitive strengths. Not everyone gets this opportunity.

TB:  Did you have an “aha” moment of epiphany?

BS: Actually, I did. I can clearly remember it.....I had watched a TV news report that interviewed a psychologist who started a school in Massachusetts for kids with learning disabilities. There was something about hearing him during the interview that really struck me as being important. A while later, I was drinking a beer on my front porch on my Ram Island home (where I was charged with remodeling a ramshackle house as an outdoor environmental education center -- thumb pounding daily) and I had this vision of completing my BA in education / psychology and then going on for my doctorate. It is a little hard to believe today because at the time I had only completed 1 year of my undergraduate degree and I was a poor, married, carpenter poet living in a house without running water and an outhouse. But there it was....and it had to be done. The vision was realized about 8 years later.

TB:   Talk about those 8 years and what was going on with you, how you were evolving personally. At what point did you become exposed to Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences?  At Harvard?

BS: Ah, so it is a story you want to hear, eh?  Get comfortable, my friend…  My life changed on a rain soaked Saturday in Brattleboro Vermont while visiting with friends. Bill is a folk musician who had recently graduated with his teaching degree from the Lesley College Adult Degree Option (ADO) independent study program. Instead of sight-seeing we spent the whole rainy day talking about his program and how he worked full time while completing his bachelor's degree. I immediately knew that's what I wanted / needed to do.
    For the next 2 years wife Beth and I lived on Ram Island commuting by boat (Limping Dog) while I studied independently towards a degree in education and psychology.
It was there that I wrote poems such as this.....

    With the Dusk

I did not come to Bass Rocks
on this Gloucester cape
in fog
to catch the sun
nor bob my head in the tide
cold and recoiling.
I lie on my back on granite
that juts into the mist.
Twin Lighthouses to the left,
a loose crew of gulls – we
are the only ones
      on this cusp
            to call our names
      against the constant waves.
are thumbnail crabs, sea urchins
& barnacles, the dim
lights of fishermen
drawing nets
               through the mist
as smoke
twists a black scarf
               around cold throats.
I did not come
to these Atlantic rocks
to carry on
with the task
               of a day’s catch.
I came to coil my nets, reel in
the lines
& be content
to scan the grey blue arc
while a distant seam in my world
         is unraveling    in this
                                      near silence.

During this time living in the salt marsh surrounded by clam flats egrets great blue herons and biting green head flies and the regular rise and fall of the tides my BREAKWALL BOOK of poems was edited and published by friend Major Ragain.

I found it easy to slip from writing poems and letters into writing in response to my academic readings.  It was a great way to process my new learning. I'd work half a day on island projects and then settle down for a solid 4 hours of school work.  I used a manual typewriter and had to be finished by dark because it was difficult to read by kerosene oil lamp light.  Our days started before sun up and ended with the coming of night.

Speaking of writing, while words flowed naturally for me I found that my mechanics were flawed. Much work was needed to bring them up to snuff. I was all set to graduate and get on with my life when I was advised to stay one more term to work on my prose skills. I balked at this and my committee allowed me to graduate. This might have been an error. It took me many years of slaving over my prose to figure out how to write a proper academic paper. Numerous papers were rejected for publication because of their atrocious writing.  Years of writing poetry did not prepare me to follow the rules of academic (or even simply standard) prose conventions. Even today after writing somewhere around 10 books of prose I'm still sometimes baffled by commas and clauses.....

I managed to get my B.A. degree in 2 years because the school awarded me one year of college credit for my "life experience".  To get this credit I spent 6 months creating a thick binder documenting my cross country travels, exotic work history (on paddle wheel river boats and such) and poetry involvements. I think they called this "American Studies."

After graduation I was desperate to move home to Ohio so my 1 year old son, Dylan, could grow up with his grandparents in his life.  I applied to several graduate schools in Ohio and to Harvard. Well, Kent State rejected me but Harvard accepted me so I HAD to go to Harvard.   This was a good thing because both of my main advisors at ADO got their Ph.D.s at Harvard so they brainwashed me with developmental psychology theory. Harvard Grad. School of Education being the home of world renowned developmental psychologists.

I LOVED my time at Harvard even though I worked harder than I think I had ever worked in my life. Even harder than my 12 hour days on the oil rigs stacking 100 pound sacks of chemical mud off barges onto the rig deck. In fact, one time we worked 24 hours straight after an accident....but, my studies at Harvard were equally relentless but much more enjoyable.

Oh, I learned of multiple intelligences theory as an undergraduate and was happy to be going to Harvard where Howard Gardner was teaching except that the year I was there he just happened to be on sabbatical,, I never had the pleasure of taking a course with him. But, to my great good fortune, he has been a steady correspondent ever since 1986 when I informed him of my efforts to create a mulitple intelligences assessment.

Six days after an amazing Harvard graduation Beth and I packed our belongings into a UHaul truck and hit the road for Ohio. We had borrowed money from her parents to buy a run down Amish house (sans indoor bath, furnace and with only a little electricity) and 10 acres. All our neighbors were Amish and deposited quarters in a coffee can to use the phone in our barn.
           ((An interesting existential aside…while driving the loaded UHaul on country road with Dylan in his car seat beside me, we almost died. A fist-sized rock shot through and shattered the side window landing on the seat between Dylan and I. A brush hog mowing the weeds along the roadside lopped off the top of a rock and sent it flying through the driver’s side window. I thought it was a gunshot until I saw the rock lying on the seat. We arrived in at our country home in Middlefield with tear stained faces….))

During this time, I wrote a few pieces like this....
            First Cutting

Hay, hay, hay.  Heave-ho.   Heave-ho-hay.
Hot day with the itch
Of hay bales hefted high. Up lifted
Sun hot mow air
Thick dust and chaff scratch.  Make work
Some fun, poke holes
With a word that turns and winks.
Blink.  Leap up and have-ho. Shove hard
Bare hands as baling twine burns lines
In soft palms. Straw hatted
Father, brother, neighbor, friend
Drive a wagon creaking on. Hay-yea.
Ho-yea-heave-ho.  Hot horses plod and stamp
Huge hooves on hard earth.
Ho  -- back  -- Ho.
Heft up a warm bale and stack’em high
As the wagon tilts down
Around the bend and lurches up
The short path to farm barn.
Hay   home.  Hay home. 
No hum drum drowsy days
But turn and learn how hay is cut—
Raked, baled and heave-ho.
Stacked on edge, cut side up
In hot air to hay mow  - slow fun  - sweet bale
Work tough as words fresh sound
And turn our face to catch a breeze
Through the hatch.  Bearded brother, father neighbor, friend
Lend rough hands – soft punch
Up the mow – Heave Ho! -  Sun low
We turn and go
‘til next cutting comes.
Rain willing  - sun up  - sky high – HAY!

It was tough to find a job as a master's level counselor in Amish country. After 3 months of hard job searching, home improvement, fence building (for Beth's horses) and farm life I landed a position as a psychology assistant at Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital counseling people recovering from illness and accidents.  I was assigned to the brain trauma unit where I had to devise a crash course in cognitive remediation because I was completely ignorant.  And overwhelmed.

I would sit stunned with quadriplegics, young men just emerging from a coma and stroke victims wondering what I in the hell I could offer them...
I was soon trained to administer a 6 hour battery of neuropsychological tests so I could describe in great detail what was WRONG with the person's brain functioning but I really couldn't tell you what was working well. I knew something was missing, especially when no one paid a bit of attention to my carefully written reports that I sweated bullets over.  It was frustrating. I wanted my work to contribute something meaningful to the person's rehabilitation program but no one on the team seemed to pay much attention. Something was missing from this picture.

In my reading of the cognitive rehabilitation literature I learned that it was important to estimate the patient's "premorbid intelligence," e.g, how smart they were before their injury. This was supposed to help you know how to conduct therapy and how much cognitive function was lost (and to what status they might hope to return to).   To make a very long story a little bit shorter, I was showering one morning before work and it dawned on me what I needed to become a useful member of the treatment team. I needed an understanding of the person's multiple intelligences profile prior to their injury.  This would tell me their strengths as well as weaknesses that could be used in the design of strength-based therapeutic activities (that should be more motivating for the patient). How to obtain this information was the problem.
    Quite suddenly I realized that I needed to devise a structured interview that could be conducted with a family member who knew the person well prior to injury. Thus was born the Multiple Intelligences Developmental Assessment Scales (MIDAS) in 1986.

TMI yet?   We can now connect back to writing poetry....

Creating the MIDAS has proven to be my life's work that makes deep use of two of my strengths - words and people. I was once told by a neuropsychologist that I have a unique way of "feeling into how people think". And on occasion I'm told that I've written a good poem. Both require close attention to details. Writing questions for the MIDAS questionnaire (and reports) is easy for me -- small words in short sentences.
    Interesting story..... After writing the first version of the MIDAS questionnaire in collaboration with 2 psychologists and a speech pathologist, I was astonished to learn that it was written at the college reading level! Not good, if it was to be used with adults with a high school education or less. And many brain trauma patients are dare devil teenage boys who are not necessarily academic stars.
     My solution became a fascinating journey into words and their meaning. I started interviewing people with less than a high school education; most from the hospital's substance abuse treatment program.  The person would read the question aloud and I would in turn read aloud the response choices. I would listen where the person stumbled on the words then ask, "What does that mean to you? How else could you ask that? What words would you use to ask about that?" After a series of these interviews I completely rewrote the 120 questions to simplify and shorten them. It was a fun challenge to translate abstract ideas into everyday language while retaining the nuance and subtlety associated with specific skills and abilities.
   THEN I recruited hundreds of people with various education levels to complete the questionnaire so I could statistically evaluate the questions in relationship with other questions pertaining to that particular intelligence. Whew.  As I like to say, Fun with numbers!   This is where poetry and psychology come together.....a single word can alter meaning. Go figure. Poets have known that forever, eh?   It still strikes me sometimes how deaf psychologists are to words and how dead their language is.

TB:  To what do you attribute that deafness on the part of your fellow psychologists?

BS:  An analogy might be helpful.  Words are instruments. Psychologists fancy themselves as doctors who use words to do things like a doctor uses a stethoscope or perhaps an X-ray machine that describes a broken bone. I used to have a supervising psychologist who joked that writing psychological reports was the “lowest form of literature.”   For poets, words are also instruments but more like a flute through which blows the music that is their life’s breath.  Does that make sense?  Another analogy is painting. A house painter brushes color on the wall. A painter uses color to create a portrait of a house infused with his spirit / imagination. So, anyway…the psychologist applies the words to the surface while the poet infuses words with life. Or..something like that! J  

TB:  You have the distinction of being the first person I’ve interviewed who has inserted a smiley face at the end of a sentence.  I hope this doesn’t signal the beginning of a trend.

Final question.  What gets you going?  What keeps you motivated to do what you do?

BS: What keeps me going? (Besides being the first to insert emoticons into a “serious interview”?  hee, hee….I do like to cross boundaries and stretch the rules…. )

Words are like little magic mirrors that I like to play with bouncing light shards all around the room.  They allow me to reflect on present experience and - if the light is just right - peer through a keyhole into the future that I hadn’t seen before.

The small thrill of discovering something new are the fireworks that brighten grey mornings, dreary afternoons and dark nights for me. The challenge is to capture these fleeting flashes of light and then share them with others. Or - even better - show others how to ignite their own fireworks displays. Seeing the glow in their faces as they realize their own personal spark is the other source of joy that keeps me trudging forward when the going is thick, murky and slow.

Yes, it has been a long march through the proverbial thick and thin - good times and bad - since I left home at 18.  I've tried to keep my wits about me and learn things during both the good and bad stretches. The highs have indeed been high and the lows quite low.  If I can live through them fully and keep my head up then it is another good day!  I don't always achieve it but if I keep returning my attention to those little magic mirrors then something good is bound to come of it. 

That’s what keeps me going.