Synesthesia: Do You Hear in Color?

rotation_shape_rainbow_colors_16416_2560x1440[Updated from April 08, 2009] Do you hear in color?  Many people do! And this is just one form of crossing perceptual modalities. Since this trait can impact learning, it is important to be aware of it and how it can be a gift or a challenge – or both!

I have always associated colors with different things such as sounds, words/concepts, days/months, and even letters/numbers. I also perceive all of these, and many other things, to have genders and personalities. My first clue that not everyone thought this way was when, as a child, I asked my grandmother if my ring finger was a girl or a boy. She told me that all of my fingers were girls because I am a girl. I decided to not ask Grandma these types of questions.

There are tests you can take, but they have some limitations. My scores on a battery of tests I took range from .36 to .76, and anything below 1.0 is considered synesthesia.  The tricky part for me is that I sometimes perceive more than one color as well as textures (thick liquid, metal, etc.), and the battery of tests didn’t account for this.  Also, colors can cause emotional and even physical reactions, especially with certain hues or color combinations. A thing I wasn’t tested for was my association with physical sensations and pitches/frequencies of sound.

People who have this “sensory crossing” are impacted in how they perceive and process information, which includes learning.  It makes the perceptual modality aspect of “learning styles” a bit more complex.  However, it can also be used to one’s advantage (i.e. color-coding notes or using different highlighters, or associating different music, etc.); it is a very personalized process for each person.

Sometimes there can be modality interference; for example, what if a teacher’s concept map or feedback put things in colors that don’t match what the student’s perception is of those concepts?  In my experience, this can be rather distracting! Ideally, the student would be able to adjust the colors to match his or her perceptions.

By the way, there seems to be a genetic link. My youngest daughter has strong synesthesia associations; however, they are different from mine as there is no link for what the actual associations will be.

Think you might experience synesthesia?  If so, you can try one or more tests:

I would love to hear what your results were!

Personalization Only for the Privileged?

Credit: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Credit: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

On a panel about nonconformity, the conversation mentioned the need for people to not be cogs in the wheel. Of course I shared what we were doing at my school to help with that.

Two fellow panelists were ready to remind me that schools like ours only worked for the privileged elite.


This is a common perception. Why? Because it is mostly true. Programs perceived to be similar to ours often fail to serve students outside of a particular set of demographics.

So how can I be so sure that our model can work outside of those demographics? Because it already has.

From students in rural communities of 1500, to cities of over 18 million, it has worked. For students who were homeless, or living in a meth house, or in a mansion, or on a boat for months at a time, it has worked. For students who had cancer, who were recovering from trauma, or who were healthy professional athletes with a demanding schedule, it has worked. For students who needed to move slowly through their studies, or those who needed to accelerate learning, it has worked.

The whole point of personalized education is to personalize for each individual student based on the current scenario of that student’s life in that moment. It requires providing levels of support with instructors, coaches, counselors, and other team members there to serve. It also requires tossing out the original rulebook most schools follow.

The school I was at was only one version of the model — just one manifestation of the Personalized Education Philosophy. We served a broad range of students, and the model could be used to serve even more (e.g. create a school in a language other than English).

Okay fine. It could be seen that we we’re different. But my fellow panelist Joyce accurately pointed out, “Yes, we have the positive things that people like you are doing, but that is not the majority trend as of yet in education.”

My response: “So my question is, how do we make it the majority?”

Of course, I couldn’t just leave it at that, especially since we have been actively encouraging partnerships this past year to bring what we do to serve more students. Learning centers, sports academies, and even public schools have integrated what we were doing into their programs. I kept hoping for somebody to create a performing arts academy with us.

I put out this call to the audience: “We’re looking for more Rangers,” I motioned to Joyce, “like you, who will come on board so we can actually make the changes in this country, and the rest of the world – I mean, because why not the rest of the world?”

And why not? As Christa McAuliffe said, “May your future be limited only by your dreams!”

The Confused Ferrets of Education

Elsa is still learning how to be a ferret. Early shelter life impacted her, but she is watching the others and learning.

Sort of.

Sometimes she misses the point.

Today I watch as Ching Shih picks out her favorite food from the mixture and scurries under the bed to her personal stash, storing and eating only the best food. Elsa has been watching this for weeks. Today Elsa decides to “help” Ching Shih by grabbing any bit of food – often the large, least favorite pieces – and adds them to Ching Shih’s stash. She then gets very excited because she did the thing! A ferret thing!

The result is that Ching Shih now has a mix similar to the original.

At first glance, Elsa is doing the same thing as Ching Shih. She just missed an important detail of the behavior, not to mention its whole purpose.

As you might expect, my education geek’s brain instantly draws the comparison to how many schools tried to copy what what the school I co-created was doing, even including several details. They just missed the important ones, and the whole purpose.  The result is that most schools are similar to the original that people are trying to get away from.

Drawing a direct comparison to the above ferret cuteness, we aim to offer the best. Since student needs are very personal, the “best” is also personal. It requires empowering students to have the strongest voice in their education. Nurturing personal agency, and ultimately self-actualization, is at the heart of what we do. It’s the whole purpose.

So next time you see a program that says it’s self-paced but then has due dates, or says it’s personalized but uses only canned curriculum, just remember they are confused ferrets.  They often really think they are doing the thing! They just missed the point.

Student Voice “Undermining”?

RespectHe towered over me, easily twice my size, shaking with anger. How dare I undermine him, making him look like a fool! Having a very large, angry man only inches away from me triggered me into a calm state that he probably interpreted as uncaring.

He had a habit of misinterpretations and making assumptions.

It was my first year teaching in public school full-time, at an “alternative school” for kids labeled at-risk. He was a fellow teacher who had just come out of a large group teacher-parent conference with the student and administration also present. The student was intelligent, hard-working, and mature beyond her years, and also one of my best students. The counselor expressed concern over her not doing well in my colleague’s class, and he then took a turn talking about all the things the student was doing wrong and why.

When it came to my turn to speak, I turned to the student – who was gripping her mom’s hand – and asked her what she thought or felt, and then held space for her to speak.

This is what my fellow teacher was enraged about. I “allowed” the student to speak. And she spoke calmly, intelligently, and gave important information that brought everything into clear focus, and this focus resulted in him feeling foolish for having made false assumptions.

When a kid is acting out or not performing, there’s usually a reason. There’s a backstory to learn. Sometimes it’s mundane yet still important. Sometimes it’s something horrible, and nine out of ten times that story won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.

In this case, the information changed the tone and focus of the rest of the meeting to one of respect and proactive solutions.

Student voice is essential. Sometimes they are eager to speak, and sometimes they need a coach to mentor and advocate for them to find and use their voice. While our school’s philosophy is all about empowering the student, and we have a learning model that focuses on that, I wonder what more we could do to give students opportunity to practice using their voice. Do you have any ideas?


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Deficient? Detoxing from Negative Framing

equal testing has all animals climb a treeI attended the welcoming reception at the education conference I am at this week – an opportunity for vendors to entice people to their booths with free food. Obviously this works on me because I was there. I enjoy looking for new tools or strategies for our students, so the exhibit hall is a favorite part for me. However, as I went from one booth to another, there was one I hesitated approaching. It was huge, dominating a large portion of the room, but I passed by it several times. I was struggling with first bullet point on their sign: deficiency diagnostics.

Now, I understand the concept of deficiency diagnostics, and the importance of knowing where the gaps are – especially in a mastery-based program like ours. So I forced myself to finally read the rest of the booth’s signs to see if there was anything to redeem the negative feeling.


What’s my hang-up? After years of detoxing kids from negative framing, I find that instead of becoming jaded, I have only become more sensitive. We often get students who see themselves as “deficient” and who need to be “fixed” because of all the things “wrong” about them. It takes time to help them reframe their approach: use their strengths to tackle the challenge areas to the best of their abilities, and focus on their gifts and personal goals to define themselves as the wonderfully unique beings they are.

Maybe there isn’t a better way of saying “deficiency diagnostics” that would fit on a display sign. However, is there a way we can help students recognize and work on areas for growth without them feeling “broken” as a result? Can we – the teachers, parents, and other potential mentors – model this, or are we struggling with this for ourselves?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Also, if you know of any tools, strategies, or other resources that focus on a positive growth mindset, please share them with me.


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