The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Brain expert Laurence Steinberg: Routine and boredom are anathema to plasticity

Teenagers are now back at school: back, we might imagine, to cramming their brains full of useful learning and life skills. Job well done?

Not nearly, says Laurence Steinberg, a world-leading expert in adolescent brains. He insists there’s much more that schools – and parents – should be doing to help young people build the best possible brains.

“Adolescence is our last best chance to make a difference,” the Temple University psychology professor says in his 2014 book Age of Opportunity.

Citing neurological research that has largely emerged over the past five years, he says adolescence is a second window – after the first three years of life – during which the brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience. In other words, it is remarkably plastic.

Steinberg has spent 40 years ­studying adolescents and their brains. He has more than 350 academic articles and 17 books to his name, and was adamant when he last spoke to the Listener. “The myth we now need to stamp out,” he says, “is that the way in which the brain develops during ­adolescence is all determined by ­biology and by genes. In fact, the ­plasticity of the brain makes it possible to influence the way it develops.”

There’s little point in drilling kids in calculus and grammar. Instead, “the capacity for self-regulation is probably the single most important contributor to achievement, mental health and social success”, he says. “In study after study of adolescents, in samples of young people ranging from privileged suburban youth to destitute inner-city teenagers, those who score high on measures of self-regulation ­invariably fare best … This makes ­developing ­self-­regulation the central task of ­adolescence, and the goal that we should be pursuing …”

Families have the most powerful effect here. “Practise authoritative parenting,” Steinberg urges. “Be warm. Be firm. And be supportive.” Set rules that make sense and explain them to your child. Be physically affectionate. Be consistent and fair, and as children mature, scaffold the risks you’ll allow them to take: push a curfew out in half-hour increments, for example. (Click here for a simple quiz to identify your parenting style, and tips on authoritative parenting).

Schools, too, have an important role. Steinberg says they should incorporate daily activities that strengthen self-regulation. He is pleased to hear that mindfulness is popping up in New Zealand schools. He bemoans the fact that physical education has been all but eradicated from the US curriculum. “That’s a terrible mistake, given what we know about the impact of aerobic exercise on the brain.”

And he wishes we would give all those plastic, revving-up teen brains a bit more of a workout. After his book went to press, he came across surveys that found only 15% of US high school students felt they’d ever taken a course that was difficult or challenging. “And that’s just an atrocity. I mean ever.”

What about adult brains?

Steinberg emphasises that the brain stays plastic throughout life – hence our ability to recover from brain injury, learn new skills and adapt to new environments.

Change will be much easier, though, if you catch your brain while it’s still in that adolescent surge of malleability. ­Steinberg says that because of the increasingly early onset of puberty, and the pushing back of harbingers of adult routine, such as children, marriage and careers, this window now lasts from about 10 until the mid-twenties.

Aged 26 when she started her brain-training regime, Barbara ­Arrowsmith-Young may have just managed to push that window open again as it was closing.

“There’s no way to tell whether you’re still living in [that] period of plasticity or not,” Steinberg says. Brain-scan ­technology can’t pick it up and there’s no diagnostic test – “although I think that you probably will be able to [diagnose plasticity] some day, because there are certain brain enzymes that seem to be related to a loss of plasticity that appear in adult brains”.

His advice mirrors the approach Arrowsmith-Young took all those years ago. Routine, boredom and ­complacency are anathema to plasticity. “Try to stay involved in novel and challenging activities,” he says. “If the brain is still plastic, you can make a difference.”

This article by Catherine Woulfe was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. You can follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

Filed under: ■ Brain Matters, ■ Brain Plasticity, ■ Brain Rules

What Will Future Jobs Look Like?

Filed under: 8►BUSINESS, ■ AI, ■ Automation, ■ Intelligent Life

Brain Rules for Meetings

You can find out how you can apply the 12 principles in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, in the context of a meeting by reading his answers to the questions below, first published in an interview for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) magazine Convene, and later re-posted on his blog, on January 30th.

Which of the 12 Brain Rules has the most impact on meetings? 
Well, probably, the biggest one would have to be about attentional states. This rule is very simple: People don’t pay attention to boring things. So if you really want to have a lousy meeting, make sure it’s boring. If you want to have a lousy classroom, make sure it’s boring. And if you want to vaccinate against the types of things that really do bore the mind, we have some understanding of that.

So how do you design a good meeting?
Here are the top three “brain gadgets” that probably have a bearing on the question. First, the human brain processes meaning before it processes detail. Many people, when they put meetings together, actually don’t even think about the meaning of what it is they’re saying. They just go right to the detail. If you go to the detail, you’ve got yourself a bored audience. Congratulations.
Second, in terms of attentional states, we’re not sure if this is brain science or not, but certainly in the behavioral literature, you’ve got 10 minutes with an audience before you will absolutely bore them. And you’ve got 30 seconds before they start asking the question, “Am I going to pay attention to you or not?” The instant you open your mouth, you are on the verge of having your audience check out. And since most people have been in meetings – 90 percent of which have bored them silly – they already have an immune response against you, particularly if you’ve got a PowerPoint slide up there.

How do you then hold attention?
This is what you have to do in 10 minutes. You have to pulse what I just said – the meaning before detail – into it. I call it a hook. At nine minutes and 59 seconds, you’ve got to give your audience a break from what it is that you’ve been saying and pulse to them once again the meaning of what you’re saying.

What is the third “brain gadget”?
The brain cycles through six questions very, very quickly. Question No. 1 is “Will it eat me?” We pay tons of attention to threat. The second question is “Can I eat it?” I don’t know if you have ever watched a cooking show and have loved what they are cooking, but you pay tons of attention if you think there’s going to be an energy resource. Question No. 3 is highly Darwinian. The whole reason why you want to live in the first place is to project your genes to the next generation – that means sex. So Question No. 3 is “Can I mate with it?” And Question No. 4 is “Will it mate with me?”

It turns out we pay tons of attention to – it actually isn’t sex per se, it’s reproductive opportunity. [It is also] hooked up to the pleasure centers of your brain – the exact same centers you use when you laugh at something. Oddly enough, I think that’s one of the reasons why humor can work. If you can pop a joke or at least tell an interesting story, it’s actually inciting those areas of the brain that are otherwise devoted to sex. You don’t become aroused by listening to a joke. I’m saying those areas of the brain can be co-opted. You can utilize them, and a good speaker knows how to do that.

What are Questions 5 and 6?
“Have I seen it before?” and “Have I never seen it before?” We are terrific pattern matchers. There is an element of surprise that comes when patterns don’t match, but the reason why that happens is because we are trying to match patterns all the time.

Is there a Brain Rule that addresses whether you should try to control the use of laptops and phones during a meeting session?
I have this rule response, based on data, and then I have a visceral response, also based on data. In other words, I’m about ready to tell you a contradiction. Are you ready?

Yes, I am.    

Alrighty. I do believe what you can show is that there are attentional blinks. The brain actually is a beautiful multitasker, but the attentional spotlight, which you use to pay attention to things, [is not]. You can’t listen to a speaker and type what they are saying at the same time.

What you can show in the laboratory is that you get staccato-like attentional blinks. Just like you come up for air: You look at the speaker, then when you’re writing, you cannot hear what the speaker is saying. Then you come up for air and hear the speaker again. So you’re flipping back and forth between those two, and your ability to be engaged to hear what a speaker is saying is necessarily fragmented.
At the same time, if your speaker is boring, you could have checked out anyway. So you see, in many ways it depends upon the speaker.

How so?
If the speaker is really compelling and is clear and is emotion- ally competent, and has gone through those six questions, letting you come up for air every 10 minutes, I’ve actually watched audiences put their laptops away just to pay attention.

I have a style that is purposely a little speedier. And the rea- son why is that it produces a tension that says, “I need to pay attention closely to him or I’m going to lose what he’s saying.” I don’t make it so fast that it’s unintelligible – at least I hope I don’t. But I do make it fast, and occasionally I see comments that say, “Great speaker, but you know, you were too freaking fast.”

Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, ■ BM Brain Matters, ■ Brain Matters, ■ Brain Rules, ►10.IN PRINT▼, TOPICS▼

Food – Then and Now

Today’s lecture on Food in Biblical Times delivered by Janna Gur, author of “The Book of New Israeli Food” and editor-in-chief of one of the leading culinary monthlies in Israel, was a wonderful source of discoveries and confirmations as to what we regard today as staples in our local cuisine, 

 whether we think about our home country or the country we live in.


Many of the vegetables we use today (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet potatoes and any kind of potatoes, as a matter of fact, or even oranges) were not used by the ancient cuisine of Biblical times for the simple reason they did not exist at that time. Tomatoes only found their way to those land in the 15th century. What were the vegetables used in Biblical times? They were mainly green vegetables similar to what we know today as cucumbers, along with cabbage, lettuce, watermelons, garlic and leek.  Most of these were considered luxuries and were consumed mostly by the wealthy, who could afford to have a vegetable garden. There were also several kinds of wild veggies that were available at large, which everyone, especially the poor, could use as food.

An interesting fact I discovered was that the ancestor of wheat has been discovered to originate in Israel, which gives credit to the equating of bread with food, in general, in the Bible.

Wheat and barley were therefore among the staple foods in Biblical times, along with oil and wine. Back then people would always drink their wine with water, as they believed that water was purified by the addition of wine. This was the top 3 most important staples then, and I believe it continues to be today. 

The fruits of the land that the ancient region of Israel was renowned for were the following 7: barley, wheat, wine (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates or honey. To this day, dates are used to create a type of honey which has become increasingly popular in the Arab countries in comparison to the bee honey we are more familiar with in Europe. The molasses made of dates has also been a well-known sweetener over the ages.

Another interesting information concerns the identity of the forbidden fruit that is never specifically mentioned in the Bible. You might say, well, it was the apple. You might be surprised to know that historians think that the fig or the pomegranate make for more suitable candidates. If you have ever seen a pomegranate garden, you might agree with their theory.

The 4 best known spices of the Biblical times must have been pepper corn, salt, cinnamon and cumin. As far as herbs are concerned, dill coriander, mint and a wild herb in the oregano/thyme family were the most popular.

Dairy products and meat posed serious conservation problems. They were more frequently used by shepherds than farmers and one person’s intake of meat counted an average of 4 times per year.

Last but not least, Michelangelo went wrong when he seated Jesus and his apostles at the long, rectangular table in his depiction of the Last Supper. According to historians and reputed researchers, they must have reclined (not sat) along a U-shaped table that was popular back then.  Reclining was an attribute, a sign of social standing and a symbol of liberation – slaves could not recline. The menu might have included lamb roasted on sticks over hot coals in a pit served with bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and wine. 

I’m looking forward to Janna Gur’s next lectures during the Jewish Festival this week, that will further explore the historical, religious and cultural contexts of the cuisine of the times when the Bible came into being. 

 In the July issue of the Travel + Leisure magazine there is an article by Peter Jon Lindberg on The World’s Strangest Supermarket Items that gives an interesting perspective on contemporary food items. I invite you to read it and decide on your personal favourites. 

Wherever I travel, I’m pretty much consumed with eating. If I’m not eating, I’m probably looking for food. And when I’m not looking for food, you’ll likely find me looking at food, perusing the shelves of a local supermarket. Sightseeing? There’s no finer. Plus, you get to eat the sights. The Monoprix is my Louvre, Tesco my British Museum.

If one of the perks of travel is the chance to observe foreigners in their natural habitats—unguarded and wholly themselves—there are few better vantages than the corner grocery. No one postures in a supermarket; no one pretends to be someone else. (I once followed David Bowie around a Whole Foods in Manhattan. This was both more and less interesting than you’d think.) Under those too-bright fluorescents, we are all equalized and exposed, our appetites and eccentricities laid bare. You can learn a lot about a culture by watching it shop for groceries. It’s like sneaking into a nation’s house and rifling through the fridge.

At home the supermarket is the most mundane environment you know. Transfer that environment to an unfamiliar setting and our differences come into relief. At first it all seems boringly normal: the same motion-activated doors, whining toddlers, and treacly Muzak you’d find at your neighborhood Stop & Shop. But look closer and you begin to notice: something’s off. Milk in bags. Unrefrigerated eggs. Blatantly racist cartoon characters used to sell rice. Cucumber Pepsi. Hamburger chewing gum. Myrrh-flavored toothpaste. (Alas, no frankincense deodorant.) Globalization may or may not be flattening the world’s tastes, but all manner of regional quirks are still on display at foreign supermarkets. A walk down the aisle reveals the extraordinary range, and geographic particularity, of human cravings—for cephalopod-flavored potato chips (right there with you, Japan!), black-currant-flavored anything (good on you, Britain!), or rank-smelling durian fruit (you’re on your own, Southeast Asia!).

Browsing in supermarkets is also a fine way to hone foreign-language skills. The shelves are basically one long menu-reader, complete with handy illustrations. Let’s see…mulethi must be Hindi for “licorice,” berenjena is obviously Spanish for “eggplant,” and cavallo seems to be Italian for “horsemeat.” (Wait—horsemeat? That’s sick, Italy. Sick!)

Grocery stores offer a window not just onto the culture and cuisine at hand but onto that culture’s taste for othercuisines. Who’d have guessed that the Swiss have a jones for Mexican food? That Australians are mad for Malaysian? That Japan is obsessed with French pastry? It’s also curious-making to see which of our own foods have made the leap overseas. In Europe, high-end food shops stock “gourmet” imports from the U.S., which typically means Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Old El Paso taco sauce, and B&M Baked Beans. Do any Americans still eat B&M Baked Beans? Europeans think we do.

Some travelers go to supermarkets just to laugh at the inadvertently funny labels—your Bimbo-brand bread (Mexico), your Barf laundry detergent (Iran), your Jussipussi dinner rolls (Finland). Yet the packaging can also be seriously beautiful. In Denmark even the dish soap looks elegant; a tin of Spanish tuna could take your breath away. The best foreign groceries double as surveys of graphic design. I have a Neo-Constructivist can of borscht, purchased at a Perekrestok in Moscow, displayed on my living room mantel. But I’m weird like that. My collection of international novelty foods may soon outnumber the actual foods-for-eating in my pantry. I suppose in a really bad blizzard I could finally bust open the decade-old Laotian fish paste, though I’ll hold out as long as I can. That tube is really something.

When it comes to food packaging, few countries can compete with Japan, whose supermarkets are a wonderland of vibrant logos, kooky names, and cute (if occasionally creepy) mascots. Everything is packaged like sugar-charged breakfast cereal, even the bonito flakes; you’d think only children shopped for groceries there. Yet I know plenty of adults who queue up at Tokyo conbini stores to buy each seasonal Kit Kat bar on the day of its release: chestnut in autumn, candied potato in winter, cherry blossom in spring, and 200-odd other flavors throughout the year.

Of course there’s only so much cheese-and-fish sausage you can leer at without becoming utterly ravenous, which is another benefit of foreign grocery stores: they are the visual aperitif, the mental amuse-bouche that presages your next meal. Nothing fires an appetite like a stroll through the supermarket, especially if it’s really, really huge. The rule at home is never to shop for groceries hungry, but abroad I’d never do otherwise. By the end of a trip half my suitcase is filled with groceries. Indeed, some of my all-time favorite foods and ingredients were found—by sheer luck—in far-flung supermarkets: Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce, from Belize; Laxmi-brand dal from India; Capilano honey from Australia; Amora mustard from France; Yancanelo olive oil from Argentina. Drizzling that oil on a ripe tomato takes me out of my Brooklyn kitchen and straight back to Buenos Aires.

If U.S. Customs would let me, I’d fill a whole other suitcase with yogurt. The entire world appreciates yogurt more than we do; it is the soccer of food. Seriously—walk into any overseas market, go to the (never-less-than-vast) yogurt section, and buy the first brand you see. I guarantee it will blow your mind. And it comes in a little glass jar or a dainty ceramic pot! That you get to keep! For the frustrated American yogurt lover, this all seems patently unfair.

It’s not just about food, either. The pharmacy section is always a treasure trove of horse-tranquilizer-size malaria tablets, jars of “milking jelly” (for cows, not humans), vials of “lung tonic,” and a bunch of other potions and elixirs you never knew existed. (And I’m sure the FDA would like to keep it that way.) Buying medical products abroad is risky, though, since the packaging is usually so inscrutable you have no clue what you’re buying—could be antacid, could be oven cleaner. Maybe both. Traveling in Borneo years ago I came down with a nasty chest cold; at a Kuching supermarket the pharmacist sold me a bottle of cough syrup that I swear was 60 percent deet. Upside: I was cured in 40 minutes.

Regional peculiarities aside, our planet is undeniably shrinking, and foreign treats are increasingly available in our hometown markets or, more so, online. Whether we’ve really gained from this is unclear, but it’s true that something—a certain thrill—has been diminished. Back in my Anglophilic youth I visited London once a year, and my first stop was always at the local Tesco, where I’d buy sackfuls of the things I couldn’t yet find back home: Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, Walkers pickled-onion potato crisps, Ribena black-currant juice, Flake bars, Crunchie bars, Lion bars, Batchelors Mushy Peas (I ate them straight from the can), and, most coveted of all, McVitie’s Dark Chocolate Hobnobs (“the nobbly oaty biscuit”!). The latter became a real problem for me for a while, as I would beg and pester any U.K.-bound acquaintance to please please PLEASE pick me up a dozen packets of Hobnobs here’s a £50 note and an extra suitcase please PLEASE don’t forget I love them so.Friends learned to stop telling me their travel plans.

Years later, when imported Hobnobs suddenly materialized at a yuppie grocery near my Brooklyn apartment—selling for three times the U.K. price—I briefly worried that I might go broke and corpulent from eating cookies 24/7. Turns out the novelty wore off quick. A Hobnob in any other country, I discovered, was simply not as sweet.

Filed under: ■ Conference Speakers, ■ Food & Travel, ■ Israel, ■ Talks & Conferences, ■ The Jewish Festival in Krakow, ■ Travel +Leisure Magazine, ►FESTIVALS & EVENTS▼

Fun Ways to Develop Your Brain Power

Do microbiology and bioengineering sound like fun?

Some of you may have studied either or both, while to others these fields may still be in the “uncharted” category.

To John Medina, affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, these fields have been a source of inciting discoveries in the field of the human brain.

Dr Medina  has studied the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders and wrote two books that soon became well-read, acclaimed bestsellers. I would like to thank Mr Steve Lever for having recommended the Brain Rules books at the recently held conference for English teachers, “Leading the Way in Digital Education.” If you want to read more about these books, visit the Brain Rules site, an excellent compendium for anyone interested in putting  brain research results to practice.

As for the fun part, watch the video below about the role of schema in learning, as an example. Feel free to add your comment if you are not in hysterics by the time you reach the end:

Ok, now as the laughing subsides, let’s invstigate some of the topics you can read about on the Brain Rules site and the related blog:

From Rule 1 to Rule 12, you will find out what can make your brain more effective.

There is no secret that exercising the brain increases its power. People can continue their professional and personal development on a regular basis, regardless of age; they may choose to start one or, why not, several degree courses online, and keep fit physically and mentally.

There is no doubt that each and every one of us would like nothing more than to figure out what they don’t know, to explore.

Dr Medina illustrates rules like “exercise” or “explore” with graphs, charts and (links to) videos or audio recordings, which make the site dedicated to the Brain Rules all the more useful and accessible to anyone.

Here is one last example to enjoy for the time being: the blog post Kids Lie Every 90 Minutes – And That’s a Good Thing. I wonder why…

Filed under: 9►EXTRA, ■ Brain Matters, ■ Brain Rules, ■ Self Development Links, ►11.ON LINE▼

Between Living for the Eye and Living for the Soul

The profile of Grace Coddington is the profile of a visually imaginative genius, and this month’s Intelligent Life cover story stands to prove it.  I warmly recommend this article now available online, as an unusual look into the world of fashion through the eyes of the passionate yet charmingly shy creative director of American Vogue. If you have the time and resources, also watch the documentary The September Issue (2009)- also reviewed in the Intelligent Life.

Who is Grace Coddington? Read more about her life and work in the March online issue of the Intelligent Life.

GRACE CODDINGTON: A LIFE IN BRIEF

1959: At 18, Grace leaves home in Anglesey, Wales, and enrols in Cherry Marshall’s modelling school in London. Norman Parkinson takes his first shots of her, at his farm in the country. “I was running naked through a wood, but it didn’t bother me. Wenda, his wife, was there, and Parks was so charming and dapper.” She wins Vogue’s Young Model competition the same year. “Ah-ha,” says Parkinson at the prize-giving tea, “you made it here! You’ll do well.”

1961: A car accident smashes her face into the driving mirror and slices off an eyelid. She endures two years of plastic surgery before returning to modelling.

1968: After six years of displaying a tendency to take over on shoots and tell stylists how to style, Grace joins British Vogue as a junior fashion editor, on a salary of £1,100 p.a. This is a quarter of what she earned as a model, but she feels it is time to move on. “All the young models come along and make you feel old standing beside them. And styling seemed like a fun, easy job—until I did it.”

1969: She marries Michael Chow at Chelsea Registry Office. Her new husband is the young, entrepreneurial owner of one of the restaurants of the moment, Mr Chow in Knightsbridge. “The restaurant was buzzing with amazing people. It was so much fun,” she says. ”But I was useless at being a restaurateur’s wife—much too shy to table-hop.” They split up after six months.

1973: Grace goes back to the young Vietnamese photographer, known as Duc, with whom she was in love before her marriage. Her sister Rosemary dies young, and Grace tries to adopt her nephew, seven-year-old Tristan, but the Welsh authorities refuse permission. “It was hardly surprising.” After breaking up with Duc she meets another apprentice photographer, Willie Christie, a rangy, rock’n’roll figure, and mentors him at Vogue.

1976: Willie and Grace marry, but “it’s difficult to be employed by your wife,” she says, and they divorce in 1980. Grace transforms herself into a business-suited, short-haired blonde—what she calls a “Calvin person”.

1980-86: At British Vogue, Grace creates a startling series of “sprawling, National Geographic-style photo essays—more than 20 pages long—in which the clothes were so smoothly integrated they barely registered as fashion photographs at all”, as the fashion writer Michael Roberts put it. In March 1986, Anna Wintour becomes editor-in-chief. Grace resigns in December: “Anna was much more into ‘sexy’ than I was.”

1987: A few months later, Grace takes a new job as design director for Calvin Klein in New York—mostly, she says, so she can spend more time with the French hairstylist Didier Malige, a long-time collaborator of hers, who was based in America. She still lives with him today.

1988: She rejoins Anna Wintour, who has now taken up the reins at American Vogue, because she misses the creative buzz of magazines. “Excitement on 7th Avenue ends with the show. The next day it’s all marketing.” Her influence grows: she becomes creative director, and by the end of the 1990s, her theatrical, narrative style is endemic in fashion photography.

2009: With her appearance in “The September Issue”, Coddington goes from a big name in a small world to a public figure. “It’s not like movie stardom,” she says. “It’s just that people feel I’m approachable. And I like talking to strangers on the subway: I’m a good listener, and sometimes miss my stop.”

Filed under: ■ Fashion, ■ Intelligent Life, ■ Leadership, ■ Photos that Speak

Yes, You Are in “The Teacher” Magazine Again!

The 8-year Anniversary Edition of the Teacher (the June issue, Warsaw, 2010)

This month’s issue of “The Teacher” magazine may not be(all) about you, my Jagiellonian University students, but it definitely says something about you all – especially in the article contributed by yours truly,


Additional learning sources (3)

Students for students, measure for measure.

Ideas & tips for teachers in four acts.”

The magazine is available in Empik stores and on the magazine website

I will let you know as soon as I post online versions of the the “Additional Learning Sources” series on one of my sites.

If you wish to keep an eye out for latest news, hit the SIGN Me Up button on the right-hand column on this page. Enjoy the summer, and keep coming back!

Exam sample papers soon to be posted right here, on the ELB!

Filed under: ■ The Teacher, ►10.IN PRINT▼

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