The most important skill – Critical Thinking

There seems little doubt that there is a gap between the skills needed to do a particular job and those that are available, the so called “skills gap”, and it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the economy.

The skills Gap
According to the Office for National Statistics, “the number of job vacancies increased sharply to a record 1.2 million in the three months to November 2021, having reached a record low of 340,000 in the three months to June 2020”. As with most real-world problems the reasons as to why this has happened is complex, requiring a good understanding of individual sectors of the employment market. However, we can make a few generalisations, firstly there is a shortage of qualified candidates. This is the results of a number of factors including a lack of specific skills, the right work experience and or educational qualifications. And secondly there are less people in employment. The Institute for Employment Studies estimates there are 600,000 fewer people in work than before the pandemic. This is because there are less migrants, (Brexit), older people (Boomers) are retiring, more younger people are going into further education and the pandemic has resulted in changing lifestyles e.g. the great resignation.

What skills are lacking?
This is another tricky one to navigate but a good way of approaching it is to break it down, splitting the skills between technical (hard) and people (soft). Technical skills in say the Digital sector would include the ability to write code or use a particular type of software, whereas people skills include thinking (critical), communicating, problem solving etc. With regards to people skills the one employers often consider the most important is critical thinking.

As an aside, personally, I think the terms hard and soft skills is misleading, from a learning perspective it’s much easier to teach hard skills than soft ones, and in terms of which is the most valuable or important, they both are.

Critical thinking
Wikipedia tells us that Critical thinking is the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments to form a judgement. There are however many definitions but they all have the same basic concept – the ability to reason by asking questions in order to from an opinion.

“People can be extremely intelligent, have taken a critical thinking course, and know logic inside and out. Yet they may just become clever debaters, not critical thinkers, because they are unwilling to look at their own biases.” Carol Wade Phycologist.

Everyone thinks, you’re probably doing it right now but the process of thinking is both complex and simple and, in some ways beautiful. Individual neurons sit next to each other in the brain similar to members of an orchestra, when instructed to do so they each perform individually but what emerges is something new, the orchestra create music, the brain a thought. My thanks to Henning Beck from the University of Tübingen for this great analogy, here is the link to his Ted lecture, How we think. Watch out for his example as to how the brain can transfer the outline image of a tree and turn it into a child.

The problem with our orchestra of neurons is that together they are biased, emotional and suffer from prejudice, and left to their own devices will form opinions that although appearing to be true are distortions made to fit prior beliefs and personal values.

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed, the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.” Bertrand Russell, Philosopher.

An Orchestra of Neurons

They need a conductor – And this is where critical thinking comes in.
Here is an example, imagine a situation where an individual tells a story that resonates with many people, they create sounds bites such as Make America Great Again (MAGA) or Take Back Control. There is something in the simplicity of this, a clarity that resonates, and as a consequence the brain latches on to the storyteller, making them the conductor. However, remember the brain, our collection of neurons is not rational, its often selfish, lazy and emotional, there is no interview process for our conductor, the brain will simply pick one, often without much thought.

But what if we don’t leave the brain to its own devises, what if we insist it follows a few simple protocols before making a decision.

The critical thinking process
Below is how critical thinking might work using the MAGA example.

  1. Formulate the question – what problem(s) are you trying to solve?
    e.g. What do we know about the storyteller, what does MAGA actually mean?
  2. Gather information
    e.g. find out more about the storyteller, what bias might they have, are they qualified to make such comments?
  3. Analyse and Evaluate – ask challenging questions, consider implications and prioritise.
    e.g. what does great mean, was America great in the past, a logical question given that the idea is to do it again, what makes a country great, what are the pros and cons of being great?
  4. Reach a conclusion, form an opinion and reflect.
    e.g. This is what I think and this is the reason why. – let me think about that, does it make sense?

When you put this process in place you will be able to form your OWN opinion as to the credibility of the conductor and their story, this is independent thinking, its what employers value most and its what we need to close the skills gap.

If you accept the argument I have put forward as to the value of critical thinking, and of course you should think critically about it, the next question is probably:
Can you teach critical thinking? – this will have to be the subject of another blog, but by way of a spoiler the answer is maybe not or if you can it’s not easy.

A few more blogs to make you a better thinker – Sensemaking, humility and the humanities – Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader – Lessons from lies – Fake news.

Gagne’s style – Nine steps to delivery

Robert Gagne was an American educational psychologist who pioneered the science of instruction in the second world war working with the Army Air Corps, training pilots. His focus was on simplifying and explaining what he and others believed to be good instruction.

Like many academics he wrote and published papers on different areas, for example he developed a hierarchy of learning, similar to Bloom with behavioural aspects at the bottom and cognitive ones at the top. But he is probably most well-known for his Nine levels of learning or as it is referred to here, The nine steps of delivery.

Now the only problem with this is that there are nine steps and anyone who has read this blog before will know, nine is just to The answer is simple, chunk it down into smaller sections.

Why is this important?
Gagne’s objective was to provide a systematic process to help teachers and trainers better structure what they do in order to keep students engaged and help them retain knowledge. But the process he created also provides an insight as to how learning works and can be used by students to structure their own learning. Below are the nine steps broken down under three headings. As well as explaining how each step works, I will also add comments as to what it means for a student who might be studying on their own.

Preparation

  1. Gaining attention
    Start the learning experience by gaining the attention of your learners. The change in stimulus tells them that learning will soon take place. For the student this means you need to create a break from what you are doing and get into a mood to start studying. This might involve going to the library or setting an alarm on your phone to create a trigger telling you something different is about to happen.
  1. Informing the learner of the objective
    Share the learning objective with students early on. What should they know at the end of the session that they didn’t before. For the student it’s important you also know what you are trying to learn, what will you be aware of at the end of this session that you don’t know now. It also helps if your aware of why its important e.g. maybe it’s a very popular exam area or is developed in more detail later so you need to learn it now.
  1. Stimulating recall of prior learning
    Relate the new learning back to something learned before or a similar experience your learners have had, this forms a link between the old and new. For the student this is a reflective process, how does this topic relate to what you have learned in the past, how does it fit in?

Instruction and practice

  1. Presenting the content
    Present the new content to the learners. For the student this is where you start reading or listening to the new content.
  1. Providing learning guidance
    Explain to the learners what something means by giving examples, highlight what’s difficult and what’s not. For the student this is where you have to rely on the instruction provided in the learning materials
  1. Eliciting performance
    Here the learner has to practice what they have been taught in order to demonstrate understanding. For the student this is the equivalent to attempting a question or by way of analogy, trying to turn the theory of how to bake a cake into a reality by actually baking one.

Assessment and transfer

  1. Providing feedback
    Provide guidance to the learner as to what the difference was between their answer and the correct one, what do they need to do to close that gap? For the student this is where it is helpful to work with others, perhaps you mark their answer and they mark yours. To follow the cake example, take it out of the oven and look at it, is it the right texture and colour, then taste it. What do you need to do to make it the best cake ever?
  1. Assessing the performance
    Assessing learner performance is usually demonstrated by asking them to take a test. For the student its very similar this time, take the test and see what score you get.
  1. Enhancing retention and transfer
    The learner now needs to demonstrate this by applying it to their job or by teaching others. This last stage often requires continual practice and feedback to become competent. For the student who thinks their objective is to do little more than pass the exam it may not seem important, however in the medium to long term applying learning is the main goal.

And that’s all you have to do, nine steps that break down instruction and in so doing providing a roadmap to effective study. It has been argued that the process doesn’t work so well for more creative subjects, after all it was designed around training airline pilots. However, it can teach you to fly and most importantly land a plane it’s probably good enough for most areas of learning.

Who needs a teacher – the power of self-explanation

One of the great skills of a teacher is that they explain things you don’t understand, that’s really helpful – right?

Well maybe not, a meta study entitled, Inducing Self-Explanation published back in 2018 concluded that it is better to ask a student to try and explain something to themselves, than for a teacher to do that for them. Although in fairness the teacher’s explanation was better than no explanation, which might seem an obvious point but it shows that the content is important and it’s not just the process. However, the process does help because it forces the student to recognise links between the knowledge or skills they have already learned and identify the gaps in their understanding which need to be bridged. In further defence of teachers, there is some evidence to show that the technique is more effective following an initial explanation, with the student asked to explain it to themselves afterwards.

In simple terms self-explanation requires the learner to try to explain concepts, ideas and processes in their head to themselves prior to answering a question. However there is a little more to it than that.

Self-explanation and elaborative interrogation
Elaborative interrogation is similar to self-exploration but not exactly the same. If you ask someone “why that makes sense” or “why is this true”, this is an example of elaboration, it generally relies on a specific chunk of prior knowledge that you are elaborating on. Self-explanation is more generic in that you could ask “what does this mean to you” or “explain what you have just read”. To answer these questions there is no need for past knowledge as the paragraph may only just have been read. As a result, self-explanation is better suited to knowledge acquisition.

But for all intent and purposes they are both techniques that force reflection, requiring the learner to assemble the component parts of process or argument in their head, challenge the conclusions and ask further questions to narrow the gap in their understanding. One last point, we also know that more effective learners (although you may think they are just really smart) are likely to engage in self-explaining naturally.

Learning requires effort – desirable difficulty
If this process sounds like hard work, it is, learning is not meant to be easy, it can be enjoyable and rewarding but not necessarily easy. Compare, trying to explain something to re-reading the textbook or highlighting key words. My guess is that you would much rather re-read or highlight, but they are both far less effective learning techniques.

The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

This is yet another example of what Robert Bjork’s referred to as desirable difficulty (Bjork, 1994; McDaniel & Butler). It is the idea that having certain difficulties in the learning process greatly improves long-term retention. Other examples include, spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice which I have written about before. It’s the effort and reflection that helps transfer the knowledge from short term to long term memory and without that it would be forgotten.

More effective
The key point is not about the difficulty of learning but the effectiveness of the methods used to learn, and developing the confidence that when something is hard it’s probably a good thing. So, the next time you are asked a question that requires an explanation and you can’t give one, don’t jump straight back into the textbook to reread the entire chapter. Think and reflect on what it is you don’t understand, create a sentence that captures that lack of understanding, maybe even saying it out loud, find the answer and then attempt to explain it again.

A little more difficult of course but you will be learning and not just sitting there thinking you are.

My thanks to John Eaton for his observations on this topic and for the fab picture of Less Dawson.

Reduce test anxiety – with help from Amy G Dala

Whether you call it test anxiety or exam stress, they are both terms used to describe a combination of physical symptoms and emotional reactions that can impact your ability to do well in exams. It’s hard to measure how many people suffer from it, although there are estimates of between 10% and 40%, with some correlation with the increased testing in schools.

The physical symptoms include headache, nausea, sweating, shortness of breath etc, whilst the emotional ones are fear, helplessness, disappointment and negative thoughts brought on by self-doubt and the reinvention of past failures. Both of which contribute to an inability to concentrate and think clearly which fuels procrastination. It’s a condition that can result in someone failing an exam which in turn may significantly reduce their career options, my point, it’s a really important subject.

Amy G Dala or Amygdala (uh·mig·duh·luh)
Not a person of course but a group of nuclei found deep in the brain’s temporal lobe and part of the limbic system. The amygdala was initially thought to be responsible for fear and negative responses that feed the fight or flight reaction, but work by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett who specialises in affective science (The study of emotion) suggest this is not the case. She argues that the Amygdala sends signals of ambiguity and novelty which are then combined with past experiences, information from your body, such as a pounding heart and context to construct an emotion, such as anxiety. The context here might be sitting in the exam room in complete silence waiting for the invigilator to say, “you can now turn over your paper.”

You are not born with emotions; they are constructed by the brain based on a prediction as to what might happen next. For example, if you were walking down the road and a group of young adults are coming towards you, the amygdala will signal this as something ambiguous and novel, your body will respond by increasing your heart rate and the brain will then attempt to find out if this has happened before. If it has and you had your mobile phone stolen it might trigger the emotion of fear. If the group simple walk past chatting and laughing the emotion will fade.

“Emotions are not reactions to the world – they are your constructions of the world.”
Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett

Although it may not be obvious at this point understanding how emotions are constructed is going to help reduce our feelings of anxiety.

You have control over your emotions
Many people believe emotions are uncontrollable “arriving unbidden and departing of their own accord”, but this is not the case as Professor Barratts work has identified. There is a point where the brain has to predict what will happen and create an emotion to match that prediction. If we can effectively step in at the point of prediction, we can change the emotion.

“Emotions that seem to happen to you are created by you”
“You are the architect of your experience”
Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett

If for example you are about to take a test, your amygdala will sense uncertainly and ambiguity, you might start to breath more deeply, and at this point your brain will begin to race ahead so that it can make a prediction and offer up a suitable emotion. But if you step in and interpret the emotion ahead of the prediction you can change the way you feel. In this example just tell yourself that the deep breathing is helping you get sufficient oxygen into your lungs which will help you think more clearly, or maybe the slight shaking of your hand is an indication that you are not too relaxed, you are just at the right point to take a test. This is effectively a reframe or reinterpretation that turns a bad situation into a good one.

This gets even better, the next time you take a test your brain will once again race ahead looking to make a prediction and find the experience that happened last time, e.g. that the heavy breathing was perfectly normal and made you feel calm and motivated. As a result, it will take this as the prediction and replicate the emotion. But like so many things, it can take time, building neuroglial pathways is not always easy, so don’t lose confidence if it doesn’t immediately work.

People already use this technique but don’t realise it, have you ever heard someone say that they like to feel a “little bit nervous” because it helps them perform better.

And this is all made possible by a better understanding of two small almond-shaped regions deep in the brain, thank you Amy G Dala.

Want to know more, listen to Lisa Feldman Barrett – How Emotions are Made. The theory of constructed emotion. And her TED lecture – You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions, your brain creates them

Blooms 1984 – Getting an A instead of a C

When people see the year 1984 most think of George Orwell’s book about a dystopian future, but a few other things happened that year. Dynasty and Dallas were the most popular TV programs and one of my favorite movies, Amadeus won best picture at the Oscars. You can be excused for missing the publication of what has become known as the two Sigma problem by Benjamin Bloom, of Blooms taxonomy fame. He provided the answer to a question that both teachers and students have been asking for some time – how can you significantly improve student performance?  

One of the reasons this is still being talked about nearly 40 years later is because Bloom demonstrated that most students have the potential to achieve mastery of a given topic. The implication is that it’s the teaching at fault rather than the students inherent lack of ability. It’s worth adding that this might equally apply to the method of learning, it’s not you but the way you’re studying.

The two-sigma problem
Two of Bloom’s doctoral students (J. Anania and A.J. Burke) compared how people learned in three different situations:

  1. A conventional lecture with 30 students and one teacher. The students listened to the lectures and were periodically tested on the material.
  2. Mastery learning – this was the conventional lecture with the same testing however students were given formative style feedback and guidance, effectively correcting misunderstandings before re-testing to find out the extent of the mastery.
  3. Tutoring – this was the same as for mastery learning but with one teacher per student.

The results were significant and showed that mastery learning increased student performance by approximately one standard deviation/sigma, the equivalent of an increase in grading from a B to an A. However, if this was combined with one-to-one teaching, the performance improved by two standard deviations, the equivalent of moving from a C to an A. Interestingly the need to correct students work was relatively small.

Bloom then set up the challenge that became known as the two-sigma problem.

“Can researchers and teachers devise teaching/learning conditions that will enable the majority of students under group instruction to attain levels of achievement that can at present be reached only under good tutoring conditions?”

In other words, how can you do this in the “real world” at scale where it’s not possible to provide this type of formative feedback and one to one tuition because it would be too expensive.

Mastery learning – To answer this question you probably need to understand a little more about mastery learning. Firstly, content has to be broken down into small chunks, each with a specific learning outcome. The process is very similar to direct instruction that I have written about before. The next stage is important, learners have to demonstrate mastery of each chunk of content, normally by passing a test scoring around 80% before moving onto new material. If not, the student is given extra support, perhaps in the form of additional teaching or homework. Learners then continue the cycle of studying and testing until the mastery criteria are met.

Why does it work?
Bloom was of the opinion that the results were so strong because of the corrective feedback which was targeted at the very area the student didn’t understand. The one to one also helped because the teacher had time to explain in a different way and encourage the student to participate in their own learning which in turn helped with motivation. As you might imagine mastery is particularly effective in situations where one subject builds on another, for example, introduction to economics is followed by economics in business.

Of course, there are always problems, students may have mastered something to the desired level but forget what they have learned due to lack of use. It’s easy to set a test but relatively difficult to assess mastery, for example do you have sufficient coverage at the right level, is 80% the right cut score? And finally, how long should you allow someone to study in order to reach the mastery level and what happens in practice when time runs out and they don’t?

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution
When Bloom set the challenge, he was right, it was far too expensive to offer personalised tuition, however it is almost as if AI was invented to solve the problem. AI can offer an adaptive pathway tracking the student’s progression and harnessing what it gleans to serve up a learning experience designed specifically for the individual. Add to this instructionally designed online content that can be watched by the student at their own pace until mastery is achieved and you are getting close to what Bloom envisaged. However, although much of this is technically possible, questions remain. For example, was the improvement in performance the result of the ‘personal relationship’ between the teacher and student and the advise given or the clarity in explaining the topic. Can this really be replicated by a machine?

In the meantime, how does this help?
What Bloom identified was that in most situations it’s not the learner who is at fault but the method of learning or instruction. Be careful however, this cannot be used as an excuse for lack of effort, “its not my fault, it’s because the teacher isn’t doing it right”.

How to use Blooms principles.

  • Change the instruction/content – if you are finding a particular topic difficult to understand, ask questions such as, do I need to look at this differently, maybe watching a video or studying from another book. Providing yourself with an alternative way of exploring the problem.
  • Mastery of questions – at the end of most text books there are a number of different questions, don’t ignore them, test yourself and even if you get them wrong spend some time understanding why before moving on. You might also use the 80% rule, the point being you don’t need to get everything right

In conclusion – It’s interesting that in 1985 Bloom came up with a solution to a problem we are still struggling to implement. What we can say is that personalisation is now high on the agenda for many organisations because they recognise that one size does not fit all. Although AI provides a glimmer of hope, for now at least Blooms 2 Sigma problem remains unsolved.

Listen to Sal Khan on TED – Let’s teach for mastery, not test scores

When a horse might be a cow – the importance of Schema

Although there is a difference between learning, “the process of acquiring knowledge” and remembering, “the process of recording, storing and retrieving knowledge”, they are symbiotic, the one having little purpose without the other. Which goes someway to explaining why I have written so much about memory over the years. Here is one such example Never forget – improving memory.

In some of these blogs I have referred to the word schema but have not really explored it in much detail, it’s time to put that right.

It’s easy to think that when the brain transfers information from short to long term memory it just sits there floating in a vacuum, waiting for the day it will be needed. But it doesn’t work like that, the brain cannot simply pluck something from this vast space without having structured the information in the first place, effectively having filed it away correctly.

The packets that organise information and make sense of experience are ‘schemas’, the building blocks of cognition. Daniel Goleman

Schema – how information is stored
Schema can be derived from the word’s Greek origin, which means to shape or plan, but it wasnt until 1923 that the child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used it in the context of learning.

Nine years later Frederic Bartlett described schema in more detail by saying that people organise concepts into mental constructs, models, or frameworks that help them process and remember information. The implication being that when faced with information that fits an existing schema, it will be remembered but if not, it is easily forgotten.

Schemas contribute to our understanding as to how information is stored in the brain and provide insight as to what we can do to learn more effectively. They are built through experience, for example a child may have been told that a cow is an animal that has four legs, eats grass and lives in a field, they may even have seen one. When they next come across a cow, they will associate what they see with that schema and say “cow”. However, if in the next field they see a horse which also has four legs, eats grass and lives in a field, they may believe that is also a cow. It’s at this point the child’s parents intervene by telling the child “No that’s a horse, can you see its taller and runs faster”, this leaves the child with two choices either, build a new schema or adapt the existing one.

Piaget gave us the answer as to what’s happening here, he called it Assimilation and Accommodation. Assimilation is when you make the new information fit with an existing schema for example, the child can adapt their schema by adding – not all animals that live in a field with four legs and eat grass are cows, some are horses. Alternatively, they create a new schema for horses, being fast, tall animals with four legs, that eat grass and live in a field, this is accommodation.

People who do well in maths are those that make connections and see maths as a connected subject.
Jo Boaler, 2014

Chess players use schemas
There is a general assumption that chess players have good memories, which on the face of it is true. But it’s not necessarily an innate ability, they have been building up information of past games and storing them in schemas for years. This is why an expert chess player is able to beat a novice, not because they are processing each move individually, they suffer from cognitive load like everyone else, they are simply accessing past schemas. (Chase & Simon, 1973 et al).

The reason experts remember more is that what novices see as separate pieces of information, experts see as organised sets of ideas. Donovan & Bransford, 2005

How does this help with learning?
If you aware of how your brain stores information you can change the way you study to work with your brain not against it. Below are a few tips you might want to consider.

  • Pre-Assessment or subject review – It’s a good idea before starting a new subject to test yourself or review the underpinning content. This is not so much about finding out what you know, although this might be helpful, it reminds you of prior knowledge and schemas that can be adapted to fit the new information you will learn.
  • Look for analogies and comparisons – when new information is presented think how this might fit with what you now. For example, if you have already learned about income tax, when you come to capital gains tax ask, what are the differences and similarities. They both fit into the schema of taxation.
  • Put Information Into context – when trying to understand something new, consider the context from which it comes, its possible that although the knowledge is new the context is familiar. For example, if you were learning about people who break the law, it might be a good idea to ask yourself in what context you would do this. This could help fit the new information into an existing schema.
  • Challenge your existing schemas – like many things’ schemas can be good or bad. Here is a riddle, a father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the doctor says ‘I cannot do the surgery because this is my son’. How is this possible?

The answer is of course that the doctor is the son’s mother, but because we have a schema that tells us doctors are male, we get it wrong.

And one last big tip for teachers, inside your head you have created schemas that work, share them with your students, they have probably taken you many years to create making them hugely valuable in terms of knowledge transfer.

For more information here is a really good video that explains Memory Schemas in more detail.

Chatter – why talking to yourself matters

If you are reading this, think for a moment as to what you are doing……… are you sounding out the words in your head or did you pause, reflect and ask yourself “what exactly am I doing?”, either way you have been using your inner voice, your internal dialogue or have been experiencing what Ethan Kross calls Chatter.

Ethan is the Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan and author of a book called Chatter, the voice in our head and how to harness it.

On the one hand this might all seem a little strange, how many people would you ask what they have been talking to themselves about today, perhaps you wouldn’t because it’s too personal a question or maybe you don’t want to admit you do it all of the time. The good news is its perfectly normal and the vast majority of people talk to themselves. It’s worth adding however that not everyone has an internal voice, with some suggesting that this might be more likely for people with dyslexia.

Where does it come from?
Evolution would suggest that if we have this ability, it must serve a purpose. Mark Scott from the University of British Columbia has found evidence that a brain signal called “corollary discharge” plays an important role in our experiences of internal speech. Corollary discharge arises when the brain generates an internal copy of the sound of our voice in parallel to the external sound we hear. Its purpose is to prevent confusion between a self-caused sound or sensation for example, a dog growling noise inside our head and an externally-caused sound, for example a real dog growling who is about to bite. If both are the same, we run pretty fast, if not the brain will cancel the internal sound. This is the reason we can’t tickle ourselves; the brain sends a signal that we are going to tickle ourselves before we actually do, effectively cancelling the sensation.

Interestingly children don’t develop this skill until around 6 or 7 although its gradual and starts much earlier. This is the reason a young child will just say what they think, regardless of the consequences!

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Steve Jobs

Why it matters and what you can do?
One of the most powerful tools to help manage stress, wellbeing and self-esteem is your inner voice, and examinations provide a rich environment where without support all of these can bring you down. Heightened dialogue is not of course just experienced when studying or in the exam room, how was it possible that Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed penalties in the Euros. Maybe it was the result of too much chatter, telling themselves that they must score, they have to score, the country is relying on them?

“Non-judgment quiets the internal dialogue, and this opens once again the doorway to creativity.” Deepak Chopra

And this is where Ethan Kross offers a whole raft of advice. He talks about having the ability to step back from the Chatter by adopting a broader, calmer and more objective perspective. You also need to listen to what your saying, low self esteem for example can easily develop if you are continually criticising yourself, perhaps as a thoughtless parent might do, always finding fault no matter what.

Here are a few of the practical tools in the book.

  1. Use distanced self-talk – rather than saying “why can’t I do this”, use your name in the second person “why is it that Stuart can’t do this”. This results in reduced activation in brain networks associated with negative thoughts.
  2. Imagine advising a friend – this has a similar impact in that it helps you view the experience from a distance. “I know this is a tricky question but you’ve been in a similar situation before and you figured it out”. This is also an example of what Kross calls time travel, (temporal distancing) either going forward in time to look in the rear-view mirror at the problem, effectively leaving it behind or travelling back to a time when you were successful.
  3. Broaden your perspective – in this situation, compare what you’re worrying about with other adverse events or ask what other people would do in the same situation. A variation on the “what would Jesus do?” question.
  4. Reinterpreted your bodies chatter response – when you experience stress its likely your heart rate will increase and you will begin to sweat. Becoming aware of this can lead you to conclude that you are stressed which in fact makes the situation worse. Kross suggest you tell yourself that this is not bad news but the body doing what it has to in order to help you.

And finally, if you want to find out more, check out this video, Do you have an inner voice?

Old Marley was as dead as a door nail – the power of analogy

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens in October 1843 and published on December 19th the same year. By Christmas’s Eve it had sold 6,000 copies at 5 shillings each, unfortunately Dickens only made £230 due to the elaborate illustrations and a not so lucrative deal with Chapman and Hall, the publishers. Today you could by an original copy for around £40,000.

Although Dickens might not have struck a particularly good business deal, he used an excellent analogy to describe exactly how dead Marley, his business partner was. Incidentally the reason a doornail is considered so dead is to do with the way it is bent over and hammered flat, making it unusable. Click for a more detailed explanation.

Analogy
Put simply, analogies highlight shared characteristics between two things. It’s an umbrella term for a cognitive process where we transfer meaning or information from one subject to another and as a result improve understanding. For example, “life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get” is an analogy from Forrest Gump that makes the connection between the choices and surprises you face when deciding on what chocolate to have…. and life. It helps illustrate the uncertainty of life, the fact that faced with choice you don’t always make the best one and sometimes when you “bite” into life you might be pleasantly surprised. Many analogies are used in everyday speech, for example “doing that will be as about as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”, meaning it will make no difference. Similes and metaphors can be used in the same way, in many instances providing the infrastructure to support the analogy. Life is like a box of chocolates, is a simile.

But the distinction between, analogy, metaphor and similia doesn’t really matter, the important point is that all of these can be used to improve understanding, navigate complexity and help with problem solving by using what is called analogical reasoning.

Making abstract concrete
There are many reasons as to why analogies work so well. They often require the use of images, connect existing information with new and encourage reflection, retrieval and the manipulation of ideas. All of which help move information from short to long term memory. There is also a strong connection with the 6 evidenced based learning strategies covered in previous blogs, in particular using concrete examples to make concepts more real. This is one of the most powerful ways to use an analogy.

How do you explain the dual concept in accounting? Here is the answer – the dual concept tells us that every transaction affects the business in at least two ways which are equal and opposite in nature.

Even though you have an explanation, because it’s a concept, an abstract idea, it has no form which makes it difficult for the brain to grasp. But if you can relate it by way of an analogy, perhaps thinking of the dual concept as a set of scales where whatever you put on one side you have to put on another, it becomes more tangible and an understanding develops.

Designing an analogy
Sometimes an analogy will just emerge, from my own experience this is often the case when I have thought about a particular topic or taught it for many years. The catalyst might be someone saying, I don’t understand. As a result, you rack your brains to come up with an alternative way of explaining, and the analogy just appears. However, when studying, you don’t have time for this but coming up with your own analogy might really help. Here is one way of doing it.

Pick two objects, ideas or domains
e.g. a carrot and learning
Write down the main characteristics
– Carrots – are orange, grow from a seed, need water, good for you etc
– Learning – requires effort, takes time, builds on prior knowledge, helps you in life etc
Evaluate by looking for commonalities
Learning is not dissimilar to a carrot, it starts very small, takes time to grow, needs nurturing and is good for you. A slightly silly example but hopefully it shows how the process could work.

A word of warning, as powerful as analogies can be they aren’t the answer to everything. Research shows they can cause learners to create incorrect mental models and as such draw the wrong conclusions, so always keep a check on the logic behind the analogy and at what point it stops working.

A few more analogies
– “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” Winston S. Churchill
– “You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.” Albert Einstein
– “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” Leo Tolstoy
They can also make you laugh – “When I die, I want to go peacefully like my Grandfather did, in his sleep – not screaming, like the passengers in his car.”

And as Tiny Tim said, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”
Happy Holidays and here’s to a much better 2022.

Simulations, Case Studies and Games – Strictly Take 2

Last month’s blog looked at the difficult balancing act that has to be struck between knowledge and skills. It concluded that skills learned in one domain are not always transferable to another, making it important to have as realistic an environment in which to learn as possible.

The UK government believe, as set out in their skills for jobs white paper that by giving employers a central role in the design of technical courses it will ensure the education and training is directly linked to the skills needed in the world of work. Although this should result in a curriculum valued by employers, these skills won’t be learned unless they can be applied in a real-world environment. This is the reason the government promote apprenticeships and have built work experience into the new T levels.

But perhaps there is more that could be done, what if the transition between what is learned in the “classroom” and the real world was somehow smoother, almost as if it was the obvious next step.

Simulations, a type of rehearsal
One answer might be to use a simulation, an instructional scenario where the learner is placed in a world similar in some aspects to the real one. It is a representation of reality within which the student has to engage and interact. It’s controlled by the teacher who uses it to achieve a desired learning outcome.

Simulations are most effective when there is a need to explore relatively complex topics with many dimensions and factors. And because the student is placed in a situation of uncertainty, they are forced to navigate confusion, consider different possibilities, problem solve, think critically and in so doing develop those all-important higher-level skills so valued in the workplace. Despite there being good evidence, (Bogo et al, 2014, Cooper et al, 2012) as to the efficacy of simulations, in practice PowerPoints and chalk and talk are still all too common.

In terms of timing, simulations work best at the later stages of learning, after students have been taught theoretical concepts and the fundamental underpinning knowledge, effectively prior knowledge matters. The reason for this is our old friend “cognitive load” and the need not to overwhelm learners with too much information at any one time. (Kirschner et al., 2006).

Technology of course has a role to play, in particular Virtual Reality (VR) which although expensive has much to offer in areas where mistakes can be costly. This is perhaps most evident in the medical profession where VR can place students in realistic life and death situations but in an environment that is safe, controlled and allows for mistakes.

Case studies and games
Both case studies and games provide opportunities for a similar learning experience to simulations.

Case studies – are effectively real-world stories in which the student applies what they have been taught with the objective of solving a problem or offering alternative solutions. In the business world these are not new, for example Harvard Business School are celebrating their 100 years of teaching using the case study method this year.

Although it’s possible to study on your own using case studies, because of the absence of a single right answer it is beneficial to engage with other students, exchanging ideas, discussing different theoretical topics and listening to alternative answers.  After which if you require a group consensus there is a need to prioritise and persuade others within the group, all of which are valuable skills.

Games – Wikipedia defines a game as a structured form of play, usually undertaken for entertainment or fun, and sometimes used as an educational tool. Most games have the same components, rules, an objective, challenge and competition. As with case studies if used for teaching they can allow the student to explore and test themselves with different problems, many of which have alternative courses of action. Having a competitor adds another dimension, perhaps sometime they are rational which might make them predictable but on other occasions they are irrational and illogical.

“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”

Benjamin Franklin

Just to give some idea as to the scale of gaming and its popularity, in 2020 the video gaming Industry was estimated to be worth $160 Billion and by 2025 this figure is set to increase to $270 Billion. Now of course these aren’t educational games but it does show how valuable they could become if educators could somehow tap into their magic. And if you’re not familiar with how these games might be used, take a look at this short video that showcases the new and upcoming management games of 2021.

Realistic environments are not enough
Simulations, case studies and games all provide the opportunity to place the learner in a realistic environment to help them develop valuable work-based skills, but there is a caveat. Research has shown that simply putting the learner into a realistic environment is not enough (Clark, 2019), unless the very same evidence-based learning theories that are used in the classroom are also applied, that is deliberate practice, spaced practice, interleaving etc.

Like any form of teaching, these training environments need to be carefully constructed with the desired learning outcomes clearly identified and placed up front when designing the simulation or game. Yes, they can be fun, yes, they can be engaging but they won’t help you develop the required skills unless the evidence-based practices are used.

Strictly take 2 – How are contestants on strictly prepared for their real-world task, they have a rehearsal (simulation) on the Friday and two dress rehearsals (simulations) on the Saturday morning just before the show goes out live on the evening.

A few skills you can learn from a simulation

The knowledge verses skills debate – Strictly speaking

The skills gap
Although it is estimated that by 2030 there will be more people than jobs for those with lower skills, research conducted by the Learning and Work Institute estimated that England faces a deficit in higher level skills of around 2.5 million people, this is why we have a skills gap.

It’s not that we don’t have enough people it’s that we don’t have enough people with the right skills. It’s an education problem not a resource one…..

The solution is of course easy, train more people, but its skills we need not knowledge, right?

What are skills
A skill is the knowledge and ability that enables us to do something well. There are many definitions of skills but I like this one because it highlights the importance knowledge plays. But although knowledge is valuable, on its own it has limitations. For example, knowing the steps to the Argentinian Tango doesn’t mean you will be able to dance it. Knowledge is theoretical, whereas skills are practical. There is arguably no better place to see how skills are learned than Strictly, the BBC’s hugely successful dance show. Celebrities with differing abilities are given a dance that they need to perform each week, the process they go through is however always the same, and involves practice, practice and more practice.

What is knowledge
Most people will assume that knowledge relates to something written in a text book, be it words, facts, dates, numbers etc, and they would be right. To be precise this type of knowledge is called explicit or declarative knowledge. In addition, you will be aware that you “know it”, which on the face of it might sound strange but some types of knowledge (implicit and tacit) are unconscious, that is you have the knowledge but don’t know that you do, for example, “I can hit a golf ball straight down the fairway without thinking, but don’t ask me to explain how I do it because I have no idea, I guess I’m just naturally talented”. One final point, for knowledge to be understood it should be applied in a specific context or illustrated by way of example, which lifts the words from the page, often putting the learner in a more practical environment where they can “see” what they need to learn.

The Knowledge V Skills debate
Often knowledge and skills are put into conflict, with some promoting knowledge as being the more important. The current national curriculum in England as set out by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove requires that pupils should be taught a robust “core knowledge” of facts and information.

“Our new curriculum affirms – at every point – the critical importance of knowledge acquisition”.
Michael Gove

Whilst others promote the value of skills over knowledge, suggesting that technology provides knowledge for free.

“The world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know.”
Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy at the OECD

But like so many things this type of dichotomy is not helpful, with evidence on both sides attesting to the importance of each. The truth is you need both, you can’t learn skills without knowledge and although knowing something has value, it’s what you can do that is most highly prized.

How do you learn skills?
To learn a skill, you first need knowledge, for example here is some of the knowledge required to help dance the Argentinian Tango.

Every dance has its own unique music, and you can’t master it without developing a feel for the music. Tango is a walking dance, meaning that all the steps are based on walking. When you start learning, you must first master some basic movements. Beginners usually start with 8-Count Basic or simply Tango Basic. The rhythm is slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.

We can then follow what is called the four-step approach to learning skills:
One – Demonstrate the skill with little or no explanation (demonstration)
Two – Repeat with an explanation whilst encouraging questions (deconstruction)
Three – Repeat again with the learner explaining what is happening and being challenged (formulation)
Four – Learner has a go themselves with support and coaching (performance)

Skills are developed through continual practice and repetition, learning by trial and error, asking questions whilst receiving advice to improve performance. An analogy or metaphor can sometime help e.g. Finding your balance is about feeling stable like a ship with an anchor.

Transferable skills are not that transferable
The ultimate goal of those that promote skills development is that once learned they can be taken with you from job to job, they are in effect transferable. However, research suggests that this is not the case. In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools. The experiment looked at the benefits of teaching chess as a means of developing generic skills, in this instance mathematical ability. It concluded, that there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those who had the regular chess class and the control group. Playing chess, does not make you better at maths, on the whole it only improves your ability to play better chess.
This supports the argument that skills are domain specific and that critical thinking learned whilst studying medicine does not necessarily help you become a better critical thinker in other areas. One reason for this may be that to become a good critical thinker you need large amounts of knowledge on which to practice. Which brings us full circle, skills need knowledge and knowledge becomes more valuable when applied in the form of a skill.

Strictly foot note – there is an argument that the celebrities on Strictly are only skilled in one dance at a time, and what is learned from one dance does not transfer easily to another.