Concentration – the war in the brain

Concentrating

One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.

But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.

The war in the brain

Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention a is a limited resource so how we use it is important.

Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.

The problem is that these maps change based on how “relevant” the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!

The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.

The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And its made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.

The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!

Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.

How to improve concentration  

Some of the methods below will seem obvious and there is of course no magic bullet, however because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.

  1. Reduce distraction –  if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
  2. Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goal and don’t make them too ambitious.
  3. Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include, deep breathing, click this video its very helpful, and of course exercise which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
  4. Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours for example playing video games can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.

And if you would like to find out more watch these:

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What’s the use of lectures?

Robot lecturerThe title of this month’s blog is not mine but taken from what many would consider a classic book about what can realistically be achieved by someone stood at the front of a classroom or lecture theatre, simply talking. Written some 25 years ago but updated recently Donald A. Bligh’s book takes 346 pages to answer the question, what’s the use of lectures?

What makes this book interesting is the amount of research it brings to bear on a topic some consider an art form and so not easily measured or assessed.

With many in Higher education questioning what they get for their £9,250 per annum, and contact time being one way of measuring value, it’s as important a question as ever.

For clarity, we should define what we mean by lecturing, as ever Wikipedia can help –  A lecture (from the French meaning ‘reading’) is an oral presentation intended to deliver information or teach people about a particular subject.

What should happen in a lecture?

If you’re a student attending a lecture you would hope to learn something, however as many of my past blogs have discussed, learning is a complicated process and so we may need to break this question down a little further by asking, what should a lecture actually achieve?

A lecture should….

  • Transmit information
  • Promote thought,
  • Maybe change opinion or attitude
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Help you be able to do something i.e. develop a behavioural skill

Well here is the bad news, according to Mr Bligh, a lecture is only really good for one of the above, to transmit information. And it’s not even better than many other methods e.g. reading, it’s simply as effective, but no more.

Promoting thought, changing opinions

Lectures are relatively passive whereas a discussion requires that people listen, translate what is said into their own words, check if it makes sense with what is already understood, construct a sentence in response etc. In effect, a discussion is far more effective than a lecture in developing thought.

In addition, putting the student in a situation where they have to think is important, for example by giving them a problem or asking a question as is the case when you have to answer a past exam question for example. A discussion can also help change opinions, especially where you can hear other people’s views, often different to your own. It has a longer-term impact when the group comes to a consensus.

Inspiration and motivation

Bligh also argues that on the whole lectures are not an effective means of inspiring or motivating. He suggests that it should certainly be the objective of the lecturer to try, it’s just they rarely succeed. I find myself slightly disagreeing, lecturers can be inspirational, and yet maybe this is just my personal bias from having watched Sir Ken deliver his “do schools kill creativity“  or the last lecture delivered by Randy Paush.

But perhaps, these are just the exceptions that prove the rule.

Developing skills

And finally, if you want to help people become good at a particular behaviour, you don’t tell them how to do it, you get them to practice, over and over again, with good feedback.

The end of the lecture?

I don’t think this is the end of the lecture, these criticisms have been around for many years. But I can’t help thinking that with new technologies and online learning, lectures are going to have to get a whole lot better in the future.

And what will Universities point to as value for money then?

 

 

E Learning, without the E


It’s as if putting the letter E in front of the word ‘learning’ has in some way created a brand new concept, it of course has not. If that were the case we should have B learning to show that you have learned from a book or maybe P learning to indicate what you learned from your parents. In fact a search of the Internet reveals some degree of uncertainly as to exactly what E learning is, the common denominator however is that it involves the use of electronic resources. I personally favour the term ‘online learning’ as it seems somehow more descriptive.

The classroom trap

In trying to more closely understand E learning it is easy to fall into the classroom trap, that is clarification by comparing with classroom. This is largely unhelpful because it ultimately leads to the question as to which one is best, and that very much depends on what you want, how you learn and the circumstances in which you find yourself. So let’s avoid the trap and accept that they are both methods of delivering knowledge or skills using a formal process, as apposed to an informal one.


Different experience

‘Learning online’, sorry but it just sounds better……is not the same as learning from a book or in a classroom. Classroom, online and text books are all structured to take the learner from a point of ignorance to one of being informed, but the way, and environment in which you learn is different. Let’s explore these differences with the top three positives and negatives of online learning.

Positives of online

Flexible
– this is perhaps one of the biggest advantages of online, I am in fact writing this blog sat on a sun lounger surrounded by blue sky, the only interruption being a welcome breeze, and it’s the technology that allows me to do this. That same technology gives you the ability to learn on your terms, which means when you want and where you want. This has great advantages in maximising time, utilising moments in a busy day that might otherwise be lost. For example, when traveling to work by train, spare time in your lunch hou r or even making the most of the rush hour by choosing to stay at work and study rather than sit in a traffic jam.


Self paced
– another very important one. Referring to individual learning styles is often picked upon by academics as being something of an urban myth. But few would disagree that knowledge acquisition is personal, with some people able to pick up a topic quickly whilst others might take longer. Online learning allows the individual to study at their own pace, quickly when something is easily understood and slowly for the tricky areas, oh and you can keep going over the topic again and again.


Personalised
– with online, personalisation is far more than working through the content at your own pace, it offers the ability to truly personalise the experience. But be careful with this one, many courses will headline with the term personalisation, yet not deliver, it’s very much a spectrum. At the one end it is little more than a standard pathway with tests that direct you back to content to be studied again.

In the middle is the same process but the direction as to what needs studying is far more precise. It can include specific tips and hints bespoke to that topic written in a different way to the original text even using new and more suitable instructional techniques e.g. video, diagrams, interactive activities etc. To add something truly personal it might also provide an opportunity to speak to real people with access to your prior learning experience and academic record

We have yet to see what lies at the other end of the spectrum, an online learning experience that can adapt the pathway using big data and analytics, learning both from you as an individual as well as all other students with one objective, to offer the best personalised learning experience possible.

Click this link to find out more about adaptive.

Negatives of online

Motivation and procrastination
– recently we have seen that having more choice is not as desirable as you might imagine. Studying when you want is great, unless you keep putting it off. This is contributing to students taking longer to pass exams. And of course procrastination goes hand in hand with a lack of motivation, another problem often associated with online. There have been partial solutions to this for online students but they are rarely as effective as having your own personal trainer, a teacher who you meet with face to face to put you through your paces.

Isolation – learning is ultimately a solitary experience, yes you can learn with and from others but to develop a deep understanding you need to reflect on what you have learned, manipulating the knowledge until you make it yours . But doing this on your own can be uninspiring and leads to a sense of isolation, which makes the whole process seem a lot harder than perhaps it is.

Learning style – this is a simple one, some people just don’t like learning using a computer. I think its possibly because they have never given it a go or if they have, it wasn’t a very good online course in the first place. That said it is a reason, and needs to be respected.


Is Online for you?

1. Read through the pros and cons above and give them all a number between 1 and 5, for example if you think flexibility is very import give it a 5. On the other hand if you find it very hard to motivate yourself, give that a 5, etc. Add up your scores and if the positives come out higher than the negatives, online is probably for you.

2. Look to the quality of the learning provider, new innovations require both investment in terms of time, money and experience of learning. Initially at least go for the bigger companies with a solid reputation.

3. Try before you buy, ask if you can have a trail period to see if this type of learning works for you.

One last thought, this is not an irreversible decision, if you don’t like it change your mind. Also why not study different subjects in different ways, some online, others maybe in the classroom or simply from the book?

The 5 top EdTech trends – summer of 2017

Glastonbury a marginally more interesting gathering….but only just.

We are in the season when many learning and technology leaders gather to discuss what’s new and what’s trending in the world of education. And at two recent conferences, Learning Technologies and EdTechXEurope there was plenty to see. Generally, the role of technology in learning seems to have found its place with many acknowledging it should support learning not drive it. However it’s still very easy to look at the latest shiny new offerings and think, this is great how can I use it, rather than, what learning problem does it solve.

Here are a few of the most notable developments.

1. Video is getting even better – fuelled by the YouTube generation of learners, those who would rather watch a video than read a book as a means to consume knowledge, we have some new developments.

Firstly, using video to deliver micro learning.  Not just small chunks of video but untethered, JIT, 3 minute courses that offer the learner digestible easy to remember information. Think of micro learning as a series of very short courses that could be linked to each other or not, and can even include assessment.

Secondly, interactive video. TV is no longer the all commanding medium it once was, it like other technologies has had to evolve. In recent years the shift has been towards better engagement, offering spin off programmes where there is a live audience, web sites that showcase the backstory to the characters and programmes that require the audience to vote and so influence events. Now we have interactive video, where the individual can choose what they would do and so change the future. Check out this amazing example, used by Deloitte to attract new talent.

2. Gamification is becoming better understood. For the uninitiated gamification is the use of game based principles to improve motivation, concentration and more effective learning. Gamification uses Points (P) as a measure of reward, Badges (B) as a visual record of success, and leader boards (L) to create competition.

We now believe Dopamine, the pleasure induced neurotransmitter (chemical) is not created as a result of a reward e.g. by being given a badge, it is the challenge and subsequent achievement that releases the dopamine which in turn leads to pleasure. This might seem obvious, with hindsight, no one gets pleasure from being top of a leader board, if they did nothing to get there.  In addition, dopamine is released when you have a new experience, so think about changing pathways, setting different questions and tasks, it’s certainly not very motivational to go over the same content again.

3. Information overload is leading to a need for Knowledge Curation – we are living in an age where  information is abundant. You can learn anything from the internet. But there lies the problem, we have too much information, we suffer from information overload. Curation is the collecting and sorting of meaningful content around a theme, and it is now in some instances being thought of as more valuable than the content itself.

Arguably curation is not so much about what you curate and share but what you don’t share. In addition to the organisation of content the curators need to have an expertise in the subject and an understanding of their audience and what they want.

Steven Rosenbaum in his book Curation Nation, offers up a good summary. “Curation replaces noise with clarity. And it’s the clarity of your choosing; it’s the things that people you trust help you find.”

4. The market is becoming more accepting of user generated content (UGC) – organisations are beginning to see the benefits of UGC for a whole host of reasons. It’s a very fast way of generating content, there is a lot of expertise that can be uncovered by allowing individuals to share what they know, it’s often user friendly, and importantly its cheap. It is of course not perfect, and there are concerns about quality, but by allowing the users to rate the content, the quality might just look after itself.

5. Virtual reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial intelligence (AI) – not that these are all related, but just a simple way of me summarising three areas to keep an eye on in the not too distant future. All of these technologies are becoming cheaper, largely because of the investment made and experience being gained in the gaming industry.

By way of a footnote Google have released an open source software called Tensorflow which can help with machine learning, something that they believe will help drive new initiatives in AI.

What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset

failure-sucess

Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.

Mindset

The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

Putting the context into case study

Context

I am still reading Sensemaking by Christian Madsbjerg and as I always tend to do I have been trying to reduce the 216 pages down to something that is both meaningful and memorable. The rational for this is that if I can summarise the essence of what is being said into a single statement, then my level of understanding is reasonably good, and it makes it easier for me to use what I have learned in other situations.

So here goes, if I was to summarise what Sensemaking is all about, in one word it would be..….Context. In essence, in a world of complexity and abundance of information we are in danger of thinking that the “fact” we see on our computer screen, offered up by a search engine, driven by an algorithm is the truth, when in reality it’s only one version of it. Without the context from which this information came we are fooling ourselves as to its true meaning.

As a result of this discovery, I wondered into an area I  have wanted to write about before, the importance context plays in changing what something means, especially in examinations. Getting the meaning wrong could be the reason you fail the exam rather than pass it.  Even objective tests will have some form of context setting just before the actual question. But the type of exam where you are most likely to have a problem with context, is a case study.

Jokes play with context

A hamburger and a french fry walk into a bar.

The bartender says, “I’m sorry we don’t serve food here

The importance of context in case study

I have written about case studies before, “passing case study by thinking in words,” but focussed more on the process of how you think and write rather than how you interpret the information presented.  Case studies are becoming an increasingly popular way of assessing a student’s ability to apply knowledge from several different subjects (synoptic) in the context of a real-life situation.  This shift towards case studies is understandable given the need for improved employability skills. Here is a great story to illustrate how context changes the decision you would make or as often in a case study, the advise you would give.

A battleship had been at sea on its routine manoeuvres under heavy weathers for days. The captain, who was worried about the deteriorating weather conditions, stayed on the bridge to keep an eye on all activities.

One night, the lookout on the bridge suddenly shouted, “Captain! A light, bearing on the starboard bow.”

“Is it stationary or moving astern?” the captain asked.

The lookout replied that it was stationary. This meant a collision would result unless something changed. The captain immediately ordered a signal to be sent to the other ship: “We are on a collision course. I advise you to change course 20 degrees east.”

Back came a response from the other ship: “advise you change your course 20 degrees west.”

Agitated by the arrogance of the response, the captain asked his signalman to shoot out another message: “I am the captain of one of the most powerful battleships in the British navy, you change course 20 degrees east now.”

Back came the second response: “I am a second-class seaman, you had still better change course 20 degrees west.”

The captain was furious this time! He shouted to the signalman to send back a final message: Change course 20 degrees east right now or you will leave me no choice!

Back came the flashing response: “I am a lighthouse – your move.”

How to deal with context

It is easy even in the example above to think you know what is going to happen or what you would do. But when the context is revealed, your advice fundamentally changes. Case studies are created to see how well you respond in certain situations, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions.

And this is where sensemaking plays its part, use your senses, don’t just look at what is there, think in opposites, what is not there, what’s missing? Use visualisation, see yourself in that situation, look around, free up your thoughts, what do you see now? But most of all, be curious, ask questions of the scenario, how big is the ship, how long has the captain been in charge, what is the weather like, are there others close by?

Another excellent tool to use in these situations is called perceptual positions. Think of the event from different positions, firstly yours, what does the event look like through your eyes, secondly, the other person(s), what would you do if you were them, and thirdly what would the event look like if someone was looking in, observing both parties.

Case studies in the future will become even more sophisticated. Virtual reality offers up so many opportunities to create real world environments in which to tests students. And when that happens, you will definitely need to use all of your senses to get you through – take a look at this 360 VR surgical training, amazing.

And one last joke

Thomas Edison walks into a bar and orders a beer.

The bartender says, “Okay, I’ll serve you a beer, just don’t get any ideas.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sensemaking, humility and the humanities

human-being-girl-picture

For a variety of reasons, I have been engaged this month in thinking not so much about examinations but what subjects should be examined.

Whilst the news has been dominated by terrorism, Trump and Brexit, we may be facing a far bigger problem, of which these news stories are a good example, how can we be sure of making the right decisions in a world of mass information, complexity and change.

People voted Brexit for a whole variety of reasons, many “facts” were presented in simple terms, we will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS, immigration will be reduced as we gain control over our borders. Yet these facts are far too simplistic, any level of analysis, critical thinking and challenge would have revealed the difficulty of delivering them, and in many instances they won’t be delivered. If this is the case, did people vote to leave, or stay not on the facts as presented but using other criteria, maybe they were just naive and placed far too much trust in Politicians or perhaps they had never been taught about sensemaking, humility or studied the humanities.

Sensemaking

An interesting article caught my eye earlier in the month, “Silicon Valley needs to get schooled”. it was by Christian Madsbjeg, author of the book Sensemaking and senior partner in ReD, a strategy consulting company based on the human sciences. In the article Madsbjeg argues that the reason for a lack of new and exciting products from Silicon Valley is not because of a shortage of ideas but a complete failure to understand people.

In the book Sensemaking he expands on the problem. In order to cope with complexity, we look to science, logic and the algorithm (a rules based process) for a solution. On the face of it crunching big data so that it spews out the correct answer seems perfect, but, and this is a quote from the book, Madsbjeg makes a very important point, he says we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start to see them as the truth – the only truth”.  We are in fact looking at the numbers without the context of the world from which they came or a sufficiently deep understanding of the behaviours we are measuring.

We rely on science and the scientific method for so much of what we do but where people are involved we need a different approach. To put it another way “When human beings enter the equation, things go non-linear” Neil deGrasse.

Sensemaking is “how we make sense of the world so we can perform better in it”. It recognises that situations are complex and information ambiguous. It requires people to make a continuous effort to understand the connectivity that exists between people, places, and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act accordingly.

Humility

trumpwillwin-notextIntellectual humility as defined by the authors of a recent paper entitled, Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. It is in effect, recognising that you could be wrong. One of the findings from the research was that people who displayed intellectual humility were better than the control group at evaluating the quality of evidence they had been presented with. A very useful skill indeed, given the world of false news in which we currently find ourselves.

Humanities

And what job will you get after studying History for three years……

The humanities (English, History, Philosophy etc) have been given a bad press in recent times. Overshadowed by the drive to develop coding skills and with the constant chanting of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the background, it’s not surprising that less people are studying them. They were at an all-time low in 2014 at 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees, a long way of the 1967 record of 17.2%.

But it is generally recognised that the humanities can teach us a lot. In another reference from Christian Madsbjeg’s book, Sensemaking, he suggests the humanities can teach us, one that other worlds exist, two that they are different and three, we learn how to imagine other worlds that in turn helps us better understand our own.

As with sensemaking and humility, are these not the types of skills we need to learn?

Examinations – what to examine?

What subjects should be examined depends to a large extent on what job you would like to do. But with the claim that 60% of 11 year olds will leave school to do jobs which have not yet been invented it’s hard to know the answer. What we do know is that the world is unlikely to slow down, change not happen, data become less available and complexity give way to simplicity. As a result, we need to teach people and so examine the skills that will help them better navigate this world. Maybe when those primary school children go onto higher education they will be studying sensemaking, humility and the humanities.

Even though the ink is barely dry on the letter sent by Theresa May bringing about our formal negotiations to exit Europe, the interesting thing is we will never know if this was a good or bad decision. Because post Brexit people will behave differently, some will work hard to make the impossible possible whilst others will continue to frustrate the process, and none of that could have been foreseen at the time.

So, let’s hope the basis for the original decision to leave was not because of the headline – We will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS!