If it wasn’t curiosity, what did kill the cat?

In 2006 Professor Dr. Ugur Şahin, an oncologist was working on a curiosity-driven research project to help find out if it might be possible to develop a vaccine to control and destroy cancerous tumours by activating the body’s own immune system. This approach was fundamentally different to the more common treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. Curiosity driven projects often have no clear goal but allow scientists to take risks and explore the art of the possible.

In 2008 Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife Ozlem Tureci founded a small biotech company called BioNTech who you may never have heard of, if it wasn’t for COVID-19. Because together with Pfizer, BioNTech are the suppliers of the first Covid vaccine to be used in the UK. That early curiosity driven research in 2006 provided Sahin and Tureci with the answers to our 2020 problem.

Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning – William Arthur Ward
Curiosity is the desire to know or learn something in the absence of extrinsic rewards. The point being, there is no reward other than the answer itself. It is a psychological trait and because of that, has a genetic component, some people are just born more curious. However, nurture has an equally important role to play, and although it’s argued you can’t teach curiosity you can encourage people to become more curious by using different techniques. See below.

Sophie von Stumm, a professor of Psychology in Education from the University of York believes that curiosity is so important in terms of academic performance that it should sit alongside intelligence and effort (conscientiousness) as a third pillar. Her research found that intelligence, effort and curiosity are key attributes of exceptional students.

Curiosity follows an inverted U-shape when shown in graphical form. Imagine a graph, along the horizontal axis we have knowledge and on the vertical, curiosity. When we first come across a new subject, we know very little and as such our curiosity rises as does the level of dopamine, but as we find out more and more our curiosity will reach a peak before ultimately falling.

“When you’re curious you find lots of interesting things to do.” Walt Disney

Curiosity types – it would be far too simplistic to think that there is only one type of curiosity. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist talks about a few of them in his book Why? What Makes Us Curious.

  • Epistemic curiosity is the one we have been talking about so far and relates to the type of curiosity that drives research and education. It’s generally a pleasurable state, the result of a release of dopamine that comes from mastery and the anticipation of reward.
  • Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction. it’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when we get an answer that doesn’t quite fit with what we expected. The motivation is to seek out something novel although the curiosity will diminish with continued exposure.
  • Diversive curiosity is transient and superficial and is often experienced when swiping through you Twitter feed. Its effectively a means of jumping from topic to topic and normally fails to result in any form of meaningful insight or understanding.

You might think that as we grow older, we become less curious simply because we know more. However, although we may lose some elements of diversive curiosity or the ability to be surprised, research shows that epistemic curiosity remains roughly constant across all age groups

But why?
The roots to curiosity can be traced back to a form of neoteny, an evolutionary condition that means although we reach maturity, we retain juvenile characteristics. Effectively we are more childlike than other mammals, continuing to be curious and playful throughout our lives. You can often tell if people are curios by looking at their eyes, which will become more dilated. This indicates that noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter has been released in the brainstem’s locus coeruleus, the part of the brain most strongly linked to arousal, vigilance, and attention. In addition, noradrenaline is also integral to a number of higher cognitive functions ranging from motivation to working memory and therefore hugely valuable for learning.

This may well be a slightly complicated way of saying that if you are curious about something, you are more likely to pay attention, making it easier to remember and in so doing learn.

How to become more curious

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” Bernard Baruch

Research into curiosity has confirmed some of what we might have already assumed to be correct, for example in a paper published in 2009, it concluded that people were more likely to recall answers to questions they were especially curious about. However it also showed that curiosity increased when answers were guessed incorrectly, suggesting that surprise was a factor in improved retention.

“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.” Socrates

The concept that curiosity is based on an Information gap was first put forward by George Loewenstein in 1994 which leads to one of the most powerful tools we can use to improve curiosity, asking questions. The best question to ask is probably WHY, but don’t forget Kipling’s other 5 honest serving men, WHAT, WHEN, HOW, WHERE and WHO. Below are a few more ideas.

  • Ask Socratic questions. This involves asking open ended questions that provoke a meaningful exploration of the subject, this process sits at the heart of critical thinking.
  • Create environments that promote curiosity. Challenges that need solving require a curious mind. Case studies are also more of interest, providing several different routes to explore.
  • Guess the answer first. As mentioned above, if you guess first it increases the surprise factor. Loewenstein also argued that guessing with feedback stimulates curiosity because it highlights the gap between what you thought you knew and the correct answer.
  • Failure is feedback. Finding out why you got something wrong can be just as interesting as knowing that you are right, it certainly increases curiosity.
  • Start with the curious part of a subject. You may not be curious about the whole subject, but try to find the part you are interested in and start there.

And if you would like to find out more

What’s the answer, what did kill the cat?

it was IGNORANCE…………

Lessons from lies – Fake news

There is little doubt that we live in an age with access to more information than any other. All you have to do is log onto your PC and type into Google whatever you want to know and within 0.28 seconds you will get 3.44 million results, it really is science fiction. But having lots of information isn’t the same as having reliable information, how do you know that what your reading is true?

Fake news and false information

Fake news is certainly not new, in 1835 it was reported in a New York newspaper that a telescope “of vast dimensions” could see what was happening on the moon. It caused a sensation and the paper’s circulation increased from 8,000 to more than 19,000. The only problem, it was a complete fiction or fake news concocted by the editor, Richard Adams Locke. It may not be new but fake news is certainly faster moving and far more prolific fuelled by the internet, the growth in social media, globalisation and a lack of regulation.

But before we go any further let’s take a step back and clarify what we mean by fake news. Firstly, there are completely false stories created to deliberately misinform, think here about the moon story although even that contained some facts. There was an astronomer called Sir John Herschel who did indeed have a telescope “of vast dimensions” in his South African observatory, but he did not witness men with bat wings, unicorns, and bipedal beavers on the moon’s surface. Secondly, stories that may have some truth to them, but are not completely accurate, a much more sophisticated and convincing version of the above and probably harder to detect.

We will leave aside the motives for creating fake news but they range from politics, to pranks and as was the case of Richard Adams Locke, commercial gain.

Here are a few headlines:

5G weakens the immune system, making us more vulnerable to catching the virus
If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then you don’t have the virus
Fuel pump handles pose a particularly high risk of spreading the Corona-19 infection
And more controversy, Health secretary Matt Hancock stating that testing figures had hit 122,347 on April 30

The first three are fake, the third is based on facts. Click here to make up your own mind as to its truth.

But why do we believe these stories?

Quick to judge A study from the University of Toulouse Capitole, found that when participants were asked to make a quick judgment about whether a news story was real or fake, they were more likely to get it wrong. This is somewhat worrying given the short attention span and patterns of behaviour displayed by those surfing the net.

We think more like lawyers than scientists – Commonly called confirmation bias, our ability to favour information that confirms our existing beliefs. Lawyers examine evidence with a preconceived objective, to prove their client’s innocence whereas scientists remain open minded, in theory at least. An interesting aspect of this is that well educated people may be more susceptible because they have the ability to harness far more information to support their opinion. This is a bias of belief not of knowledge.  

Illusory truth effect – This is the tendency to believe false information after repeated exposure. First identified in a 1977 study at Villanova University and Temple University. It would be wrong to ignore the man who many believe (wrongly) invented the term fake news, including himself, Donald Trump. He is a master of repetition, for example Trump used the expression “Chinese virus” more than 20 times between March 16 and March 30, according to the website Factbase.

Gullibility, the failure to ask questions We are prone to believe stories that “look right”, Psychologists refer to this as “processing fluency”. Experiments have found that “fluent information” tends to be regarded as more trustworthy and as such more likely to be true. Images are especially powerful, for example researchers have found that people believed that macadamia nuts were from the same family as peaches if there was a picture of a nut next to the text.

The same photo but from a different angle

Google it! but do so with care

Most educators will encourage students to become independent learners, be curious and ask questions, solve their own problems, it is one of the most powerful educational lessons, and as Nelson Mandela said, education can be used to change the world. But we need to be careful that what is learned is not just a bunch of facts loosely gathered to prove one person’s point of view. Mandela’s vision of changing the world through education was based on the education being broad and complex not narrow.

We are of course very fortunate to have such a vast amount of information from which to learn, but that curiosity needs to be tempered with a critical mind set. The questions asked should be thoughtfully constructed with knowledge of one’s own personal bias and the information analysed against the backdrop of the source of that information and possible motives of the authors

Guidelines for students using Google

1. Develop a Critical Mindset – this is the ability to think logically, figuring out the connections, being active rather than passive, challenging what you read against what you already know and perhaps most importantly challenging your own ideas in the context of the new information. Are you simply finding information to support your own views, an example of confirmation bias.

2. Check the Source and get confirmation – for websites always look at the URL for the identity of the organisation and the date of the story. Lots of fake news is news rehashed from the past to support the argument currently being made. What is the authority quoted, why not cut that from the story and paste into google to find out who else is using that information and in what context. Look for spelling mistakes and generalisations e.g. most people agree. These terms are vague and give the impression that this is a majority view.

3. Evaluate the evidence and don’t take images at face value – use your critical thinking skills to validate the evidence. Who is the authority quoted, do they have any reasons or motives for making these claims? Images as already mentioned are very powerful, but fake images are easy to create on the internet and a clever camera angle can easily mislead.

4. Does it make sense? – an extension of logical thinking but perhaps more emotional, how do you feel about this, what’s you gut instinct. The unconscious part of your brain can help make complex decisions sometimes more accurately than logical thought.

With large amounts of free knowledge, there are calls for schools to be doing more to better equip children to navigate the internet. In fact, back in 2017 the House of Lords published a report ‘Growing up with the internet’ which recommended that “Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics”.

It’s not just school children that need this fourth pillar, we probably all do.

And of course the picture at the start of this blog is Fake!

Learn faster with Direct Instruction – Siegfried Engelmann

What we need to learn is changing, knowledge is free, if you want the answer just google it. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Survey, there is an ever-greater need for cognitive abilities such as creativity, logical reasoning and problem solving. And with advances in AI, machine learning and robotics many of the skills previously valued will become redundant.

No need for the Sage on the stage
These demands have led to significant change in the way learning is happening, no longer should students be told what to think, they need to be encouraged to think for themselves, Socratic questioning, group work, experiential learning and problem based learning have all become popular, and Sir Ken Robinson Ted lecture, do schools kill creativity has had 63 million views.

Sir Kens talk is funny and inspiring and I recommend you watch it, but I want to challenge the current direction of travel or at least balance the debate by promoting a type of teaching that has fallen out of fashion and yet ironically could form the foundation upon which creativity could be built – Direct Instruction.

Direct Instruction – the Sage is back
The term direct instruction was first used in 1968, when a young Zig Engelmann a science research associate proved that students could be taught more effectively if the teacher presented information in a prescriptive, structured and sequenced manner. This carefully planned and rigid process can help eliminate misinterpretation and misunderstanding, resulting in faster learning. But most importantly it has been proven to work as evidenced by a 2018 publication which looked at over half a century of analysis and 328 past studies on the effectiveness of Direct Instruction.

Direct Instruction was also evaluated by Project Follow Through, the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted. The conclusion – It produced significantly higher academic achievement for students than any of the other programmes.

The steps in direct instruction

It will come as no surprise that a method of teaching that advocates structure and process can be presented as a series of steps.

Step 1 Set the stage for learning – The purpose of this first session is to engage the student, explaining specifically what they should be able to do and understand as a result of this lesson. Where possible a link to prior knowledge should also be made.
Step 2 Present the material – (I DO) The lesson should be organised, broken down into a step-by-step process, each one building on the other with examples to show exactly how it can be applied. This can be done by lecture, demonstration or both.
Step 3 Guided practice – (WE DO) This is where the tutor demonstrates and the student follows closely, copying in some instances. Asking questions is an important aspect for the student if something doesn’t make sense.
Step 4 Independent practice – (YOU DO) Once students have mastered the content or skill, it is time to provide reinforcement and practice.

The Sage and the Guide
The goal of Direct Instruction is to “do more in less time” which is made possible because the learning is accelerated by clarity and process.

There are of course critics, considering it a type of rote learning that will stifle the creativity of both teacher and student, and result in a workforce best suited for the industrial revolution rather than the fourth one. But for me it’s an important, effective and practical method of teaching. That when combined with inspirational delivery and a creative mindset will help students develop the skills to solve the problems of tomorrow or at least a few of them.

Case study – Omelettes and Cognitivism

1774_making_summer_sausage_omelette

If you have actually got as far as reading this first paragraph, there must have been something in the title that caught your attention. Perhaps you were simply curious as to how these three words are connected, or maybe one of the words relates to something you are interested in?

Whatever the reason, you have begun to process information and so engage in cognition, put more simply, you have started to think.

Making an omelette

But first a question, take a moment and think about how you make an omelette? ……….Then in your own words, explain how you would do this? ………. As you might imagine this is not about the omelette but the process you went through in order to answer the question.

The process – There was clearly an element of memory and recall as you thought back to the time when you last made an omelette, you would also have needed to direct your attention to the event itself and use strong visualisation skills, to see yourself actually whisking the egg, adding the salt and pepper etc. However so sophisticated is the human mind you can actually create images of making an omelette based on your knowledge of scrambling an egg! The point being, you have the ability to visualise activities of which you have no or little experience. The mental processes outlined above go some way to explaining Cognitivism. Cognitivism in learning is the study of how information is received, directed, organised, stored and perceived in order to facilitate better learning. Cognitivist believe that mental processes should be studied in order to develop better theories as to how people learn.

Case study is higher level

As you progress up the exam ladder the style of examination question changes. It starts with relatively simple activities that require you to recall something already taught e.g. what is the capital of France? It then moves to questions that test understanding, e.g. explain why Paris is the capital of France? At higher levels you will ultimately come across, Application, Analyse and Evaluation, and it is these higher level skills that a case studies often requires you to master.

I have written about case studies before, firstly, Putting the context into case study and secondly Passing case studies by thinking in words. Here I want to explore how by understanding how people think  (Cognitivism) you can develop strategies to help you answer what seem to be impossible questions.

Application of knowledge

Imagine you have been given a case study that has a large amount of information about the company, the people and the financial position. You have been asked to offer advise as to how the company should improve its internal controls within the HR department. Even though you may not think you know the answer, the process outlined above will give a framework to follow.

  • Firstly, focus your attention on the key words – internal controls and HR deportment
  • Secondly, recall any information you have about internal controls and HR departments
  • Thirdly, deploy strong visualisation skills, seeing yourself in that company, bringing in as much detail as possible to give context, and then use common sense
  • Finally write out your answer – Say what you see, talk through how you would do it, mention some of the problems you might experience and outline the possible solutions

These are cognitive strategies developed from learning more as to how people think, why not give them a go?

And here is how to make an omelette from my favourite instructor, Delia – yet another practical tip, remember last month it was how to make toast.

Currywurst , apples and the £33,000 a year boarding school

currywurst

Currywurst fast becoming the most popular dish in Berlin

I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.

Berlin

The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”

This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.

Goodwill Hunting

When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.

Wellington college

And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.

What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.

In conclusion

Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.

Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .

Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”