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?

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

People are all the same but students are all different

ayam-titaniumThis month’s blog is coming from Malaysia, I have been presenting at the ICAEW learning conference in KL. The only relevance of this, is that as with any lecture/presentation or lesson you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask, what do they want to get out of this, why are they giving up their valuable time and in many instances money to listen to what you have to say?

The difference in presenting to a group of people from another country is that you start to question the way they think and perhaps learn, is it the same or could you be making a big mistake by assuming it is.

Neurologically we are all the same

What gave me confidence was that I was talking about how you learn and examinations. And although there will certainly be many differences in culture, language, opinion, even what is considered funny, our brains are all made exactly the same, and as a result the process of learning is the same.

Malaysian jokes

Q: What is Malaysians’ favourite dish? – A: Astro

Q: What is the strongest chicken in the world? – A: Ayam Titanium

So everything I said about memorising content using spaced repetition, the importance of having bite sized chunks of information, the need to present an overview at the start of each session etc was met with nods of approval.

Students are different

ctcnyapxyaamd0c

However just because we have the same neurological components does not mean they are all used in the same way. And so it would have been a mistake for me to have presented trends observed in the UK as to the attitude of students towards learning as if they were the typical attitudes of all students, in particular Malaysian ones. The reason being, I have little knowledge of the Malaysian education system, parenting skills, culture etc, these are what help shape the beliefs, values and attitudes of students in Malaysia and in turn give every student their own unique learning style.

Learning styles are unique

The generalisation about Malaysian learning styles was that there was a tendency to rank passing exams as being the most important aspect of education. This had resulted in a number of issues, one being a lack of leadership skills. Who did they blame, well they blamed the teachers for being uninspiring and measuring students by the grades they had historically achieved rather than the grades they might achieve. The point here is not in any way a criticism of the Malaysian system, there are equally many problems in the UK but to highlight why learning has to be personalised. It of course goes even deeper than nationalistic trends, clearly not all Malaysian students are focused only on passing exams and some will make great leaders, everyone is unique.

But are the teachers to blame?

If you agree with the research produced by John Hattie from the University of Auckland, the answer is yes, the teachers are to blame. His research which was built up over 15 years suggest that an individual students inherent qualities account for 50% of their ability to achieve, but on the basis this cannot be changed it would be better to look at the next biggest attribute that can be influenced. Interestingly this had little to do with who you went to school with, the so called peer effect, your home life, the school you went to, and certainly not the technology used. It was all about the teacher or type of teacher you had. It is what teachers do, know and care about that makes the difference, 30% of the difference in fact.

I am sure that advocates of on-line will suggest that this is not about the teacher but the type of instruction, but at this stage of the debate that will only cloud the issue. This simply highlights the importance teaching or instruction as being the most important aspect of learning wherever you are in the world. Of course your peers, classrooms, technology all contribute but if you want to make investment in learning, spend it on developing the teachers.

My time in Malaysia comes to an end this evening but even if my presentation did not achieve all I had expected, and I hope it did, I feel I have learned a little more, as the Malay saying goes….. Everyday a thread, soon a cloth.

And if you would like to read more about John Hatties research, read the Click the link.

 

 

Reflections on Understanding ……Brexit

great briitain leaves european union metaphorI have to admit in the last few months I have spent a fair bit of time looking into the facts behind the EU and checking on some of the statements made by both the remain and leave sides, attempting to discover truths or otherwise so that I could make a more informed decision. It proved difficult; much was opinion dressed up as fact by using numbers open to interpretation. Another technique used on the face of it to offer clarity, but in reality did just the opposite, was to state the “facts” forcefully, with conviction and repeat them often, giving the impression that what was being said was not only true but believed to be true.

But this blog is not really about Brexit, well kind of, I couldn’t let the most important decision made in this country for over 40 years go without some mention.

Following the announcement of the results on Friday the 24th of June I found myself going through what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described as the five stages of grief. Denial, no that can’t be true. Anger, WHO was it that voted like that, they must be MAD or words to that effect. Bargaining, let me break down the statistics and find out who voted and what group they came from, old/young, North/South, maybe they could be persuaded to change their minds, or better still perhaps we will have a second referendum. Depression, we are all doomed, and finally Acceptance, it is what it is, we now need to make the most of it.

Reflection

What I have described above is not simply the ramblings of a disgruntled and disenfranchised supporter of the in campaign but goes some way towards illustrating the process of reflection, one of the most important components of learning and a key technique in developing a deeper understanding.  It was David A Kolb who in 1984 put forward the argument that we learn from reflecting on our experiences.

KolbModelStep one in Kolb’s learning cycle is to have the experience. Step two, reflect, think back on what we have experienced. Step three, conceptualise, generate a hypothesis about the meaning of the experience, what is it we have learned, and step four, test that the hypothesis is supported by the experience, does it confirm that what we have learned is correct.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. Confucius

Reflection – purposeful thought

Getting students to do this consciously is however difficult, in fairness I didn’t reflect consciously myself, it was part of a process in trying to understand why I was feeling the way I did. I felt angry but on one level didn’t know why, so I had to reflect on what had happened to find out.

The point being simply asking a student to complete say a reflection log, no matter how much you state the value of keeping one, will probably result in little more than blank pages. You need to have a reason to reflect, this might be to identify the cause of an emotion as was the case for me or to answer a question, which may be as simple as, “thinking back on the last essay you submitted, what have you learned?” it just needs to have a purpose. Of course the reflection log may still remain blank but that is more to do with motivation than the power of the exercise.

One simple technique to help with reflection is to think back on what has happened, identify the impact that it will have today on the present and what the implications will be for the future.

Lessons learned

So having passed through the stages of grief, rather too quickly I am sure some will say and reflected on the experience, what have I learned? Well, some has been confirmation of what I already knew. Firstly, that Politicians will make statements that they may or not believe at the time but will back away from after the event. This can be achieved whilst still retaining an internal level of integrity by pointing out that they never used those exact words, standing in front of a bus that has them blazoned across it, is not the same. Did anyone really believe that £350m would be spent on the health service or that Europe would not trade with us at all, after Brexit. Secondly that I like democracy as long as it comes up with the answer I want, but not when it doesn’t. Thirdly, the electorate does not make decisions using in-depth analysis and reflection but by deep held beliefs built up over time, often reinforced by the people closest to them. And lastly that the status quo is not sustainable and that happiness is a comparative process thus making change inevitable and with change comes risk.

Will it be for the better, only time will tell, we will have to wait for the historians to reflect on what the UK looked like in 2016 and whether it was better in 2026, as you can see reflection has many uses!

Let me leave you with my favourite quote of the campaign, not from one of the leading politicians involved, but Abraham Lincoln.

 “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

 

 

 

Video killed my teacher – metaphorically speaking

Video killed the radio star

What did you do the last time you needed to repair, cook or dare I say learn something? Did you google it and follow the link to YouTube? If so you are no different to the over one billion people who actively use YouTube every month.

This blog is not actually about YouTube but the medium of video and the increasingly important role it plays in our daily life and how we use it to learn.

 

 

Social learning and the bobo doll

Albert Bandura is the Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and is widely regarded as one of the greatest living psychologists. He is perhaps most famous for his Social learning theory, the theory of how people learn by observing others, and the bobo doll experiment. Click here to listen to Bandura himself explain.

Behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and even punishment, see Skinner and Pavlov. Bandura’s social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others. And that is where the true value of video lies, it is in the ability of people to watch what others do and learn from them.

What makes a good learning video?

Firstly, as with any form of delivery it needs to planned and structured. What is the purpose of the video, why use video and not send an email? Think about the audience, why will they want to watch it, what makes it relevant for them? Break it into three sections, a beginning, where you tell the audience what you are going to tell them, the middle, where you actually tell them, and the end where you tell them what you have told them.

Secondly It has to be relatively short, 10 minutes is a maximum. Even 6 minutes of good video takes a lot of planning, equally it wont test concentration levels too much. This does not mean you can’t record many hours of video, it just needs to be chunked, labeled and structured so it can be easily followed.

And lastly think about your delivery. Pace, tone of voice and body language all help the learner. This is where you manage the mood of your audience, if your happy they will be happy. Generally, speak more slowly than you would normally but be careful toooo slowww can be boring, vary how you say something depending on what you’re saying. Also think about the visuals and if it would be better to show an image rather than talk. But don’t go mad and put too much on screen all at the same time, it gets confusing.

Examples of good video 

But of course the best way to explain the power of video in learning is to show the videos.

1.The queen of cooking Delia is also the expert of slow deliberate, perfectly planned presenting. Here she explains how to cook an omelet, notice the attention to detail.  Ps Delia left school at 16 without a single GCE O-level. 3.43 minutes in length.

2.Here is someone who breaks the presenting rules, certainly the one that says don’t talk too fast. However, CGP Grey is great at using visuals, his dialogue is fast but incredibly informative, its packed with information, and it’s funny. If you are confused by the US elections, you won’t be after watching this.  5.19 minutes in length.

3.Crash course is a little like Khan academy which I have written before, what makes it different is the humour and how it is shot to camera using powerful visuals. Watch this clip if you want to learn about supply and demand. This pushes the boundaries time wise at 10.21 minutes.

4.This is the big one certainly as far as hits are concerned. James Stevens, Vsauceis watched by 19 million people. This one answers the questions as to, what would happen if everyone jumped at once? 7.12 minutes in length.