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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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!

Passing case studies by thinking in words

thinkingA case study is a relatively high level form of assessment used to test a student’s ability to apply knowledge from a whole range of different subjects set against the backdrop of a real-world situation, a case study is a simulation.

Thinking process

On the face of it the challenges set by a case study seem daunting, how can you remember everything you have learned in the past and be able to solve a problem in an environment you have potentially never seen before. The good news is that our brains are better suited to solving these types of problems than you might think. In fact, in some ways learning individual subjects can be more difficult due to their apparent theoretical nature and little use outside the classroom.

However, the process you have to go through in order to produce a good case study style answer is worth exploring in more detail, especially if you’re not getting the mark you want or in fact need. Here are six stages that set out what you have to do from the point when you open the exam paper to finally putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard.

  1. Read and absorb the narrative given in the context of the case
  2. Make the case real, visualise yourself in that context, play your role
  3. Search for knowledge that might help, thinking across a whole range of subjects
  4. Begin to formulate an answer in your head or at least a direction of travel by manipulating information
  5. Organise your thoughts in such a way that when communicating to others it will appear both logical and persuasive
  6. Write out your thoughts using clear heading’s and plain English

Individually nothing is difficult but if you don’t perform particularly well at any one of these stages, the chain will be broken and as a result the quality of the answer suffer.

Using words to think – start with general and go to specific

From my experience students begin to struggle at around stage 5 and certainly 6. The cognitive energy required to not simply know what to do but be able to turn those thoughts into something that can be understood by others is possibly the most difficult part. One technique that can help with this is to use key words and linguistic structuring.

Imagine the question asks you to offer advice to company A as to how it might improve its profitability. One solution that might come to mind is, increase sales. What you need to do next is drill deeper, ask how do we increase sales? Maybe, you think, selling more of product X is a good idea. Next ask, how do we sell more of product X, answer, by approaching company Z and asking them to advertise it along with their best selling product.

Okay, get the idea, firstly there is a degree of analysis and questioning, this is stage 4. You now need to organise your thoughts and put them on the page so that others will understand the point you are making, stage 5 and 6.

This is where the words come in, start with general and go to specific. General words or statement sit high up, by definition they apply to many situations and are vague but act as an umbrella under which the answer can be honed and defined, for example, you might make the following statement.

One way of improving profitability is to increase sales.

This is a very general statement and could apply to many companies. Next be more specific.

One possible solution to increasing sales for company A is to sell more of its product by approaching company Z to see if we could come to an arrangement where they would be willing to promote their bestselling product and ours at the same time.

This in some ways is the reverse of the thinking process, but by creating a general statement first it gives a real structure to the answer. Like any technique it will require practice, so don’t be surprised if it takes time to become really good at it. When answering case study style questions, you will be thinking and reorganising thoughts a lot, and this initially at least is just another aspect of the case you need to take into account. But with repetition comes the shifting of knowledge into behaviour, and the ability to do it without thinking at all.

In summary, e.g.

  • What I hope you have found from reading this blog is that you can improve your chances of passing any exam with some simple techniques. (very general)
  • On the face of it a case study may seem different, and exam techniques less applicable. (Case study specific but still general)
  • However, if the process of thinking can be set out into a series of stages, this can help identify an area that needs to be improved. (Getting more specific)
  • The most common point where students fall down is towards the end of the six stages, specifically stage 5 and 6. (Nearly there, but talking about any student)
  • But by drilling into the problem and continually asking questions you can drive out a solution, then if you write out that solution using the general to specific technique, the words and so your answer should appear on the page in a logical and easy to understand format. (Finally we get to the point, talking specifically to you the student)

 

 

 

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”