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…………

Intelligence defined – Inspiring learning leaders – Howard Gardner

Intelligence is a term that is often used to define people, David is “clever” or “bright” maybe even “smart” but it can also be a way in which you define yourself. The problem is that accepting this identity can have a very limiting effect on motivation, for example if someone believes they are not very clever, how hard will they try, effort would be futile. And yet it is that very effort that can make all the difference. See brain plasticity.
I wrote about an inspiring learning leader back in April this year following the death of Tony Buzan, the creator of mind maps. I want to continue the theme with Howard Gardner (Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) who I would guess many have never heard of but for me is an inspirational educator.

Multiple Intelligence Theory (MIT)
Now in fairness Howard Gardner is himself not especially inspiring but his idea is. Gardner is famous for his theory that the traditional notion of intelligence, based on I.Q. is far too limited. Instead, he argues that there are in fact eight different intelligences. He first presented the theory in 1983, in the book Frames of Mind – The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 

This might also be a good point to clarify exactly how Gardner defines intelligence.

Intelligence – ‘the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting’ (Gardner & Hatch, 1989).

Multiple intelligences

  1. SPATIAL – The ability to conceptualise and manipulate large-scale spatial arrays e.g. airplane pilot, sailor
  2. BODILY-KINESTHETIC – The ability to use one’s whole body, or parts of the body to solve problems or create products e.g. dancer
  3. MUSICAL – Sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, meter, tone, melody and timbre. May entail the ability to sing, play musical instruments, and/or compose music e.g. musical conductor
  4. LINGUISTIC – Sensitivity to the meaning of words, the order among words, and the sound, rhythms, inflections, and meter of words e.g. poet
  5. LOGICAL-MATHEMATICAL – The capacity to conceptualise the logical relations among actions or symbols e.g. mathematicians, scientists
  6. INTERPERSONAL – The ability to interact effectively with others. Sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations e.g. negotiator
  7. INTRAPERSONAL- Sensitivity to one’s own feelings, goals, and anxieties, and the capacity to plan and act in light of one’s own traits.
  8. NATURALISTIC – The ability to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature as, for example, between one plant and another, or one cloud formation and another e.g. taxonomist

I have taken the definitions for the intelligences direct from the MI oasis website.

It’s an interesting exercise to identify which ones you might favour but be careful, these are not learning styles, they are simply cognitive or intellectual strengths. For example, if someone has higher levels of linguistic intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily mean they prefer to learn through lectures alone.

You might also want to take this a stage further by having a go at this simple test. Please note this is for your personal use, its main purpose is to increase your understanding of the intelligences.

Implications – motivation and self-esteem
Gardner used his theory to highlight the fact that schools largely focused their attention on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence and rewarded those who excelled in these areas. The implication being that if you were more physically intelligent the school would not consider you naturally gifted, not “clever” as they might if you were good at maths. The advice might be that you should consider a more manual job. I wonder how that works where someone with high levels of physical and spacial intelligence may well find themselves playing for Manchester United earning over £100,000 a week!

But for students this theory can really help build self-esteem and motivate when a subject or topic is proving hard to grasp. No longer do you have to say “I don’t understand this, I am just not clever enough”. Change the words to “I don’t understand this yet, I find some of these mathematical questions challenging, after all, its not my strongest intelligence”. “I know I have to work harder in this area but when we get to the written aspects of the subject it will become easier”.

This for me this is what make Gardner’s MIT so powerful it’s not a question of how intelligent you are but which intelligence(s) you work best in.

“Discover your difference, the asynchrony with which you have been blessed or cursed and make the most of it.” Howard Gardner

As mentioned earlier Howard Gardner is not the most inspirational figure and here is an interview to prove it, but his theory can help you better understand yourself and others, and that might just change your perception of who you are and what you’re capable of – now that’s inspiring!

MI Oasis – The Official Authoritative Site of Multiple Intelligences 

Mind Mapping – Tony Buzan, Learning leader

MM-How-to-MindMap-imindmap-1024x647

It was with some sadness that I read of the death of Tony Buzan last week. It’s possible you have never heard of him and yet will be familiar with the technique he discovered to help students learn, Mind Mapping. He was born in the UK in 1942 studied Psychology, English, Mathematics and Science at the University of British Columbia.  In addition to his lifelong association with Mind Mapping he worked for Mensa, set up the World Memory Championships in 1991 with Raymond Keene, and found time to write over 140 books. Two of which sit on my bookshelf, both furthered my knowledge and fuelled my interest in learning, memory and how the brain works. These are Use your Head and The Mind Map book.

Curiosity  

When Tony Buzan was at Junior school his curiosity was sparked by a boy who had an excellent knowledge of nature, in particular birds but repeatedly failed tests that were set in school. This led him to question what intelligence was. And although I hadn’t read this at the time it was something I had also been interested in. Society had/has somehow lost sight of the fact that people are different, falling into the trap of praising and promoting those that were “clever” and pitying those that were not. It seemed far more sensible to break intelligence down into a series of biological/neurological qualities, and in 1983, when Howard Gardner published his book on Multiple Intelligence Theory this made perfect sense to me and provided evidence that Buzan was on to something.

Mind Mapping – does it work?

According to Tony Buzan, “Mind Mapping is a two-dimensional note-taking technique with which a Mind Map is made using all the relevant knowledge about a specific subject.”

I have written about how to Mind Map before, so please follow the links if you want to find out more – Mind Mapping unplugged – The De Vinci code – Mind Mapping to pass exams.

Remarkably there is little evidence to prove that Mind Mapping works, academics have focused instead on Concept Mapping, a hierarchical diagram that links conceptual knowledge, but the principles that underpin Mind Mapping are consistent with much of what we know is effective in learning.

This quote from Tony Buzan offers a deeper insight into why it works.

“I used to take formal notes in lines of blue, and underline the key words in red, and I realised I needed only the key words and the idea. Then to bring in connections, I drew arrows and put in images and codes. It was a picture outside my head of what was inside my head – ‘Mind Map’ is the language my brain spoke.”

In this narrative there are three important principles identified. Firstly, use only key words, this process of reduction is hugely valuable in learning. When the brain has to select one or two words it engages in a process of reflection and review, reading and re-reading asking which one word should I pick, and why. Secondly connections, it is well accepted that the brain finds storing unrelated chunks of information difficult, a Mind Map requires the student to link information and in so doing forces a connection. And lastly, arguably one of the most powerful, the use of images. The brain appears to have a limitless capacity to store pictures, the brighter, more colourful and stranger the better.

In summary, it’s not that Mind Mapping was invented by Tony Buzan and before we knew little about the best techniques to aid learning, what he did was pull together much of what we now know to be effective using as inspiration the drawings of the Leonardo de Vinci and created a tool that requires the student to know little of the theory behind how it works but by preparing one engages them in a series of very effective techniques that will help them learn.

Critics

It would be wrong to suggest that everything Tony Buzan said or did was correct, he has been responsible for promoting what many now recognise as pop psychology that has since been proved to be incorrect. For example

“Did you know that you use less than 1% of your brain? The good news is that Mind Mapping can help you to access the other 99%.”

However, he also said

“Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.”

And in this world rich with information, AI and robotics, this may be the only thing that will keep us ahead of the game.

Listen to Tony Buzan talking about Mind Maps

RIP Tony Buzan learning leader.

 

 

 

 

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.

Intelligence and IQ – does it matter?

Yesterday Boris Johnson delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, in it he said:

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.”

Mr Johnson (Boris) uses the measure of IQ to make the point that if we don’t have equality in intelligence then economic equality is not possible. Effectively he is saying we should accept that some animals are more equal than others, apologies for the Animal Farm digression…..

What is Intelligence?

Yet a large part of Boris’s argument hinges on the term intelligence and that it has some meaning or value, but what is intelligence? The word itself is derived from the Latin verb intelligere, to comprehend or perceive. A good start, but that’s all it is a start, here are a few more definitions:

  • Judgment, otherwise called “good sense,” “practical sense,” “initiative,” the faculty of adapting one’s self to circumstances  (Alfred Binet the creator of the IQ)
  • The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  • To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving, enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters. (Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligence Theory)

The last of these is my personal favourite as it gives purpose to having intelligence, to solve problems. The bottom line, there is no one single definition and experts disagree on how it should be tested/measured. Interestingly the IQ (intelligent quotient) developed by Alfred Binet was only ever intended to be used to identify intellectual disability not to form the basis of an elitist club or for Boris to hijack for his Margaret Thatcher lecture.

Does it matter?

People often have a personal view of their own intelligence, this can sometimes be empowering when you find out “You’re a god Dammed Genius” or limiting if “you discover your IQ is only 75.” Just for the record, 91-110 is average, 80-90 is dull normal, 66-79 borderline and 65 and below, defective.

The very fact that you believe you are intelligent can be motivational, resulting in you putting in more effort. The self belief that you can solve any problem will often result in you solving most of them, and of course proving you are not only intelligent but a genius!

I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.

Socrates

Contrast that with the behaviour of someone who believes they are not intelligent or maybe not as intelligent as others. Faced with a problem they will give up, believing the solution is beyond them, and of course proving that they were also right and not a genius.

But Does Boris have a point?

Boris uses IQ (The measure of intelligence) to illustrate the point that we are all different, something that most people would readily accept. What I find uncomfortable is the deterministic nature of his proposition, it implies having a high IQ predicts success and by the exclusion of the many other factors that contribute to success, suggests is the only thing that matters. The Telegraph headline made this point very strongly.

Boris Johnson: some people are too stupid to get on in life

Natural differences between human beings will always mean that some will succeed and others will fail, the Mayor of London says in a speech

Yet on the basis that there is little agreement as to what Intelligence is, the testing and what should be tested is subjective, it would appear a poor basis on which to hang his argument.

Lessons for learning

What I do agree with is that we are all different and that some of this is the function of genetics. (Research indicates that 60% of intelligence is genetic) yet on the basis that you can do very little about this, does it matter?

It is always better to work on what you can change rather than what you can’t. I am sure many of us know people who seem to grasp principles, concepts’ etc and solve problems pretty quick. If you compare yourself to them it’s easy to conclude that they are better and you will always be second rate, so stop trying. The simple answer is don’t compare yourself with them, compare only with yourself, are you getting better and if you are then your improving, and that’s a result.

So forget about measuring intelligence and whether your better than someone else and get on with trying hard and being the best you can.

More on intelligence

Human intelligence, BBC Horizon. An interesting programme that evaluates the intelligence of different high performers.

And the smartest man in the world is…...click here