Motivation by Reward and Consequence – Behaviourism

Motivation is one of the most important aspects of learning and as a result has featured in many previous blogs. In its simplest form motivation can be defined as something that you want; you want to get fit or you want to pass the exam, and as a result that want directs your behaviour. For example, if I want to pass the exam, a good behaviour would be to attempt 5 more questions.

But do we ever really know what is motivating someone? We could ask Tom Dean, the gold medal winner in the 200-meter freestyle at this year’s Tokyo Olympics. What motivated him to train even harder after he contracted Covid for a second time? I’m sure he would give us an answer, the problem is it could well be something he has constructed to explain it to himself rather than the real reason.

Maybe we should think less of the cognitive reasoning behind motivation and consider only the actions of a motivated person? It’s likely Tom had a few early mornings and went through some pretty painful training sessions in order to get fit for the games, but it could be that his ability to do this is more a consequence of conditioning rather than his desire for a gold medal. There is also the question as to why a gold medal is motivational, after all its not even gold, they are 92.5% silver. Interestingly the Tokyo medals include recycled metal from electrical devises. Maybe its because he associates it with success and or pride, something that he has been conditioned to over many years.

Behaviourism
Behaviourism, is a theory of learning which states that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment by a process called conditioning. The implication is that your behaviour is simply the response to a stimulus, a cause and effect.

The environment shapes people’s actions. B.F. Skinner

Its highly likely you will have experienced and even been involved in motivating someone in this way. For example, were you ever put on the naughty step as a child or told your dog to sit and when he does, reward him? These are examples of how changing the environment results in a different behaviour. The dog is motivated to sit not because it’s a lifelong ambition but because he wants the reward. Tom Dean may well have got up early to go training but that might have more to do with the conditioning resulting from his alarm going off, than a burning desire to get out of bed.

It is effectively motivation as a result of reward and consequence, if you do something you get something.

Classical conditioning – association
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered that dogs could “learn” to salivate at the sound of a bell that rang before they were fed. He called this classical conditioning, the dog associating the bell with food. These types of associations can be the reason people are afraid of spiders or chewing gum, yes, it’s real, Oprah Winfrey is a sufferer. It also explains why having a designated study area can help you feel more like studying, you associate it with getting work done. Here are a few more examples, your smart phone bleeps and you pick it up, celebrities are used to associate a product with glamour, Christmas music makes you feel Christmassy and an exam hall brings on exam anxiety.

Operant conditioning – reinforcement
In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning encourages or discourages a specific behaviour using reinforcement. The argument being that a good behaviour should be reinforced by a repeated reward or a bad behaviour stopped by a repeated punishment. The person who developed this type of conditioning is B.F. Skinner, who famously used pigeons in what became known as “Skinner boxes”.

There are four types of reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement – The behaviour is strengthened by adding something, a reward (praise/treats/prizes) which leads to repetition of the desired behaviour e.g. “Well done, Beth, that was a great question”. Here praise is added to encourage students to ask questions.
  • Negative reinforcement – The removal of something to increase the response e.g. “I can’t study because, everyone is shouting”. The shouting stops which encourages the behaviour of studying.
  • Punishment – The opposite of reinforcement, it adds something that will reduce or eliminate the response. e.g. “that’s probably the worse answer I have ever heard Beth, were you listening at all”. Here humiliation is added that will reduce the likelihood of students asking questions.
  • Negative punishment (Extinction) – This involves removing or taking something away e.g. “You can have your mobile phone back when you have done your homework”. In this situation removing access to the mobile phone results in the homework being completed.

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment. B.F. Skinner

Limitations
Skinner remained convinced anything could be taught with operant conditioning and went on to invent a teaching machine using the principles of reinforcement. It required students to fill in the blank, if the answer was correct, they were rewarded if incorrect they had to study the correct answer again to learn why they were wrong.

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything. B.F. Skinner

However, there are many limitations, the motivation is not always permanent, it’s too basic to teach complex concepts, punishment can lead to a reinforcement of the undesirable behaviour and its possible the person is just pretending.

Operant conditioning is still a hugely influential in the modern world, for example have you ever watched someone play a fruit machine, the required behaviour rewarded to extract more money. What about online gaming where points and leader boards provide rewards in terms of status and prizes.
Then then there are the ideas surrounding behavioural economics popularised by Nudge theory which suggest that you can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by changing the environment.

And finally, have ever seen how the military train, check out this video.

So next time you think you are making a decision of your own free will, maybe you’re just responding to an external stimulus!

Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader

There are a number of people who have changed the way I think but no more than Edward de Bono who died this month aged 88, a great example of a learning leader.

Born in 1933, he graduated as a doctor from the University of Malta before studying physiology and psychology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He represented Oxford in polo, set two canoeing records and later gained a PhD in medicine from Trinity College, Cambridge.

But he is probably best known for two things, firstly as the creator of the term lateral thinking and secondly for his six thinking hats strategy that went on to influence business leaders around the world.

Lateral thinking

To understand lateral thinking, we first need to figure out what thinking is. There are many definitions but my own take is that it’s a reflective process involving the manipulation of knowledge, feelings and experiences as we seek to connect what we know with new information, normally focused on a problem.

There are two or maybe three modes of thinking!

1. Convergent – focuses on coming up with a single, “correct” answer to a question or problem. Examples of convergent thinking would include critical thinking, a logical process that involves challenging underpinning assumptions, questioning accuracy, motivation and purpose in order to make sense of a situation or solve a problem. Its origins can be traced back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or as De Bono disparagingly referred to them, the gang of three.  Also, analytical thinking, where you break down complex information into its component parts, this can and is often used in conjunction with critical thinking. Convergent thinking is logical thinking, meaning its rule based, systematic and linear. If for example we concluded that 2 + 2 = 4 and we decided to add another 2, logically the answer would be 6. 

But logic can still be challenging, there is a logical answer to this question yet 80% of people get it wrong.

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A: Yes
B: No
C: Cannot be determined

The correct answer is A. (click here for the explanation)

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas.

2. Divergent – is the opposite of convergent and involves coming up with many possible solutions, acknowledging that there may be no single correct answer. This type of thinking is often emergent, free flowing, illogical and requires creativity. Convergent and divergent thinking can be used together, divergent to generate ideas and convergent to make sense of those ideas and find a practical application. Click here for a video that explains how these two types of thinking work together.

3. Lateral thinking – is a way of solving problems by taking an indirect and creative approach by looking at the problem from different perspectives. Although there are similarities with divergent thinking it is not the same. Divergent thinking starts with a problem at the centre and random ideas are generated branching outwards in all directions, lateral thinking requires the individual to come up with a solution by generating different ideas that result from changing perspective. De Bono writes that lateral thinking forces the brain to break set patterns, it’s a pattern switching technique.

Let’s consider one of his examples, Granny is sitting knitting and three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests putting Susan into the playpen, a relatively creative (divergent) solution. A logical (convergent) answer might be to tell Susan not to do it, but anyone with a three-year-old will know how effective this will be, but that won’t stop them trying!

The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan, this is lateral thinking, looking at the problem from a different perspective. Its illogical because granny is bigger and surely you don’t need to protect granny from a three-year-old, but it is still a solution and would work.

I am reminded of a question I was once asked whilst visiting Berlin. “Why did the East Germans build the Berlin wall?” ………“To keep people in of course”, it was a prison not a defence. It’s all about perspective.

Lateral thinking is not a substitute for logical thinking and can be used as a way of generating new divergent solutions, they complement each other and are interchangeable. Lateral thinking is generative, logical thinking selective.

In summary lateral thinking is about changing perspective……

Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.

My own personal favourite perspective story

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lateral thinking for learning

But what has this got to do with learning? Well learning is not just about facts and knowing stuff, the reason we go to school is to gain an understanding of a wide range of issues, concepts and ideas that when faced with a problem we can manipulate and cross check in order to form opinion and come up with a solution. Learning is a consequence of thinking.

Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.
Confucius

De Bono believed that thinking was a skill that could be learned and because lateral thinking helps people develop creative ideas, creativity could also be learned. It is not an innate trait, a type of intelligence that you are borne with, it’s something we all possess, we just need the techniques to do it. He did however distinguish between artistic creativity and idea creativity, Michael Angelo and Shakespeare are artistically creative, lateral thinking will only ever make you idea creative.

As to the techniques, maybe they will feature in another blog but if you can’t wait, here is a short video, but beware De Bono was the master of acronym.

We tend to take thinking for granted, believing we are good at it or maybe never even questioning our ability. But what De Bono made popular was the idea that it was a skill and that we can improve. We live in a time when information is more accessible and freely available than ever, so the real value has to be in what we do with it.

Thank you, Edward De Bono 1933 – 2021.

And lastly….the blog would not be complete without one of De Bono’s lateral thinking puzzles.

A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns, he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking so why does he do it?

The man is a dwarf and cant reach the higher buttons.

Learning is emotional

We are all emotional, it’s part of what it means to be human, your emotions help navigate uncertainty and experience the world. For some it’s even considered an intelligence, requiring the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as others.

For many years’ emotions were considered something that “got in the way” of learning, effectively disrupting the efficiency, but it is now believed that emotion has a substantial influence on cognitive processes, including perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and problem solving.

Emotions, feelings and mood

In last month’s blog I outlined how sensory input impact memory and the story continues because memories are a key part of emotion and both are found in something called the limbic system, a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system plays an important part in controlling emotional responses (Hypothalamus), coordinating those responses (Amygdala), and laying down memories (Hippocampus).

There is no single definition of emotion that everyone agrees upon, what we know is, it relies upon the release of chemicals in response to a trigger which in turn leads to three distinct phases. Firstly, a subjective experience, perhaps a feeling of anger, although not everyone would necessarily respond in the same way to the same stimulus. Secondly, a physiological response for example, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and lastly a behavioural or expressive response, a furrowing of the brow, showing of teeth etc.  

Although emotions are not believed to be hard-wired, in the 1970s Paul Eckman identified six emotions that were universally experienced in all human cultures. They are happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. This list has however been expanded to include others for example shame, embarrassment, excitement etc.

Feelings on the other hand arise from emotions, they are a conscious interpretation of the stimulus, asking questions as to what it might mean, some refer to feelings as the human response to emotions.  And finally, moods which are more general and longer term, an emotion might exist for a fraction of a second but moods can last for hours, even days and are sometimes a symptom of more worrying mental health issues.   In addition, moods are not necessarily linked to a single event but shaped by different events over time.

Impact on learning

Understanding what this means for students and educators is complex and in a short blog it’s only possible to introduce the subject. But there are a few lessons we can learn.

  • Emotions direct attention – if students can make an emotional connection with what they are learning it will improve levels of concentration and enjoyment.
  • Consider the emotional environment – the emotional context in which information is delivered can help students experience more positive emotions such as happiness and one of the most powerful emotions in learning, curiosity.
  • Avoid negative emotions – students who are in a continual state of anxiety or fearing failure whilst learning will find concentrating and retaining information difficult. This is partly the result of the brain going into its fight or flight mode which effectively narrows its focus to the task in hand.
  • Emotional state is contagious – the emotional state of the teacher can have a significant impact on students.
  • Memory and emotions are bound together – emotions have a considerable influence on memory. This is why we remember more emotionally charged events such as September 11 or the London bridge attack in 2017.

And if you would like to find out moreHow do emotions impact learning.

Dedication – in a lifetime we will all experience many emotions some good, some bad, but none are as powerful or more gratefully received than a mother’s love, for my mom.

Food for thoughts – the impact of food on learning

According the latest government statistics obesity is on the rise, there is also a link to Covid deaths with nearly 8% of critically ill patients in intensive care being obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population. The WHO has stated that being overweight and obese is the fifth leading risk for global deaths with at least 2.8 million adults dying each year.

Eating too much is clearly not good for your health but how about what you eat, how might that impact your health, in particular your brain?

Viva las Vagus

Have you ever used your gut instinct, had butterflies in your stomach or when feeling nervous had to rush to the toilet? If so then you already have some evidence of the connection and importance of your gut to the way you think and feel. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and runs from the brain stem to part of the colon in effect making the connection. The biggest influence on the levels of activity of the vagus nerve are the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut. The vagus nerve is able to sense the microbe activity and effectively transfer this gut information to the nervous system and ultimately the brain. Watch this 2-minute video that shows how this works.

Scientists refer to the relationship between the gut and the brain as the “gut brain axis”. The brain sends chemical signals to the gut through the bloodstream, one such example is the feeling of being full or hungry. But and this is the interesting part – the stomach talks back; gut bacteria send messages in the same way the brain communicates using neurotransmission. Prior blog – The learning brain.

Exactly what the messages say depends on what you eat, a gut filled with fruit and vegetables will have different microbes to one that has just consumed a Big Mac. This is a very new area and most of the research has been completed on rats but there is already some evidence to suggest that junk food impairs memory.

Hopefully this gives you some idea as to the strong connection that exist between your stomach and your brain. We can now move on and consider what specific types of foods can help when learning.

These Ted talks are well worth watching if you want to find out more – Your Gut Microbiome: The most important organ you’ve never heard of (11m), and Mind-altering microbes: How the microbiome affects brain and behaviour (6m).

What to eat when studying

The first thing to say is that I am far from an expert on nutrition and so the focus here is more on the impact food has on mood, concentration, cognition and memory. Secondly, to give this some context it might be worth thinking about what you eat in the same way an athlete does. They pay close attention to their diet to make sure their body is in the best possible condition in order to compete because if not they are reducing their chances of success. However, a good diet is no substitute for the hard work they have to put in at the gym, you have to do both. Short video on how nutrition is key to sports performance.

Brain foods

  1. Apples, berries and Citrus – The British Journal of Nutrition published research in 2010 (The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition) indicating that consuming certain fruits such as berries, apple and citrus, that are rich in flavonoids can help improve memory and cognition.
  2. Dark chocolate – Research published in the Frontiers in Nutrition (Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids) found that dark chocolate which also contains flavonoids improved memory in both the short and long term. But remember many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats, and calories so it’s not all good news.
  3. Rosemary – Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology found that herbs such as rosemary and lavender impacted memory, with the scent of rosemary enhancing memory but lavender impairing it. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said ‘rosemary is for remembrance’.
  4. Oily fish and walnuts (omega 3) – There is a much-published connection between omega three and the improvement in learning and memory. However, many of these claims are exaggerated to promote a particular type of food or brand with most having such small doses to make little or no difference. There is some evidence published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found people who ate more seafood, which naturally contains omega 3, had reduced rates of decline in semantic memory. But there is little evidence to show that supplements work at all. The best advice is to eat fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet but don’t expect your exam results to improve by that much.
  5. Fruit and vegetables – A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University in April 2012 found an association between consuming fruit and vegetables and being in a positive mood.
  6. Water – Despite being the least exciting of them all, water remains one of the best ways in which you can improve brain functionality. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied 101 participants to see if low water consumption impacted cognition. The result was those who had reduced amounts of water experienced poor memory, reduced energy levels and feelings of anxiety, but those drinking water experienced the opposite.

The evidence on specific foods and its impact on cognition and learning is complex and nuanced. However the connection between the stomach and the brain although still in its early stages has greater potential to lead us to a better understanding as to what we should eat to improve our mental wellbeing.

In the meantime, the best advice is to think about how your diet impacts you personally, identify when you feel best studying is it before a meal or after, pay attention to snacking and of course drink lots of water, eat your greens, all as part of a balanced diet.

Brain overload

Have you ever felt that you just can’t learn anymore, your head is spinning, your brain must be full? And yet we are told that the brains capacity is potentially limitless, made up of around 86 billion neurons.

To understand why both of these may be true, we have to delve a little more into how the brain learns or to be precise how it manages information. In a previous blog I outlined the key parts of the brain and discussed some of the implications for learning – the learning brain, but as you might imagine this is a complex subject, but I should add a fascinating one.

Cognitive load and schemas

Building on the work of George (magic number 7) Miller and Jean Paget’s development of schemas, in 1988 John Sweller introduced us to cognitive load, the idea that we have a limit to the amount of information we can process.

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time

Human memory can be divided into working memory and long-term memory. Working memory also called short term memory is limited, only capable of holding 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at any one time, hence the magic number 7, but long-term memory has arguably infinite capacity.

The limited nature of working memory can be highlighted by asking you to look at the 12 letters below. Take about 5 seconds. Look away from the screen and write down what you can remember on a blank piece of paper.

MBIAWTDHPIBF

Because there are more than 9 characters this will be difficult. 

Schemas – Information is stored in long-term memory in the form of schemas, these are frameworks or concepts that help organise and interpret new information. For example, when you think of a tree it is defined by a number of characteristics, its green, has a trunk and leaves at the end of branches, this is a schema. But when it comes to autumn, the tree is no longer green and loses its leaves, suggesting that this cannot be a tree. However, if you assimilate the new information with your existing schema and accommodate this in a revised version of how you think about a tree, you have effectively learned something new and stored it in long term memory. By holding information in schemas, when new information arrives your brain can very quickly identify if it fits within an existing one and in so doing enable rapid knowledge acquisition and understanding.

The problem therefore lies with working memory and its limited capacity, but if we could change the way we take in information, such that it doesn’t overload working memory the whole process will become more effective.

Avoiding cognitive overload

This is where it gets really interesting from a learning perspective. What can we do to avoid the brain becoming overloaded?

1. Simple first – this may sound like common sense, start with a simple example e.g. 2+2 = 4 and move towards the more complex e.g. 2,423 + 12,324,345. If you start with a complex calculation the brain will struggle to manipulate the numbers or find any pattern.

2. Direct Instruction not discovery – although there is significant merit in figuring things out for yourself, when learning something new it is better to follow guided instruction (teacher led) supported by several examples, starting simple and becoming more complex (as above). When you have created your own schema, you can begin to work independently.

3. Visual overload – a presentation point, avoid having too much information on a page or slide, reveal each part slowly. The secret is to break down complexity into smaller segments. This is the argument for not having too much content all on one page, which is often the case in textbooks. Read with a piece of paper or ruler effectively underlining the words you are reading, moving the paper down revealing a new line at a time.

4. Pictures and words (contiguity) – having “relevant” pictures alongside text helps avoid what’s called split attention. This is why creating your own notes with images as well as text when producing a mind map works so well.

5. Focus, avoid distraction (coherence) – similar to visual overload, remove all unnecessary images and information, keep focused on the task in hand. There may be some nice to know facts, but stick to the essential ones.

6. Key words (redundancy) – when reading or making notes don’t highlight or write down exactly what you read, simplify the sentence, focusing on the key words which will reduce the amount of input.

7. Use existing schemas – if you already have an understanding of a topic or subject, it will be sat within a schema, think how the new information changes your original understanding.

Remember the 12 characters from earlier, if we chunk them into 4 pieces of information and link to an existing schema, you will find it much easier to remember. Here are the same 12 characters chunked down.

FBI – TWA – PHD – IBM

Each one sits within an existing schema e.g. Federal Bureau of Investigation etc, making it easier for the brain to learn the new information.

Note – the above ideas are based on Richard E. Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning.

In conclusion

Understanding more about how the brain works, in particular how to manage some of its limitations as is the case with short term memory not only makes learning more efficient but also gives you confidence that how your learning is the most effective.

Double entry bookkeeping replaced by internet

There is an interesting question being asked at the moment, given that fact-based knowledge is so accessible using the internet, is there a case for not teaching facts at all?

According to Don Tapscott, a consultant and speaker, who specialises in organisations and technology, memorising facts and figures is a waste of time because such information is readily available. It would be far better to teach students to think creatively so that they can learn to interpret and apply the knowledge they discover online.

“Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge, the internet is”
Don Tapscott

Is this the solution for educators with an over full curriculum, the result of having to continually add new content to ensure their qualification remains relevant and topical? Perhaps they can remove facts and focus on skills development? After all its skills that matter, knowing is useful but it’s the ability to apply that really matters …right?

What makes you an accountant

When you start to learn about finance, you will be taught a number of underpinning foundational subjects including, law, economics, costing and of course basic accounting. Sat stubbornly within the accounting section will be double entry bookkeeping. This axiom is fiercely protected by the finance community such that if anyone questions its value or challenges its relevance they will be met with pure contempt. And yet, is the knowledge as to how you move numbers around following a hugely simple rule i.e. put a number on one side and an equivalent on the other of any use in a world where most accounting is performed by computers and sophisticated algorithms? I am sure there will be similar examples from other professions and industries. The challenge being, do doctors really need to understand basic anatomy or lawyers read cases dating back to 1892?

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

But Knowledge is power

Daniel T. Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author of a number of books including, why students don’t like school. His early research was on the brain, learning and memory but more recently he has focused on the application of cognitive psychology in K-16 education.

Willingham argues that knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. How knowledge Helps.

Knowledge is cumulative – the more you know the more you can learn. Individual chunks of knowledge will stick to new knowledge because what you already know provides context and so aids comprehension. For example, knowing the definition of a bond ‘a fixed income instrument that represents a loan made by an investor to a borrower (prior knowledge), enables the student to grasp the idea that anything fixed has to be paid by the company (the lender) regardless of its profitability and this is the reason debt is considered risky. (new knowledge)

Knowledge helps you remember – the elaboration effect has featured in a previous blog. In essence it suggests that the brain finds it easier to remember something if it can be associated with existing information. Using the same example from above, it is easier to remember that bonds are risky if you already knew what a bond was.

Knowledge improves thinking – there are two reasons for this, firstly it helps with problem solving. Imagine you have a problem to solve, if you don’t have sufficient background knowledge, understanding the problem can consume most of your working memory leaving no space for you to consider solutions. This argument is based on the understanding that we have limited capacity in working memory (magic number 7) and so to occupy it with grasping the problem at best slows down the problem-solving process, but at worse might result in walking away with no solution. Secondly knowledge helps speed up problem solving and thinking. People with prior knowledge are better at drawing analogies as they gain experience in a domain. Research by Bruce Burns in 2004 compared the performance of top chess players at normal and blitz tournaments. He found that what was making some players better than others is differences in the speed of recognition, not faster processing skills. Players who had knowledge of prior games where far quicker in coming up with moves than those who were effectively solving the problem from first principle. Chess speed at least has a lot to do with the brain recognising pre learned patterns.

Skills are domain specific – not transferable

There is one other important lesson from an understanding of knowledge – skills are domain specific. The implication being that teaching “transferable skills” e.g. skills that can be used in different areas, communication, critical thinking etc doesn’t work. A skill (Merriam Webster) is the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance. The argument being that in order to use knowledge effectively, it needs to be in a specific domain.
In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools that wanted to find out if playing chess would improve maths. The hypothesis was that the logical and systematic processes involved in being a good chess player would help students better understand maths i.e. the skills would transfer. The conclusion however found there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those having regular chess classes and the control group.

Long live double entry bookkeeping

This is an interesting topic and open to some degree of interpretation and debate but it highlights the difficult path curriculum designers have to tread when it comes to removing the old to make space for the new. In addition there is a strong argument to suggest that core principles and foundational knowledge are essential prerequisites for efficient learning.
But whatever happens, we need to keep double entry bookkeeping, not because knowing that every debit has a credit is important but it helps structure a way of thinking and problem solving that has enabled finance professional to navigate significant complexity and change since Luca Pacioli allegedly invented it in 1494.

And the case from 1893 – Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company

The independent learner – Metacognition

Metacognition is not a great word but it’s an important one when it comes to learning, especially if you are studying at higher academic levels or on your own. Cognition refers to the range of mental processes that help you acquire knowledge and understanding or more simply, learn. These processes include the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information. Meta on the other hand means higher than or overarching, put the two together and we are talking about something that sits above learning, connecting it by way of thought. For this reason, it’s often described as thinking about thinking or in this context thinking about how you learn.

Smarter not harder

When you have a lot to learn in terms of subject matter it may feel like a distraction to spend any time learning something other than what you must know, let alone reflecting on it, but this fits under the heading of working smarter not harder, if you can find more effective ways of learning that must be helpful.
As mentioned earlier cognition is about mental processes, storage and retrieval relate to memory, manipulation, to the shifting of attention, changing perception etc. But the meta aspect creates distance, allowing us to become aware of what we are doing, standing back and observing how for example perception has changed, this reflection is a high-level skill that many believe is unique to humans. One final aspect is that we can take control of how we learn, planning tasks, changing strategies, monitoring those that work and evaluating the whole process.

Keeping it simple

Its very easy to overcomplicate metacognition, in some ways its little more than asking a few simple questions, thinking about how you are learning, what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some examples as to how you might do this.

  • Talk to yourself, ask questions at each stage, does this make sense, I have read it several times maybe I should try writing it down.
  • Ask, have I set myself sensible goals?
  • Maybe it’s time to try something different, for example mind mapping, but remember to reflect on how effective it was or perhaps was not.
  • Do I need help from anyone, this could be a fellow student or try YouTube which is a great way to find a different explanation in a different format?

Clearly these skills are helpful for all students but they are especially valuable when studying on your own perhaps on a distance learning programme or engaged in large periods of self-study.

Benefits

There are many reasons for investing some time in this area.

  • Growing self-confidence – by finding out more about how you learn you will discover both your strengths and weaknesses. Confidence isn’t about being good at everything but understanding your limitations.  
  • Improves performance – research has shown that students who actively engage in metacognition do better in exams.
  • Gives control – you are no longer reliant on the way something is taught; you have the ability to teach yourself. Being an autonomous learner is also hugely motivational.
  • The skills are transferable – this knowledge will not only help with your current subjects but all that follow, not to mention what you will need to learn in the workplace.  

It will take some time initially but, in a way, metacognition is part of learning, it’s an essential component and as such you will end up knowing more about yourself at some point, even if you don’t want to, so why not do it sooner rather than later.

And just for fun – Sheldon knows everything about himself – even when he is wrong

Dont worry, Be happy

It’s so easy for well-meaning people to say don’t worry, it’s not bad advice it’s just not very helpful. Firstly, as I have mentioned in previous blogs anything framed as a don’t is difficult for the brain to process. Far better to tell someone what to do than tell them what not.

Secondly If you look up a definition of worry it will say something like, “thinking about problems or unpleasant events that you don’t want to happen but might, in a way that makes you feel unhappy and or frightened.” What a strange concept, why would anyone want to do this?

Having started but I hasten to add not yet finished the second of Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling books Homo Deus, it’s hard not to question the reason we might have evolved to hold such a strange view. What possible evolutionary purpose could feeling bad or frightened serve?

Don’t worry be happy, In every life we have some trouble. When you worry you make it double.

Worry can be helpful
The truth is worry can be helpful, it’s a means by which the brain can help you prioritises events. It’s not a nice feeling but ultimately humans have evolved to survive and reproduce, they are not meant to be vehicles for happiness. Think of all that goes through your head in a day, the words, the emotions, the noise. How can you possibly figure out what is important and what is not unless you have a little help? Worry does just that, it helps us think about an event in the future that might happen, this heightened focus puts it above the events of the day giving us a chance to do something about it.

Action is worry’s worst enemy – Proverb

Worry, stress and anxiety
Worry tends to be specific; I am worried that I won’t be able to pass the maths exam on the 23rd of September. Worry is future based, it anticipates a problem that has not yet happened, the main reason is to make you do something about it today. Stress on the other hand is relatively short term and arises when the gap between what you need to do and are able to isn’t enough. For example, I haven’t got time to learn everything I need to pass this exam, there is just too much to learn. After the event, the stress level will fall. Anxiety is the big brother of them both, it is far more general than worry, for example, I am not very clever and never have been. You’re not really sure what cleverness is, but you’re still able to be anxious about it. Both stress and worry can lead to anxiety if they are intense or go on for too long.

Worry can wake you in the night, asking your brain to solve the problem. However, unless fully awake It’s unlikely you will be able to do so, instead you will simply turn the problem over in your head again and again and deprive yourself of that all-important sleep. Best put it to the back of your mind if possible, think of something else, the problem will feel less important in the morning and after a good night’s sleep you will be far more able to solve it.

It helps to write down half a dozen things which are worrying me. Two of them, say, disappear; about two of them nothing can be done, so it’s no use worrying; and two perhaps can be settled – Winston Churchill

What to worry about
The human mind is so creative it’s possible for it to worry about almost anything. As one worry is resolved another can appear.

  • Don’t know what to do – where do I start, what should I learn first
  • Don’t know how to do it – how can I get this into my head, what is the best way of learning?
  • Don’t know if I can do it, self-doubt – I am not clever enough. This can lead to anxiety.
  • Don’t know how long it will take, what if I don’t have enough time?

One technique to change these from unknowns to possibilities is to follow the advice of Carol Dweck who suggests you add a word to the end of the sentence – the word is YET. For example, I don’t know what to do YET! Although this may seem trivial it moves the worry from unsolvable to something that if you spend time on can be achieved.

The list of “dont knows” are all triggers to help motivate you, they are calls to action, the only way to reduce the worry is to do something, even if as Churchill suggest you make a simple list. However, there are situations when you can’t take action or at least not an obvious one, perhaps when waiting for exam results. It might seem that all you can do is worry. The bad news is, putting yourself in what can feel like a permanent state of worry can result in anxiety and won’t turn that fail into a pass. But all is not lost, planning for the worst whilst hoping for the best is sensible, coming up with a plan that is achievable can remove the pressure, leaving the feeling that even if you do fail there is a way forward and you can do something about it.

We can end with another quote from Winston Churchill who I am sure had a few worries in his time.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning

The learning brain

Brain 5

There are a number of books that not only taught me something but helped shape the way I think and opened up a whole new world. One such book was Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter, not as you might imagine a book about mind mapping but the Brain. Rita Carter is a science journalist rather than a neuroscientist and understands that it’s not about what she knows but what she can explain.

Having a better understanding of how the brain works will help do far more than improve your grades in a biology exam, you will develop insight as to why something works not only that it does. As a result, you can be confident you are using the most effective brain friendly learning techniques.

The infrastructure Brain 2
Rita Carter provides us with an excellent description of the brain, that it is as big as a coconut, the shape of a walnut, the colour of uncooked liver and consistency of firm jelly.

Imagine a cross section of the brain, taken from the side, alternatively look at the diagram opposite.

The cerebrum or cortex is the largest part of the human brain and is associated with higher brain function such as thought and action. It is divided into four sections.

  • Frontal lobe – associated with reasoning, planning, some speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving
  • Parietal Lobe – associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
  • Occipital Lobe – associated with visual processing
  • Temporal Lobe – associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

The cerebellum coordinates movements such as posture, balance, and speech. Next to this is the brain stem, which includes the medulla and pons. These are the older parts of the brain and evolved over 500 million years ago. In fact, if you touch the back of your head and bring your hand forward over the top towards your nose, this effectively maps the ages in which the brain developed.

The Limbic system is largely associated with emotions but contains the hippocampus which is essential for long term memory and learning.

Synaptic gap – Cells that fire together wire together (Hebbian theory)
Although learning is complex, a large amount takes place in the limbic system because this is where the hippocampus sits. Here our memories are catalogued to be filed away in long-term storage across other parts of the cerebral cortex.

What comes next is important because it’s here within the hippocampus where neurons connect across what is called the synaptic gap that learning arguably begins. Synaptic transmission is the process whereby a neuron sends an electrical message, the result of a stimulus across the synaptic gap to another neuron that is waiting to receive it. The neuron’s never touch, the gap is filled by chemicals referred to as neurotransmitters examples of which include dopamine and serotonin. These are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers.

Learning is making new connections, remembering is keeping them

When the stimulus is repeated the relationship between the neurons becomes stronger and so a memory is formed and learning has taken place. The whole process is called long term potentiation (LTP).

How does this help?
All a bit technical perhaps but very important as it explains so much. It is the reason that repetition is so valuable, for example, if you are reading something and it’s not going in, you need to fire those neurons again but perhaps using different stimulus. Try saying it out loud or drawing a picture alongside the text.

Don’t forget the blog I wrote in January 2018 that explained brain plasticity and how the brain changes as those new neural connections are made, a process called Neurogenesis.

The neurotransmitters, those chemicals released to fill the synaptic gap are also important as each one is different. For example, in addition to making you feel good, it’s likely that when you feel anxious your brain is releasing high levels of serotonin.

Although it’s fair to say there is still much we don’t understand about the brain, I  hope the blog has helped remove some of the mystery of learning, it’s not a magical process but a scientific one.

learn more

Dedicated to my dog Jack – our family dog and best friend

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.