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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Making complex simple – the measure of a great teacher.

solve-the-equationRichard Feynman who featured in last months blog was known as the great explainer. This skill was possible because of two key qualities, the first, an intense curiosity and desire to understand the subject incredibly well and secondly, he could make what was complex seem simple. These are of course not mutually exclusive, deep understanding is the foundation on which simplicity is built.

There was a time when getting access to knowledge was a barrier to learning. After all, how could you learn if you didn’t have the books from which to do it? But we no longer have this problem, knowledge is abundant, it is literally at the end of your fingertips.

The world’s knowledge is just waiting for you to ask the right question. But how can you tell if what your reading is shallow and without thought or deep and profound?

Jardins principle
In 1997 I read an article in the Financial Times written by Rob Eastaway, an English author whose books on everyday maths include Why Do Buses Come in Threes? and The Hidden Maths of Sport. For some reason the concept he outlined always stayed with me, sufficient that I wanted to track it down, which I have managed to do.

Jardin’s Principle as explained by Rob Eastaway. If you are trying to understand any subject or system, your level of understanding will pass through three stages. To start with, the way that you see and describe a system (subject) will be simplistic i.e. over-simplified, then it will become complicated but ultimately it will become simple again. He goes on to add that there are three other words that fit in with this idea, Obvious, Sophisticated and Profound.

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler – Albert Einstein

Simple – Complex – Profound
As with all ideas there is more to it, below are what Rob refers to as the 5 caveats. I have added in my own thoughts and observations to some of them.

1. It is hard to differentiate between what is ‘simple and profound’ and what is ‘simplistic and obvious’. This is one of the main problems with a process of reduction, for example if you ask, what is the meaning of life you might be given the answer 42. The problem is in knowing if this is just two numbers written down, snatched out of the air or the correct answer, the result of hundreds of thousands of calculations undertaken over 200 years by the most sophisticated computer in the world?

2. Those at the ‘sophisticated/complicated’ level believe that there is no higher level than theirs – in other words you have to be sophisticated to understand fully. This is a clever observation on human nature, it suggests that some people believe you cannot fully appreciate a concept or idea unless you look at it through the lens of complexity. They effectively give up looking for a simpler perspective, because they don’t know one even exists.

3. You are probably wrong about the level of Jardin that you are at. An example perhaps of fish not seeing water.

4. In order to reach the profound level of understanding you usually pass through the other two levels first. This is my favourite because it shows that the route to simplicity is not easy and requires time and effort. You have to revisit your understanding many times before your brain springs into action with the blindingly obvious.

5. Unless you have a profound understanding of a subject, you will either over-complicate or over-simplify it. Perfect…..

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. – Steve Jobs

Great teaching  – Taking something that is complicated and making it appear simple is in many ways the essence of great teaching. Breaking down a subject into easily understood bite sized chunks of information or capturing the whole concept in one single leap by use of a metaphor or simple story is genius. But the process of getting to these pearls of wisdom involves wading through the mire of complexity in some instances for many years before the obvious reveals itself.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Rob had actually made this theory up, he didn’t want to put his own name to it so chose the French word for garden in homage to the Peter Sellers film, Being There, about a simple gardener who becomes US President.

Rob you ask, will it ever stick, maybe you should call it Eastaways folly instead.

The simple Mr Feynman

Feynman

Richard Phillips Feynman was co-awarded the Nobel prize for Physics in 1965 for successfully resolving problems related to the theory of quantum electrodynamics.  No, I’m not sure what that means either. If that was not enough he also helped build the atom bomb, being part of the Manhattan project, and following the Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986 he was the person largely credited with figuring out why it happened.

In fact, Richard Feynman is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential theoretical physicists in history. His physics lectures have become world famous. Here is one on the Law of Gravitation.

“I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.”

Richard Feynman

He was intensely curious and believed that unless you could explain a concept or idea in simple terms you really didn’t understand it. In this clip Feynman was asked by his father to explain where a photon comes from – listen for his metaphor.

The Feynman technique

Richard Feynman was worried that a lot of people thought they knew something when in fact they only had a superficial grasp of the subject matter.

“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Richard P. Feynman

Such was his concern that he created a process to help take an individual’s knowledge to a far deeper and more fundamental level, it’s called the Feynman Technique.

Step 1: Take a sheet of paper and write the name of the concept, topic or subject you would like to learn.

Step 2: Explain the concept in your own words as if you were teaching someone else – see also Protege effect.  Imagine your pupil is a small child, this will help focus your mind on plain, simple language. Don’t limit your explanation to definitions or overviews, challenge yourself, and include lots of examples, which as mentioned in earlier blogs is a great way of making sure you have understood it.

Step 3: Review your explanation and identify the gaps. These might be areas where you simply didn’t have the necessary knowledge or your explanation was weak. Once you have done this go back to your notes or textbook, re-learn the subject matter and add what you have learned to your sheet of paper, then repeat step 2.

“The first person you should be careful not to fool is yourself. Because you are the easiest person to fool”.”

 Richard Feynman

Step 4: Review again and remove technical or overly complex terms, think, “how can I say this more simply?” Also put your notes into an order that flows easily, this might involve rewriting large sections and even starting again with a clean piece of paper, but thats all part of the process. One final tip, as with step 2, it often helps to read out loud.

And that’s it!

I am not saying that if you follow this technique you will win a Nobel prize or be able to play the bongos, another skill that Feynman was famous for, but it will certainly deepen your understanding of the subject, and that’s not a bad start is it!

Richard Feynman: “The Great Explainer” click for an interesting  10-minute summary of his career in science.

The Protege effect – Learning by Teaching

Protege

The Protege effect states that the best way to learn is to teach someone else. Students develop a better understanding and retain knowledge longer than those who study in more traditional ways. The Roman philosopher Seneca put it even more simply ‘While we teach, we learn’.

The method, also called learning by teaching was originally developed by Jean-Pol Martin in the 1980s. Click to watch a short video.

 

There are many theories written about learning and education but the ones that are always most powerful for me are those that you can evidence in some way from your own experiences or from the experiences of others whose opinion you value. And I would be very surprised if any of my teaching colleagues would disagree with the basic concept that no matter how much you think you know about a subject or topic, the very process of teaching always offers up new thoughts and insights, deepening your understanding.

The teacher might be the student

The argument hinges on the relationship between a teacher and learner. Traditionally the teacher is the expert who provides knowledge, the learner the one who receives it, but the teacher need not be the person who stands at the front of class, the teacher can be the student and the student the teacher.

This role reversal is not as odd as it at first might seem, a good teacher will always listen to the answer a student gives in order to evaluate their own performance. And if you think of it like that, who is teaching who?

But how does it work? Imagine you were asked to teach a subject to others in your peer group. Knowing you were going to have to explain a topic will increase your level of engagement with the learning materials. In addition, reflection will be far deeper as you continually ask, does this makes sense to me? This process of preparing, “prepping” is one of the reasons teaching improves learning but there are others. For example, the construction of the learning itself will require imagination and creativity, how exactly will I teach this subject?  It may be a simple verbal explanation, conversational even, or perhaps something more formal, requiring slides or additional illustrations. Once again you will be forced to reflect, possibly writing down some of your ideas and again asking questions, how long will it take, am I making myself clear, what questions could I be asked? Its at this stage that you may even find your understanding lacking, requiring you to go back over what you previously thought you knew.

There is research (Bargh and Schul 1980) to prove that preparing to teach in the belief that you will have to do so improves learning, however there is one final stage, the teaching itself.  In 1993 Coleman, Brown and Rivkin investigated the impact of actually teaching, eliminating the effects resulting from the interaction with students, their conclusions, that there was a significant improvement in performance of those that taught compared to the those who prepared but didn’t in the end teach.

In summary, although thinking you have to teach and going through the process to do so improves learning, following through with the actual teaching is even better.

Protege in practice

Bettys Brain (Vanderbilt University) – Bettys brain is a computer based, Teachable Agent that students can teach and in so doing learn. The students develop a visual map (A concept map) of their own knowledge, forcing them to organise their thoughts. There are resources available within the programme to help them develop a deeper undertesting of the subject. They then teach what they learned to Betty, who like any other student will face a test at the end. If she does not do well in the test it is a reflection of the quality of the teacher or perhaps more precisely their understanding of the subject.

Click here for more details

Lessons for students – This is not a plea for students to pair up and teach each other, as good an idea as this might be. It is a hope that by explaining why teaching helps you learn, it gives an insight into how we all learn. For example, it highlights that reflection, i.e. thinking back on what you know is so important, it shows that high levels of concentration are required, the result of knowing you will have to explain concepts and ideas to others, and it offers up some evidence as to why talking out loud as you do when presenting, consolidates learning.

A few other takeaways, why not imagine you have to teach the subject you are learning and study with a “teaching mindset”. Preparing notes as if you are going to teach, crafting ideas as to how you might explain it to others. Get involved in group discussions, try to answer other student questions as they might answer yours.

Oh, and don’t always assume that the person in front of you fully grasps what they are saying, they are still learning as well.

 

 

 

 

Boring is interesting

One of the reasons a subject might be difficult to learn is because its just very boring…….but is any subject really boring?

boredom11

Why do we get bored?

Firstly, we should define what boredom is, surprisingly for something that many people have experienced and therefore feel they know, definitions are a little vague, for example, from the dictionary we have, “the feeling of being bored by something tedious”, which is not particularly helpful. If we dig a little deeper we find “the aversive experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity” or put another way, what you are currently doing is not sufficiently stimulating such that your mind will wander looking for a more satisfying alternative task.

The brain is in effect searching for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control your reward and pleasure centres. The implication being that the task you are currently involved with is not delivering enough dopamine for you to continue with it. There is some evidence to show that people with low levels of dopamine production may get bored easily, continually looking for new and more stimulating activities. This so called “trait boredom” has been linked to dropping out of school, higher levels of anxiety, gambling and alcohol/drug abuse.

Boredom is an emotion often brought on by routine, monotonous and repetitive work that has little perceived value.

The opposite of boredom is engagement

On the basis that being bored is not a particularly good emotion when it comes to learning we should look to change it by becoming more engaged. One small but important point before we move on, being bored is not completely without its uses, watch this TED lecture – How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas, presented by Manoush Zomorodi. In this Manoush argues that because the brain is searching for stimulation when bored, it can lead to increased creativity and great ideas.

An interesting way of thinking of engagement is that it’s what you see when someone is motivated.  This is important if you want to pass an exam because there is evidence (Wang & Eccles, 2012a) to show that students who are engaged are more likely to do well in examinations and aspire to higher education.

But what to do?

  • Recognise that you are feeling bored. This is the first step because if you don’t know your bored its easy to build up a deep dislike for the subject, and when you do that the answer becomes easy. It’s not my fault, it’s the subject that’s boring.
  • Your subject needs to be meaningful. Students often say, “I will never use what I have to learn.” This is of course an opinion; the truth is you simply don’t know. I can still remember thinking I would never need to understand the Capital Asset Pricing Model (a formula used in Financial Management to calculate shareholder returns) little did I know one day I would actually teach it.
  • Be curious, keep thinking, “that’s interesting”. Nothing is really boring it’s only the way you are looking at it. Curiosity is a state of mind that fortunately has is no cure.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.    Ellen Parr

  • Make it fun or turn the activity into a game.  There is no doubt that during your studies there will be a need to rote learn information and because this is a repetitive task it can be boring. But if you break up what you have to learn into bite size chunks and turn it into a game with rewards e.g. if I learn these 4 definitions by 6.00 I can finish for the day, you will be amazed how much easier it can become.
  • Find people who are engaged and ask them to explain what they see, why do they find it interesting. This might be necessary if your teacher or lecturer fails to bring the subject to life, fails to engage you in the subject. Interest and engagement are contagious, unfortunately so is boredom.
  • Its too easy – its too hard. Your boredom might come from the fact that what your learning is basic, if so ask for more advanced work, I know that sounds counter intuitive but you will benefit in the long run. And if its too hard, speak to your teacher, they will be able to help. This is an example of taking control, often boredom strikes when you feel there is nothing you can do, sitting waiting for a train that has been delayed. By taking some form of control e.g. checking alternative routes home, the boredom will pass.

And if you want to find out more

Why Do We Get Bored? 

On the Function of Boredom

The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention