Concentration – the war in the brain


One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.

But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.

The war in the brain

Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention a is a limited resource so how we use it is important.

Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.

The problem is that these maps change based on how “relevant” the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!

The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.

The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And its made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.

The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!

Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.

How to improve concentration  

Some of the methods below will seem obvious and there is of course no magic bullet, however because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.

  1. Reduce distraction –  if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
  2. Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goal and don’t make them too ambitious.
  3. Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include, deep breathing, click this video its very helpful, and of course exercise which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
  4. Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours for example playing video games can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.

And if you would like to find out more watch these:


What’s the use of lectures?

Robot lecturerThe title of this month’s blog is not mine but taken from what many would consider a classic book about what can realistically be achieved by someone stood at the front of a classroom or lecture theatre, simply talking. Written some 25 years ago but updated recently Donald A. Bligh’s book takes 346 pages to answer the question, what’s the use of lectures?

What makes this book interesting is the amount of research it brings to bear on a topic some consider an art form and so not easily measured or assessed.

With many in Higher education questioning what they get for their £9,250 per annum, and contact time being one way of measuring value, it’s as important a question as ever.

For clarity, we should define what we mean by lecturing, as ever Wikipedia can help –  A lecture (from the French meaning ‘reading’) is an oral presentation intended to deliver information or teach people about a particular subject.

What should happen in a lecture?

If you’re a student attending a lecture you would hope to learn something, however as many of my past blogs have discussed, learning is a complicated process and so we may need to break this question down a little further by asking, what should a lecture actually achieve?

A lecture should….

  • Transmit information
  • Promote thought,
  • Maybe change opinion or attitude
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Help you be able to do something i.e. develop a behavioural skill

Well here is the bad news, according to Mr Bligh, a lecture is only really good for one of the above, to transmit information. And it’s not even better than many other methods e.g. reading, it’s simply as effective, but no more.

Promoting thought, changing opinions

Lectures are relatively passive whereas a discussion requires that people listen, translate what is said into their own words, check if it makes sense with what is already understood, construct a sentence in response etc. In effect, a discussion is far more effective than a lecture in developing thought.

In addition, putting the student in a situation where they have to think is important, for example by giving them a problem or asking a question as is the case when you have to answer a past exam question for example. A discussion can also help change opinions, especially where you can hear other people’s views, often different to your own. It has a longer-term impact when the group comes to a consensus.

Inspiration and motivation

Bligh also argues that on the whole lectures are not an effective means of inspiring or motivating. He suggests that it should certainly be the objective of the lecturer to try, it’s just they rarely succeed. I find myself slightly disagreeing, lecturers can be inspirational, and yet maybe this is just my personal bias from having watched Sir Ken deliver his “do schools kill creativity“  or the last lecture delivered by Randy Paush.

But perhaps, these are just the exceptions that prove the rule.

Developing skills

And finally, if you want to help people become good at a particular behaviour, you don’t tell them how to do it, you get them to practice, over and over again, with good feedback.

The end of the lecture?

I don’t think this is the end of the lecture, these criticisms have been around for many years. But I can’t help thinking that with new technologies and online learning, lectures are going to have to get a whole lot better in the future.

And what will Universities point to as value for money then?



The 5 top EdTech trends – summer of 2017

Glastonbury a marginally more interesting gathering….but only just.

We are in the season when many learning and technology leaders gather to discuss what’s new and what’s trending in the world of education. And at two recent conferences, Learning Technologies and EdTechXEurope there was plenty to see. Generally, the role of technology in learning seems to have found its place with many acknowledging it should support learning not drive it. However it’s still very easy to look at the latest shiny new offerings and think, this is great how can I use it, rather than, what learning problem does it solve.

Here are a few of the most notable developments.

1. Video is getting even better – fuelled by the YouTube generation of learners, those who would rather watch a video than read a book as a means to consume knowledge, we have some new developments.

Firstly, using video to deliver micro learning.  Not just small chunks of video but untethered, JIT, 3 minute courses that offer the learner digestible easy to remember information. Think of micro learning as a series of very short courses that could be linked to each other or not, and can even include assessment.

Secondly, interactive video. TV is no longer the all commanding medium it once was, it like other technologies has had to evolve. In recent years the shift has been towards better engagement, offering spin off programmes where there is a live audience, web sites that showcase the backstory to the characters and programmes that require the audience to vote and so influence events. Now we have interactive video, where the individual can choose what they would do and so change the future. Check out this amazing example, used by Deloitte to attract new talent.

2. Gamification is becoming better understood. For the uninitiated gamification is the use of game based principles to improve motivation, concentration and more effective learning. Gamification uses Points (P) as a measure of reward, Badges (B) as a visual record of success, and leader boards (L) to create competition.

We now believe Dopamine, the pleasure induced neurotransmitter (chemical) is not created as a result of a reward e.g. by being given a badge, it is the challenge and subsequent achievement that releases the dopamine which in turn leads to pleasure. This might seem obvious, with hindsight, no one gets pleasure from being top of a leader board, if they did nothing to get there.  In addition, dopamine is released when you have a new experience, so think about changing pathways, setting different questions and tasks, it’s certainly not very motivational to go over the same content again.

3. Information overload is leading to a need for Knowledge Curation – we are living in an age where  information is abundant. You can learn anything from the internet. But there lies the problem, we have too much information, we suffer from information overload. Curation is the collecting and sorting of meaningful content around a theme, and it is now in some instances being thought of as more valuable than the content itself.

Arguably curation is not so much about what you curate and share but what you don’t share. In addition to the organisation of content the curators need to have an expertise in the subject and an understanding of their audience and what they want.

Steven Rosenbaum in his book Curation Nation, offers up a good summary. “Curation replaces noise with clarity. And it’s the clarity of your choosing; it’s the things that people you trust help you find.”

4. The market is becoming more accepting of user generated content (UGC) – organisations are beginning to see the benefits of UGC for a whole host of reasons. It’s a very fast way of generating content, there is a lot of expertise that can be uncovered by allowing individuals to share what they know, it’s often user friendly, and importantly its cheap. It is of course not perfect, and there are concerns about quality, but by allowing the users to rate the content, the quality might just look after itself.

5. Virtual reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial intelligence (AI) – not that these are all related, but just a simple way of me summarising three areas to keep an eye on in the not too distant future. All of these technologies are becoming cheaper, largely because of the investment made and experience being gained in the gaming industry.

By way of a footnote Google have released an open source software called Tensorflow which can help with machine learning, something that they believe will help drive new initiatives in AI.

Putting the context into case study


I am still reading Sensemaking by Christian Madsbjerg and as I always tend to do I have been trying to reduce the 216 pages down to something that is both meaningful and memorable. The rational for this is that if I can summarise the essence of what is being said into a single statement, then my level of understanding is reasonably good, and it makes it easier for me to use what I have learned in other situations.

So here goes, if I was to summarise what Sensemaking is all about, in one word it would be..….Context. In essence, in a world of complexity and abundance of information we are in danger of thinking that the “fact” we see on our computer screen, offered up by a search engine, driven by an algorithm is the truth, when in reality it’s only one version of it. Without the context from which this information came we are fooling ourselves as to its true meaning.

As a result of this discovery, I wondered into an area I  have wanted to write about before, the importance context plays in changing what something means, especially in examinations. Getting the meaning wrong could be the reason you fail the exam rather than pass it.  Even objective tests will have some form of context setting just before the actual question. But the type of exam where you are most likely to have a problem with context, is a case study.

Jokes play with context

A hamburger and a french fry walk into a bar.

The bartender says, “I’m sorry we don’t serve food here

The importance of context in case study

I have written about case studies before, “passing case study by thinking in words,” but focussed more on the process of how you think and write rather than how you interpret the information presented.  Case studies are becoming an increasingly popular way of assessing a student’s ability to apply knowledge from several different subjects (synoptic) in the context of a real-life situation.  This shift towards case studies is understandable given the need for improved employability skills. Here is a great story to illustrate how context changes the decision you would make or as often in a case study, the advise you would give.

A battleship had been at sea on its routine manoeuvres under heavy weathers for days. The captain, who was worried about the deteriorating weather conditions, stayed on the bridge to keep an eye on all activities.

One night, the lookout on the bridge suddenly shouted, “Captain! A light, bearing on the starboard bow.”

“Is it stationary or moving astern?” the captain asked.

The lookout replied that it was stationary. This meant a collision would result unless something changed. The captain immediately ordered a signal to be sent to the other ship: “We are on a collision course. I advise you to change course 20 degrees east.”

Back came a response from the other ship: “advise you change your course 20 degrees west.”

Agitated by the arrogance of the response, the captain asked his signalman to shoot out another message: “I am the captain of one of the most powerful battleships in the British navy, you change course 20 degrees east now.”

Back came the second response: “I am a second-class seaman, you had still better change course 20 degrees west.”

The captain was furious this time! He shouted to the signalman to send back a final message: Change course 20 degrees east right now or you will leave me no choice!

Back came the flashing response: “I am a lighthouse – your move.”

How to deal with context

It is easy even in the example above to think you know what is going to happen or what you would do. But when the context is revealed, your advice fundamentally changes. Case studies are created to see how well you respond in certain situations, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions.

And this is where sensemaking plays its part, use your senses, don’t just look at what is there, think in opposites, what is not there, what’s missing? Use visualisation, see yourself in that situation, look around, free up your thoughts, what do you see now? But most of all, be curious, ask questions of the scenario, how big is the ship, how long has the captain been in charge, what is the weather like, are there others close by?

Another excellent tool to use in these situations is called perceptual positions. Think of the event from different positions, firstly yours, what does the event look like through your eyes, secondly, the other person(s), what would you do if you were them, and thirdly what would the event look like if someone was looking in, observing both parties.

Case studies in the future will become even more sophisticated. Virtual reality offers up so many opportunities to create real world environments in which to tests students. And when that happens, you will definitely need to use all of your senses to get you through – take a look at this 360 VR surgical training, amazing.

And one last joke

Thomas Edison walks into a bar and orders a beer.

The bartender says, “Okay, I’ll serve you a beer, just don’t get any ideas.”







Sensemaking, humility and the humanities


For a variety of reasons, I have been engaged this month in thinking not so much about examinations but what subjects should be examined.

Whilst the news has been dominated by terrorism, Trump and Brexit, we may be facing a far bigger problem, of which these news stories are a good example, how can we be sure of making the right decisions in a world of mass information, complexity and change.

People voted Brexit for a whole variety of reasons, many “facts” were presented in simple terms, we will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS, immigration will be reduced as we gain control over our borders. Yet these facts are far too simplistic, any level of analysis, critical thinking and challenge would have revealed the difficulty of delivering them, and in many instances they won’t be delivered. If this is the case, did people vote to leave, or stay not on the facts as presented but using other criteria, maybe they were just naive and placed far too much trust in Politicians or perhaps they had never been taught about sensemaking, humility or studied the humanities.


An interesting article caught my eye earlier in the month, “Silicon Valley needs to get schooled”. it was by Christian Madsbjeg, author of the book Sensemaking and senior partner in ReD, a strategy consulting company based on the human sciences. In the article Madsbjeg argues that the reason for a lack of new and exciting products from Silicon Valley is not because of a shortage of ideas but a complete failure to understand people.

In the book Sensemaking he expands on the problem. In order to cope with complexity, we look to science, logic and the algorithm (a rules based process) for a solution. On the face of it crunching big data so that it spews out the correct answer seems perfect, but, and this is a quote from the book, Madsbjeg makes a very important point, he says we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start to see them as the truth – the only truth”.  We are in fact looking at the numbers without the context of the world from which they came or a sufficiently deep understanding of the behaviours we are measuring.

We rely on science and the scientific method for so much of what we do but where people are involved we need a different approach. To put it another way “When human beings enter the equation, things go non-linear” Neil deGrasse.

Sensemaking is “how we make sense of the world so we can perform better in it”. It recognises that situations are complex and information ambiguous. It requires people to make a continuous effort to understand the connectivity that exists between people, places, and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act accordingly.


trumpwillwin-notextIntellectual humility as defined by the authors of a recent paper entitled, Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. It is in effect, recognising that you could be wrong. One of the findings from the research was that people who displayed intellectual humility were better than the control group at evaluating the quality of evidence they had been presented with. A very useful skill indeed, given the world of false news in which we currently find ourselves.


And what job will you get after studying History for three years……

The humanities (English, History, Philosophy etc) have been given a bad press in recent times. Overshadowed by the drive to develop coding skills and with the constant chanting of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the background, it’s not surprising that less people are studying them. They were at an all-time low in 2014 at 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees, a long way of the 1967 record of 17.2%.

But it is generally recognised that the humanities can teach us a lot. In another reference from Christian Madsbjeg’s book, Sensemaking, he suggests the humanities can teach us, one that other worlds exist, two that they are different and three, we learn how to imagine other worlds that in turn helps us better understand our own.

As with sensemaking and humility, are these not the types of skills we need to learn?

Examinations – what to examine?

What subjects should be examined depends to a large extent on what job you would like to do. But with the claim that 60% of 11 year olds will leave school to do jobs which have not yet been invented it’s hard to know the answer. What we do know is that the world is unlikely to slow down, change not happen, data become less available and complexity give way to simplicity. As a result, we need to teach people and so examine the skills that will help them better navigate this world. Maybe when those primary school children go onto higher education they will be studying sensemaking, humility and the humanities.

Even though the ink is barely dry on the letter sent by Theresa May bringing about our formal negotiations to exit Europe, the interesting thing is we will never know if this was a good or bad decision. Because post Brexit people will behave differently, some will work hard to make the impossible possible whilst others will continue to frustrate the process, and none of that could have been foreseen at the time.

So, let’s hope the basis for the original decision to leave was not because of the headline – We will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS!

People are all the same but students are all different

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

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

Neurologically we are all the same

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

Malaysian jokes

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

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

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

Students are different


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

Learning styles are unique

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

But are the teachers to blame?

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

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

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

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



Reflections on Understanding ……Brexit

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

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

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


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

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

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

Reflection – purposeful thought

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

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

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

Lessons learned

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

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

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

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