Tag Archives: Learning Styles

Nurturing insight

I want to try something, and I am hoping some of you readers will participate.

In a nutshell, the idea is that we spend a little bit of time during a week (even if it is just 20 minutes) in a situation that nurtures insight.

It is possible for ideas to deeply change our world. How can we nurture the development of the ideas that might be game-changers in the coming months/years/decades?

My approach has two parts:

  1. Learn deeply and broadly about the world, including the major problems and proposed solutions. Useful insights generally require that they be based on accurate perceptions of reality.
  2. For some period of time, create the conditions under which deep insight into issues becomes more likely.

The central thrust of this ‘experiment’ has to do with what constitutes the conditions in part 2).

I imagine that there is a fair bit of individual variation on this front, but I am going to throw out some broad statements that I believe are reasonable based on what I know about human attention and education.

  • Our culture is becoming increasingly dominated by subject changes. Our attention is being chopped up into smaller bits as we interact with increasingly fast and engaging social media. I claim that deeper insights are not likely to come about through spreading our attention more thinly or by multitasking more. Whatever advantages this culture change offers, we are hopefully already taking advantage of them.
  • Teachers often complain about the quality of students in schools today. A central concern is the student’s ability to concentrate on one thing and to demonstrate the fact that they are capable of insight into the material at hand. Psychology has shown that our attention span is getting shorter. I believe these facts are all closely related. I believe the lack of insight in current students is due in part to the fact that they are not used to simply rolling an idea around in their heads for many minutes at a time. In short, I believe that the shortening of our attention spans is connected with reduced abilities to garner deep insight.
  • Distraction seem to have a complicated relationship with insight. While distractions do represent a fragmentation of attention, they can also be the foundation for connective insights – where we put different ideas together in new ways. These connections can help us understand the ideas and the relationship(s) between them.

I propose that each of us spends some amount of time this week (I suggest at least 20 minutes) in a situation that is well-suited to the development of our personal insight. For me this might be walking through Parc Mont-Royal, sitting at a desk with a blank piece of paper in front of me, or even meditating. I suggest that people do what they are comfortable with, but again I have some specific ideas that might help:

  • Get comfortable.
  • If you have a burning desire to interact with something else like friends, the Internet, a book, social media, etc, write down what you want to do on a piece of paper, tell yourself that you will do it later, and continue with your efforts to gain insight. In light of this, it can be helpful to have somewhere to write nearby.
  • Be content. Getting upset probably won’t help.
  • Be your own person. Don’t bother thinking about what other people might think of what you are thinking.
  • Embrace the fact that your thoughts may be mostly about your own mundane concerns. Let them go where they will. Your thoughts will eventually turn to the things you care about most.
  • Follow your trains of thought wherever they may lead. Don’t be afraid of thinking anything. We might like some thoughts more than others, but any one of them might hold the key to a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and our world.

I would like to hear from all of you about what your insights were and in what circumstances you achieved them.

Excellence relies on opportunity and hard work

I recently read the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book focuses on people whose abilities and successes are so far outside the scope of normal experience that our society tends to consider them lifeforms that are fundamentally different than the rest of us.

The central message of the book is that these people, while appearing so different from the rest of us, owe their success to a combination of talent, luck and good opportunities. Gladwell points out that our society is fixated on the concepts of personal initiative and intrinsic talent, despite the inability of these two factors to truly explain the spectacular success stories that we are surrounded by.

Talent vs Practice

When I talk about talent, I mean the differences in natural (innate) abilities among different human beings. Defined in such a manner, talent definitely exists. Human beings are different from one another in a myriad of ways. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say “Thankfully!” to this obvious fact.

Where things get a little bit hazy is when we consider to what extent talent predicts our level of success in life. On one extreme there is the argument that talent predicts all of our success in life. I am not really going to consider this argument in great depth, since it seems unable to explain either the facts of which I am aware or my personal experience. If anyone is passionate about the concept of talent/potential, I recommend the movie Gattaca.

I think most people will admit that success has something to do with both talent and practice. All other things being equal, those who work harder tend to be more successful. The main question is, to what extent does our ability or skill depend on talent, and to what extent does it depend on practice?

First of all, there are some abilities that are pretty much entirely innate, such as physical height. Assuming good nutrition, the adult height of a human being seems to be based entirely on genetic features. I would rather call this sort of quality an ‘attribute’ rather than an ‘ability’. For this analysis, I will focus more on the term ‘skill’, which I would regard as a subset of ‘ability’.

Ericsson and Charness

Gladwell cites some famous research on the subject of expert performance. K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness have researched this subject extensively, and their work is regarded very highly in social science circles. In fact, during my psychology degree I had to read one of their papers: Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition. I thought it was an excellent read and recommend it to anyone who finds this subject interesting.

I would summarize the research in the following way: Most of the observable difference in performance (in almost any field) is a direct consequence of the practitioners spending different lengths of time engaged in deliberate practice. The more you practice, the better you tend to be. The effect of practice seems to massively overshadow the effect of talent in the subject areas that Ericsson and Charness studied.

Additionally, Ericsson and Charness found that the amount of dedicated practice necessary to achieve grandmaster level skill (equalled only by perhaps a few people in the world) is remarkably constant across all skills and cultures: 10,000 hours. This averages out to about 3 hours per day for ten years. Someone who dedicates themselves to this amount of practice will, at the end of ten years time, be among the best in the world at their chosen skill.

I would like to add a qualification to this conclusion based on my own experience and knowledge. When considering elite performance such as Olympic athletes, it seems clear to me that even slight advantages offered by genetics can be telling when two dedicated athletes go head to head. It is a well-known fact in most athletic endeavors that gains in measurable ability tend to be large for beginners, but very small for experts. A small difference in ability that is due to innate factors could be as important as months or even years of training in certain skills. When exploring the ultimate reaches of human ability, even small differences in talent can be important.

Human Intelligence

Gladwell argues that in some areas of human endeavor, we encounter what are called threshold effects. His most extensive example of this is human intelligence. It has been estimated that Albert Einstein had an IQ of around 150. There are actually a fair number of people who have been measured to have IQs higher than this value. Does this mean that they are ‘smarter’ than Einstein?

IQ does a relatively poor job of differentiating between very intelligent people. Once into the genius range above IQ 120 it is very difficult to predict test performance or academic success using the measure of IQ. Gladwell calls this a threshold effect. Once people are above IQ 120 or so they are smart enough that other factors begin to be more important if we are to try to predict their level of success. For more info on this subject, read the book! 🙂

Opportunity

Perhaps the central theme of the book is opportunity. The people who are recognized as being the most successful in our world tend to owe their success to important opportunities that they were offered during their lives. Gladwell draws on examples from a variety of industries including law, high-tech computing, and science. In every area he shows how these now-prominent people were offered important opportunities at a time in their lives when they were able to take advantage of them.

In closing, Gladwell knits together the various threads of this work into a cohesive picture of how we can try to make our society better. Primarily what he is driving for is a change in the way we perceive achievement in general. Great achievement is accomplished through a combination of practice, luck, and talent. If we as a society accept this broader view of personal accomplishment, it will be possible to improve our lives in many meaningful ways. Gladwell cites a number of specific examples, along with his supporting data.

Current academic and sport selections all too often confuse ability with maturity. Thanks to the cut off dates for each year’s class or competition, the children who are the oldest in a given year have a very notable advantage in both academics and sports. In part this is because we tend to provide more advanced schooling or training for the more advanced children in each year. This leads to a widening gap in ability that started as only a small difference in ability that was primarily based on age.

If we wish to create the environment that is most conducive for development of our children, we will try to challenge them to think for themselves, split their yearly classes and sports leagues into at least 2 or 3 sections according to age, and make a distinct effort to prepare them for the opportunities that our society will offer them (intentionally or unintentionally) in the coming decades.

Overall, I think this is a book well worth reading. Gladwell’s look into the nature of success and achievement is worth considering. It is interesting to see how our conventional wisdom about human development so often fails to explain the reality. Outliers attempts to convince us to look more closely at how we, as both individuals and as groups, choose to structure our lives, institutions, and societies. We can all help to improve our collective lot in life if we understand more about human development and the role that our collective culture plays in our progress.

Life Changing Book on Time and Life

I recently finished a fascinating read. The Time Paradox is a book by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd about how our personal perspectives of time have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives.

You have have heard of Zimbardo before, he is one of the more famous social scientists in the world thanks mostly to his fame for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment. He has written a major work on the subject of “Understanding how good people turn evil”. On the first page of my copy, he says that writing this book, The Lucifer Effect, was not a labour of love. I find this understandable; investigating the ways in which human beings can be turned evil is an extremely dark subject. I think the world owes Zimbardo thanks for pushing through the mire to discover how we can reorient our institutions towards bringing out the good in all of us rather than the evil.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Zimbardo briefly during his visit to Regina in November 2009. While I was pretty sure that his presentations would be good, I didn’t expect to be blown away by how caring and conscientious of a person he was. I observed him in person-to-person interactions far from the stage in which he was extremely kind, caring and patient with every person who asked him a question or for advice. I thought to myself, here is a man whose time is very valuable, giving it away to people because…well I hesitate to speculate…but I think he really just wants to help people. Even after a five-decade teaching career in prestigious universities, he still cares about people he meets on the street. I was profoundly moved by this experience.

Now, back to The Time Paradox.

Overall, this book was transformative and challenging. It lead me to understandings about my life, and the lives of those around me, that are profound and clear. I originally thought that I probably would not learn very much from the book, being a reasonably thoughtful metacognitive person. I turned out to be wrong, and this book fundamentally changed the way I look at the world.

What perspective did I gain from this book?

Time perspectives are important. A significant part of the book is dedicated to making0 clear just how important they are. What also comes along with that knowledge is a firm understanding of how far reaching the consequences of ignorance about time perspectives can be.

Time orientation is a fundamental life perspective. Anyone reading this article of mine will have no trouble understanding the different ways of looking at time presented in the book. The perspectives in the book are roughly based on positive and negative views of the past, present, and future.

The question for each of us is: Which time perspectives do you live, and how do they affect your life?

Respect for differences

Throughout the book there is a genuine respect for the fact that while social science can collect general data about the results of habits that people have, it cannot predict the outcomes for any one individual. The wisdom of this book must be applied by each person to their own personal context.

Time therapy (applying the ideas from this book in the field of clinical psychology) seems to be incredibly powerful. However, for me the most important aspects of this book are those that have to do with each of us as individuals. Each of us lives our own journey through time, and this book is a good step towards understanding ourselves a bit better.

Balance is the key

There is no cookie-cutter solution to perspectives of life. The best answer is not any particular time perspective, but a combination of all. The authors espouse a very balanced time perspective based on the best data that they have.

What does a ‘balanced time perspective’ mean? Well first of all it means that there is more than one time perspective present, because fixation on any single time perspective tends to lead to large problems in life. Fixation on only one perspective means you are missing out on a lot of your own experience and potential.

I would summarize the balanced time perspective as follows. It is a mental and emotional state in which you:

  1. Regard your future filled with quite a bit of hope, though tempered with the knowledge that you have to spend effort (and thought) now to create a better life for yourself later.
  2. Keep in mind your happy memories because they help you stay happy and live in a hopeful present, but keep enough realism about the past to learn from mistakes and hardships.
  3. Live today well, and be happy with the moments you have. Be aware of the central importance of the present moment. Everything happens now and no other time really exists except within our minds. We must live now, but we can also choose to shape our future and call to mind our happiness and lessons from the past.

What about you?

I scored the following on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.
Past-negative: 2.00

Past-positive:  4.89

Present-hedonistic:  3.80

Present-fatalistic: 1.22

Future: 4.00

Transcendental-future: 3.00

What are you? Take the test here.

Well worth your time

I needed to read this book. The insights I have gained from reading have helped me towards a more balanced and happy life. I firmly believe that this book has the potential to help others do the same.

You can find The Time Paradox for a pretty decent price (and in several different formats such as Hardcover, Softcover, and Kindle Edition) on Amazon.

Getting a Feel for Kinesthetic Learners

For a presentation during my Master’s studies I brought along some objects to use as learning aids. I was anticipating the multiple learning styles that may be in the classroom. Just prior to my moment in the spotlight, I looked at some of the more tactile items and said, “These are for the kinesthetic learners, although I doubt they made it this far.”

There is a large amount of truth in this statement, but not for the reasons you may predict. Kinesthetic learners are not inferior in learning capacity, nor are they poor at grasping or retaining concepts. The issue lies in the current teaching methods used in university and school classrooms.

Modern lectures, at best, are comprised of slideshows accompanied by ongoing explanations from the teacher. At worst, lessons may be presented only from a textbook – again, a visual medium. These two ends of the spectrum show how prevalent the visual and auditory learning styles are in today’s classroom. But what about the kinesthetic learners?

Kinesthetic learners gain knowledge through doing and feeling (e.g. some learn best on their feet). If they are to understand the concept of addition, they would rather add physical steps than images on paper. If they are to grasp mechanics, they would rather take a motor apart than study how it works in theory. If they are to memorize anatomy, they would rather touch, feel, poke and prod a dummy.

And when you think about it, wouldn’t you rather do that? Imagine learning geometry by acting out shapes. Or understanding DNA replication by being a nucleus. Or grasping neurotransmitters by turning your classroom into a big brain.

In a TED talk by Ken Robinson, he points out that we tend to educate children first from the waist up, then the neck up, then a little to one side, the left side – where mathematics, logic and language are located. Our education systems fail to incorporate the power of learning through physical motion and touch. Not only that, we systematically educate our children away from this method of learning and expression.

This is a major oversight. After all, the major neurological unit of movement (the cerebellum) is biologically one of the oldest and most important parts of the brain. All of the deliberate actions we make involve the cerebellum.

Due to the lack of support for their learning style many kinesthetic learners do not reach their full potential. But they can.

The incorporation of methods that could benefit all learners, especially of the kinesthetic style, is easy. Here are a few tips for aiding the kinesthetic learner:

  1. Bring appropriate objects to touch and interact with.
  2. Avoid sitting when possible – movement is healthier.
  3. If sitting is necessary, use chewing gum as a backup motion.
  4. Review material while dancing, walking, running, showering, doing the dishes, etc. (associating an action with a subject may help your memory).
  5. Doodle.
  6. Remember that this learning style is the most easily forgotten. Classrooms were not made for kinesthetic learners, but classrooms aren’t the only place to learn. Find a space.