Our education system – is it about learning?

on Apr 22, 2012

Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.

Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.

When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.

A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.

There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.

There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.

For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.

A few examples of education being transformed:
Khan Academy
Skill Share

The Essence of Creativity

on Sep 26, 2011

Many folks consider me to be a creative person – that creativity is one of my more positive traits. Although endearing, I always found the compliment to be awkward because I feel that all people can be creative – that it doesn’t require being in a special class of individuals. I recently came across this quote on creativity by Steve Jobs. He’s pretty much spot on:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have.

Creativity is indeed about putting ideas together. The more ideas you have (and the more varied they are), the more “parts” you have to work with in forming new ones. That’s really it. The upshot is that this makes creativity more a skill that can be developed than a talent that one is fortunate to be born with (though I suppose it helps to some degree to have a pattern mind).

The opportunity to develop creativity is better than ever before, considering the world of knowledge available to us today. But it requires an open mind. It means accepting different perspectives. It demands questioning what’s conventional. These are not easy things to do, but the payoff is massive. Creativity allows us to find wonder in new places. It provides us that aha! moment when we come up with a better way to design something. Most importantly, it instills progress. The “gift” of creativity isn’t about the individual – rather, the gift is what creativity gives us and the world.

Embrace the World of Knowledge

on Sep 6, 2011

I feel very fortunate to live in this ever evolving information age – that attaining knowledge has become so easy. There’s a story I love to share that really illuminates how amazing our time is. It is about encyclopedias.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’90s, I saw advertisements on TV for print encyclopedias. It was knowledge in a condensed form, but not condensed enough. It took up 3 bookshelves and cost quite a lot of money. In the late ’90s, when I was around twelve or thirteen years old, I had a personal computer in my house – something fairly rare among my peers. And with it, I had a CD with an encyclopedia on it. How amazing it was at this time, to have a boatload of knowledge in my home – I recall how awesome it was to look up information about the Hindenburg disaster, even watching video of the event itself.

Flash forward to today. There are three very interesting forces coming together. The first is the addition and organization of information. We have Wikipedia. We have YouTube. We have TED Talks. We have online video lectures. We have e-books. We have web access to newspapers archived into decades. We have Google to help us sort through all this. Nearly all of this is free. Almost none of this existed back in 1998. The second astonishing thing is the ease of access of this information in our modern world where high speed internet is common and, in metro areas, we have ubiquitous internet access between cell networks and wifi hotspots. The third is that the “computers” we use to access this information fit in our pockets. App phones are part of our daily carry. Tablets and netbooks are litter our travel bags and living rooms. There is little standing in the way to learning – neither time nor space.

I imagine the 14 year old version of me living today. He encounters something he’d like to know more about. So he pulls out his iPod Touch, connected to a free wifi hotspot, and finds what he’s looking for on Wikipedia. Then he finds a related video on YouTube. Then, when he gets home, he incorporates this knowledge into some project he’s working on. This kid, because he has such easy access to knowledge at an early age, has the potential to be smarter than anyone that has come before him.

In a sense, this principle applies to each of us, regardless of age. We are each presented the opportunity to become more knowledgeable today than anyone had just a few years ago. And as interesting as this world is today, I’m even more excited for what’s to come in the future. Imagine knowledge, in the pervasive and accessible form we have available now, multiplied across billions of individuals. Some amazing things are in store.

What’s Your Specialist Mind?

on Mar 27, 2011

People’s brains are wired up in different ways. And while we like to think that we’re each unique in our own ways, there are actual patterns to the manners by which our minds are wired up and we see specific talents arise in individuals. A few examples include folks that can:

  • take apart and put together anything
  • play back music by ear
  • draw incredibly well
  • handle complex numbers in their heads
  • craft together anything
  • pick up languages with ease
  • be super coordinated in athletic activities
  • talk to anyone and pretty much get along with everybody

It seems that we’re genetically programmed to have a mind specialized in something or another and that this specialization is a more innate and natural ability. However, no mind can have it all – there’s always a tradeoff in ability. This should sound familiar – in a couple of  posts inspired by Temple Grandin’s TED Talk, I discussed how many specialist abilities, which I deemed technical abilities, come at the expense of natural social ability (this may very well relate to the autistic/asperger’s spectrum) and the technical talents can prove rather advantageous under certain situations. In the many months since reading Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, I’ve noticed how her insights appear in scores of people. Particularly interesting are her classifications of specialist minds: the visual mind, the math/music (pattern) mind, and the verbal logic (language) mind (p. 28). These classifications are good but they are meant to describe autistic specialists rather than more normal people. Below are her classifications with my modified definitions*, based on what I’ve noticed of people of these minds.

Visual Mind

People with this type of mind think in pictures, like Temple Grandin, and are just very visual in general. They’re likely doodlers and tend to be artsy. Some can only visualize still images, though in great detail while others can effortlessly run full 3D virtual simulations in their heads. I’m confident that, at least in the case of the latter, they also have a strong spatial sense and are well coordinated in that regard.

Pattern Mind

Individuals with this mind find correlations between things and are very good at math. Much of what they see in the world is based on patterns and I would go as far to say that some may even think in mathematical terms. These folks are very good at putting together ideas and running logistical matters. Some of these individuals may also be very musically talented, or at least interested.

Language Mind

These are people of the word. They can easily pick up new languages and writing comes naturally to them. Unsurprisingly, they’re avid readers and seem very broadly interested in things like history and world matters.

Economic Mind

(This one isn’t part of Grandin’s original classifications so I’m not sure if it deserves its own category as it might fold into the pattern mind)

These individuals are hyper-rational and extremely good at evaluating cost-benefit scenarios with no involvement of emotions. They read and understand the fine print and are extremely difficult to dupe. Instead, they’re very good at taking advantage of any system to their benefit. Accountant-type folks fall into this category. Maybe lawyers too.

Mixed Specialties

While I described these minds as separate entities, it doesn’t have to be the case. There are people that have combinations of these types of minds and it may be the more prevalent case among specialist minds. For example, it appears that a combination of the visual and pattern minds make for some incredible engineering skills. The pattern mind allows one to put different things together while the visual mind allows one to see this in his head. This works well since much engineering requires one to build something virtually before doing so physically.

Social Mind

(not “specialist” but still special)

Grandin describes the other types of minds as specialist minds because they represent a more technical sophistication and because they seem less prevalent in the population. Still, I believe there’s much to like in having the social mind – and it’s likely a reason why it has evolved to become so prevalent. Individuals with this type of mind can naturally get along with others and are social butterflies. They thrive on interaction with others and are always up to head to the parties and clubs. They naturally understand social etiquette and are the ones that can help maintain social order with that human touch.

So yes, we are unique, but unique in particular ways that predict a medley of traits and abilities. Our minds are incredible technologies and it’s essential to understand the special power contained in each of our minds. With that, we can not only grow to embrace our talents and minimize the tradeoffs, but also understand the abilities in those all around us. More on that soon.

* In some ways, these mind classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The components of these specialist minds can be broken up and folded together in different ways. In fact, such classifications, such as the theory of multiple intelligences, have been discussed for decades. Still, I feel the organization provided by Grandin does a very good job of handling the correlations between different subspecialties.

Why Only Humans Have Large Brains

on Aug 11, 2010

We often think that having a [proportionally] large brain is something very central to being human. While this is certainly an attribute unique to humans, it’s not the cause of our uniqueness. Think about it. If having a large brain is so advantageous, then how come other animals haven’t evolved to have it? As you’ve probably guessed, there are tradeoffs to having a large brain.

Consider the human brain. Although it’s proportionally humongous compared to the brain of other animals, it takes about 2-3% percent of our body mass. But look at the energy usage. Our large brains use about 20% of the calories we consume. That’s pretty darn expensive. At that price, we better be getting a lot out of it. We do, as humans, because we have culture. Through culture, we’re exposed to a staggering amount of information from others. Consider everything you’ve learned from friends, teachers, and extended family. That large brain is put to use because we have so much useful and trustworthy information to put in it.

Now consider the case of non-human animals. They don’t have anything close to the vast culture that we humans do. Their culture is limited to immediate family members because non-human animals have no way to control conflicts of interest between non-kin. This statement reveals a couple of interesting things. First, that it’s actually disadvantageous for non-human animals to have expensive, large brains because they have very little to put in them. Second, that the ability to control conflicts of interest between non-kin is essential to our humanity. While I discuss its importance in our uniquely large brains, managing conflicts of interest is central to our unique language abilities.

So in a nutshell:
Large brains require culture.
Culture requires trust in information from others.
Trust requires controlling conflicts of interest.

On a side note, while culture is a requirement for large brains, it is not sufficient. As hinted above, large brains require a consistent source of rich food to meet energy needs. Also, large brains take a longer time to develop and thus require that individuals have access to protection during this development time. These needs are afforded by the human village, another consequence of solving the conflict of interest problem.

For an extended discussion of large brains, culture, conflicts of interest, and human uniqueness, please see my colleagues’ book, Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe.

What Does Your Brain Think In? Words? Pictures? Motions?

on May 3, 2010

In an earlier post, I discussed how there appeared to be a tradeoff between social skills and other abilities, and how this was a consequence of people having different kinds of minds, as Temple Grandin described in her TED talk. Temple also discusses how people differ in the internal mechanism by which they process and understand the world. For her own self, she described how she thought in pictures and how that gave her the ability run like virtual simulation models in her head. While these were some pretty extraordinary capabilities, she experienced tradeoffs – for example, she was terrible at algebra, a more abstract discipline.

At the same time, we see that some people think more verbally (in fact, there was strong myth that language was essential for complex thought – the myth led to prejudice of deaf people). These people are probably very good at expressing themselves and communicating in general. They may very well be the more social (and perhaps less geeky) type.

Coming back to thinking in ways beyond language: consider non-human animals. They most certainly don’t think in words, but they have their own extraordinary capabilities. Temple Grandin gives an example of the dog sniffing the fire hydrant – he knows who was there, when, and what to make of that information. Or consider a cheetah running across the plains at 60mph, amazingly avoiding rocks and controlling movement masterfully.

For many years, I’ve deeply thought about the way my own mind processes the world. I know for sure that I don’t quite think in words. It’s as if my mind interprets things in some higher-level manner and puts together a model like a puzzle. While this means I have a really powerful and deep way to understand things, I’m left with great difficulty to explain what’s on my mind. I can’t easily put the model or thoughts into words.

This thinking style – modeling – might give clues to a connection with cheetah example. Friends know me as being outrageous when it comes to physical activity. [I don’t mean to gloat but] I’m considered an incredible inline skater and fantastic martial artist. Fellow skaters and and martial artists are impressed with the technical sophistication behind my activity. They say that I make it look so simple and easy, though they understand the sheer complexity behind my abilities. This is very much the same skillfulness of a non-human animals’ physical prowess. Interestingly enough, when I’m learning a new martial arts technique or sequence, I need to build a mental model before trying it out. If I don’t have this opportunity (it does take a bit more time), I fail terribly at executing the move. However, if I can put it together in my head, it comes out beautifully.

Is my style of processing the world, seemingly by feel, its own category; something more kinesthetic? Or is it just another manner of visual thinking as Temple Grandin discusses? I’m inclined to think it’s more a form of the latter since visual thinking also entails motion. Either way, I know what my advantage is so I leverage that to learn better. I avoid getting frustrated in the beginning because I understand the need to get a model down.

This virtual modeling thinking works beyond physical activity. It is in a way an engineering mind because it allows one to build something mentally before building it for real. This could account for my infatuation of creating things, between computer programs to theories of human behavior. As great as this is, it does come with tradeoffs, often involving communication or social skills. It’s important to understand that no mind can have it all. Acknowledge the weaknesses and manage them. More on that in a future post.

There’s still so much to ponder regarding the mechanisms by which our minds work. Still, it seems things are becoming clearer and are mapping onto the real world. The unique abilities of different minds are a strong asset when working together.

How Being Nervous Messes You Up

on Apr 20, 2010

So perhaps you’re giving some sort of presentation. People are watching you. And all you can think about is how you’re doing and what these people think. And of course, how you can avoid messing up. But it happens, inevitably. Then you get more nervous. And then you make even more mistakes.

It’s all about brain resources – something always in limited supply. Toss in the gas-guzzling behemoth of managing social interaction, and you’ve got very little left to work with. So if your focus is on what others are thinking, then you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re throwing away important brain cycles to monitor social information when you really need to put everything into the task at hand.

An interesting reversed condition also occurs – where social processing is sacrificed for something more taxing, like intense spacial processing. This is something I experience regularly when inline skating at a decent speed, and I’ve heard many cyclists express experiencing the same phenomenon. Essentially, we fail to recognize people we know when moving fast. It isn’t so much the moving fast part that does it. It’s more that we’re trying to process every potential obstacle to avoid disaster. So we see people as objects. Moving objects with trajectories that we must calculate to proceed safely. At that level, recognizing objects as friends is not worth the brain resources.

So the next time you’re feeling nervous under the sight of others, put that thought away (I know, easier said than done) and just focus solely on what you’re doing. And if that friend on wheels whizzes by without saying hi, don’t be offended because his brain is just automatically preoccupied with cruising safely. Keep in mind that our brains and minds are very sophisticated technologies that do have limits. Understanding those limits will let us best use your heads.

Trading Social Skills for Other Abilities

on Apr 8, 2010

We’ve all known those people: the very intelligent and creative but otherwise either not-very-social or socially awkward, sometimes understood as geeks. You might even be one of these people! I surmised that there was some sort of inverse correlation between the social skills and other technical abilities. After all, there’s a large amount of brain resources required by social tasks. Hence the potential tradeoff between social ability and other “thinking” ability.

At a recent TED talk (video above), Temple Grandin confirms this relationship by discussing the autism spectrum (which by her definition, and mine, extends beyond Asperger’s, to the not-so-social geeky types). A very striking note is that, for the most part, those on the spectrum don’t have a disorder, but rather a different way of understanding and interpreting the world. (However autistic spectrum individuals that do not speak or cannot function in our society do need treatment.)

This TED talk actually blew me away (and I’ve watched it several more times since). It really explains much of what we see in the world (or may experience ourselves) regarding the different ways people solve problems, and how they also handle themselves in social environments. In essence, there is a limited amount of brain processing power available. Humans, as social creatures, would be an advantage to have specialized social wiring. But at the same time, the complex human world requires solving some very involved problems. An individual with this ability would also be at an advantage. The limit of brain power presents a dilemma. So we see “all kinds of minds” where some individuals are very good at dealing with people while others are good at handling other sorts of complex tasks, and of course people falling along all levels of the scale. (It’s unclear whether individuals are more born this way or turn out this way.)

This has a lot to say about how people interpret the world and how they learn. It seems that the geeky types may be more visually oriented or perhaps more hands-on oriented. They’re the types that might be good at some kinds of math, or music, or recognizing patterns. Some can run virtual simulations in their heads. Many appear to be more bottom up learners, where they need to put together all the details before understanding the bigger picture. Temple has even said that some of the above belong in Silicon Valley, since they make great programmers.

There’s so much more to say on this entire subject. Temple’s talk has really opened up a new world to the way I look at people and their abilities. It all comes down to tradeoffs. Especially considering the great depth of the human world, different kinds of minds are needed to make the incredible human progress. Check out the talk and it’ll really get your mind thinking about this. You’ll surely see it all over the real world, and perhaps even in yourself.