Friday, 23 May 2014

How to Make Learning as Addictive as Drugs

Today I'm going to tell you three stories about education, that's it. No big deal. If you're an educator then I hope that you feel these stories are worth spreading,they come from 3 great books; The World is Flat, Give and Take and Talk Like Ted

Learn how to Learn 
Eight years ago I read Thomas Friedman's book "The World is Flat" and thought that there was real value in the advice he gave to a young student;

The first, and most important, ability you can develop in a flat [globalised] world is the ability to “learn how to learn” – to constantly absorb, and teach yourself, new ways of doing old things or new ways of doing new things. In [a global world] it is not only what you know but how you learn that will set you apart. Because what you know today will be out of date sooner than you think.

 In a talk I gave in St Paul’s Minnesota, I made this point, and during the Q&A period a young man in the balcony raised his hand, identified himself as a ninth grader, and asked “Mr Friedman, if it is that important to learn how to learn, how do you learn how to learn? What course should I take?”
From the mouths of babes...

It’s a logical question...[I said] “go around your friends and ask them just one question: ‘who are your favourite teachers?’ then make a list of those teachers and go out and take their courses – no matter what they are teaching, no matter what the subject.” It doesn’t matter whether they are teaching Greek Mythology, calculus, art history or American literature – take their courses. Because when I think back on my favourite teachers, I don’t remember the specifics of what they taught me, but I sure remember being excited about learning it.

What has stayed with me are not the facts they imparted but the excitement about learning they inspired. To learn how to learn, you have to love learning – or at least enjoy it – because so much learning is about being motivated to teach yourself. And while it seems that some people are just born with that motivation, many others can develop it or have it imparted with the right teacher. Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat

I recently heard about a great example of an educator who very much fits this mold.

Teach Like a Rockstar... and Comedian, TV presenter & a Sculptor of minds

In the past I've questioned what would happen if we considered educators role as sales people and entertainers, this gets something of a mixed reaction... but it also gets results. 

In Adam Grant's book Give and Take I heard about an accounting professor called C.J. Skender. A Business Week article describes a typical class;

Favorite Professors: North Carolina's C.J. Skender"Skender keeps notebooks filled with song and movie quotes, and he begins each class with what he calls “fourplay”—four songs to set the tone for the day’s class. One day they might include such artists as Ray LaMontagne and Elton John, followed the next day with tracks from Nelly and the theme from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Precisely halfway through each class, Skender will remove his jacket and recite a movie quote. The first person to guess the film it’s from wins a prize (usually candy)"

Adam Grant picks up on how Skender puts The Pygmalion Effect to exceptional use;

"Skender has won every teaching award on the planet. He has a remarkable gift for bringing out the best in his students. He’s had many, many students win gold medals, both in his state and nationally. He’s had more than three dozen students follow him to become professors of accounting. When you look at his approach, the question is, “How does he do it?” A lot of people assume that he’s got a great eye for talent and that he’s immediately able to spot the quantitative savants and then basically work with them.

CJ says, no, it’s the exact opposite. He sees every student who walks into his classroom as a diamond in the rough, waiting to be polished. Then he tries to make his classes as interesting as possible to bring out the best in those students. Now, of course, it doesn’t work with every student. But what he finds over time is by making his material interesting, he does shift some people toward becoming more motivated and more hard-working. This is true of coaches and leaders and managers everywhere. If you look at research by Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues about what made somebody a world-class tennis player or a world-class musician, or even a mathematician or a scientist of great acclaim, very rarely were those world-class candidates superior early on in their careers. They looked pretty average when you started with them. But what they had in common was a coach, a teacher and a manager who believed in them and set their aspirations very high. That often created a self-fulfilling prophecy, by inspiring them to engage in more deliberate practice and to put in the 10,000 hours that we all know are critical to achieving expertise"

Please take a moment to read this article Everybody counts with CJ Skender... Now here's the science about why this entertaining style of teaching works

Freakinomic Lesson: Make it New & Exciting
When you think back to your favourite college class, there's a good chance the lecturer you most enjoyed injected a fair amount of humour into his or her presentations. Economics and accounting is probably not the class that comes to mind for most people when they're asked about their most humourous professors. They didn't have teachers like CJ Skender... or Juan Enriquez 
Enriquez has given 4 Ted Talks and takes the complexity out of economics by adding humour, usually in the form of photographs. His subjects are complex, and humour makes the topics easier to grasp because the photos place the topic in a context that everyone can understand.

Martha Burns is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University who believes neurosience is helping educators to become better teachers. Her insights also explain why we get a buzz out of learning. Learning something new activates the same reward areas of the brain as drugs and gambling. 

"A big part of the answer to why some of your students hold onto information you teach and others do not has to do with a little chemical in the brain that has to be present for a child (or adult) to retain information. That chemical is called dopamine" Martha Burns via Talk Like Ted

Dopamine is a powerful chemical. A new relationship can trigger a dose of it. Advancing to the next level of a video game can trigger dopamine, as can hearing the clanging of coins in a slot machine, or a hit of cocaine.

Drugs and gambling are artificial triggers and lead to serious consequences. Isn't there a less harmful means of achieving that mental high? There sure is. According to Burns, dopamine is also released when people learn something new and exciting - a much healthier way to feel good!

"For many of your students and many of us adults, learning about new new things is an adventure and very rewarding, and dopamine levels increase in the brain to help us retain new information. I like to refer to dopamine as the 'save button' in the brain. When Dopamine is present during an event or experience, we remember it; when it is absent, nothing seems to stick" Martha Burns via Talk Like Ted

How do you increase dopamine? Make information new and exciting.

Burns says the best teachers are always thinking of new ways of delivering information. "That is why you love it when your schoolhas new textbook adoptions - the novelty allows you to teach the information in a new way - which generates enthusiasm on your part and the students... increase novelty in a classroom and you increase the dopamine levels of your students... dopamine can be addictive - our goal as teachers is to get our students addicted to learning. Dopamine is addictive.

Joining up the Dots... Connected Educators and EdTech
There are regular comments on Twitter and blog posts about the value of institutions and individuals being "connected" and exploring new ways of doing this with technology Vs those that prefer to stick with traditional methods.

I wonder if these three examples demonstrate that there is something in this... not as a result of Technology per se but because the culture that they establish is one of "What if," such an attitude is sure to mean that you'll make mistakes that mean you'll look a little foolish.

If Steve Jobs was delivering this message maybe he would end it with something like 

"Stay hungry for new ideas to try in class and stay foolish, don't be afraid to make mistakes... this kind of attitude just might just rub off on your students and inspire the next generation of knowledge junkies who are addicted to learning"

Now, if you liked this post go out and get the 3 books that are mentioned: Talk Like Ted, Give and Take and The World is Flat. A playlist of the Ted Talks that feature in Gallo's books can be found here: Talk Like Ted Featured Videos

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