Barbara Oakley: Learning how to learn

Speaker

Barbara Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University. She is involved in multiple areas of research, ranging from STEM education, to Engineering education, to learning practices.

Summary

Barbara is now a professor of engineering, but at a young age she was terrible at maths: preferring languages. A student asked her how she rewired her brain: after years as a Russian translator how did she learn engineering when she previously struggled. She looked into the issue from a neuroscience perspective.

The brain is in 2 different ‘modes’: a focussed or a diffused mode. In focussed mode you think tightly through familiar problems you have solved before. However, the diffuse thought is needed to search for new ideas – you can’t solve problems, but it is needed to find the answer if you haven’t seen it before. You need to activate this diffuse mode to think through a problem creatively: to do this Salvador Dali and Edison both sat comfortably with keys or a steel ball in their hands and started to drift off to sleep while thinking about it. When they dropped the object it woke them up and they could harvest thoughts from the diffuse thought, and start to focus on them. They found a way to get the benefits of both.

A problem in learning is procrastination: it is a natural response in the brain which feels pain at the idea of doing something you don’t want to do. One reaction is to delay – or do other more pleasant things. However if you force yourself to do it, the ‘pain’ feeling fades quickly. The ‘Pomodoro method’ is to set a timer (traditionally 25minutes on an old fashioned timer) and really focus on your task, then to take a 5minute reward break. Don’t expect to finish the task, just work on it. You are training your brain to focus on a task, and to reward yourself frequently.

People can also trick themselves into thinking they understand with poor study habits – they are just ‘spinning their wheels’ for a long time. For example simply reading or highlighting texts doesn’t make you understand, better to read a section then look away and recall the key messages. People who learn slower can gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Also, it is important to do a few problems before you can claim mastery – reading alone will not help you learn.

Learning is an amazing skill, and Barbara implores us all not to just follow our passions, but to broaden them.

My Thoughts

Barbara is an amazing presenter, and I really wish I had seen her presentations while I was at uni. I am currently doing her MOOC (starting yesterday), and the first module is relatively similar to this talk (strongly recommended here https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/). While doing this I am questioning how much I have really ‘thought’ about something – I tend to be so task focussed that I don’t take a step back and activate diffuse thinking.

The pomodoro method is a new name to me, but is similar to other time management strategies: to break your time into modules with rests. I’ve heard 45 mins then 15mins break, as opposed to 25mins work, 5mins break. Personally I’m not sure the length of time matters (though I wouldn’t go longer than 45mins), so much as breaking your day into work and rest sessions.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this talk and the MOOC enough. I challenge everyone to think about how often they really think or learn something, as opposed to just ‘completing’ it.

Philip Zimbardo: The demise of guys?

Speaker

Philip George Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He became known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment and has since authored various introductory psychology books, textbooks for college students, and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect

Summary

Guys are dropping out educationally, wiping out emotionally with girls and sexually with women. They are 30% more likely to drop out of school, and outperformed by girls at every level of education. Psychologically, they are 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and make up 2/3 of special education students.

Emotionally, there is a fear of intimacy and women. Male college students are getting increasingly shy and have difficulty in social situations (especially with females). Boys and men seem to prefer the company of other males, and prefer the internet to spontaneous social interaction.

The problem is video games and pornography. Boys watch on average 50 porn clips a week and play 10,000 hrs of video games by the age of 21. These cause an ‘arousal addiction’ – constantly looking for novelty and new experiences. Arousal addiction is different to more classic drug addictions, where the addict seeks the same experience again and again. This is at odds with real relationships and classrooms, which build up more slowly and subtly over time.

What’s the solution? Philip doesn’t know: this short talk is to alarm not solve. But he believes ‘real’ men are important to keep the species strong and that everyone benefits – especially the women who want men that can make love slowly and properly.

My Thoughts

As Philip says: this talk isn’t about solutions, it is all about shock. The internet certainly has its plusses and minusses: people drawn to easily searching anything that comes to mind, and they will always find a result. This encourages novelty in both sex and education. On the educational side: people craving different sorts of knowledge should be able to be harnessed: an enthusiasm to learn should be seen as an asset rather than a liability. It seems like a weakness in our education system if it is struggling to get people interested.

Philip’s talk references other TED talks, and regarding video games (and especially violent FPSes that teenage boys are likely playing) there are talks that are positive on the benefits of video games to the brain (https://tedsummaries.com/2014/12/30/daphne-bavelier-your-brain-on-video-games/). However addiction levels are distracting from other pursuits.

James A. White Sr.: The little problem I had renting a house

Speaker

James A. White Sr. is an executive coach and management consultant. The owner and president of Performance Consulting Services in Columbus, Ohio.

Summary

53 years ago James was having significant problems renting a house. He was moving to a small town in Idaho with his family, to join the air force. He called ahead at a number of places, but when they saw he was black they suddenly had no vacancies. He eventually bought a trailer from another airman, but couldn’t find a trailer park to park it at.

In the 3 months before the Ferguson shooting (where a young black man was shot by police), 8 unarmed African-Americans had been shot to death by police or white home-owners. It seems that driving while black, talking while black, walking while black are dangerous. James’ grandsons are stopped by police and searched more than their white friends. Their white friends say they should rise up and start resisting, but the consequences are too great.

James does not have the luxury of being angry, but uses his energy instead to educate then expose and counter racism. He appeals to all Americans of all races to question insane ideas, and say they do not accept the shooting of unarmed people regardless of race.

My Thoughts

A story of racism and a sad indictment of the people who refused to deal with him. In my opinion he labours the point a bit – the first 10 minutes was about failing to get a house. It is the crux of his talk and the story is entertaining, however I feel it went too long.

The rest of the talk was about recent events – about blacks being targeted by police with shootings and ‘random’ checks. As an Australian I was not aware the problem was that bad, so appreciated the insight. I wonder if similar racism is happening here.

Navi Radjou: Creative problem-solving in the face of extreme limits

Speaker

Navi Radjou is an innovation and leadership advisor based in Silicon Valley. Navi is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review online. Previously, he served as Vice-President at Forrester Research in Boston and San Francisco.

Summary

Navi talks of the Hindi concept of Jugaad – clever solutions born out of adversity or doing more with less (equivalent term in English would be a ‘hack’). This is important in developing countries, where less resources force them to find cheap and simple solutions. The talk is a list of examples of this:

  • A potter in India has designed a fridge out of clay, needing no electricity.
  • A bicycle-powered mobile phone charger
  • Peru is a high-humidity area with limited fresh water. They developed a billboard to condense 90L water per day out of the air.
  • In China a telemedicine solution is building easy-to-use medical appliances that can be used by nurses or technicians. This will make rural medicine cheaper to deliver.
  • MPesa: a banking network based on phone transactions
  • MPesa energy: a solar powered minimalist electricity kit including a panel, 3 lights and a phone charger. This can be bought in microtransactions over a year, so it can be made affordable.
  • SMS powered internet: to let people connect to the internet without a wifi or mobile internet connection
  • Traffic monitoring and optimization by using cheap low resolution webcams to gauge traffic conditions.

In the developed world people are spending a lot on R&D to charge more for products: more for more. However, natural resources are running low and the products are getting so expensive that more people are being left out of the market. The West could learn to make more with less. Some are doing this: for example a yoghurt factory that is 10% the size of a usual factory, and uses more manual labour in place of expensive automation. This greatly decreases startup costs. The West is also starting to use tools like mobile banking or simpler medical appliances to deliver services at lower costs.

3 ideas to help you innovate frugally

  • Keep it simple
  • Leverage off existing services eg SMS,
  • Think horizontally – decentralised, rather than central operations / manufacturing.

My Thoughts

A lot of examples. They build up to the big 3 points at the end – how to apply the principles. Also useful to point out that R&D can’t keep being an expensive process, at the expense of squeezing more and more consumers out of the market.

Ray Kurzweil: Get ready for hybrid thinking

Speaker

Ray Kurzweil is an American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google.

Summary

200 million years ago mammals evolved the neocortex. This allowed them to learn and think around problems, to develop new behaviour. Previous reptiles needed to ‘evolve’ new behaviour over thousands of years, but these early rodents could do so instantly. This helped mammals survive the cretaceous extinction event, and since then the neocortex has gotten larger and larger to enable high level thinking.

The brain is a series of ~300 million modules in hierarchies to work on patterns of data: to recognise, learn, implement a pattern. For example a series of modules might look for the crossbar part of an “A”, then a higher module would decide it is an “A”, then the word, sentence etc. It can also work in reverse, using context of higher levels (the rest of the word) to lower thresholds as if asking “I think it is: could this letter possibly be an A?”. This is similar to a Hierarchical Hidden Markov Model, being used in AI to understand language.

In the future hybrid thinking will evolve: combining human and computer thinking. Google will understand language more than just series of keywords, and could anticipate user problems and keep them up to date on research of interest to them. Ray also predicts that nanobots could interface with out neocortex and connect it to ‘the cloud’ – to massively expand our brainpower using an external computer network. This will expand our neocortex: and remember how powerful it was last time mammals developed their neocortex… This time we will not be restricted by the architecture of our heads – there could be no limit.

My Thoughts

The history of the neocortex is one of the better descriptions I have heard. The models he describes are easy to understand for the layman and also useful enough to apply to reality.

His comments on the future seem a bit too sci-fi though. It isn’t that this won’t happen, but he doesn’t really describe how or why. Thoughts of the AI singularity and similar ideas have been knocking around human culture for 50 years, constantly just around the corner. We are no doubt closer now than before, but the nanobots and ‘brain extension’ he talks about are a long way away. Even if AI is ready for this advancement, medical understanding of the brain is still too far away to connect us into computers.

Ben Ambridge: 10 myths about psychology: Debunked

Speaker

Ben Ambridge researches children’s language development at the University of Liverpool, and writes popular science books and articles about Psychology.

Summary

Ben discusses 10 myths about psychology. He finds that:

  1. Men and women are not that different. The 2 largest differences are that men are better at spacial awareness and women are better at language. In both cases there is a difference, but it is so small that the normal distributions mostly overlap.
  2. Rorschach inkblot tests have no validity. They are not used in modern psychology, and were so bad they diagnosed schizophrenia in 1/6 of all normal people.
  3. People do not have different learning styles (eg learning by listening, reading or doing). Studies showed no difference in people learning a task in their preferred way. Instead learning should be matched to the task being learned.
  4. High school results are 58% driven by genetics. By comparing identical twins (with identical genes and environment) against non-identical twins (with identical environment but only 50% shared genes), it showed GCSE results were 58% driven by genes.
  5. Left Brain vs Right Brain thinking is a myth – since any task involves all parts of the brain firing. However, handedness has some validity: in that ambidextrous people have better creativity than single-handed people.
  6. We use much more than 10% of our brain in most tasks. People think we can boost this with the Mozart effect: that listening to Mozart increases our IQ. There seems to be some short term effect, but equal to listening to stories you enjoy. Before an IQ test – do something you enjoy to perk you up and give you a small boost.
  7. Choosing a sexual partner is not driven by culture. Across all races and countries, men favour attractiveness and women favour ambition or wealth. Both sexes prefer the man to be 3yrs older than the woman.
  8. Sportsmen on a winning streak are not necessarily in ‘good form’. Statistical analysis shows they are in normal bounds, but our brains like to ascribe patterns to randomness. We prefer the story that they are on a hot streak.
  9. We are told the Milgram study convinced students to deliver fatal electric shocks to a victim because a scientist told them to punish the victim for being wrong. In truth the students were told the shocks were non-fatal, and when interviewed they believed the science of punishing the victim, and this outweighed the discomfort of a short term non-fatal shock.
  10. People are not very good at detecting liars from body or speech patterns. The only exception is on TV appeals for missing persons – where when the appealer murdered the missing person they tend to look away and use more brutal language.

Psychology is seen as a collection of ideas that all offer something useful. Instead, all proposals should be tested empirically to find the truth.

My Thoughts

Personally I think some of these claims are a bit weak – discrediting things that have long had limited validity. His summary implied psychology has no basis, and this is definitely true of the older pop-culture ideas (including left brainedness, Rorschach etc). However more modern psychology is much more empirical and statistically driven.

His criticism of the Milgram study doesn’t really counter the common view: that people were convinced to inflict pain on others because they were convinced it was for the greater good. The role of authority figures (scientists) reinforced that it was for the greater good. It is also possible people’s interviews after the test didn’t match how they felt during it.

I would have been keen to see more on the variation within the sexual partner story. He stated averages, but more interesting would be if some cultures had small variations in preferences.

Regarding his idea of sportsmen on hot streaks: It would be good to know if there is a feedback effect: that when on a (initially random) streak they get more confident and will do better.

The talk was interesting to debunk some of the ridiculous old ideas of psychology, but I am skeptical that he has cherry picked some points to make more interesting headline myths.

Tom Wujec: Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast

Speaker

Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He’s an innovative practitioner of business visualization — using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas.

Summary

Asking people to draw how to make toast can reveal a lot.

  • Most people draw a flow chart: images (nodes) connected with arrows (links). We intuitively know how to break a drawing down in this way.
  • The details people go to can reveal more about them: whether the supply chain of bread, or engineers drawing the inner workings of a toaster
  • people from different countries see toasters differently (Americans draw an electric toaster, Europeans a fry pan, or some draw fire).
  • Number of nodes is usually around 5, and 5-13 is the best to describe the process. Fewer nodes are too simple, but more than 13 difficult to understand

The second step is to draw the nodes on sticky notes or cards. This lets you rapidly rearrange or change the nodes, to make it better faster. These diagrams tend to have more nodes than one drawn on a sheet of paper – making them richer.

The third step is for a group to draw on sticky notes and rearrange them together. This results in more nodes again, but map shock isn’t an issue because they all saw the process come together. They group automatically organises the nodes to group similar nodes or deal with contradictions.

Managers can use this simple process to map out their organisation or strategy – to break a very complicated entity into the working parts. They simply draw the nodes, then organise or refine them until the patterns emerge. These models can extend to hundreds or thousands of nodes. An executive team for a publishing company spent 3 days organising post-its, and their newfound understanding let them reclaim $50million of revenue and customers now rank them as an “A” – from a “D”.

Next time you are confronted with a complicated problem, try breaking it down in terms of visibly nodes – it is fun, simple and powerful.

My Thoughts

A simple exercise, and definitely worth trying to understand a problem. However, having seen the exercises in business a few times, I’m not sure they always yield results. Ones I have been a part of tend to be too structured and quick (~1/2hr) – rather than the random self-organisation and iteration Tom suggests. These exercises tend not to result in an answer or clarity at all.

Having had the logic explained through this talk, I will try it alone though. Take an idea or problem and break it down, then see if it can be re-organised in a useful way.