Mind Over Matter

27 01 2010

My article on why it’s so hard to learn science and maths is featured in the 17th issue of BlueSci, Cambridge University’s science magazine.

Download the PDF here.


“There aren’t any stupid people out there”

26 01 2010

Thus spake Ben Goldacre, at his lecture on Risk and the Media at Darwin College, Cambridge last Friday. Check out the talk when it becomes available on iTunes shortly – it’s provocative, informative, and hilarious.

As a practicing NHS doctor, Ben’s argument was that he has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people confronted with weighing complex evidence and making decisions with enormous consequences, and they do, with admirable comprehension, because they are extremely motivated to do so.

Psychology, for the record, backs him up. Motivated adults (and children) do better in IQ tests, in interviews, in jobs, in college.  Sometimes they do better than people who are, objectively speaking, smarter. You’ve probably heard the stories of people, in moments of great stress, displaying superhuman strength, because they’re highly motivated to save themselves or the ones they love.

All this, I can’t help thinking, gives the lie to the idea that we, as practitioners of best practice (which, as I like to say, isn’t always obvious) should simplify things, should dumb down, because we don’t think the people we need to convince can understand it. All that shows is a failing in us – we haven’t sufficiently convinced them that it’s worth understanding.

When people need to chew through complex medical studies which sometimes indicate differing things, potentially-conflicting medical advice, all while dealing with the stresses and strains of a health crisis, they manage it. They’re not stupid. Perhaps our job is less to manage the information flow for the people we secretly think are not-so-bright, and more to convince them it’s worth their while to show how bright they are.

Should the media educate?

1 12 2009

On Thursday I attended a talk run by BlueSci magazine and featuring Michael Claessens, of the European Commission’s Research Directorate, to discuss why it’s continuing to be so hard to communicate science (including psychology) effectively through the media. It has to be said that, in my view, Claessens was pretty pessimistic about the results of thirty years (!) of active engagement with the popular media by science, even though regular checks of the baseline scientific literacy of the population has shown some improvements.

Claessens did point out that the media have no duty to educate anyone – they’re a business and they exist to sell themselves. The BBC are really the only notable exception to this fact, and it should be pointed out that the BBC produces some fantastic science and psychology programming. (Download some of All in the Mind if you have some spare time on your way to work.) They also have to deal with editorial policy, space constraints, sub-editors, the need for eye-grabbing and usually misleading headlines, and, often, a lack of time to find out what the facts actually are before going to press.

That’s why I love blogs. Claessens wasn’t quite so keen, but blogs don’t suffer from space constraints, or publishing deadlines, or subeditors. Blogs are free (normally). Blogs can build a community in and around their readers. Blogs can specialise in any area they choose, and have proved that they can build up huge readerships. Blogs don’t have a responsibility to educate either, but many of them do, or try to, and in most cases they do it for love. They also have the chance to build something over time, which is how you do education. Slowly, in pieces, over time.

Claessens talked about the need to communicate a simple message; something I struggle with – don’t we all? He concluded that sometimes science just isn’t simple. I don’t agree. To communicate something, anything, takes a story. Sometimes stories aren’t particularly simple, but if we can’t break something down into simpler components in order to tell someone else about it, isn’t that a deficiency in us? If science is “un-simple” and therefore can’t be communicated, how did we enlightened types ever manage to learn it in the first place?

That’s what gets me about this whole discussion, I think. Somewhere buried in it all is the assumption that there are the special clever people who understand science, and the other people, who don’t or can’t. I don’t buy it.

Learning about learning

4 11 2009

We tend to think of learning as just something we do: a general skill that we can apply to anything, and that lets us generalise things we learn in one context to another context. Let’s take an example; if you learn, say, how to conduct a successful coaching session in a training room environment, it should be easy to transfer that skill to the real-life environments you will be faced with. This assumption, in fact, basically underlays every training and development programme in existence.

You can probably see where this is going; like so many assumptions about the brain, we’ve discovered on investigation that it’s a little more complicated than that. Memory turns out to be a very context-dependent process; it’s much easier to remember what you’ve learned when you’re in the same environment as when you learned it, hearing the same sounds, looking at the same people, because when that information got encoded into your brain, it was encoded along with all the other data passing through at the time. If you’ve ever had a memory rush back vividly when you heard part of a song, or caught a whiff of a scent, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.

The classic study on how learning is affected by context was done by Godden and Baddeley in 1975; rather brilliantly, they persuaded scuba divers to memorise lists of words both on land, and some metres underwater. Godden and Baddeley found that the divers remembered the words much better in the same context they’d learnt them, either underwater or on land, because that evironment provided the “cues” they needed to effectively remember. We see the same phenomenon in babies; by tying a ribbon round a baby’s ankle and attaching it to a mobile above his cot, he will learn relatively quickly that by kicking his leg, he can make his mobile jiggle. But if one small thing about the scene is changed – the colour of the mobile, the wallpaper in the room – he has to learn the process all over again. We are brilliant at learning specific things, but what we learn IS specific – we learn it in a context, and a particular way, and it’s not always easy to take it somewhere else.

Think about it. Do you train your staff in a conference room or training suite, somewhere they never need to use the skills you’re trying to teach them? Are they getting to practice what they need to in the environment in which they’ll actually need to use it, or are you assuming that they will be able to generalise from their training environment into the environment they actually need to work in?