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Monday, July 24, 2006

How to create learning junkies

Remember how it felt when it all clicked? When, after hours, days, or even years of intensive study, you finally understood something complicated? Perhaps you would describe it as a high. According to a recent study you would be right. This moment of insight, this click, results in a shot of “natural opium-like substances”. It appears that those folks who took pleasure in learning were on the money. As far a junkies go being a learning junkie doesn’t sound so bad.

Irving Biederman, professor of neuroscience at USC, also finds that the fix is associated with new, novel material. “Without thinking about it, we pick out experiences that are richly interpretable but novel.”

This all reminds me of a post by Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users where she outlines the Typology of Cognitive Pleasures.


  1. Discovery

  2. Challenge

  3. Narrative

  4. Self-Expression

  5. Social Framework

  6. Cognitive Arousal

  7. Thrill

  8. Sensation

  9. Triumph

  10. Flow

  11. Accomplishment

  12. Fantasy

  13. Learning

It’s not hard to see how these “Cognitive Pleasures” may play on the release of opiates in the brain thereby giving the learning junky their fix. Perhaps this Typology of Cognitive Pleasures provides a blueprint for aligning instruction with the new mind.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Aligning Instruction to the New Mind

Think about something that you do well. Now think about how you learned to do it. Chances are that you learned to do it without being aware that you were learning. This is called habit learning. How we conceptualize the world is a product of habit learning.

How we write, speak, read, and listen are all habits reinforced over time. Technology is having a profound impact on habit learning. Digital experiences are changing the way we process information. In fact through habit learning these digital experiences are changing our brains. The time has come to align instruction not only with state standards, but to align instruction with the new brain. Failure to align instruction with the new brain will have devastating consequences in years to come.

According to a recent article in The Sunday Times:

..the reason why some children today do not pay attention in school is that they find traditional teaching methods dull compared with their digital experiences. Instead, parameters are increasingly set by “wiki-thinking”, peer groups exchanging ideas through digital networks. Just as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been built from the collective knowledge of thousands of contributors, so digital natives draw on the experiences and advice of online communities to shape their interests and boundaries. A telling symptom is blogging. Where once schoolchildren and students confided only in diaries, no they write blogs or entries into—where anyone can see and comment on them.

In the digital world students are learning how to sift through information in seconds. When they find information that they deem important they lock on to it. Sadly, it appears that students are discarding most of the information in classrooms. This is not a failure of intelligence; it is a failure of alignment. Teaching methods are not aligned with the new mind. Most classrooms today are overly reliant on traditional forms of instruction—students still sit in rows. Students still take notes from lectures. Students still complete worksheets. Instead of changing the way they teach, most teachers graft the latest technology on to older methodology. This is how the filmstrip of yesterday has become the PowerPoint of today.

Some important observations about the digital native’s brain according to an advertising executive:

It has rewired itself.
It responds faster.
It sifts out.
It recalls less.

Some important observations about the digital native’s brain according to a professor of human-computer interaction:

Younger people sift more and filter more. We have more information to deal with, and we pay less attention to particular bits of information, so it may appear attention spans are shorter.

But I don’t think attention spans are diminishing per se, if we find something engaging, then our attention span is just as long as it has always been

The bottom line is that the educational delivery system is out of synch with how students process information. This disconnection appears to be the reason kids are tuning teachers and lessons out more and more. Clearly, students have acquired the habits of the digital age; teachers have not. The time has come to align instruction to the new mind. To embrace the emerging wiki-world our students already in-habit.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tufts to weight the whole mind as part of new admissions policy

Remember how ironic it is that NCLB focuses exclusively on left-brain smarts? Of course elite universities have long bought into this paradigm ala the SAT and ACT, but the times they are a changing. Starting this year, Tufts University will include assessments designed to measure R-Directed aptitudes in their admissions process. Tufts will weight analytical ability, academic history, and now…creativity when evaluating applicants.

The reason for the shift is because Robert Sternberg is the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Sternberg is the noted creator of the Rainbow Project--a battery of tests that measure R-Directed aptitudes. Sternberg developed the Rainbow Project at Yale, and has published research that validates its ability to predict college success.

A student participating in the Rainbow Project may be asked to provide humorous captions to New Yorker cartoons, to write a story “using only a provided title as their guide", and to problem solve several real-life scenarios. Significantly, the Rainbow Project Test when used with the SAT is the best predictor of how well students will do in college.

Tufts is piloting the use of the Rainbow Project as part of their admissions policy. The test will be administered to students who wish to add it to their admissions packet. Tufts administrators see the Rainbow Project as a way to distinguish students who are on the admissions borderline.

Sternberg describes it this way, “It’s not that the analytical skills aren’t important, but they aren’t enough. We have to stop putting so much emphasis on only a sliver of the abilities that kids bring to college.”

Related Articles

Tufts Gets Creative on Admissions
A Rainbow Approach to Admissions

Bravo, Tufts!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Build a Better Brain--Play with your kid today

My wife and I often obsess about how to help our children’s brains flourish. We’ve been to all the classes, purchased all sorts of toys and listened to all sorts of music. Through it all we have had a nagging sense of guilt that we weren’t doing enough to stimulate their brains.

Sure we play with our kids all them time, but don’t we have to read to them all the time, too? And what about sorting games and patterns and talking to them and with them? And what about playing the “right” music? What about television? Is their time too structured or not structured enough?

A new policy paper bottom lines it for us: "The key issue is the nature of kids' relationships with the important people in their lives. It's not about the toys, it's about the human connection." That is according to the paper’s author Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Play with our children; bond with them; provide them with a secure relationship. That’s it.