Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

3 May 2012

Thinking well and, well, not so well

Clark @ 5:24 AM

A number of books have crossed my path for a variety of reasons, and there’re some lessons to be extracted from three of them.  All have to do with looking at how our brains work, and some lessons therefrom.  There have been quite a bit of kerfuffle about ‘brain-based learning’, of which too much is inappropriate inferences from neuroscience to learning.  What I’m doing here is not that, but instead reporting on three books, only one of which has an explicit discussion of implications for both education and work. Still, valuable insight comes from all three.

Let me get the negative stuff out of the way first, a book that a number of folks have been excited about, Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, just did nothing for me. It’s a great tale well told, but the lessons were only cautionary. In it, a journalist gets intrigued enough with remembering to train sufficiently to win the US memory championships (apparently, globally, a relatively minor accomplishment).  He reveals many memory tools to accomplish this, and points out some potential fraud along the way.  He also concludes that despite this heightened ability, there is little relevance in the real world.  We have devices that can be our memory now, and the need for these skills is questionable at best.  All in all, little benefit except to be skeptical.

A second book, Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow, is a different story. Kahnemann, and his late long-time collaborator Amos Tversky, conducted some seminal research in how we make decisions (essential reading in my grad school career).  And the best way to convey how we do this, as Kahnemann tells us, is to postulate two separate systems. Not surprisingly one is fast, and one is slow.  The book is quite long, as Kahnemann goes through every phenomenon of these outcomes that they’ve discovered (often with collaborators), but each chapter closes with some statements that capture the ways your thinking might be wrong, and ways to compensate. It could use more prescriptions and less description (I started skimming, I confess), but understand the two systems and the implications are important.  It’s a well-written and engaging book, I just wish there was a ‘take home’ version.

The fast system is, essentially, intuition. This comes in many ways from your experience, and experts in a field should trust their intuition (there’s a strong argument here for hiring someone with lots of experience) in their area.  In areas where expertise is needed, and you don’t have it, you should go to the slow system, conscious rational thought.  Which is very vulnerable to fatigue (it taxes your brain), so complex decisions late in a day of decision are suspect.  If your decision is commonplace, you can trust the fast system, and many times you’ll be using the slow system just to explain the decision the fast system came up with, but we’re prone to many forms of bias.  It’s a worthwhile read, and tells us a lot about how we might adapt our learning to develop the fast system when necessary, and when to look to the slow system.

Finally, Cathy Davidson’s written Now You See It, a book that takes an attentional phenomena and builds a strong case for more closely matching learning and work to how we really think.  (I was pointed to it by a colleague who complained that my learning theory references are old; I still take my integration of learning theory as appropriate but nice to see that more recent work reflects my take on the best from the past. :) The phenomena is related to how our attention is limited and we need help focusing it.  For a dramatic demonstration of this phenomena, view this video and follow the instructions.  Her point is that what and how we pay attention does not reflect our current schooling systems nor our traditional work environments.  She uses this and myriad examples to make a compelling case for change in both.  On the learning side, she argues strongly for making learning active and meaningful (a view I strongly support), and start using the technology. On the other side, she talks about the new ways of working consonant with our Internet Time Alliance views.  It’s very readable, as it’s funny, poignant, apt, and more.

I highly recommend Cathy Davidson’s book as something everyone should understand.  Like I said, I wish there were a ‘Readers Digest Condensed‘ version of Kahnemann’s book.  It’s worth having a look at if you’re responsible for decisions by folks, however, and at least the first few chapters if you’re at all responsible for helping people make better decisions.

1 Comment »

  1. Clark, thanks for the synopsis on the three! I’ve just about finished reading “Now you see it” and am finding it thought-provoking, intriguing and apt – as someone engaged in the learning field, a virtual worker, and parent of children in the city that Davidson highlights. Will look for a future “lite” version of the Kahnemann book!

    Comment by Marian Abernathy — 3 May 2012 @ 6:49 AM

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