Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Jul 30, 2018

I've spent a total of seven episodes up till now on Edward de Bono's work on creativity, lateral thinking, and the workings of the mind. While reading his books, a number of criticisms arose in my mind which I never felt I had the chance to fully express. In the name of balance, I also looked for any criticisms of de Bono online, and I found some quite damning allegations. My criticisms from his books and these allegations are topics I would like to spend one episode talking about.

The main problems with de Bono's books are two: (1) they are too repetitive (they all seem to say the same thing, with occasional novelties); and (2) they provide no references (ever! in 67 books by an Oxford- and Cambridge-educated author with a PhD!!). Each of these is concerning for different reasons. If de Bono kept "writing the same book" 67 times, why did he feel the need to publish so many books? And if he's supposed to be an authority on creativity, why couldn't he have come up with new ideas to fill those 67 books with?

The problem of references appears even more concerning after reading allegations from de Bono's former associates that his work is practically all plagiarised. This would certainly explain his unwillingness to write references, since he would be trying to claim all those other people's work as his own. 

There is a real 此地无银三百两 moment at the start of one of his later books. (The Chinese reads "in this place there are not three hundred caddies of silver". There is a story that somebody tried to hide their money by burying it and, for good measure, putting up a sign with the above words just next to where it was buried. The saying means to deny something in such a way as to incriminate oneself, or reveal the very thing that was supposed to be hidden by denial.) He leaves an Author's Note to the effect that he is sorry for not referencing anybody, because he forgot, and he really wants to give the right people credit, honest!, he just can't remember any of the conversations he's had or things that he's read for the past, oh, fifty years. It's somewhat ridiculous and really adds fuel to the suspicion that he hasn't been intellectually honest in his works.

This episode may not be rich in insights into creativity, other than perhaps that which Einstein bequeathed to us: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." Although I really think that there is value to the ideas that de Bono came up with / stole during his career, the possibility of plagiarism, and the lack of his own creativity in writing books with something genuinely new to say over a more than fifty-year-long career, detract from the strength of his arguments.

The jury is out on where de Bono's ideas come from (although he is definitely guilty of being repetitive in his writing). We must also be aware that those who allege that de Bono has stolen the ideas of others are not necessarily trustworthy themselves. While the story weaved together by these threads is plausible, it is not known for certain to be the truth. This episode seeks only to be fair in highlighting suspicions, although nothing is proven definitively.

Enjoy the episode.

Jul 16, 2018

Stress is broadly understood to be a serious health risk and a destructive factor in many people's lives. It has been advertised as such for several decades. In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal explains how new research shows that stress may actually be something positive and life-enhancing rather than ruinous.

The most central concept is that of "stress mindsets". Similar to fixed vs. growth mindset as described in Carol Dweck's book (covered in the first episode of this podcast), stress mindsets concern one's beliefs about the effects of stress. People with a "positive stress mindset" believe that there can be benefits to stress, whereas those with a "negative stress mindset" - encouraged by ideas promulgated in the past few decades - believe that stress is uniformly bad for you. It turns out that merely believing something different about stress is enough to change its effects radically for the better.

The evidence on the so-called "upside of stress" takes many forms, but perhaps the most convincing evidence is endocrinological. McGonigal cites studies showing that people who have higher stress hormone concentrations following a car accident are *less* likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder; that the stress hormone dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a brain *steroid* (as in, it literally makes your brain grow); and that the ratio of DHEA to cortisol (another stress hormone, but not a steroid) is dependent on your *beliefs* about stress. (My overuse of asterisks hints at how excited I am.)

On of the most surprising findings is that stress and happiness are internationally positively correlated. (In case you're interested, the most stressed out country in the world is the Philippines. It's also one of the happiest.) How could this be? McGonigal explains that this relates to what stress is, psychologically speaking. Stress is a state we experience when something we value is at stake. In other words, a meaningful life cannot help being stressful, since in order to be meaningful, one must be working towards or fighting for something that one cares for. Low levels of stress are actually correlated with increased depression risk, and the explanation for this is likely to be similar.

Overall, then, a big change in the way we see stress is possible, and it carries great benefits.

Enjoy the episode.

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Jul 2, 2018

Edward de Bono has written a lot of books. Although they often contain small novelties, overall his bibliography is quite repetitive, meaning that it's not worth making an episode about every one of his books individually. In this episode, we'll look at six of his books in quick succession. It's the audio summary equivalent of "skimming" these books, which deserve little more if you're already familiar with the books of his we've considered so far on the podcast.

First we look at the "six series": Six Thinking Hats, Six Action Shoes, Six Value Medals and Six Frames for Thinking about Information. The first of these we already saw in the first episode about Edward de Bono, and so there is no need to go into it again in depth, but it is clearly the ancestor of the rest. They all tend to say the same sort of thing, but in slightly different contexts. It's worth quickly skimming through this and then moving on, as there doesn't appear to be much novelty here, just the ability to produce too many sequels, like the Saw movies.

Next we look at Teaching Thinking and Teach Your Child to Think. These are surprisingly underwhelming and not particularly useful. There is some "evidence" provided of the effectiveness of direct teaching of thinking which is completely unreferenced and not peer reviewed, and so, unless you consider the author unusually worthy of blind trust, you are forced to ignore this "evidence". The thinking methods taught in a typical Cognitive Research Trust class (CoRT, de Bono's organisation for teaching thinking) are presented, which is interesting, but also a bit of an anticlimax, as they don't seem to amount to anything particularly novel or special.

Finally, we look at Simplicity, which is ironically more complicated a book than it need be. We can extract a long list of thinking techniques from it, with the occasional pearl, but the book as a whole is not worth diving into too deeply.

Overall, this makes for an unusually fast-moving episode. This is simply because there isn't much to say per book, and I have no reason to waffle and waste your time. It should round out your knowledge of some of the rest of the author's work, and you might have a few useful takeaways here and there as well.

Enjoy the episode.

Jun 24, 2018

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves in Britain - over half have left before having worked for five years. New and experienced teachers alike leave, making the government consider other options for recruitment - generous stipends for training, or bringing in teachers from overseas. This is the UK teacher crisis.

In this episode, I recount a conversation I had with a former teacher and current co-worker of mine which elucidated the root of the problem. The core issues were three: time, energy, and Ofsted (the UK schools inspectorate). The effects are complex and wide-ranging. What I particularly appreciated about our conversation was how it showed what it is like to be a teacher in this situation, which makes it clear why so many are leaving.

For teachers in the UK, what I say in this episode may be obvious and familiar, though they might take heart in realising that they are not alone in their problems. For others, this episode might be as enlightening as the conversation I had was for me.

Enjoy the episode.

May 27, 2018

Sugata Mitra gained widespread acclaim after his TED talk on the Hole in the Wall experiment. In the experiment, he put a computer in a wall of a New Dehli slum, and found that children learned to use it all by themselves. His explorations continued, trying out whether such self-organising learning environments or SOLEs could perform as well as traditional classrooms in terms of children's learning. He since received funding from the World Bank to expand his project to a range of developing countries.

However, independent researchers who have visited Hole in the Wall sites have been disappointed, or even disillusioned, with what they found. The sites where vandalised and abandoned, to the point where two years after they were first installed, few could remember what they were there for. When they were operational, they were mostly used by older boys to play games, and girls and younger children were excluded.

In this episode, I aim to make the audience aware of the imperfections of Sugata Mitra's work, and of the possibility that it has been over-hyped.

Enjoy the episode.

May 7, 2018

A while back, I listened to an interview with Bruce Lee*. There were two things that I took away from it, neither of which I understood at the time: Bruce Lee's insistence that martial arts are first and foremost about self-expression; and the concept of "acting un-acting" or "un-acting acting" (elsewhere I have heard him talk about "fighting un-fighting"). Recently I was reminded of this interview, but this time it made sense to me, because of what I had learned in the meantime about the nature of learning.

Perhaps surprisingly, another look at what he had said got me to think of A Mathematician's Lament, an article by Paul Lockhart about maths education that had I previously covered on the podcast. I feel as though, armed with my new insights, I have a feeling as to what Paul Lockhart may have gotten wrong in his controversial piece.

Overall, then, I am able to extract some ideas from what Bruce Lee says in a rather more coded or mysterious way, and generalise them so that they can apply to any field, while showing how they apply to maths in particular.

Enjoy the episode.


*Full interview available at, entitled "Bruce Lee Interview HQ".

Apr 23, 2018

We've already seen a number of books by Edward de Bono. I am Right, You are Wrong is (was?) probably my favourite book of his, but since it is such a synthesis of his ideas I wanted to save it for after books that discuss his "core" ideas in detail. Now, having done that, it turns out that there is little to say about this book, for the very same reason - as a synthesis, it doesn't provide very many new ideas.

That said, there are 7 ideas from this book that I would like to share, as they provide perspectives not offered by other books of his covered on the podcast so far. Since these ideas all exist within the de Bono "system" or "worldview", it doesn't take very long to introduce them to people already familiar with his work, which, by now, you should be.

So this is really a quick episode to talk about one or two more ideas from an already familiar author and to introduce what I think is his best book.

Enjoy the episode.

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Apr 9, 2018

I've recently been doing a series on creativity on the podcast. Edward de Bono has featured heavily, but there are other creativity-related topics and authors who I also want to talk about. In this episode, we look at the research on brainstorming, the technique for coming up with new ideas.

The provocative title of this episode needs a little clarification. The most strongly supported finding in the research is that brainstorming in a group is not as effective as coming up with ideas individually, and then pooling them. Since brainstorming almost always refers to a group activity, I took the liberty of naming the episode this way. Strictly speaking, brainstorming on your own may not have such terrible effects, though less is known about this.

Research on brainstorming is surprisingly abundant and has been continuously going on for over 50 years. (Sometimes researchers baffle me with what they find important to study - it seems that there is very little research on other, broader topics that also interest me from an educational standpoint, such as interest or prestige.) As a result, there are a lot of other interesting findings to talk about, some of which extend in their relevance beyond brainstorming itself.

As a widely-used and rarely challenged technique for idea generation, I think many will find it useful to hear what we actually know about brainstorming, including how to make the most of it.

Enjoy the episode.


Articles referred to in this episode:

Alex Osborn (1957). Applied Imagination. [Book]

Charles H. Clark (1958). Brainstorming: The Dynamic New Way to Create Succesful Ideas. [Book]

Taylor et al. (1958). Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?

Bouchard and Hare (1970). Size, performance and potential in brainstorming groups.

Lamm and Tromsdorff (1973). Group versus individual performance on tasks requiring ideation proficiency (brainstorming): A review.

Diehl and Stroeber (1987). Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle.

Paulus and Dzindolet (1993). Social Influence Processes in Group Brainstorming.

Paulus et al. (1993). Perception of Performance in Group Brainstorming: The Illusion of Group Productivity.

Sutton and Hargadon (1996). Brainstorming Groups in Context: Effectiveness in a Product Design Firm.

Camacho and Paulus (1995). The Role of Social Anxiousness in Group Brainstorming.

Shepherd et al. (1996). Invoking Social Comparison to Improve Electronic Brainstorming: Beyond Anonymity.

Michinov and Primois (2005). Improving productivity and creativity in online groups through social comparison process: New evidence for asynchronous electronic brainstorming.

Dennis (2015). A meta-analysis of group size effects in electronic brainstorming: more heads are better than one.

Larey and Paulus (1999). Group Preference and Convergent Tendencies in Small Groups: A Content Analysis of Group Brainstorming Performance.

Dennis et al. (2012). Sparking Creativity: Improving Electronic Brainstorming with Individual Cognitive Priming.

Feinberg and Nemeth (2008). The "Rules" of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?

Rossiter and Lilien (1994). New "Brainstorming" Principles.

Isaksen et al. (1998). A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry.

Isaksen and Gaulin (2005). A Reexamination of Brainstorming Research: Implications for Research and Practice.

Hender et al. (2001). Improving Group Creativity: Brainstorming vs Non-Brainstorming Techniques in a GSS Environment.


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Mar 26, 2018

Edward de Bono has long stressed the need to be open to the creation of new words in order to support the development of new concepts and ideas, even in areas not considered "cutting edge". For example, in his book Simplicity, he makes the case (not too convincingly) that the words "simple" and "simplify" are too long and complicated, and they should themselves be simplified to the word "simp", as in "We should simp this so it will be more simp." (Understandably, de Bono has his detractors when it comes to these neologisms.)

"Po" is a new word. (To be fair, it was actually new in 1969 when he first mentioned it in The Mechanism of Mind, but every time de Bono refers to it he calls it "new"). It is somewhat unusual in that it is not a noun or a verb, as most neologisms are, but a grammatical particle, like "yes", "no", "and", "but" or "should". The form of the word comes from the initials of the phrase "provocation operation", but also happens to be the first two letters of a convenient list of words in English, such as poetry, possible, and ponder. 

Po is used in order to introduce a phrase or word that is not be be taken seriously, but merely to be used as an input to lateral thinking. Consider the following examples: "Po politicians should be encouraged to be tyrants." "Po children should be given sharp objects to play with." "Po the sky is red." Each of these ideas appears either crazy or non-sensical, but we can use them to gain new perspectives or think of new ideas.

What if encouraging politicians to be as bad as possible would uncover the untrustworthy ones quickly so that they could be removed before they do too much damage? What if children were trusted with things we usually don't trust them with, so they learn more responsibility and get a taste of the real world? What if we could wear glasses that would invert all the colours that we see? I'm not saying that the above are necessarily all *good* ideas, just that they are outgrowths from the silly provocations deliberately presented to make me think in new ways, which I otherwise wouldn't have thought of.

For most of this episode, I cover de Bono's general thoughts and the argument presented for why Po is important, rather than talking about the application of Po itself. This is discussed near the end, and doesn't take long to introduce. De Bono's arguments are worth engaging with, though, as they give us an unusual perspective on thinking, and let us realise why a word like po may be useful to creative thinking.

Enjoy the episode.

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Mar 12, 2018

In the previous episode, we looked at a range of articles concerning the effectiveness of so-called "brain training" in general, with a particular focus on Lumosity, one of the big players in the market. In this episode, we home in on perhaps the most promising type of "brain training": dual n-back.

Dual n-back has more evidence than most other forms of "brain training" that it can increase working memory. This is a big deal, since working memory has otherwise not been found to change due to any intervention, but it is strongly implicated in higher reasoning and generally in intelligence. To paraphrase cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, if a genie were to suddenly appear and offer to increase your cognitive capacity in any way, your best choice would be to ask for more working memory. And dual n-back might just be the granting of that wish.

One further advantage of dual n-back is that it is an unpatented technique, rather than software from one company in particular. You can find and use free dual N-back applications for the computer or mobile device. This also means that the waters are less muddied by the advertising / propaganda of people trying to make money from it.

One thing we must keep in mind is that investing time and energy into any sort of "brain training" brings up an opportunity cost. Could that time and energy have been better used by learning something new - a new sport, craft, language, or field of study? Might not a change in diet, improved sleep, or increased exercise do more for the day-to-day working of one's brain than such specialised computer games? While none of the above are proven to permanently increase working memory, their effect on thinking is well-documented, and considerably less controversial than any brain-training, including dual n-back.

If dual n-back works, we should probably have all pupils and students use it; if it doesn't, then we must not be distracted by it. Which will it be? Listen to the episode to find out more.

Enjoy the episode.


Articles referred to in this episode:

Jaeggi et al. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory.

Jaeggi et al. (2010). The relationship between n-back performance and matrix reasoning - implications for training and transfer.

Morrison and Chein (2011). Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory.

St Claire-Thompson et al. (2010). Improving children's working memory and classroom performance.

Kroesbergen et al. (2014). Training working memory in kindergarten children: Effects on working memory and early numeracy.

Shipstead et al. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective?

Reddick et al. (2013). No Evidence of Intelligence Improvement after Working Memory Training: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.

Lervag and Holme (2013). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review.

Lilienthal et al. (2013). Dual n-back training increases the capacity of the focus of attention.

Colom et al. (2013). Adaptive n-back training does not improve fluid intelligence at the construct level: Gains on individual tests suggest that training may enhance visuospatial processing.

Lebedev et al. (2017). Working memory and reasoning tasks are associated with different modes of large-scale dynamics in healthy older adults.

Mar 5, 2018

Could specially designed exercises on your computer or mobile phone make you smarter? "Brain-training" is now a multi-billion pound industry, and that money comes from people hoping to get a boost in their mental faculties from spending time playing the various games in the apps in question. Do these apps work as they are supposed to? And if they are, shouldn't we have all children (and maybe adults too) make use of them?

In this episode, I go through the research on this topic, with a particular focus on Lumosity, one of the biggest players in this market. I start from the scientific articles provided on Lumosity's website, and continue with articles found from elsewhere on the same topic.

Of course, there are many more brain-training apps out there other than Lumosity, including Peak, Elevate, Cognito, Left vs. Right, Brain It On!, and Fit Brains Trainer. But they are generally similar enough that the research literature probably applies to basically all of them. Lumosity is a particularly interesting case to analyse since its marketing is so insistent that the app is "scientifically designed". What is the substance behind this claim?

I won't spoil it for you! Have a listen to see what I found out.

Enjoy the episode.

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Mar 3, 2018

In this episode, we will look closely at Edward de Bono's idea of lateral thinking by considering two of his books, The Use of Lateral Thinking (1971) and Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity (1977).

Lateral thinking is the central idea behind all of de Bono's work. It grows out of the models of mind that de Bono presented in his first book The Mechanism of Mind (1969), and was initially introduced in the second part of that book. De Bono coined the term himself, but now it is a commonly used word in the English language.

De Bono argues that, although logical thinking is a powerful and important approach, it is not enough. Logical thinking cannot generate new ideas. Like a car with an accelerator but no steering wheel, pure logical thinking can only have us move down existing well-trodden paths, or keep moving forward in the direction we are already going.

Lateral thinking, on the other hand, like a steering wheel, allows us to change direction. The very word "lateral" means "sideways", so lateral thinking is about moving "sideways" out of existing patterns to generate new perspectives.

The author explains that lateral thinking is closely related to both insight and humour, something that was also explained in The Mechanism of Mind. It is all about perception and perspective. Although computers can do logical operations very well, computers cannot (at least for the forseeable future) laugh. This uniquely human trait is one facet of the human capability for change of perspective - the basic idea behind lateral thinking, and a latent human strength.

Enjoy the episode.

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Feb 28, 2018

Although ostensibly about economics, this book is in fact about the effect of poverty of various kinds on the mind.

Poverty is a shortage of resources. It could be money, time (busy people are "time-poor"), or some other resource. When people experience scarcity, their minds automatically, subconsciously devote mental resources to the issue. The results of this are two.

1. They are more rational in their approach to the use of the resource, and use it more prudently. For example, usually supermarkets will have more than one size of packs of things, with the idea that if you buy a six-pack, it is cheaper per can than buying six individual cans of drink. However, sometimes supermarkets will play a trick, making the larger pack more expensive per item than the individual item. Poor people get caught out by this kind of trick much less often, as they are paying attention to prices, and reasoning about what is the best use of their money.

2. More importantly, the automatic assignment of mental resources to deal with the scarcity reduces the remaining free mental resources. This means that they have lower self-control, and - rather shockingly - have lower effective intelligence (i.e. they behave as if they were less intelligent than they "really" are, since some of their mental energy is constantly being consigned to worrying about money).

This has important consequences for thinking about the way the mind operates, as well as, on a social level, the effect of poverty on people's mental abilities. I hope you can see how, despite appearances, this book is in fact very relevant to education.

Enjoy the episode.

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Feb 27, 2018

Edward de Bono's work can mostly be divided into two parts: models of how the mind works; and applications of principles extracted from those models to improve thinking, particularly creative thinking. The Mechanism of Mind is his first book, and it primarily deals with the first of these two parts.

De Bono wrote The Mechanism of Mind in 1969, at a time when not much was known about the brain, nor about complex adaptive systems (the types of physical objects and situations studied by the fields of mathematics and physics known as chaos theory, complexity theory, and dynamical systems). De Bono's key insight was to realise that the brain is a complex adaptive system, and to run with this insight to produce new insights into how human thinking works, how it differs from the working of computers, and how to make the most of it.

The Mechanism of Mind introduces the reader to how de Bono thought that the brain probably worked when he was writing in 1969, by providing a series of analogies or "models" - the polythene-and-pins model, the jelly-and-ink model, and the thousand-bulb model. These aim to clarify the behaviour of the brain both in terms of what kinds of things the brain does, and how this behaviour arises from the brain's structure. His expectations from 1969 were surprisingly close to the overall understood behaviour of the brain (or, at least, small collections of neurons) according to modern neuroscience.

Overall, the book serves as a stimulus to thought, and need not be believed in its entirety. It is, after all, one man's guess at how the brain worked based on what was known to science half a century ago. Nevertheless, his explanations do support a number of interesting propositions about thinking, with important consequences for the nature of creativity, which he explains in detail in his other books.

Enjoy the episode.

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Feb 1, 2018

Cal Newport is a computer scientist at Georgetown University who writes a blog called Study Hacks about effective study methods. We have covered one of his books already, So Good They Can't Ignore You, when I wanted to discuss career advice.

Before writing How to Become a Straight-A Student, Newport visited a number of university campuses in the USA and looked for students who got the best grades. Curiously, he found that these usually came in two types - those who were constantly grinding away in their studies, as one might expect from a top student; and those who seemed to their peers never to be overworked, and led full extra-curricular and social lives, but always seemed to do the best in their courses. Newport interviewed these, and their approaches to study make the basis of this book.

It's interesting to see some of the cognitive science ideas like those put forward by Benedict Carey's How We Learn being put into action by these students, generally without any of them being aware that they are doing so, as they apparently happened upon their study techniques by themselves. It is particularly enlightening to see how they prioritise certain important cognitive features - for example, considering coloured pens for notes to be superfluous (despite scientific evidence that this would improve memory). It would appear that these successful students have figured out the relative importance of various techniques or insights into learning without having to carry out any scientific experiments or read the cognitive science literature.

This is the first study guide that I am covering on the podcast, and I don't intend to cover very many. I'm more interested in talking about fundamentals on this podcast than in sharing tips and tricks. The fact that I like the author (due to his other books), and that his approach seems more empirical than other study guides, but less clinically divorced from the real world than scientific books and articles, led me to want to share it with you. I hope it helps you in your studies, or in your teaching.

Enjoy the episode.

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Jan 31, 2018

Edward de Bono is an expert on creativity, author of over 40 books on the subject. He invented the term "lateral thinking" in the 1960s, which is now a part of common parlance. Over his long career, he has worked with numerous large corporations such as Microsoft, Apple, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, Bose, HP, LinkedIn, and Texas Instruments, as well as schools, charities, and governments. His basic premise is that creativity can be taught by direct teaching of thinking skills and techniques, and that this kind of thinking is not a normal part of culture, but that it should be.

Controversially, although highly scientifically and mathematically trained, he does not work on scientifically validating his own ideas, only on trying to develop them and promote them, and on making them accessible to a general audience. However, his ideas are nothing if not interesting and original, and I am persuaded enough by much of what he writes that I find it sensible to share it on this podcast.

He is also rather topical because of recent interest in the idea of direct teaching of thinking, which is often combined with the idea of imparting so-called "21st century skills" to schoolchildren. Cognitive scientists often insist that general thinking skills cannot be improved, and that we may only improve at thinking within some particular domain (though some skills are important within many domains, such as reading). For some reason, Edward de Bono never seems to be mentioned during these discussions - neither by those who are in favour of teaching thinking (who, you would think, would be fans of his), nor by those who claim that teaching general thinking directly is a fool's errand. This strange silence, as I perceive it, is something I would like to go some way to fixing.

In this episode, I want to introduce Edward de Bono himself, as well as talk about one of his most famous and commonly applied ideas, the Six Thinking Hats, popularised by a book of the same name. In future episodes we will have a chance to dig more deeply into his work on lateral thinking, creativity, the nature of the mind, and direct teaching of thinking skills, among other things.

Enjoy the episode.

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Jan 9, 2018

This is the second part of the episode about Brain-Based Learning. In the previous part, I discussed the chapters concerning relative lateralisation (left/right hemispheres), rhythms (such as circadian rhythms), gender, physical activity, stress and threat, and the senses (vision, touch, taste, smell, and sound). In this episode we look at the chapters on emotions, teacher communication, motivation, attention, teaching how to think, memory, meaning making, and enriching the brain.

Enjoy the episode.

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Jan 9, 2018

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a PhD in Human Development from Fielding Graduate University. In 1981, he co-founded "the United States' first and largest brain-compatible learning program"[1], and he has been the head of Jensen Learning, a company that trains teachers what he calls "brain-friendly" or "brain-compatible" teaching and learning principles, since 1995. Brain-Based Learning is one of the first books that I read as I was getting into finding out more about education research several years ago.

I am quite disappointed with this book. It's not very good. The problems with it are numerous. 

Firstly, it does not appear to have any central guiding principles. Generally, a good book will give you ideas in the form of kernels which will be applicable in many situations, and it will show you how those central ideas operate so that you can understand their power and generality. In Brain-Based Learning, Jensen sets out what he wants to tell the reader as essentially a list. This makes it difficult to make head or tail of the book as a whole.

Secondly, there is a pervasive lack of references. This means that most of his assertions are stated just as bare-faced facts (with occasional "research has shown..." + random fact, which no reference), meaning that we are supposed to just take him on his word. In some cases, his references are highly dubious, such as when he cites a video produced by Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) inventor Richard Bandler as the only source for over a page of information and suggestions. NLP is generally understood by psychologists to have little scientific support (what science there is on it tends to show that it doesn't work), so this is obviously somewhat dubious.

Thirdly, most of his suggestions are obvious in the first place. When he suggests that children need good nutrition or that people need to be hydrated, who is he arguing against? Who didn't think that, or was unaware of that, in the first place? There is a sense in which he is using the idea that his approaches are "brain-based" to lend extra authority to his statements, but the statements themselves were often already well-known and widely accepted approaches prior to his advocacy for them.

There are many more criticisms that can be made of this book, and I do make them in the audio. I end up doing a mixture of pulling out the occasional interesting idea, enriching what he writes with context that actually makes it make sense, and pointing out the many places where his work is not useful, or is just confusing. I hope that, despite the rather negative nature of this episode, you will still find it worth listening to.

Enjoy the episode.

[1] Quoted from on 9th January 2018.

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Dec 22, 2017

This is an episode which requires little justification for its relevance to education - the title says it all. How We Learn presents a selection of cognitive science's more recent findings, some of which are rather counterintuitive, and gives several "tips" for how one might study more effectively based on these.

Topics covered include the importance of forgetting (!) for learning; the effect of context on learning, and the idea that varied context provides for better learning by enhancing the number of cues for memory retrieval; the power of spaced repetition; test-taking as a study method; and incubation and percolation, two ways of enhancing creativity and problem-solving by making use of downtime and the subconscious mind.

The idea that seems to run through everything most strongly is desirable difficulty, not a phrase that the author himself uses, but one that he explains in his own way. If there's one key take-away, it's "make learning hard".

Personally, most of the topics covered make me think of my approach to learning languages, which seems to jibe well with many of the ideas, although in some cases I clearly could do things better. There are a number of things here that I could have used either in my own learning or in my teaching, but somehow forgot about them all in the time (more than two years) between reading this book and recording this episode. Hopefully the audience will make better use of these ideas than I have so far!

Enjoy the episode.

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Nov 28, 2017

I've spent some time thinking about the past 50 episodes of the podcast, and I've identified a number of themes - why people do things; how people get good at things; inner states and beliefs; mathematics education; and educational myth-busting, to name a few. But I decided that this episode would be more interesting and helpful if it linked as many ideas as possible under a single umbrella.

So, what's the most important idea that I talked about these past (almost) two years? To my mind, many episodes focused on the interaction between the subconscious and the conscious in learning. This led to considering the optimal interaction between the two - flow - and the best known conditions for encouraging flow, both externally (games) and internally (process orientation). 

In this episode, I remind the audience of these ideas and their connections to try to produce an overview of much of the past 80 or so hours of audio. Hopefully it will be a good review for those who have been listening thus far, and it might be a good jumping point for those who are new to the podcast.

Enjoy the episode.

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Oct 3, 2017

Explanations can broadly be categorised according to two adjectives: nomological and mechanistic. Mechanistic explanations are to do with cause and effect, and focus on events and causes that immediately precede the fact that we desire to explain. Nomological explanations are based on general principles. The following is the definition of the word "nomological":

nomological. adj. Relating to or denoting principles that resemble laws, especially those laws of nature which are neither logically necessary nor theoretically explicable, but just are so.

Here are some word pairs that I came up with that are near-synonymous to the above two terms, and help to clarify their meaning:

NOMOLOGICAL vs MECHANISTIC. Why vs How. Simplifying explanations vs Causal explanations. Morals of stories vs Stories themselves. General laws vs Causal systems. Strategy vs Tactics. Atemporal vs Temporal. Essence vs Origin. Solution vs Process. Intuition vs Calculation. Cutting the knot vs Untying the knot. Whole vs Parts. "Abstract" vs "Concrete". Art vs Accountancy. Taking the lift vs Walking up the stairs. Market inevitabilities vs Specific catalysts.

Firstly, I think that this is a fascinating topic, and one that is rarely talked about. When was the last time you talked about what kinds or styles of explanations you think are convincing? Did you even realise that there is such a thing as a style of explanation?

Secondly, I think that this can be important when we think about how we are teaching and learning. The best kinds of explanation are both nomological *and* mechanistic - like Yin and Yang, the two complete each other to provide "thorough" explanations. There are also certain kinds of explanations that are more appropriate for beginners.

Apparently, there is some research showing that cognitive styles (as the above are called) vary by discipline, so that, for example, linguists tend to think much more nomologically than psychologists. There is also evidence demonstrating that people's tastes in this regard don't tend to change much over time, partly because of natural disposition, but partly due to the self-reinforcing nature of holding a certain kind of taste and then mixing with your own kind.

This episode is inspired by the article Cognitive Styles in Two Cognitive Sciences by James Myers, but most of the content is my own thinking around this issue.

Enjoy the episode.

Sep 28, 2017

Josh Waitzkin was the international under-18 chess champion at age 18, only to quit chess at age 22 and pursue Tai-chi Push Hands, the martial application of Tai Chi. He became world champion in this martial art at age 28, and won the title several more times since then.

As an accomplished competitor in two fields - one mental, one mostly physical - a book written by him about how he learns is obviously going to contain some interesting ideas. The main themes of what he writes about are two: learning by focusing on principles and deeply understanding the fundamentals; and how to increase concentration and overcome distraction.

Interestingly, many of the things that Waitzkin writes in his own personal way square with a lot of findings of cognitive science, many of which we already talked about in other episodes of the podcast. Ideas such as the role of the subconscious, chunking, and expert blindness all appear in his writing, but he usually refers to these by other names.

Two quotes from the book didn't make it into the recording, but are worth sharing, and so I will share them below.

On losing: "There is something particularly painful about being beaten in a chess game. In the course of a battle, each player puts every ounce of his or her tactical, strategical, emotional, physical, and spiritual being into the struggle. The brain is pushed through terrible trials; we stretch every fibre of our mental capacity; the whole body aches from exhaustion after hours of rapt concentration. In the course of a dynamic chess fight, there will be shifts in momentum, near misses, narrow escapes, innovative creations, and precise refutations. When your position teeters on the brink of disaster, it feels like your life is on the line. When you win, you survive another day. When you lose, it is as if someone has torn out your heart and stepped on it. No exaggeration. Losing is brutal."

On competition: "From one perspective the opponent is the enemy. On the other hand there is no one who knows you more intimately, no one who challenges you so profoundly or pushes you to excellence and growth so relentlessly."

Enjoy the episode.

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Sep 27, 2017

This book is about shame.

Shame is a taboo emotion in our culture. It is not talked about, which is part of what makes it so powerful, and part of its essence - it is an emotion of disconnection, or feeling rejected or not worthy of the group. It can affect students as well as teachers, almost always negatively. Students can experience it coming from teachers (often with good intentions), or coming from other students as a form of bullying.

In an educational or work setting, shame is often used as a motivator. It doesn't work, though. Guilt can be a motivator, because guilt is about regretting something that you have done; but shame is about regretting who you are, which does not spur one on to action. Guilt and shame can be seen as the growth- and fixed-mindset versions of the same psychological mechanism (this last is my conclusion, not Dr Brown's).

Shame is also distinct from humiliation. Humiliation is when you don't believe that you deserve the undermining of your dignity that has occurred; whereas shame is when you believe that you do deserve it.  

Whether shame is deliberately meted out or happens upon someone with nobody else's intention, it is a terrible feeling, often described as "the worst feeling in the world". It paralyses people and makes it difficult for them to make progress, or even function normally.

Dr Brené Brown has made a career of studying shame, and this book is based on the results of hundreds of interviews that she conducted for her research. She discusses what shame is, how it works, and how to build "shame resilience" - the ability to pass through shame in the fastest and most constructive way, and to feel less suffering than one otherwise would.

Enjoy the episode.

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Sep 22, 2017

In this episode, we will look at the article Seeing the Glass Half Full: A Review of the Causes and Consequences of Optimism by Mary Forgeard and Martin Seligman. (The name of the article was so long that I thought it might be better to give the episode a to-the-point, minimalistic title.)

Since we just looked at self-esteem and at self-compassion, I thought it might be good to take a look at another concept within the same general psychological area: optimism. Is optimism good for you? What causes it? And how does it affect academic performance?

This episode is a very short one, the reason being that the answers to many important questions about optimism remain unanswered. Optimism does appear to be good for you, but there is no clear answer on whether it is good for academic achievement; and the article's answer to "what causes it?" is the academic writing equivalent of saying "y'know, stuff". 

Having a look through Google Scholar also didn't bring up many papers that were answering my questions. So, in short: it's good for you in many ways, but nobody knows much else about it.

Enjoy the episode.

Sep 22, 2017

We've seen in the previous episode how trying to increase one's self-esteem is a dangerous proposition, and how having high self-esteem is not necessarily a good thing. Now it's time to look at another approach to the self which is a lot more promising.

Self-compassion is an idea taken originally from traditional buddhist psychology, but now studied fairly extensively with the scientific method. In a word, it's being nice to yourself. It is trying to be your own "best friend" by thinking about how a good friend would relate to you in moments of difficulty, and adopting that behaviour towards yourself. This is in sharp opposition with self-criticism, which is most people's response when something is going wrong in their lives.

There are three main components of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Mindfulness is about being aware of what is happening in the present moment, rather than getting lost in thoughts about the past, the future, or hypothetical events. Common humanity is the idea that you aren't the only one who is suffering this way, and that pain and disappointment are a normal part of life for everyone. Kindness is about just being nice to yourself, making your inner talk of the kind that a good friend might use when comforting you.

The benefits of self-compassion are numerous and well-documented. They include:

- reduced risk of anxiety and depression;
- experiencing fewer negative emotions, such as fear, irritability, hostility, or distress;
- the ability to persevere in the face of failure;
- reduced procrastination; and
- greater motivation and a higher likelihood of achieving goals.

Self-compassion is distinct from self-pity and self-indulgence. In self-pity, we see our own lives as the worst, and that we alone are having a hard time, whereas in self-compassion we focus on how we are similar to others through our common humanity.
Self-compassion does not lead us to eat a barrel of ice-cream a day as self-indulgence would, but asks the question: "What would be the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?" Sometimes this is having a break, and sometimes it could be indulging in some ice-cream. But often it is working or studying. The aim isn't to indulge, but to do what is honestly good for you at the time.

This may be a difficult topic for some, as dropping the internal critic and instead adopting a kind, supportive voice seems so counter-intuitive and against our culture. It also might seem a bit of a "flowery" thing to be saying, and might therefore sound "unscientific" by the standards of this podcast. Kristin Neff's work is well backed-up by scientific studies, though, so I hope that you can be open-minded towards this new way of relating to oneself.

Enjoy the episode.

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