Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Feb 10, 2019

After the events of summer 1982, when Jaime Escalante's Advanced Placement Calculus students were accused of cheating and then vindicated on a re-test, Escalante had become famous first in local and then national news. The original story about an American institution, ETS, allegedly discriminating based on race to accuse the latino students of cheating, turned into a story of surprise and applause as an "academic sinkhole" like Garfield High managed to have such a large number of students taking AP Calculus.

The events of 1982 inspired a film about Jaime Escalante, Stand and Deliver, which spread his fame to an even wider audience. But the film came too early. In the years following 1982, calculus at Garfield High continuedto grow with the same momentum, reaching ever greater heights. After the 18 students taking the exam in 1982, there were 33 in 1983, a whopping 68 in 1984 (more than double the previous year!), and two years later, in 1986, a staggering 151 students took the test, more than eight times as many as in the year that brought Escalante fame.

While AP Calculus was in overdrive, other AP programs also began to thrive. Garfield High now offered Advanced Placement courses in History, English, Biology, Physics, French, Government, and Computer Science, with a growing number of students taking these year on year.

Within twelve years, Garfield High had transformed from a gang-ridden hole on the brink of being shut down, to an academic beacon with a waiting list of 400 students. It is truly a story worth telling.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 10, 2019

After a short time working at Garfield High School, Jaime Escalante was asked to take over Advanced Placement calculus. Advanced Placement is a type of examination which offers "college credit", meaning that those who pass have a reduced number of courses that they need to take to get a degree. It's a hard exam, basically.

Escalante wasn't sure about the programme at first, but soon became keen to take it over and expand it. He felt that it gives an objective view of his work and that of his students, and gives them something to strive towards and be competitive about.

Escalante worked hard to push his students. He used every tactic he could think of, from bribes to threats to guilt trips; and he extended study time to before school, after school, lunchtime, and summer break. He worked so hard that one day he had a heart attack, and worked right through it. This story did much to add to his mystique.

The calculus classes expanded: first 5, then 8, then 15, and in 1982 there were 18. That was a fateful year, when his students would be accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The accusation would draw attention to this burgeoning calculus programme in what all had assumed to be an academic backwater, and national fame followed. But Escalante would not rest on his laurels.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 8, 2019

In 1974, Garfield High School got a new principal (headmaster) in the form of Alex Avilez. The school was in turmoil, with a major gang presence, and a police presence to help combat the gang presence. It was noisy, with music blaring from "dozens" of radios; fights broke out often; truancy was rampant; and the dropout rate was 50%.

Avilez's core belief was in people's fundamental goodness. He was excited about young people and about human potential, and wanted to aim for a peaceful Garfield High in which everyone loved one another. The way to achieve this, he decided, was to treat the students as the adults they were about to become. He registered the gangs with the school, placed their insignia in prominent locations, and negotiated with gang leaders to preserve decorum and reduce violence.

Possemato was principal after Avilez. Together with Gradillas, he had a very different approach to discipline at the school. Although Gradillas believed that every child knows the difference between right and wrong, he felt that this sense was often deeply buried, and the way to get the best out of adolescents often involved pushing their buttons and riling them up emotionally. He would physically take down students being a danger to others, accuse liars of being cowards, and tell parents that they were sorry that their children had no respect for them.

The difference in the effectiveness of these two approaches was stark. One almost plunged the school into an abyss, while the other saved it from closing. It is an important part of the Garfield High story that doesn't get told as much as Escalante's calculus teaching, and yet was essential to its success.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 6, 2019

One of the main lessons from the story of Jaime Escalante's career at East LA's Garfeild High School was that it was ultimately a team effort to reach the academic level that the school eventually did. Apart from Escalante himself, there are two figures who stand out as central to the story: Henry Gradillas and Benjamin Jimenez.

Gradillas joined Garfield High as a biology teacher after six years in the US army and a short stint as an orchard manager. He saw clear similarities between the young people in his classroom and those who he had been training as an army captain - they were only slightly younger, and they had similar needs, desires, and problems. He would later be promoted to Dean of Discipline and finally Principal (Headmaster) of Garfield High, positions in which he would help deal with Escalante's problem students, and provide him with the resources he needed to make the Advanced Placement Calculus courses a success.

Jimenez was one of the other mathematics teachers at Garfield. Impressed with Escalante's classes, he became an apprentice and later collaborator and ally to Escalante. He would go on to run many of the courses preparing students for a the rigours of calculus, and would run some of the calculus classes themselves when the program grew above 100 students. Without Jimenez, Escalante would be left with only uninterested teachers and active enemies in his department, and too much work for one individual to carry out.

Escalante himself needs much less introduction, famous as he is. The title of the book is Escalante: The Greatest Teacher in America after all. The book goes into more detail about his background than those of the others. The most interesting thing we hear about his background is how he struggled as a beginning teacher, and the teachers that he admired as he went through his training. It is enlightening to see what his early influences were in terms of his approach to teaching.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 3, 2019

Jaime Escalante was a Bolivian teacher who came to Los Angeles in the 1960s. After joining the chaotic failing school Garfield High as a mathematics teacher in 1974, he soon began an Advanced Placement Calculus program that grew to an unheard of size for such a disadvantaged community.

In 1982, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which wrote and marked the tests, suspected Garfield High students of cheating. This led to interest from the media and later fame for Escalante as people started to take notice of what was happening at the school. Soon after, the film Stand and Deliver was produced based on Escalante's success up to that point, starring Edward James Olmos in the leading role.

However, even this film did not capture the scale of the success at Garfield High, as it came too early. After 1982, the number of students at the school taking AP Calculus continued to climb to stratospheric heights, from 18 in 1982 - already unbelievable to most, hence the media attention - to 33 in 1983, 68 in 1984, and an eye-watering 151 in 1986. Other AP programs also took off, including History, Government, English, Physics, and Computer Science.

How did all this happen? What is Escalante's secret? These are pressing questions, as they could lead to a better understanding of how to motivate and teach students, as well as how to turn a failing school around.

This book is written as a story, and so the themes and key lessons from it have to be disentangled from the narrative. We will be looking at it in four parts:

  1. Introducing the main characters (Jaime Escalante, Henry Gradillas, and Benjamin Jimenez);
  2. Considering the two very different approaches to discipline applied at the school, one with disastrous consequences and one that saved the school from closing;
  3. Examining how Escalante and his "team" managed to raise standards and achievement; and
  4. Admiring the "glory years", after 1982, when the whole school was on the academic upsurge.

There are several lessons to take from the story of Escalante and Garfield High. I hope you enjoy learning from this exceptional case study as much as I have.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 28, 2019

I first read You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned almost five years ago. In that time, I have learned much about how people learn. Re-reading the book now, I am struck by how much of what John Wooden did in his teaching is well supported by modern cognitive science. This is what I try to convey in this short addendum to the notes on John Wooden's pedagogy.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 20, 2019

John Wooden was a basketball coach for UCLA and an English teacher. He is renowned as one of the greatest coaches of all time, winning 10 out of 12 NCAA championships, including seven in a row, and has been named Coach of the Century by ESPN among others.

You Haven't Taught Until They've Learned is a book about his pedagogy, written by one of his former players (Swen Nater) and by an education researcher who had the rare privilege to observe his basketball practices and ask him detailed questions about his teaching (Ronald Gallimore). The dual authorship gives it a valuable two-pronged perspective, that of student as well as that of researcher.

As one reads the book, one is struck by the sense that Coach Wooden was not only exceptional in terms of what he did - his approach to teaching - but also who he was - a man of such strong moral character that it is daunting even to use him as a role model. He taught by example as well as teaching explicitly, and his students remember him for that.

In his retirement, barely a day went by without one of John Wooden's former students calling him to talk. He pushed his students hard, but he also cared for them deeply. It is surely valuable to examine some of his practices and principles from his exceptional career.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 1, 2019

John Hattie is an education researcher from New Zealand with a very ambitious goal: to synthesise the myriad quantitative research studies on education in a single publication. The number of articles affecting his book Visible Learning numbers in the region of 80 thousand (!). The results of his analysis have been hailed as the "Holy Grail" of education by such prestigious authorities as the Times Education Supplement. So, how did he and his team do it?

Hattie uses an approach known as meta-analysis. Meta-analyses take numerous research articles trying to measure an effect and compare them in order to ultimately determine the size of the effect. They are common in medicine, where they are often used to elucidate whether a drug is truly effective or not, as a single study may incorrectly show a drug to be effective simply by chance.

However, Hattie goes one step further and carries out a meta-analysis on other meta-analyses, forming a sort of "meta-meta-analysis". With this approach, his team only directly work with 400 articles, as each of these is a meta-analysis of tens or hundreds of other articles, which is how we reach the gargantuan number 80 thousand.

You would have thought that such an ambitious, influential, and widely praised work would have come under much careful scrutiny. And you would have thought that since it is so statistical, numerous other researchers in the field of education would have performed at least a surface-level plausibility check.

However, you may be disappointed. It took two years for anybody to even begin to notice the glaring statistical errors behind this work, and even when they were noticed, Hattie's team didn't treat them with the gravity they deserved. Methodological criticism gradually increased in number, and by now it is clear that the "Holy Grail" has numerous leaky holes.

In this episode, after introducing Visible Learning, I go on to take some highlights from one such criticism, entitled How to engage in pseudoscience with real data: A criticism of John Hattie’s arguments in Visible Learning from the perspective of a statistician, written by Canadian statistician Pierre-Jerome Bergeron. I aim to explain the most accessible points, and leave the more complex parts of the article for those with the interest and mathematical acumen to look up.

This sort of thing seems to happen a lot in education. It's one of the reasons why it's so hard to figure out how things work and what's actually true in the field. At least I can warn people about the problems with this still widely cited work.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 1, 2019

Graham Nuthall was an education researcher from New Zealand who spent most of his career on classroom observation, both by directly sitting in on lessons and by recording them by the hundred, watching them back, and analysing them with his team. He also made extensive use of interviews with students to clarify their thought processes. This short book communicates his most important findings to other researchers and to teachers.

His most impressive achievement is being able to predict, with some accuracy, what concepts or facts children have learned based solely on classroom observation. His team would analyse what different students were doing at key moments in lessons, noting whether they were paying attention to the information being taught or discussed. They found that if a student had been paying attention at least three times when the full information necessary to understand a concept was being stated, then they would almost always have formed the concept and be able to articulate it after the end of the unit. If they had paid attention only two or fewer times, they had not learnt the concept.

His work emphasises the individual lives of students, and particularly peer interactions. It's not only "distraction" either - for some students, over half of what they learned had been from peers. He goes over detailed examples of classroom conversations, both the public and the clandestine, showing how these affect both student learning and broader behaviour and culture.

Although the main points of the book concern peers and the number of exposures required to learn something, given that the book is a summary of the most important things that Nuthall has to say, it touches on many other points and ideas in education.

Although I was hoping to make this a short episode, as per my Public Service Announcement (last "episode"), it ended up having to be around 50 minutes long to cover the most important things that he had to say, even briefly. Maybe 50 minutes is still short for me.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 1, 2019

It's been three years since the start of Education Bookcast. I will be attempting to change the format to make episodes shorter. I also mention some successes of the past year.

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.

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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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