Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
RSS Feed
Education Bookcast



All Episodes
Now displaying: Page 1
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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by

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.

Music by


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.

Music by

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.

Music by

Sep 20, 2017

Self-esteem is a psychological concept that has penetrated everyday language. In many Western countries, it is generally understood that high self-esteem is essential to health, happiness, and success. Is this really the case? And how did this idea spread?

So much was the excitement about self-esteem in the early 90's that the California state legislature set up a Task Force to Promote Self Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, with an annual budget of over $700,000. All it took was some politicians with unusual metaphysical beliefs and flexible interpretations of the words of scientist ("The news most consistently reported is that the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent" was somehow re-interpreted to mean "self-esteem is the social vaccine" and "a giant step for mankind"). Add a media frenzy and the drowned-out voices of dissenters and you have the beginnings of a highly misleading movement.

High self-esteem does not cause what it was expected to, and in fact has some potentially rather nasty side effects, notably narcissism and a fixed mindset. It is not recommended.

Enjoy the episode.

Music by

Sep 20, 2017

I spent a month in summer in Lithuania on a language course. Some events while I was there prompted me to realise something about education that I had heard before, but never quite understood.

The music played in this episode is Lietuvos istorijos repas by Šventinis bunkuchenas.

Enjoy the episode.

Jun 25, 2017

It reduces productivity, prevents learning, reduces effective IQ, disrupts relationships, undermines creative thinking, and saps self-control. It increases the risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and ADHD. 

What is it? Lack of sleep.

Sleep is essential for learning. We spend around a third of our lives in this state, and yet we take up much less than one third of our time thinking about how to make it better. In Night School, not only can we learn all about how sleep works, but also we can find out how to get better at sleeping.

The "sleep problem" around the world is quite serious. Over 30% of British and American adults and around 80% of American teenagers do not get the sleep they need. 1 in 10 British adults takes some form of medication to help them sleep. Lack of sleep is responsible for $150 billion of lost productivity per year, and about 100,000 road deaths per year, not to mention the increased rates of heart disease and other ailments mentioned above.

But this book is not only for those who have problems sleeping. Just as it is possible to improve your fitness at any level, so it is possible to improve your sleep even if it is already good. You can become a "super-sleeper" - someone who always has a good night's sleep and wakes up refreshed. Super-sleepers have been shown to have better health, greater happiness, and more wealth, on average, than the rest of the population.

Enjoy the episode.

May 5, 2017

Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity is the most popular TED talk ever given, with just under 45 million views at the time of my writing this. It is so influential that Robinson has a page on his website devoted to feedback forms about how the talk changed people's lives.

It is also nonsense. And yet, somehow, I was also convinced by it when I first heard it. The weakness of Robinson's arguments combined with the powerful effect he seems to have on people are testament to his incredible skill as a public speaker. The talk demands closer scrutiny even if only to take notes on how to give persuasive presentations.

Almost all of Robinson's claims given in the talk are either given without any supporting evidence or argumentation, or are demonstrably wrong. A large portion of his statements are of the "I strongly believe that..." form, reminiscent a church pastor or of George W. Bush. The remaining time is padded out with well-chosen jokes and anecdotes, which appear to support his case, but, more importantly, build rapport with his audience.

In this episode of the podcast, I provide a critique of Do Schools Kill Creativity, highlighting both the speaker's rhetorical devices and the failings of his argument.

Enjoy the episode.

Music by Audio samples from

Apr 13, 2017

I thought it was about time to cover something about books on this book-related podcast!

Keith Stanovich and Annie Cunningham are two researchers who have spent their careers working together to understand the effects of reading on knowledge. Their research aims to answer a few questions in particular:

1. How much does reading matter in increasing people's knowledge? Is amount of reading irrelevant, since amount of information absorbed depends so much more strongly on innate intelligence than it does on exposure to more information?

2. How does reading compare to other sources of knowledge? Is reading particularly important or special in some way, or do people tend to gain as much and as high-quality information from other sources?

The answers to these two sets of questions are very clear from Stanovich and Cunningham's research:

1. Reading is a much more important factor than innate intelligence, as far as knowledge is concerned. Extent of exposure to print even in literate societies varies greatly between individuals, and general knowledge, as well as applied knowledge, correlate strongly with measures of reading volume, but only weakly with measures of intelligence.

2. Reading completely outstrips other sources of information in terms of effect on knowledge. For example, when comparing old people to young people, the greater knowledge of the older people could be completely statistically explained by the amount of reading that they had done in their lives. All that matters is that the older people had read more!

Over multiple studies, the two researchers hammer home these points again and again. It reminds us of how high-quality text can be as a medium, and of how exposure and practice tend to go underrated in favour of natural talent in Western cultures. (This last point is a common theme on this podcast which I have talked about extensively, with episodes such as Mindset; my series on high performers including Bounce, Genius Explained, The Talent Code, and Outliers; and most recently in The Geography of Thought.)

Enjoy the episode. And get reading!

Music by

Apr 8, 2017

11% of children and 4% of adults in the US are said to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Dr Richard Saul has been a specialist in attention and learning problems in children and adults since the 1970's. He says that there is no such thing as ADHD. 

What, then, are all these children and adults suffering from? Dr Saul answers this question very thoroughly. It could be any of the following:

  • Vision problems
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Substance abuse
  • Mood disorders (bipolar disorder, depression)
  • Hearing problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Giftedness
  • Seizure disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Tourette's syndrome
  • Asperger's syndrome
  • Neurochemical distractibility/impulsivity
  • Schizophrenia
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Poor diet
  • Iron deficiency
  • Allergies
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Pituitary tumour
  • Prematurity
  • Heavy metal poisoning

If you or someone you know has been suspected to have ADHD or been diagnosed with it, then you might be interested to find out what is at the root of the problem from this book.

Enjoy the episode.

Music by

Apr 8, 2017

This continues the episode about The Geography of Thought, looking at more ways in which the cultural differences manifest themselves in differing psychologies of people from different parts of the world. Themes include:

  • Visual perception;
  • Descriptions and understandings of the self;
  • Attitudes to choice;
  • "Fitting in" versus uniqueness;
  • Attitudes to the law and contractual agreements;
  • Factors affecting motivation;
  • Preference for different types of reasoning; and
  • Approaches to blame and causality.

I also answer some questions posed at the beginning of last episode, namely:

  • Why do modern Asians excel at science and maths, and yet have few Nobel prizewinners?
  • Why were the ancient Chinese good at algebra and arithmetic, but bad at geometry, which the ancient Greeks excelled in?
  • Why did the West outpace the East in science and technology, given how far ahead China was in the fourteenth century?

The big idea here, as before, is that our thinking about psychology and education may be less universal than we realised. Many things that we thought were fundamental parts of human nature turn out to vary from culture to culture. It's a sobering thought, and has led me to have to rethink a range of conclusions about education, psychology, and human nature that I was previously quite confident about.

Enjoy the episode.

Music by

Mar 5, 2017

Unlike many books that I cover, this is one that I read recently and felt an urgent need to share its contents even before I got to the appropriate theme in a series of episodes. It hit me right where it hurts - in my fundamental assumptions about human nature.

As I research the field of education and produce this podcast, I have been generally assuming that people are more or less the same everywhere in their fundamental modes of thinking and feeling. I presumed that the topic of motivation, for example, or that of cognitive biases, can be covered in a more or less general way. However, this book has had me realise that different people from different places think in very, very different ways... and that I (and the majority of my listeners) are among the people on the extreme end of a spectrum that runs from East to West.

People in the East and West think differently from each other in fundamental ways. Consider the following:

  • Which two of these three would you consider to form a natural group: monkey, cow, banana? Westerners almost always group the monkey with the cow, as they are both animals (categorisation focus). Easterners group the monkey with the banana (relationship focus).
  • There are 24 pens. 18 are blue, 5 are green, and 1 is purple. You can have one. Which one would you like? Westerners tend to choose the purple pen (scarcity makes it seem more valuable, plus they like to feel unique). Easterners ask for a blue pen (they want to fit in).
  • Which task would you be more motivated to do: one you choose yourself, or one that your mother chooses for you? Westerners prefer to choose their own (autonomy as a motivational driver); Easterner are more motivated when their mother chose the task (what the hell?!).

I hope you can see that this totally changes how I have to think about things. I now have to contextualise not only everything I think about, but *everything I read*, since so many psychologists say things as if they were universal, but then they are overturned once you test these things on people from a different culture! This even includes apparently "universal" traits such as cognitive biases, with Easterners usually avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error where Westerners almost universally fall for it; and the principle of scarcity, an idea with strong ties to economics that rarer things are considered more valuable, which seems to not always be followed by people from the East.

Hopefully, you will find your mind broadened, and your assumptions annoyingly and uncomfortably challenged, just as mine were.

Enjoy the episode.

Music by

Feb 19, 2017

I've received a lot of messages from listeners (as well as from an author!) in the past few days. Several of these messages are things that I would like to share, and there are two in particular that I would like to talk about since I imagine there may be many listeners who have the same questions.

Firstly, I talk about my interactions with the folks at Reacting to the Past, and in particular with Mark Carnes, who emailed me within a day of the release of the episode about his book (Minds on Fire).

I then talk about homeschooling, as I had a request from a listener for information on this topic, as she is considering homeschooling her children. Although I plan to cover homeschooling and unschooling in some detail on the podcast, I do not have plans to do this for some time as there are other topics to cover, and so I thought it would be good to have a quick summary for those who are bursting to hear about it.

Finally, I talk about social media, and in particular its use at university. A listener contacted me requesting that I advise him on this, and so I thought it would be helpful to more people if I discussed it on the podcast.

Please keep in mind that any opinions shared in this episode are my own, and that this is an unusually opinion-heavy episode of the podcast. I am usually quite insistent on proper evidence, but here I am relaxing that requirement to be able to talk about things more freely in terms of my feelings or conjectures on certain topics, rather than hard facts that I know to be true.

Enjoy the episode.

1 2 3 Next »