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Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Now displaying: September, 2017
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 podcastthemes.com.

 

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 podcastthemes.com.

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 podcastthemes.com.

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 podcastthemes.com.

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.

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