Failing to allow failure

359px-Shy_Guy_(Imagicity_55)During the fall semester of my son’s senior year we went on a mad rush of college visits. We were trying to find the most elite school offering a high level of computer science, where he would actually have a shot at getting accepted. MIT was out of the question.

In his early years of high school my son had pushed himself in some areas, such as progressing to calculus by his sophomore year and skipping the initial computer science class, but he had struggled to get good grades in calculus and neglected other areas. Although he managed to make it to the top 10% he was nowhere near the top of his class in grades. However, what caught the attention of some recruiters was a computer science major that had been co-president of the debate team.

This occurred almost by accident. While in junior high school, he was scheduled to attend classes at the high school, which was on a trimester schedule. The first semester the pre-calculus class was not offered, so he took speech instead. He disappointingly described to me a class full unmotivated seniors who loved to goof off and talk, except when it was time for them to present their speeches. However, the teacher realized this class was a waste of time for the few good students. So she offered my son and three others credit for work with a struggling debate team.

I did not believe this was a good match for a quiet boy who had a hard time expressing himself in front of crowds. My son came home from his first debate feeling like a failure except for a kind note from one of the judges stating that his problem was simply nervousness and he would improve if he kept at it. So now it was his senior year and he had kept at it, making his mark on struggling debate team.

As we went from one college visit to another, we frequently heard recruiters repeat the riddle of whether it was better to take the on-level class and make an A, or take advanced course and make a B. Their answer was the perfectionist view – take the advance course and make an A. But my son’s unusual combination of competing in computer science meets and in legislative debate was due to the fact that he had tried something he did not do well.

As students advance through the world of academics, too fearful to experiment in areas in which they made not succeed, they will emerge on the other side with one-sided skills. They may be highly proficient in a technical area or excellent communicators, but rare is the individual with both skills. The chance to try something new and fail is also the chance to develop. If we do not allow it in education or business it is to our own detriment.

Photo by Graham Crumb/

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Did you actually read what you thought you read?

457px-Théophile_Emmanuel_Duverger_Two_children_reading cThe first few years my daughter was in grade school, she would sit at the table in the breakfast nook and do homework while I prepared dinner. One evening while I stirred cracker crumbs into a meatloaf mix, she sat in her usual place, reading a passage too softly for me to hear. Then she suddenly cried out “They can’t be big and strong! They are dwarf horses.”

That was my cue to subtly look over her shoulder and identify the error. “It says draft not dwarf. Remember those big horses with the long hair over their hooves that pulled us around on the wagon ride?” I did not tell her then, but I saw that recognition of conflict with what she thought she read as an accomplishment. My daughter is dyslexic and she would try to figure out what a sentence said though recognizing a couple of letters in each word. Her mind would not always put the letters in the same order each time she read the same word. So she had learned to read based mostly on context.

However, context is actually what adults tend to lean towards when reading. Have you seen paragraphs in which interiors of words have scrambled spelling or numbers replace similarly shaped letters? A mature reader can usually find enough clues to surmise the meaning and read these correctly as their brain fills in the gaps for them. However this does slow down reading speed, and the longer the words, the harder they are to decipher[1].  Basically this puts the average reader on equal footing with my dyslexic daughter.

Often what we think we see, is often not what we really see. We learn to process visual information quickly because our brain takes short cuts. Our brains want to make sense of the world and without consciously thinking about it they fill in what is missing based on past experience. The reason visual illusions work is that past experiences shapes our minds so that even when we know something to be true or false, an illusion can force us to experience it the other way.

Unlike my daughter I assume I can read well and just let my mind correct what doesn’t make sense. So what if I am not aware of a misspelled or omitted word. Haven’t I read what the author intended to write? But how often do I actually misread a passage because I were expecting it to say something else?

Art based on painting by Théophile Emmanuel Duverge


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The mystery behind the motivation to learn

Picture 012a3 No matter how much we dissect the functioning of the brain to illuminate how people learn, the bigger mystery is what causes people to learn. Typically when someone dives down into what why some people excel at learning they will come back up with “intrinsic motivation” as an answer. However an intrinsic motivation to learn is simply another way a saying a person has as a strong internal desire to learn.  We still know nothing about how this drive to learn occurred.

Let us step back from the realm of learning question why people are motivated to do any action. Typically it is because:

  • they think they must
  • they believe they will gain something.

Thinking that one must do something is accompanied by threat of loss. For example a man believes he must have a job because otherwise he would lose the respect of others due to poverty, or even die of starvation and exposure. However a man may decide he must steal for the same reason.

Believing one will gain something emphasizes working towards a goal more than avoiding a loss. A man may go beyond what is expected of him at work because he believes he can gain a promotion which gives him more money and a higher status. One the other hand the motivation to gain the promotion may lead to him deceiving his boss and backstabbing other employees.

The tricky thing is no clear cut line exists between why a man works. Is it to avoid poverty or gain wealth? Also, the same motivation may lead to helpful or harmful action.

Now let us return to the motivation for learning. People learn because they think they have to. The threat of a failing grade or losing a job. However if a person learns because of the belief that this will lead to some kind of gain, it really is not intrinsic. Students may study to make the grades to get into an Ivy League college to earn money, or status or feeling of superiority over others. In each case there is an outside motivation.

Steven Reiss, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University has proposed that there is no such thing as truly intrinsic motivation. This concept has arisen because the goals that motivate students to learn vary widely. One may be motivated to get good grades to please parents, another may be competing with fellow classmates and a third may satisfy curiosity and a need for novelty by learning new things. However, we should not force the idea on educators that all students should be learning to satisfy their curiosity. Some simply do not have the need for novelty that others do.

Finally, when I consider the idea of intrinsic motivation for learning, I think of people who proudly announce how much they love to learn. This announcement shows that their learning in not completely based on an internal drive. A person who learned just for the sake of learning would not find the need to tell anyone else. So I suppose if a truly intrinsically motivated learner existed, we would never know who it was.


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Feeling and knowing

ink1007 sunsetAlmost all articles on brain based learning will emphasize the importance of emotions in learning. Emotions are supposed to direct our attention and aid our memory. Learning accompanied by emotional impact lasts far longer than a lecture that goes in one ear and out the other. How exactly do emotions affect our ability to learn?

Our emotional state (often referred to as affect) may motivate us to learn, but emotions are not information stored in the same as cognitive learning. Cognition involves cortical processing from what we learn of the outside world through our senses. It is harder pinpoint precisely where emotions come from.

There are theories that emotions develop as a method of protection, an instant unthinking warning of danger based on past experience. But the instantaneous impulse of flight or fight do not serve us in the modern world very well. As we grow older most people learn to suppress displays of negative emotions they figure out the source of danger and come up with a plausible response. It is this replaying of events and sensory input that lead to greater memory. Basically we “mull over” or rehearse the event repeatedly in our mind.

So how do we use this information to increase students learning? First we have to realize that when students are stressed or fearful, retention goes down. They are mulling over what causes the stress rather the rather neutral facts we are teaching. Also, people tend to suppress the memory of events causing unpleasant emotions. Therefore being presented with a reminder of such an event may interfere with our ability to retrieve a memory. How do instructors know if reference neutral to them will result in the suppression of an unpleasant memory? Basically they don’t. As wonderful as it sounds to be able to increase learning through emotional impact, the realization that this requires emotional manipulation that may backfire puts a bit of a damper on creating “emotional memories” to enhance learning.

Panksepp, J. The Affective Brain and Core Consciousness How Does Neural Activity Generate Emotional Feelings? In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742-756). New York: Guilford Press.
Christianson, S. The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory. Psychology Press.
Levy, B.  & Anderson, M. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 6(7), 299-305.


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Neat little boxes

Dec 026 c copyNot all research on how the brain functions comes to the same conclusions. In fact one of the major problems with applying brain-based theories in actual instruction is that the findings are frequently contradictory. The cellular structure of the brain is complex and changes as we learn. But the tendency of the human mind is often to simplify information into easily identified compartments. In fact pattern finding is measured as a kind of intelligence. It is one of those intellectual skills that students practice to ace their College Board exams. The brain is complex, the brain seeks patterns. Are these two ends of a spectrum or parallel characteristics?

Considered prejudice, the concept of using a few superficial things about a group of people to make a large number of preconceived conclusions. The very fact that most people are unconsciously prejudice shows how much we like to sort data into neat little boxes. This is basically an attempt to simplify the complexity of humanity into a few easy patterns. Researchers have shown that people who are not comfortable with ambiguity are more prone to clump humans into prejudicial patterns. These people are quick decision makers who have a higher need for cognitive closure. They want to find the right answer by boiling down masses of data down to their essence.

So how do you teach people to accept ambiguity? You don’t. What you do is introduce them to people in a group that they have negative preconceived concepts about. If they form friendships with a few of these people then there will be less negative prejudice, but there will still be prejudice.

The need for an authoritarian figure, or willingness to submit to authority has also been linked to greater prejudice, specifically racial prejudice. But few would promote the teaching of rebelling against authority as the antidote to this.  So we try to examine the human brain to find out about prejudice and discover it seems to fulfill a basic human need for cognitive closure. We know what causes the problem, but have no answer.

And that is the conundrum of implementing brain based learning.

Side Effects of Multiculturalism: The Interaction Effect of a Multicultural Ideology and Authoritarianism on Prejudice and Diversity Beliefs. Pers Soc Psychol Bull March 1, 2013 39305-320
Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J., & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper


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Learning from inside out


The real difficulty with basing education on the latest brain research is manipulating the environment outside the student in an attempt to affect what is occurring on the inside of them. Proponents have done few studies on what kind of manipulation actually improves learning.  Instead they hone in on a few facts about how the brain works and stretch conclusions as far as possible to redesign education. One study I read recently honestly admitted “After a very selective summary of what is known from brain research about how the brain learns, implications were drawn concerning the influence this new knowledge may have…” (1) Changes in the educational environment were supposed to be based on implications.

Think about some of the conclusions reiterated in brain based learning schemes… such as brains are unique. In fact some research has found so that what we consider an “average brain” of normal intelligence without any learning disabilities actually exists in 10-20% percent of the population.(2) But how exactly do we implement education in large classrooms if differences are the norm? No one is ready to scrap public education thing and let everybody get their own tutor. So educators are encouraged to differentiate, a word which basically means students are supposed to learn the same objectives by doing different activities.

Another finding shows how a large portion of learning is done unconsciously. We gather new information when we are not trying and we do not realize it. We pick up peripheral sights and sounds all of the time and tuck these away in our brains. That presents a real challenge as far as developing strategies for brain based learning. If the students do not realize when they are learning how easy will it be far someone on the outside to determine when this unconscious act of learning is increasing or decreasing.

Last, we come to the research showing that that brains learn more in sensory rich environments. So educators are encouraged to redecorate the rooms frequently, but they better make sure that these decorations actually reinforce what they want students to learn. Surroundings that are too interesting can distract students from listening to the instructor. I recall an English class with a map of London, including pictures of all the well-known tourist sites. I left knowing more about how to vacation in London than how to apply the rules of English grammar.

Photo – “Buckingham Palace (Changing of the Guard)” by хенрик (talk) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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Learning in the eye of the beholder

Eye-1During a post graduate course in learning design, one of the students attempted to present instruction on the solar system without the use of any visuals. After the professor gave a curt lecture on importance of multi-sensory instruction, she asked the student to at least draw the solar system on the board.  Seeing the embarrassed student cringe and apologize for complete lack of artistic ability, I agreed to illustrate the planets.

Astronomy is not one of my strengths, and the college classroom did not have the latest in drawing materials. In fact it was a rather archaic one with real slate blackboard. Grasping a quartet of pastel chalk, I began to illustrate Mercury as dusty yellow, Venus as a swirl of colors, and the earth in pastel blue and green. The red planet, Mars, I rendered in pink and then began working on the gas giants. I realized any drawing of the solar system to scale would be tiny dots on an immense blackboard. But my vastly exaggerated plant sizes and vastly diminished distances still provided relative information to reinforce the instruction.

Hearing words and seeing images simultaneously increases our ability to learn not because people prefer one over the other, but because we learn both ways at the same time. It is not distracting to receive visual and auditory stimulus at the same time, if one reinforces the other.  A theory called dual coding attempts to explain this phenomenon as resulting from using both hemispheres of the brain, the left for language and the right for visuals, to store information. Evidently storing new data in multiple area of the brain lessen cognitive overload in over-activated areas.

You are probably familiar with Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning which illustrates how much we learn based, on reading, hearing, seeing etc.


However this data has not been scientifically tested and may not be accurate. Try watching a TV program without the sound and without the picture. The vast majority of times you will be able to perceive more of what has occurred if you listen to the sound only. Most of the time people actually learn more from what they hear because less visual information is presented.

According to dual encoding theory people will recall a lower percentage of what they have heard due to cognitive overload. They will remember a higher percentage of visual information, because there is less of it to remember. Try to present a rapid string of illustration at the same speed that we move from sentence to sentence and people would soon be shutting their eyes to gain relief from overload.

But let’s return to my experience with illustrating the planets based on verbal input. I was actually able to remember more of the instruction than the other students. If you think about it logically people really do not learn by doing. Without hearing or seeing instruction they have no clue of what to do. However, they remember more by performing actions they have been taught. The act of converting one into another output uses even more areas of the brain, and evidently the more you use, the better you remember.


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Tinkering with the mind of man

055 monitor brainThe idea of the left brain being logical while the right is creative has been disproved in studies which show that during creative activity people are more likely use both half of their brains. According to Dr. Jeff Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah, “It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right… Also creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left.”[1]

But when it comes to our outlook is does seem like the left side of the brain supports optimistic thinking while the right brain supports pessimistic ideas. More specifically physiological activity in the left-hemisphere tends to increase self-esteem and the assumption of a good outcome. While the right side of the brain supports the parasympathetic nervous system. This system kicks into high gear when we sense danger and controls the flight or fight response. A right brain viewpoint will tend to focus on possible dangers and consider how to avoid them.  Experiments which are aimed at manipulating people’s perception of whether or not they cannot control a situation demonstrate a difference in activity on each side of the brain. There are greater physiological changes in the left half of the brain when people are led to believe that they can control a negative situation, while the right half has a greater neurophysiological response if people are told they are powerless to enforce a change.[2]

However the left-hand and right-hand sides of the brain do not work in isolation, nor would we want them to. The constant flow of information between the two sides input what seems to us to be a unified experience to us. This allows us to avoid risky behaviors due to an optimistic sense of invincibility, while not succumbing to gloom in the face of negative events.

While all of this may make up interesting conversation at a convention of neurologists, the truth is understanding particular brain functions doesn’t really help us alter the way people think. It is simply too dangerous and costly to be performing brain surgery just to tinker with a person’s level of optimism. However, the idea keeps appearing that our increasing knowledge of how the brain works will allows us to make great strides in promoting mental health and learning. One of the recent findings about our brains in how much they differ between each person. Having what is considered an abnormality or learning disability is basically normal. Also, as we learn the brain changes and adapts in ways that we still do not comprehend. How much will all the new things we have learned about the brain enable us to improve ourselves? Stick with me for a few weeks while I look into brain-based learning.


[1] Wanjek, Christopher. Left Brain vs. Right: It’s a Myth, Research Finds (accessed Feb 17, 2014)
[2] Hecht, David. The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism. Experimental Neurobiology. 2013 September; 22(3): 173–199. Published online 2013 September 30
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Less optimistic and happier?


In order to research the difference optimism, it must be defined in a measurable manner. One of the ways that some researchers measure it is by explanatory style. For them optimism is based on how much credit you take for success, and how much you blame failure on external events.[1] According to Cathy McFarland and Michael Ross, people with higher self-esteem, which often accompanies optimism, tend to use self-serving attribution. In other words if they fail, it was because the task was too hard. If they succeed it was because of their own talent, intelligence, and hard work. This pair of researchers from the University of Waterloo did a study to see how much this self-serving attribution affected moods. Indeed, the people who were led to believe that success or failure was based on themselves were happier when they succeeded and more glum when they failed. Those that attributed success or failure to the difficulty of the task did not have such mood swings.[2]

So optimism, as measured by how you explain successes and failures, should go hand in hand with happiness. Well maybe this is true for a short experiment, but not when optimism is measured over a lifetime. A study of optimism in German adults from 18 to 60+ found that the younger adults had the sunniest outlooks and expected their life to improve the most. Middle age adults were a bit more realistic, and older adults predicted the greatest decline in their satisfaction with life.[3] However, a study from the University of Chicago that looked at depth at who was happiest in America found that older people were. [4]

Now possibly the difference between living in Germany and America could affect the outcome of this research. However, both studies looked at huge samples of the population, groups over 1000 in size. Each study was based on the answers to a few questions, a simple rating of happiness or prediction of future satisfaction with life. So now the researchers are busy trying to explain why increasing in age results in both a more pessimistic outlook and increased happiness. Some ideas are that as people age they gain better social integration skills, they have learned to be content with who they are or perhaps their memories just gloss over past pains. So is the true cause of happiness high self-esteem or forgetfulness? Perhaps the secret to being happy really is to expect less.

[1] Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. Vaillant, George E. Pessimistic Explanatory Style Is a Risk Factor for Physical Illness: A Thirty-Five-Year Longitudinal Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988, Vol. 55, No. 1,23-27
[2] McFarland, Cathy; Ross, Michael. Impact of causal attributions on affective reactions to success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 43(5), Nov 1982, 937-946.
[3] Lang, Frieder R. Weiss, David. Gerstorf, Denis. Wagner, Gert G. Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future? Psychology and Aging © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 28, No. 1, 249 –26
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Does pessimism shorten or lengthen your life?

576px-Woman_in_Old-Age_Home_-_Mariana,_Minas_Gerais_-_Brazil (1)

Frequently I have read anecdotal accounts of people who were sure that they were going to beat a life threatening disease (usually cancer) against the odds and managed to do so. Often they would give credit to their optimistic attitude that kept them fighting. There is not much thorough research that looks at long term effects of optimism and pessimism on health. However, there was one notable study that followed 99 men from age 25 to 60. Each man’s optimism was rated based on the way they explained bad events. If they thought that the cause of bad events were unstable, specific to the individual events and external to them rather than a result of their action, they were judged as optimists. Those who held the other view – the cause of bad events was stable, global and related to themselves – were labeled pessimists. Of course like most studies on this subject they drew from a pool of subjects that would tend to have a larger number of optimists who assumed they had better than average prospects, namely students at a prestigious private college. In this case it was Harvard [1]

These researchers (Peterson, Seligman and Vaillant) found that a pessimistic attitude predicted poorer health from ages 45 through 60. They were unable to pinpoint the specific cause for this. Some suggested reasons were lower immune system or less support from other people. Evidently pessimists are not as popular among their peers, or perhaps they just don’t want to rely on other people as much. The pessimists definitely made more frequent visits to the doctor. However, as these men reached their fifties the correlation between poorer health and pessimism began to fade. The study did not follow them beyond their sixties, but one wonders if this trend would continue.

Another study on health, longevity and outlook on life was conducted by Frieder R. Lang, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. According to his research people who have low expectations for the future are more likely to live longer. His study was only ten years long and consisted of a much larger and diverse population, 40,000 people from ages 18 to 96. Each group were asked questions to predict how satisfying life would be in five years. Then, five years later they were asked the question again and again at the end of ten years (if they survived that long). For the oldest group, 65 and above, over 40% predicted life would be less satisfying than they actually found it five years later. This group had fewer disabilities than those that thought their life would be better than it turned out to be. Of course, just like the study on the health of Harvard men, the researchers had had only guesses as to why this occurred.

“Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions.”[2]

However, I have my own ideas. This second study did not measure optimism or pessimism as much as it measured how well people could predict their future satisfaction with life. It may not just be an unfulfilled pessimistic forecast that results in healthier, longer lives. The fact that these aging people found themselves healthier than their peers may have led them to become more satisfied. In the same way those who suffered more disabilities would abandon an earlier optimistic attitude and be less happy with their lives. Most likely the decline in health had more of an effect on attitude than attitude did on health.

 [1] Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. Vaillant, George E. Pessimistic Explanatory Style Is a Risk Factor for Physical Illness: A Thirty-Five-Year Longitudinal Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988, Vol. 55, No. 1,23-27
[2] Lang, Frieder R. Weiss, David. Gerstorf, Denis. Wagner, Gert G. Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future? Psychology and Aging © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 28, No. 1, 249 –26


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