Following on from my post, Shut Up and Drive..., about Daniel H.Pink's seminal work, Drive, focusing on motivation, I decided that Pink's writing was too good to keep at one book! I took the plunge and ordered another one, A Whole New Mind. I have become increasingly fascinated by neuroscience and how the understanding of how our brains work could have important ramifications for how we function as educators. It seems that any person who desires to succeed in life, whether in business, education, family, churches, works to try and understand brain functionality. It was to this end that I picked up A Whole New Mind. Well, I say "picked up" but actually I mean "downloaded as an audiobook"! I had never used this format before and had been a staunch critic of any new fangled forms of reading medium, decrying those who dared not let me feel the actual book. A friend suggested Audible for my car journeys and I have got to say I like it! In fact, I have downloaded even more books to listen to. Anyway, the point of this post isn't to postulate the benefits of varying book media but indeed to discuss how an understanding of our brains, their complex neural pathways and how we can use more right-brained thinking. It is to this that I now turn. Due to the plethora of information in this book that can be applicable to our work as teachers, I have split the post into two sections.
Pink starts by defining the traditionally understood distinction between left and right brain activity. It has been assumed that the left-hemisphere is dedicated to language, numbers and analysis, whereas the right-hemisphere focuses on expression, emotional intelligence and imagination. In sum, left = logic and right = creativity. Although this distinction is not totally exclusive (in fact, the hemispheres must work in a symbiotic relationship in order to function properly as a human), there is medical evidence suggesting that those with damage to either part of their brain struggle with the associated activities, e.g. right-brain damage can lead to a lack of understanding of facial expression or emotion and metaphor, whereas the opposite is true in terms of limitations on analysis. Right-brainers have been seen as touchy and feely whereas left-brainers have been seen as out of touch (no pun intended!).
According to Pink's own website, "The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic “right-brain” thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t."
The book outlines the six fundamentally human abilities that are absolute essentials for professional success and personal fulfilment–and Pink then reveals how to master them. He even goes on to suggest that the Industrial and Information Ages that we have been through have been superseded by the Conceptual Age, where right-brainers will rule! The reason, Pink argues, for left-brain's demise somewhat, can be summarised in 3 words: Abundance (people have more than they can ever need or want), Asia (lots of analytical and repetitive processes have been outsourced to cheaper markets) and Automation (increasingly, robotics and computers can do the left-brain work quicker and more effectively than humans).
Therefore, let's look at the six right-brain led abilities that we must master to thrive in this whole new world. I will try and apply his thinking to educational settings. Thank you to Kim Hartman at www.kimhartman.se for her insights here too.
Not just function but also design. Today it is economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful or emotionally engaging.
Not just argument but also story. Data isn’t enough. The essence of persuasion, communication and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative.
Not just focus but also symphony. While the industrial society specialized in making a few things in large numbers, the conceptual age is about putting the pieces together – Symphony. Not analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine pieces into an arresting new whole.
Not just logic but also empathy. In addition to logic you need to have an ability to understand what makes your fellow man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.
Not just seriousness but also play. There are evidences of enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games and humour.
Not just accumulation but also meaning. Materialism has freed people from day to day struggles to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendent, and spiritual fulfilment.
The high-concept, high-touch abilities that now matter most are fundamentally human attributes.
1. Design - functionality and pragmatism have been replaced with look and feel. People no longer buy things just simply for what they do but for how they appear both to themselves and to others. For instance, many people buy beautiful sofas which aren't comfortable, or the latest pair of shoes that look dapper but hurt like hell! The typical person uses a toaster at most for 15 minutes per day. The remaining 1425 minutes of the day, the toaster is on display. In other words, 1% of the toaster's time is devoted to utility, while 99% is devoted to significance. Why shouldn’t it be beautiful? One of designs most potent effects is this very capacity to create new markets. The forces of automation, abundance and Asia turn goods and services into commodities so quickly that the only way to survive is to constantly developing new innovations, inventing new categories, and giving the world something it didn’t know it was missing. Good design offers us a chance to bring pleasure, meaning and beauty to our lives.
Design has always been important but the shift has been in its prominence in several areas, even in education. Lots of people are wowed by iPads or fancy buildings (in the UK, compare the new school buildings with the ROSLA blocks erected quickly and functionally in the 1970s!). It's often a criticism of new academies and free schools that they are hoodwinking parents and pupils with style over substance. The traditionalists are still fighting their academic success without the glitz and glam. In the classroom, this is no different either. Pupils are demanding better-designed worksheets and presentations. How it looks automatically turns students on or off to the work. This is important not only from the teacher's viewpoint either; the students want design thinking and processes to be embedded into their learning. Let students make a video or a comic strip or a aesthetically-pleasing activity rather than dull worksheets or questions from textbooks. Make the simple sexy and the sexy simple. Don't forget that the classroom design is important too (if you have any authority or responsibility in this area). Edutopia featured a brilliant graphic suggesting how to easily change classroom design to make it more conducive to 21st Century learning.
Why not try some of these creative apps right within your classroom?
2. Story - learning and life is so much more than remembering facts. In fact (!), because there is such an abundance of facts at our fingertips, it is becoming less and less important for people to memorise facts. This almost universal availability means that much of what we relied on teachers or experts to impart becomes free for us all. There are currently more than 540,000 words in the English language, which is about five times as many as during Shakespeare’s time and today, more than 3,000 books were published. The amount of technical information is doubling every 72 hours with 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute! These facts show that facts are everywhere so how we make this 'stand out' is the job of every educator. In the UK, the conservative estimate is that the core subjects curriculum content has increased by another 50% by the end of KS4. In primary education, mathematics skills that were previously taught in Year 8 are now being 'dragged down' into KS1 and KS2. Ironically, if you follow Pink's thinking, there is a greater reliance on remembering facts in all subjects areas - dates, times, people, places. I become increasingly frustrated with a system that relies heavily on memorisation when this 'important information' can be found by a simple Google search in most cases! (A case in point was a recent GCSE Science class where students asked me the point of learning about the parts of a cell in a leaf!).
Pink suggests that it is the narrative - the story - which is the right-brained priority for this era. The best (and thus, most memorable) lessons are those that are grounded in a story. I still remember my favourite English and Classics teachers and lessons from school some twenty years on because they had a relational connection that was founded upon tales. The Odyssey and Iliad, To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth - they all came to life through teachers 'telling the story'. In my own Religious Studies background, we were also encouraged to deliver the material from finding points of reference in a child's life that can be interpreted in the light of new, unfamiliar information, e.g. students who didn't understand why Sikhs pay such reverence to their holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, could relate to important things or people in their life and how they then treat others. It is in the stories of, "I remember when..." and "This remind me of a time when.." that students make lasting connections. Students now love me telling them stories of my adventures and making links to my life and family - they even visibly sit up and lean in when I use the opening phrases! The essence of story is context enriched by emotion. Story exists where high concept and high touch intersect; high concept because it sharpens our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else; high touch because stories almost have an emotional connection. When it comes to the classroom, I am a huge advocate of using stories at every level of an organisation - give people the big picture of data by relating it to individual students' stories, ground learning in connections made in the world outside the classroom and above all else, allow students the freedom to make their own stories.
I cannot recommend this amazing page where there are 50 sites and apps for digital storytelling: www.techlearning.com. Definitely try some or all of these and let me know how you got on.
3. Symphony- Symphony is the ability to put together from the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesise rather than to analyse; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair. For me, this is never more apparent than with music. On their own, the individual notes are just that: individual. If they are put together in an appropriate pattern or order, they can make a beautiful sound; when in an unconnected, disparate fashion, the result is a cacophony of noise! the beauty in music is true in education too - finding ways to create joined-up processes or as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi points out,
"The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication." ( Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)
Flow is that place where things just seem to come together: the essay that just writes itself because you have the information at hand and love what you're discussing, or the painting that you take six consecutive hours over just because you're in the zone or the video editing you immerse yourself in for weeks at a time because it has gripped you. For teachers, the joy is found in finding something you love and sharing that love. For students, it is finding that something you love and pursuing this at the expense of all other things.
Symphony is largely about relationships. People who hope to thrive in the conceptual age must understand the connections between diverse, and seemingly separate, disciplines. They must know how to link apparently unconnected elements to create something new. And thy must become adept at analogy – at seeing one thing in terms of another. The study of executives at fifteen large companies showed that just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average: pattern recognition. This big picture thinking allows leaders to establish the meaningful trends from a wealth of information and to think strategically far into the future. These star performers relied less on deductive, if-then reasoning and more on the intuitive, contextual reasoning characteristic of symphony. This is where educators must turn their attention.
Check out some of these applications for helping to form symphony in life or the classroom:
In part 2 of this blog, I will discuss the other 3 fundamental abilities that we must engage in this conceptual age: empathy, play and meaning.