Bobby McFerrin tones your brain

It’s a new week.  For some people, it’s a new year.  The equinox, as Wodehouse said of Christmas, is at our throats again.  What better way to clear your brain than considering the pentatonic scale?

(Note:  I’ve switched the video to the version on YouTube; the original one seemed to perform poorly when embedded here.  You can find that original,  Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale at the World Science Festival on Vimeo.)

I’ll bet a pretest would have indicated that not many of these people could read music and that not many of them are prone to sing in public.  Pay attention to how little McFerrin instructs and how much he proposes.

I wasn’t much surprised to find that one panelist is Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music (mentioned a time or two here on the Whiteboard).  You’ll find the entire Notes and Neurons discussion in five videos (lengths vary; about 75 minutes in all) at the World Science Festival website.

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment? Join host John Schaefer, Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and musical artist Bobby McFerrin for live performances and cross cultural demonstrations to illustrate music’s note-worthy interaction with the brain and our emotions.

What more invitation do you need?

Catching behavior from friends of friends

An article by Clive Thompson in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine asks, “Is Happiness Catching?” Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler wondered whether certain human behaviors are “contagious.” We talk about various social changes spreading like epidemics, though that’s often the case of a metaphor turning into a meme without stopping to fact-check.

…The truth is, scientists have never successfully demonstrated that this is really how the world works. None of the case studies directly observed the contagion process in action. They were reverse-engineered later, with sociologists or marketers conducting interviews to try and reconstruct who told whom about what….Despite our pop-cultural faith in social contagion, no one really knew how it worked.

Christakis and Fowler used data from the long-term Framingham Heart Studym including sheets  on which participants named one friend likely know where the participant would be in four years (to help researchers continue following up).

The article’s well worth reading; this is my oversimplification.  Christakis and Fowler studied 5,124 subjects connected in 53,228 ways over 32 years.  When someone became obese, friends were 57% more likely to, as well.  “And a Framingham resident was roughly 20% more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese–even if the onnecting friend didn’t gain a pound.”

Friends of friends of ArtThe researchers hypothesize that certain behaviors spread through subconscious social signals.  Those signals become cues about what’s acceptable–smoking, eating large portions, things like that.  They also found that he happiest people in the Framingham study were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren’t necessarily deep ones.

That’s because (they believe) happiness doesn’t come only from having deep relationships; it can result from having frequent, small moments of happiness.

What I found interesting is that different “contagions” spread in different ways.  Co-workers don’t spread happiness to one another, while personal friends do.  (Co-workers have a much greater effect on smoking.)

In terms of weight control, your spouse doesn’t have much effect on your behavior.  The researchers suggest that our body-image models are people of the same sex.  If your same-sex friends gain weight, you’re more likely to.

Clearly, I need to have more male friends who are fit.  Or, if you know me, then you need to have them, for my sake.

Christakis and Fowler’s strangest finding is the idea that a behavior can skip lines–spreading to a friend of a friend without affecting the person who connects them….

The two researchers say they don’t know for sure how the link-jumping works.  But they theorize that people may be able to pass along a social signal without themselves acting on it.

For example, if your work friends become obese, you may become more tolerant of obesity and unconsciously influence family members who “then feel a sort of permission” to gain weight.

Thompson presents some critiques of this approach–one possibility is “homophily,” the flocking together of birds of a feather.  Another is the possibility that the local environment (like Framingham itself) influences the behavior, rather than the other people.  And the Framingham data included one non-family friend, which could distort the influence of the people named.

Christakis and Fowler mention what they call directionality–the type of friendship.  If Art says Jamal is a close friend, but Jamal doesn’t see Art that way, then Art’s weight gain has little impact on Jamal, whereas Jamal’s is likely to have much more on Art.

The influence isn't always obvious.A couple of interesting patterns: when it comes to smoking, the social shift in its acceptability means that, on the one hand, we rarely encounter smokers at work or in public.  On the other hand, smokers have formed smaller, tighter networks with high percentages of smokers–the people who collect outside the office building, the people who rendezvous in the bar that still permits smoking.  Thus they have fewer contacts with people from whom they can “catch” nonsmoking behavior.

The other pattern?  The use of social networks like Facebook to widen the community of connections a person has, especially for making some improvement.

In theory, the best way to fight obesity [according to this model] isn’t to urge people to diet with a cluster of close friends.  It is to encourage them to skip a link and to diet with friends of friends.  That way, in your immediate social network, everyone is surrounded on at least one side by people who are actively losing weight, and this would in turn influence those other links to begin losing weight themselves.

Sounds great: get a weight-loss widget for Facebook, and maybe cut your ties to people with bad behavior.  (But isn’t that what the smokers have in effect done?)

A final suggestion of the study is that at least some of our influence may be partly innate.  “Your level of connectedness,” says Thompson, appears to be more persistent than even your overall temperament.”

In other words, if you tend to have lots of friends and make lots of connections, you’re likely to continue to do so, even if you switch to a completely new environment.  And those will remain even if your level of happiness declines–you’ll be less happy, but you won’t become an isolate.

I’m intrigued by this.  I don’t see myself as having a lot of close connections, but I’ve found myself making more connections in recent years, thanks in part to social networks.  And I know I’m prone to one-to-one exchanges.  It’s situational, at least for me–I place great value on being able to spend a lot of time with just one person, but on a day-to-day basis that simply doesn’t happen.  Shorter conversations or mini-exchanges (by phone, by instant message, by back-and-forth blog comments, or on Twitter) can and do energize me.

I’m not quite ready to post a widget telling these people how much weight I’d like to lose in the next three months, though.  I guess I need a bit more faith in the friend-of-a-friend model.

CC-licensed images:
Friends of Art by BlackHawkTraffic.
Circles and influence by Jeff Kubina.

Oh, yeah, THAT one

A summertime side trip…

My car radio has a USB connection, and I have a couple of USB drives full of music.  Mostly they’re whole albums, but some of the albums are anthologies, so I’m never quite sure what old audio friend will show up.

Like the Ian Tyson classic Someday Soon, sung here by Suzy Bogguss:

When he comes to call
My pa ain’t got a good word to say
Guess it’s ’cause he was just as wild
In his younger days…

Or Shannon McNally’s Pale Moon (this isn’t the best audio, but it’s a live performance):

…I’m on the ground in N.Y.C.
the city of perpetual motion
the city that never sleeps
that’s all right, baby,
I wasn’t tired anyway…

Ian Tyson always reminds me of another Canadian icon.  Here’s Gordon Lightfoot singing about what was at that time the largest Great Lakes freighter.  (The video has news footage–the sideways launch of the Fitz from Great Lakes Steel, outside Detroit, on August 7, 1958. )

There is enough water in Lake Superior to cover the entire land mass of North and South American with one foot of water. (Wikipedia)

The dimming lights of the auto industry pain me–I grew up in Detroit (and not in a Detroit suburb).  When UAW president Walter Reuther died in a plane crash, they held the funeral in the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium.  It was broadcast live, and included a performance of Joe Hill. This video isn’t from the funeral, but was the clearest version I could find.

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
where workers strike and organize,
That’s where you’ll find Joe Hill,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

Procedural in practice

This entry is part 14 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

This is a continuation of the previous post about Step 7, design procedural information.

When you design effective procedural information, it can take these forms:

  • Just-in-time (JIT) display of rules, procedures, and prerequisite knowledge.
  • Demonstrations
  • Examples

Van Merriënboer and Kirschner emphasize that demonstrations show rules and procedures being put into practice; examples (or “instances”) are concrete depictions of facts, concepts, or principles.

When to do “what to do?”

Not the best procedural informationThe Ten Steps model recommends that learners have procedural information available at the time they’re performing the relevant tasks.  In part, that’s to reduce the burden on working memory.

Which explains why job aids make so much sense–the performer doesn’t need to learn (which means “memorize”) the procedure in the job aid.  Instead, the performer only needs to learn to use the job aid when performing the task.

vM&K see three presentation strategies:

  • Unsolicited presentation is spontaneous presentation of information–for example by an instructor or a really, really smart computer system.
  • On-demand presentation is the procedural information that the learner or performer requests while going through the task.
  • Memorization in advance means that learners memorize the procedural information before they need it, and then recall it on the job.

In theory, the unsolicited strategy is ideal.  Implementing it on this planet is challenging: how can a human instructor/facilitator recognize when to provide as-needed procedural information without the learner’s request?  Skilled coaches aim to do this, but calling someone a coach doesn’t make him one, any more than wearing cowboy boots turns you into a ranch hand.

vM&K suggest presenting the procedural information with the first task in a class of learning tasks.  This makes sense, since procedural information is aimed at the entry-level learner.  For subsequent tasks, though, the problem remains of how to provide that unsolicited guidance without interfering with the performer.

On-demand presentation of procedural information “precisely when students need it, is the best way to facilitate knowledge compilation.”

Split screens may mean split attentionvM&K give three guidelines for presenting JIT information:

  • Use small, modular units
  • Write in an action-oriented style
  • Avoid split attention

The modular units of procedural information should stand on their own, because you can’t predict which unit the learner will choose at any point.  You may not be able to make them completely independent from one another, but the lowest-level learner should be able to make use of one unit without have to refer to others.

Action-oriented writing means that you’re inviting the learner to perform whatever the recurrent parts of the task are.  I thought this was obvious until I saw vM&K’s examples of ineffective versus effective approaches:

You can choose the REMOVE command.
The text has now been removed.
(Note: instead of the REMOVE command,
you could also use DELETE or BACKSPACE.)

Pretty fustian, huh?  But look at this alternative for a different task:

Quickly browsing a text

Press the key a few times to see what happens.

The key and  key work in almost the same way. Try them out.

That’s a mighty lean approach.  vM&K are strictly avoiding explanation.  The clear title, they seem to think, is enough to tell the learner “these are the steps for browsing text in this application.”  And the procedural information is always the same: down arrow moves you down; right and left arrows (I presume) move you along the lines of text.

I don’t know that I’d have chosen this sparing an approach, but I see several advantages.  One of them, less obvious to me at first, is that it encourages the learner to do stuff.  I can imagine some discomfort or complaint initially as training moved away from the small-dose spoon-fed approach.  Overall, though, I’m struck by this, and a little nonplussed that it surprised me as much as it did.

Minimal manuals: the least you can do

Ten Steps encourages the use of minimal procedural information (as advocated by John Carroll, for example).  What does that look like?

  • Goal-directed guidance: organize the procedures around goals that learners recognize, not functions or menu structure embedded in the system.

E.g., “how to send files” rather than “using the FTP client.”  “Sending email,” not “about the address book.”

  • Active learning and exploration: encourage the learner to work on whole tasks, to try different things with the current set of tasks.
  • Error recovery: include ways to help the learner recognize errors and recover from them.  “What to do if things go wrong…”

When memorization won’t help

A few things to keep in mind?Memorization ahead of time, as a way to deliver procedural information, generally doesn’t work, according to the Ten Steps. It’s a challenge to identify which information you’ll have people memorize. More important, by definition you’re separating the information from the task.

Let’s say you’re teaching how to deliver a PowerPoint presentation. vM&K argue  (and I agree) that it’s better to teach someone how to present and, in context, provide information on how to blank and unblank the screen, or how to easily go against the linear sequence of the slides.

This is opposed to having people memorize alt-B or type-slide-number-and-press-enter ahead of time. Without the task-specific context, learners can end up with fragments of knowledge. Apart from which, memorization is dull.

Corrective feedback

Back in the discussion of Step 4 (design supportive information), the Ten Steps presented cognitive feedback as a way to encourage the learner to reflect on the problem-solving process and on the solutions she’s found.  In contrast, corrective feedback relates to procedural tasks; the purpose is to help the learner detect and correct errors.

“Well-designed feedback should inform the learner that there was an error and why there was an error…without simply saying what the correct action is.”

The feedback might include a hint, such as an example or demonstration of the correct performance; this is critical to learning-by-doing. Telling the learner what to do means he’s not compiling the knowledge for himself.

…which is one of the definitions of  “learning,” isn’t it?

CC-licensed images:
Office procedure image by cybertoad.
Split-screen woman by Sarah606.
Google reader keyboard shortcuts by dltq.

Schools: dipsticks and demonstration

From Dean Shareski’s Ideas and Thoughts blog, an energizing presentation by Chris Lehmann. He’s the principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, working under a time crunch (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide), and having a great time.

I found myself connecting what he says to the world of work; I’ll keep that to myself till after you hear Chris. (Note: You can’t see all Lehmann’s slides, so I’ve posted them below the video clip.)



View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: ignitephilly education)

I actually stopped the video a few times to scribble stuff down.

“Good data costs a lot more than we want to spend.”

That’s true for schools, and it’s also true in the world of work. There’s a lot of lip service paid to Kirkpatrick’s levels and to ROI, but in reality, we can’t afford to assess everything at Level IV, and if we’re doing a full ROI assessment on whether to devote a day and a half of our own time to learning some new technology, we’re going to end up getting to spend more time with our families.

I absolutely believe in the value of data — it’s the requirement for performance improvement — but as I listened to Chris Lehmann, I realized that ofter we are in great shape if we have good enough data. Claude Lineberry (as energetic a guy as Lehmann) hammered in the point that businesses don’t do control groups. Some data, carefully chosen, is a hell of a lot better than no data, which is what many people run with all the time.

“Tests and quizzes as dipsticks…”

When I get gas for my car, I always get a fill-up; I calculate the mileage and record it in a booklet I keep in the glove compartment. This is a kind of dipstick — it’s one stream of data that I can glance at, and if I see a variation from my car’s typical performance, then I go looking for more data and for causes.

Lehmann is pushing back from treating tests as goals. As he talked, I thought of the painful annual corporate ritual, the performance review. More than once in my career, I was asked to create a list of what I’d done so my boss could “update” my goals. In other words, I was backing from accomplishments to goals.

Which, I suppose, is better than being slammed for not doing stuff people forgot about nine months ago. The platonic ideal, where you and your manager (or, you poor schmo, your “leader”) regularly look at what you’re doing, what you’re getting done, and what needs to get done — I don’t know how often that happens, but when it does, it’s the dipstick model in action.

“You want to see what kids have learned, give them a project.”

As Lehmann points out, we adults learn when we’re trying to solve something, which means we’re trying to achieve a result. A depressing amount of corporate “learning” involves passive reception: listening to presentations, clicking through page-turners, reading documents. Nothing happens, which means there probably aren’t any new neural connections forming and few old ones getting stronger.

Working on a specific outcome probably leaves gaps in your learning. You can hear someone saying, “Okay, great, you got the web page menus to work entirely with CSS — but you don’t know how to do A, B, and C.” There are two assessments there: was the point to get the menus working, or to do A, B, and C?

I content that much of the time, getting X accomplished is the way to go. If afterward, you feel you don’t have the right result, then you go back and redefine X. I have seen perfectly harmless people subjected to a one-hour lecture on the step-by-step telephone switch, only to learn afterward that their telephone-company employer did not actually own any step-by-step switches; the last one had been replaced more than 10 years before, by computers.

But it was “good for them” to learn about the switches.