Our Brains on News and Learning

June 17, 2011

Jack Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, proves with his book What Is Happening to News that all of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to read far beyond the artificial walls surrounding our field of play.

While the book ostensibly leads us through the well-documented crisis and evolution of contemporary journalism, its focus on how our brains absorb and cause us to react to all the stimulus we encounter is perfect reading for anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

As James Zull (The Art of Changing the Mind) and many others have already done, Fuller starts off with explorations of how our brains actually learn. His third chapter, “Models of the Mind,” is particularly helpful both in its brief survey and its description of the physiological reasons why practice makes perfect: “the connection between neurons strengthens through the coincidence of their mutual firing. As the neuroscience slogan has it, ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’ The more frequent the coincidence, the stronger the connection” (p. 34). For Fuller, that helps explain why repetition of statements through the  media we use has a long-term impact on how we perceive the world; for trainer-teacher-learners, it’s a first-rate reminder that being aware of how our brains work puts us in a position to be more effective in fostering the sort of learning experiences that produce positive effects among our learners and all they serve.

Fuller again, within the context of a discussion about contemporary journalism, reminds us that much of what we are facing is far from new: “We are not the first era to sense that distraction has altered our ability to think,” he observes as he notes that one of our seminal journalists, Walter Lippmann, documented the same effect in 1921 (pp.57-58).

And when he moves into a section on “the inundated brain,” he offers a thought worth quoting not only to those interested in why news reporting focuses so much on negative stories but also to those of us interested in knowing what happens to learners who are attempting to do too many things at one time: “Time  pressure alone also increases cognitive challenge and emotional response. Some studies have shown that when given tasks under severe deadlines, people use  more negative information—which suggests that negative emotions are in play—than when doing the same task without being time pressured. Multitasking and information overload, too, increase the challenge to the brain’s processing resources. And when a person’s information processing capacity is stressed through information overload or multitasking, she is more likely to rely on emotional cues and use social stereotypes in making decisions about another person” (p. 61).

Where Fuller’s analysis of our approach to the news really comes to life for trainer-teacher-learners is in his exploration of how we have moved from a dispassionate to an extremely passionate or emotional approach to journalism, as any of us recognize when we think of the difference between classroom lectures and highly interactive, skillfully facilitated learning opportunities: “The curve has shifted toward emotional presentation,” Fuller notes in exploring how news is commonly presented now. “The fact that you can’t find a new Walter Cronkite on television today is no fluke. The dispassionate approach embodied by Cronkite does not attract the audience that it used to. Walter Cronkite was lucky to have worked when he did… Today he would be cancelled. So, by the way, would Walter Lippmann” (p. 72).

And so, I would suggest, would any of us who insist on approaching learning as a one-way instructor-to-learner enterprise when our communication tools and our expectations are all directed toward the collaborative experiential approaches that social learning environments and tools along with social learning itself inspire us to seek.


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