Location, Location, and Location: Hanging Out and Learning With Samantha Adams Becker and ATD

May 17, 2014

Being in the same room with my friend, colleague, and co-presenter Samantha Adams Becker earlier this week along with colleagues from the Golden Gate Chapter of the Association for Talent Development (ATD)—formerly the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD)—required a combination of technological sleight of hand; some knowledge of the neuroscience of the brain, learning, and magic; and plenty of practice.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverWhat helped make the evening intriguing was that Samantha, in a very real sense, was not more than a few feet away from me in San Francisco for our “Ed-Tech, Learning, and NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Reports: What’s In It for Us..and Our Learners” discussions with local ATD colleagues while simultaneously being more than 1,850 miles away, in Baton Rouge.

I’ve been learning how to be in at least two places at once ever since colleagues and I, in fall 2007, used Skype to connect a colleague from Ohio with an onsite audience in San Francisco to show how the use of free online tools could effectively and viscerally bring people together in ways that simulate face-to-face conversations—think of it as telepresence without costly investments. I continued the experiment  with Skype in a different context for a virtual face-to-face just-in-time lesson in using Excel and PowerPoint two years later to help a friend prepare for a job interview she was about to do. Racheted it up a bit more via Skype by bringing two offsite colleagues into an onsite presentation for ASTD Sacramento Chapter members in May 2011. And returned to the experiment with Samantha in June 2012, shortly after Google Hangouts became available as a way to viscerally connect individuals regardless of geography: she was co-presenter, from New Orleans, for an onsite session I was facilitating in San Francisco’s East Bay Area for ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter colleagues.

We knew we had exceeded participants’ expectations—and our own—when I managed to step out of the room unnoticed while the Mount Diablo Chapter members were interacting with Samantha; rejoin the conversation from outside the room by logging into the Google Hangout via a tablet I was using, and briefly talk to her about how that interaction by tablet was an example of how smartphones and tablets were allowing us to engage in a variety of m-learning (mobile learning) opportunities regardless of whether those opportunities were asynchronous or synchronous—which is what the ATD Mount Diablo Chapter event had become at that moment.

ASTD_to_ATDOur latest collaboration with members of what is now the ATD Golden Gate Chapter included some interesting twists, and those interested in how to duplicate the experience have plenty to consider. Basic equipment includes a desktop or laptop computer; webcams (mine is built into my relatively lightweight Toshiba Portégé laptop); ability for us to hear each other (both of our laptops have small built-in speakers that produce high-quality audio output when hooked up to an onsite speaker system), and she usually doesn’t wear a headset or have any other visual cues that would remind people she is not physically in the room; a small, portable back-up speaker system that can be hooked up to my laptop in case the onsite speaker system isn’t working properly on the day or night of a presentation; and a projector and screen (or blank white surface) to project Samantha’s video feed from the Google Hangout in a way that made it easily and clearly visible for everyone onsite.

Onsite rehearsal time is critically important. When using a site for the first time, rehearsals can extend from an unusually short 45 minutes if all works well—it rarely does—to as much as two two-hour sessions if intensive trouble-shooting becomes necessary. (We once had to solve an unexpected Internet connectivity problem by ending one very frustrating two-hour session so I could obtain a 4G hotspot device and make arrangements to purchase enough online time with that device to carry us through an additional rehearsal and the live event itself.) Rehearsal includes checking sound levels from various points throughout the room, locating the best position for the webcam so it captures enough of the room for Samantha to be able to see as many participants as possible, and trying to create the least-intrusive tech set-up possible: the point is to create a set-up which has participants looking at the projected image of Samantha, me, and each other as much as possible so that the technology quickly fades into the background—which, thankfully, it generally does!

Sleights_of_MindUnderstanding how our minds process visual and audio information also helped us more effectively take advantage of creating the illusion of presence even though she was physically in Baton Rouge, so reading the section on ventriloquism in Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. The key element here is understanding that our brains process sound the same way they do when we watch movies in a theater, matching sounds with images to make us believe the sound is coming from the screen rather than the speakers, so we always attempt to have speakers unobtrusively placed as close to the screen as possible and match the sound level as much as possible to the level of my own voice onsite.

We have also come to understand that worries about lack of synchronization between what participants hear and see (as when lip movement is ahead of or behind what they hear) is not as important as many of us might assume. Macknik and Martinez-Conde convincingly demonstrate, in their book, that we focus on an extremely small part of what is in our overall field of vision. Extrapolating from what they show, we realize that the only time participants notice discrepancies between sound and lip motion is when they focus their visual attention on the motions of the speaker’s lips onscreen. If they are looking at Samantha’s eyes, or at me, or at anything else in the room, the illusion of presence is not at all interrupted.

Our onsite-online blended presentation this time also carried the experiment one step further. To control and limit potential bandwidth problems, Samantha and I were the only two participants in the Hangout; other offsite participants received the program feed via a separate remote-viewing option that Chapter members routinely provide. If offsite participants had wanted to ask questions, the person monitoring that external feed would simply have repeated questions to Samantha and me, and we would have responded orally so the outgoing feed carried the response from the room to the offsite participants.

But all of this is just a prelude to the real magic that occurs through this type of learning experiment/experience: it’s a perfect match of content and delivery method for everyone involved. We were introducing participants to current trends, challenges, and developments in educational technology that affect them and their own learners, and we were facilitating discussions on the topic through the use of relatively low-cost technology that they themselves could immediately use if they chose to do so. We had cobbled together a smart classroom to show how relatively easy a task that could be. We learned from the questions they asked as much as they learned from the presentation we offer.

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Most importantly, it became another example of the power of learning opportunities that are engaging. One of our most rewarding discussions came from participants’ observations that e-learning/online learning experiences generally are far less engaging than they should be and almost leave learners requiring the assistance of trauma-unit personnel—which made us laughingly agree that one service ATD and other learning organizations could provide would be an e-learning trauma/paramedic service to minister to those who had suffered through traumatically bad learning experiences online. We also used our ersatz smart-classroom set-up to exchange ideas about how to address digital literacy challenges among ourselves as trainer-teacher-learners as well as among the larger group of learners we all serve.

The conversation came to an end with the all-important confirmation that everyone in the room felt as if Samantha had been there with us in our blended onsite-online learning experiment—and in every significant way, she had been! The technology we have and the technology that others are continuing to develop creates magnificent opportunities to meet and interact with first-rate colleagues and provide effective learning opportunities—as long as we focus on each other and see the technology as the background tool that facilitates learning, communication, interactions, and meaningful collaboration.


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 3 of 4): Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It

March 15, 2012

After devouring developmental molecular biologist John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and author-presenter-entrepreneur Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?), we’re almost left with no other choice than to continue our rethinking by turning our capital-A Attention to Cathy Davidson’s Now You See it: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

It’s not just that Davidson is an engaging, thoughtful, and thought-provoking writer; she also is a justifiably admired educator (former vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University) who clearly puts her attention on the learners she serves. And she has plenty to teach all trainer-teacher-learners about what we’re doing right as well as what we’re failing miserably to achieve.

Her goal, she tells us right up front, is to provide “a positive, practical, and even hopeful story about attention in our digital age” by exposing us to “ research in brain science, education, and workplace psychology to find the best ways to learn and change in challenging times” (p. 6). And she delivers. Convincingly.

Starting with a summary of an experiment that shows how much we miss around us by focusing too closely on certain details because we have learned to block out the overwhelming amount of stimulation that routinely comes our way, Davidson suggests that our learning process needs to include at least three steps: learning, unlearning, and relearning—and the sort of collaboration that allows us to rely on others to help us see what we otherwise would miss.

Now You See It walks us through that process. We travel with Davidson through studies of how gaming can effectively be used in learning. How engaging learners in the learning process by making them partners—as she did in an innovative course called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” —recreates the learning experience to produce tremendously positive results (including a sense of empowerment so productive that the learners actually scheduled an innovative class session while Davidson was away on business, much to her delight).

There are also wonderful stories illustrating the difference in attitudes between young learners—in a failing magnet school—faced with posted written rules (“Most of the kids are too young to actually read, so I assume this sign is as much a symbol as it is a message,” she quips) and with young learners in a demographically similar school that “exemplifies the best in public education” (p. 97). The classroom in the better school offers us a lesson relevant to learners of all ages: the room “is alive with life and spaces and animals and computers and interesting things, great stuff to look at and do things with” (p. 98)—a reminder that if we’re going to create effective learning spaces, we have to make them as interesting as the lessons we are trying to provide for learners of all ages.

It’s difficult to single out specific high points in a book so full of them, but one of my favorites is the entire seventh chapter—“The Changing Worker”—which provides a series of portraits of those who are providing the sort of workplaces requiring the type of creative, attentive, inquisitive, and flexible learners we need to be preparing whether we’re working in K-12, at the college and university level, or within workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs.

And that, Davidson consistently maintains, is what we’re currently missing in our learning and our learning spaces: we are relying on 19th– and 20th-century models that were appropriate for 19th– and 20th-century workplaces even though we’re clearly in that very painful yet dynamic transition to learning that supports a 21st-century digital workplace and world: “In one generation, our world has changed radically,” she writes. “Our habits and practices have been transformed seemingly overnight. But our key institutions of school and work have not kept up. We’re often in a position of judging our new lives by old standards. We can feel loss and feel as if we are lost, failed, living in a condition of deficit” (p. 291).

Fortunately for all of us—and for the learners we serve—she offers plenty of guidance. Examples. And encouragement. Those of us who take the time to read—and reread—what she offers in Now You See It, giving it the Attention it deserves, may be able to help others past those feelings of loss and deficit and failure. And help ourselves as well.

Next: Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 1 of 4): John Medina’s Brain Rules

March 8, 2012

Although the brain often seems to be the most overlooked tool in trainer-teacher-learners’ toolkits, great writers like developmental molecular biologist John Medina are doing a lot to move us past that oversight through books like Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

In the process, they’re encouraging us not only to become better at reaching learners effectively, but also to rethink much of what we’re doing. And where we’re doing it.

Medina is never less than completely engaging, and his 12 rules about how the brain functions in learning are drawn from well-documented research, his own very funny observations, and his continual call for more research to help fill in the numerous gaps we still have in our knowledge: “This book is a call for research simply because we don’t know enough to be prescriptive,” he disarmingly admits (p. 4).

Among the rules he documents: exercise boosts brain power (so why are we sitting here reading this when we should be stimulating our brains through physical activities?); every brain is wired differently (a theme recently explored by many others including Norman Doidge, Bruce Wexler, and Nicholas Carr); stressed brains don’t learn well; and stimulating more of the senses simultaneously will stimulate more effective learning. He not only covers these in positive, thought-provoking ways in the book, but extends the learning—our learning—into a 45-minute video on his website to help us viscerally understand another of the brain rules: we don’t pay attention to boring things.

This is not a book for those comfortable with the status quo; in fact, Medina clearly expects us to approach his work with minds completely open to ideas that might initially strike us as ludicrous, e.g., setting up treadmills in our offices so we can stimulate our thinking by running in place while reading our email on laptops. (He doesn’t, however, comment on what the act of running on a treadmill at work—or, by extension, in an academic learning environment—says as a metaphor for much of what we do!)

Because we learn best through repetition at regularly timed intervals, he further suggests that the learning space of the future should have us engaged in “review holidays”—time off from the introduction of new information once every three or four days in formal learning settings so we would be “reviewing the facts delivered in the previous 72 to 96 hours…Students would have a chance to inspect the notes they took during the initial exposures, comparing them with what the teacher was saying in the review. This would result in a greater elaboration of the information, and it would help the teachers deliver accurate information. A formalized exercise in error-checking soon would become a regular and positive part of both the teacher and student learning experiences.” (p. 144)—and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be incorporating similar open-book/open-note reviews in workplace learning and performance endeavors to foster greater success among our learners.

In the world Medina is encouraging us to imagine (and create), we would also be encouraging learners by taking advantage of the ways multimodal presentations enhance learning—oral presentations combined with visual support combined with appropriate fragrances since fragrances that are appropriate to a learning situation provide a mental anchor for better recall.

Most of all, he concludes, we need to create spaces that inspire and sustain curiosity as opposed to the age-old model of lecture halls where learning is an instructor-centric endeavor: “I firmly believe that if children are allowed to remain curious, they will continue to deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101” (p. 273), he writes.

Even the places where we learn how to be better instructors need improvement, he continues: “I envision a college of education where the program is all about brain development…Students would get a Bachelor of Science in education. The future educator is infused with deep knowledge about how the human brain acquires information…This model honors our evolutionary need to explore. It creates teachers who know about brain development. And it’s a place to do the real-world research so sorely needed to figure out how, exactly the rules of the brain should be applied to our lives” (pp. 276-278), he writes.

And with Medina as our inspiration, perhaps we can help create this. To the benefit of learners everywhere.

Next: Seth Godin on “What Is School For?” (and how should it look?)


Bruce Wexler, Our Brain, and Learning

October 28, 2011

Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture, Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, like Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, literally opens our minds. A highly detailed research-based view of how our brain works, Wexler’s book is essential reading for those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning.

“People selectively perceive and more highly value sensory input that is consistent with their internal values and organizing schemata,” he tells us early in his wonderful research-based book (p. 4). “People selectively affiliate with like-minded individuals, and forget and discredit views and information inconsistent with their existing beliefs”—an idea that goes a long way in helping us understand why we sometimes encounter intense resistance while trying to produce training-teaching-learning experiences that have long-term positive results.

It’s as much about how we’re wired as anything else, Wexler and Doidge seem to agree. And there’s nothing simple about any of this. Wexler’s experiments suggest that our emotional reactions can change the physical connections within our brains—an idea that reminds us of the importance of fostering emotional reactions within our learning opportunities instead of relying solely on a rational fill-‘em-with-information approach. An experiment involving subjects’ reactions to videotapes of “an actress smiling and talking about happy things” not only made the subjects happy, but created “functional links among regions in their brains” that were “very different than when they watched videotapes of an actress crying and talking about sad things and felt sad themselves,” Wexler reports  (p. 34).

And there’s more. His comments about the importance of providing environments that are stimulating rather than sterile, documented through what he calls “enriched-environment experiments,” tell us that animals “raised in relatively impoverished environments have smaller brains, with the reduction greatest in the cerebral cortex and unrelated to differences in body weight. There is less protein synthesis in multiple regions of the cortex, decreased area of synaptic contact among neurons, and decreased numbers of the axonal and dendritic branches that functionally connect neurons” (p. 51). What this might suggest is that we’re on the wrong track with many of sterile learning labs and drab workshop settings that remain prevalent in training-teaching-learning today. It also makes some of us long for those wonderfully colorful kindergarten classrooms where we were surrounded by images and displays of our classmates’—as well as our own—work. Creating more of the interactive media labs where so much innovative learning seems to be taking place today may help us prove in visceral terms what Wexler describes in his book.

He further builds a case for paying more attention to our actual learning environments when he reports that studies “in both cats and monkeys have found that animals raised in enriched environments perform much better on tests of frontal lobe function than animals raised in less stimulating environments”  (p. 52).

Those still relying on lectures as a primary way to help learners acquire knowledge might want to reconsider their approach in light of Wexler’s comments on how imitation (suggesting interactivity as opposed to passive intake of information) “has such great developmental impact because it is consistently operative throughout the moment-to-moment unfolding of everyday life” (p. 115). “Imitation is a primary developmental process, and is evident when children imitate animals during play as well as when they imitate and acquire silly idiosyncrasies of those near to them…” (p. 117).

Play, he continues, “appears to affect cognitive development, even in rats and even when the play is primarily motoric. The role of play in human cognitive development may be greater because it lasts for years rather than days, is highly varied in nature, and includes activities that are primarily cognitive and essentially social. Here then is another avenue for social and cultural influence on important aspects of brain development” (pp. 132-133).  None of which is news to successful workplace learning and performance (staff training) professionals. But it does help us to better understand the physiological underpinnings for what our guts have been telling us for so long in our roles as trainer-teacher-learners. In biological terms, he suggests, “the whole of formal education is perhaps most appropriately seen as a human extension of play” (p. 66). And I suspect our learners will be grateful and more successful than they already are if this is a reminder that we take to heart.


Brains: Our Learning Tool in Action

July 8, 2011

Trainer-teacher-learners seem to explore almost every aspect of the learning process imaginable. And yet there’s a basic tool we all too often overlook: the brain itself. Which is a terribly embarrassing oversight since we are, without it, literally nothing.

Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself offers a great starting place for those of us interested in plugging that gap in our knowledge. It is firmly rooted in the physiological basics of how brains learn and adapt—literally changing, as our experiences change, through the process known as neuroplasticity.

Those willing to take the time to read the entire book will follow Doidge’s explorations documenting how a variety of terribly challenged people have overcome tremendous physical and psychological disabilities far beyond the day-to-day issues confronted in our training-teaching-learning efforts. There are, for example, case studies showing nearly miraculous recoveries by a woman who felt as if she were perpetually falling, a man with severe stroke-induced impediments, a woman who had been written off as “retarded,” and a woman who literally grew up with half a brain.

Trainer-teacher-learners with less time to spare can move right to the heart of Doidge’s writings on the physiology of learning by diving into the third chapter, “Redesigning the Brain”—a fascinating and game-changing exploration of the work on neuroplasticity completed by University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Michael Merzenich.

In one particularly dense yet well-synthesized passage, Doidge helps us understand how neuroplasticity and learning come together in the work that trainer-teacher-learners facilitate: “…Merzenich invoked the ideas of Donald O. Hebb, a Canadian behavioral psychologist who had worked with [Wilder] Penfield. In 1949 Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing another to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept—actually proposed by Freud sixty years before—was neatly summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together wire together” (p. 63)—which, to bring this all home, simply means that when neurons fire together during the learning process, our brain creates connections that turn ephemeral potential learning experiences into the long-term behavioral changes that effective learning is meant to produce.

The converse, Doidge notes, is also true: “…Neurons that fire apart wire apart—or neurons out of sync fail to link” (p. 64).

Understanding the basics of neuroplasticity helps us understand the challenges our learners face. There are, for example, times in our lives—early childhood being one that is easily and commonly recognized—when learning appears to be easier for us: “Language development…has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as is the native tongue,” Doidge notes (p. 52). But this is far from an excuse for those who believe they simply are too old to learn new tricks—or more substantial lessons; the more we and our learners remain open to new experiences, the easier it is for us, physiologically, to maintain our brain’s plasticity—which translates into an ability to continue learning.

“Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away,” Doidge writes. “In response he has developed brain exercise for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking and, processing speed” and his efforts are producing noteworthy results (p. 85).

The conclusions for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance or any other educational endeavor are obvious. If we want to help our learners, we have to make them aware of what it takes to expedite learning. And in a wonderfully circular way, we have the documentary proof here that the more we continue to learn, the easier the learning process remains. Which is great news in a world where the need for learning is continual and those who either are unwilling or unable to continue learning are at a distinct and potentially life- and career-threatening disadvantage.

“Just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape,” Doidge suggests. “To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones” (p. 88).

“Plasticity,” he assures us, “ is a normal phenomenon, and brain maps are constantly changing” (p. 61). It’s clear that one of our many roles as trainer-teacher-learners is to do all we can to make learners aware of this situation so they take advantage of the possibilities it offers.


Nicholas Carr, the Shallows, and Reflective Learning

July 1, 2011

An author who begins his book on “what the Internet is doing to our brains” by admitting that he is rarely able to “immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article” raises an obvious question in the mind of even the most lackadaisical reader: So how were you able to write a book inspired by your lengthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and how is anyone who uses the Internet going to be expected to actually read it?

Fortunately for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Nicholas Carr managed to persevere and even address those obvious questions near the end of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And, in offering us that book, he provides an engaging look at how the neuroplastic nature of our brains is helping us adapt to the flood of information the Internet brings our way—something we need to understand if we’re going to effectively work with the learners we are serving.

“The very existence of this book would seem to contradict its thesis,” Carr disengagingly admits (p. 199). “If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent prose? It wasn’t easy.” He even, at that late point in the book, softens the case he makes throughout the book by writing, “The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can.”

But by then it is too late for us to quibble. Through his lucid prose and by consistently introducing us to a variety of sources documenting how we absorb information, he builds a strong case for the argument that what we are doing as we quickly jump from Internet site to Internet site leaves us skimming the surface—wading ineffectually through those shallows he cites in his title—rather than engaging in the sort of reflective learning that the act of reading books often supports.

Those of us who do not have trouble reading (or writing) long articles or books would suggest to Carr that he appears to be right on target in explaining how our brains change physiologically in response to the constant inundation of information. Furthermore, he builds a strong case for his contention that quickly leaping from one website to another in a frenetic race through an enticing array of hyperlinks leaves us with little time to reflect upon and absorb the writing in any one article we encounter.

And yet—as usual—I find myself focusing on people as much as on technology. I find it as hard to blame the Internet for what we are doing to ourselves as I would find it hard to blame television or radio or videogames for the shallowness that is so often apparent in our intellectual lives. What I’m actually seeing here is yet another opportunity for trainer-teacher-learners: the opportunity to call our learners’ attention to all that Carr documents and work with them to counteract the shallow learning curve this sort of leaping produces.

It really is no different than the effort our best teachers made, during our academic careers, to help us develop effective study habits. If we accept Carr’s thesis that we’re undercutting our own ability to read and absorb material because, like kids in a candy shop, we’re always racing off to the next bright and shiny bit of information the Internet offers us, then the answer is to help interested learners find ways to slow the process. Step away from the hyperlinks. And spend a little more time in the uninterrupted pursuit of reflecting upon the more thoughtful pieces of writing that come our way—like The Shallows does—so we can have our learning cake and eat it too.

If “information overload has become a permanent affliction,” as Carr asserts (p. 170), then we as trainer-teacher-learners need to play a leading role in acting upon that diagnosis and showing our learners—while reminding ourselves—that slowing down a bit will bring us long-term benefits including reduced stress levels, higher levels of creativity, and more productive approaches to the challenges we face in our work and personal lives.

We don’t really have to go down the unnecessary path of making this an either-or choice between reading books and reading online materials. We can and should continue using the Internet and all those fabulous hyperlinks when they serve our needs. We also can and should continue recognizing that immersion in a printed or electronic book while fending off distractions does require effort on our part.

As Carr notes, it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding enough to be well worth the effort. As anyone who made it this far into this article can probably confirm.


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