Leif and the Fall

22nd October 2020

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Leif and the Fall, by Allison Sweet Grant and Adam Grant.  All the other leaves say that “All leaves fall in the fall.”  But Leif applies creativity to learn that success grows from plenty of failures in this beautifully illustrated little story. If you are a parent, caregiver, relative, or friend, you couldn’t do better to help a child’s creativity than reading this uplifting book together. 

We also greatly enjoyed Allison and Adam’s children’s book The Gift Behind the Box. Adam Grant wrote one of our very favorite books, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (which also discusses Barb’s work on Pathological Altruism.)

The Brain Maps Out Ideas and Memories Like Spaces

We’ve long been interested in the power of cognitive maps to fuel cognition, not just about space, but about virtually everything. In this beautifully researched and written article by Jordana Cepelewicz in Quanta Magazine, (via Pocket Worthy), she notes: “In the past few decades, research has shown that for at least two of our faculties, memory and navigation, those metaphors may have a physical basis in the brain. A small seahorse-shaped structure, the hippocampus, is essential to both those functions, and evidence has started to suggest that the same coding scheme — a grid-based form of representation — may underlie them. Recent insights have prompted some researchers to propose that this same coding scheme can help us navigate other kinds of information, including sights, sounds and abstract concepts. The most ambitious suggestions even venture that these grid codes could be the key to understanding how the brain processes all details of general knowledge, perception and memory.” 

The pictures in this article are especially helpful. Enjoy!  [Hat tip: LHTL Lead Mentor Steven Cooke.]

Rethinking Assessment

Our friend Al McConville, Director of Learning and Innovation at Bedales, who was responsible for the kid-friendly approach of our book Learning How to Learn, has pulled together a group of UK education people to launch this movement to help rethink assessment: www.rethinkingassessment.com. What unites Al’s group is a sense that we’re not assessing broadly enough, and that timed tests are just one element of knowing how a young person is developing. “Tests are all good,” Al notes, “but if that’s all a kid ever does, it’s pretty dispiriting!”

Along these lines, the Chartered College of Teaching is hosting a (free) discussion on November 5, 2020, chaired by Dame Alison Peacock looking at the future of exams and rethinking assessment. You can register here.

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Researchers have long observed that people have an optimism bias—they like to hear and react to good news, easily absorbing it into their thinking, even as they discount negative or harmful information. This Pollyanna lifestyle leads to an evolutionary conundrum. How can people survive if they are continually discounting risk and refusing to take obvious precautions in the face of threat?  The solution may lie within the findings of this fascinating study by Neil Garrett and colleagues from The Journal of Neuroscience involving “valence-dependent learning asymmetry.”  

The crux of the matter is that when individuals perceive themselves to be in physical danger, they begin to think differently—their minds open to new information, even though it may be negative, allowing them to learn and reshape their thinking. The stress helps them see reality instead of roses.

This in turn may explain the central sociological idea of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages, Ibn Khaldun, related to societal cohesion under fearful external pressures. (This concept, aṣabiyyah, has also been translated as “group solidarity” or “tribalism.”) For example, imagine you are hanging around in pre-history on the Italic Peninsula when some yokels a couple hills over start trying to boss you around, demanding tribute. Forget about it! But wait a minute, those Gauls from up north are pretty durn scary—maybe it won’t hurt to open our minds to some alliances. And thus begins the Roman Empire. 

Or, in a more recent example, the British had been wanting “peace in our time” against Hitler, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waved an agreement that seemed to guarantee it. Time to relax and celebrate! Unfortunately, this benighted, “Let’s look at the bright side!” attitude bought Hitler time and allowed him to take his first crucial victories. This greatly prolonged World War II, leading to the slaughter of dozens of millions.

Garrett et al’s findings may also explain why people have ignored warnings about the effects of an upcoming pandemic such as COVID-19, or the electric grid being wiped out by a combination of a solar superstorm and cheap design shortcuts, or the tragedy of an asteroid hit when preparation could divert the danger. Epidemiologists, engineers, and astronomers, know it’s only a matter of time before the danger unfolds, but for others, well, in general, it’s more pleasant to focus on something positive. This focus on the positive also helps explain the frequent feel-good band aid patches instead of real fixes for the educationally disadvantaged, and the sad state of affairs in the USA involving the deinstitutionalized homeless.

Of course it’s easy to say “That explains why those guys are ignoring the obvious” when focusing on our own favored danger, while turning a Pollyanna eye to perhaps more important dangers (or dangerously prohibitive costs) being pointed out by those who don’t ascribe to our belief systems. 

As Garrett’s findings reveal, once your eyes are open to real danger, it becomes a learning opportunity for other genuine, yet here-to-fore ignored dangers. Could you perhaps use Garrett’s findings to broaden your mindset and your learning? And to help implement reality-oriented protective policies for your organization?

To learn more about the brilliant Ibn Khaldun and aṣabiyyah, we highly recommend War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, by Peter Turchin. Oh yes, and the quote about hanging was written by English writer and proto-neuroscientist Samuel Johnson over 200 years ago. La plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

View more Cheery Friday e-mails >