Category: Society

Do Not Stand Still: Lesson from an Optical Illusion Trick

There is an interesting puzzle that occasionally is being circulated around. Click on this picture to see how it works. It’s simple, but, like all illusions of this type, surprising.

ImageIllusions like this just prove how complex, amazing and dilligent our brain is. It doesn’t just work to give us information about the environment, it works even harder to improve itself and do the most with the hardware the nature bestowed upon us.

This is an optical illusion caused by the brain using its computational abilities to manipulate the sensorial data. It does this on many occasions, for good reason, otherwise we would go nuts. It puts things into perspective, literally, to help us cope with the external world.

Disobey the Instruction and See

Disobey the instruction and instead of staring at the dot for ten seconds just let you eyes roam skip around and hit the dot occasionally.  This time when the picture transitions to the white background no distortion occurs. Why is that? The abscence of fabricated reality is caused by the brain not being able find a persistent pattern that can be classified as a candidate for process automation.

An easy way to explain this is to use the Japanese cartoons as a proxy for how this works. To make the production as effective as possible the Japanese cartoon designers keep most of the animated frames static with the exception of the essential details that must change in synchronisation with the sound to create maximum cinematic impact. Very often these details are the mouth, the eyes, the hands and the main moving objects (bullets, rays, guns, etc.). Remember Heidi and her crooked mouth?  Unless you want to notice this, if you follow the story the static frames don’t even bother you.  The brain does the same: it tries to focus on what is new and keeps the static scene as a background to free up working memory as much as possible. It also does this to automate information processing involving subconscious thinking. This is why often you are not even aware of these illusions unless you set up traps like this puzzle.

Do Not Stand Still

In a bigger scheme of things this demonstrates how difficult is to adopt a set of contradictory skills and keep them in balance. On one hand organising information processes in detail is helpful, on the other hand it can be misleading because by the time the organisation is complete, the data source already changed and the organisation is not suitable anymore.  You want to be thorough, but not slow. You want to be fast, but not superficial.

The brain uses the same principle of efficiency in all its operational aspects. This is how habits are formed.  Repeated actions signal the brain it is time to push the memory of the related information into the basal ganglia and let the subconscious deal with the execution of these routines.  On many occasions we just do things without even knowing.

Could it be that we have similar illusions in other areas of our lives?  What happens when we work on something fixated on a particular detail? Let’s take politics as an example. If a political party treats an aspect of our society as a red dot and frames it in vivid colours making everyone getting obsessed about that, how long does it take the audience to adopt the new colours and not even notice it is in fact a simple black on white scenario? Or the way an organisation works: environmental change occurring around an official red dot and no one sees the real change until late. Or late say, someone makes a vaccine rare unfortunate occurrence a red dot that gets everyone’s attention, while vastly more people suffer from not using the vaccine.

It can happen in the context of a group of friends, larger social groups, cities, etc.

Or the economy. Follow the news flow in financial markets and you see in a year a long string of red dots occurring on issues that trigger a sharp reaction from the markets, or a sub group of market participants, only to disappear in a week or two as if nothing happened. But boy, wasn’t that issue so credible even after (or more importantly AFTER, allowing those who see beyond the focal point to take advantage of the illusion) the red dot stopped flashing like mad?

Keep looking, and when you see a red dot refuse to get hypnotised. Consider other points of reference. Move your focus around. By all means notice the red dot, but do not submit yourself entirely to its magnetic eye.

Why Are We So Opinionated About Public Education?

Why is education an open field for public opinions where so many with no training in teaching are convinced their views are as valid or competent as the professional educators’?

Perhaps deep down we believe we are experts at educating children because the human race has practiced simple forms of education over millions of years of evolution. Humans have the longest childhood among all species. A necessary requirement for becoming an adult is learning how to operate in a complex environment. We are born with instructions that demand us to teach our children how to walk, speak, use tools, and understand social norms.

Parents take pride in the way they “educate” their children at home. This learning period in anyone’s life is deeply emotional. Early years of parental education is a period of attachment during which children and parents establish strong bonding.

In contrast, as a recent invention in our long history, school is an artificial extension of a social relationship created and nurtured beyond the family home boundaries. Teachers never achieve the same status of trusted relationship with children not only because they missed the early opportunity to imprint attitudes, but also because their institutional goals serve a different purpose. Despite the dedication of millions of teachers, the connection between children and school is very thin and fragile. Schools are meant to serve a different master whose interest is to produce a workforce capable of supporting its socio-economic domain.

Many educational initiatives attempt to describe themselves as “student-centric”, or caring for “children’s wellbeing” don’t’ tell the entire story, which is the fact that they are designed to comply with the demands of the political system that funds them, and which in turn are separated by so many levels of bureaucratic layers from the individual families. They want to be close to the students, but the gap between individual families and state-wide social systems is so wide, they cannot ever achieve the ‘kinship’ status.

The relationship between schools and parents is difficult and the main reason it has worked so far is because of its practical value. This invisible contract worked for a few hundred years despite many difficulties because the parents and schools in the end served the same master. As children learned skills they need as members of the future workforce in a society representing their ‘natural’ habitat, parents have no choice but to accept the school’s role in preparing their children to survive as adults. Plus, parents need to go to work and someone has to mind their children while they are away from home; they have to outsource the education to people outside the immediate family.

How can schools give their students life skills? What worked in the past two hundred years doesn’t necessarily work in the next fifty years. In Australia the unemployment rate is now 5.4%. If you think this is a good rate, compare this with the unemployment rate in 1970: 0.9%. In 1951 it was even lower: 0.3%! In absolute numbers, we have 656,400 unemployed people today versus 78,000 unemployed people then. Schools were doing wonders; if you had education you got a job, no question asked. Today, good school education does not give any guarantees.

The lack of certainty plays on one essential evolutionary concern: our children have strong bodies and sharp minds that can figure out how to solve problems during their adult lives (in line with the culture they belong to). There is no other profession, other than medical care, that is so directly linked to our survival as a species. Medicine has been a mysterious secret protected by a few since the dawn of mankind. It needs access to scarce materials and know-how and it cannot be practiced at home. Education, on the other hand, that is another story. Key to survival of the individual, the tribe and its culture, it has remained a part of us as probably the oldest occupation that we still practice without even knowing. This is why people are so passionate when it comes to education.

Will Big Data Make Us Less Human?

A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.

One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.

Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.

But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.

Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.

The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.

The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.

Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.

Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.

So, are we less human? 
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.

To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours?  Not likely.

Is Hard Work Stupid?

In a recent article titled “Virtually Exhausted” William Deresiewicz, editor at The American Scholar, suggested that believing hard work is a way to achieve is “one of those notions that is so stupid it has to embody a deeply held belief“.

In this notion he refers to the Protestant religious system that has elevated hard work to the status of virtue which, Deresiewicz argues, has infiltrated the work ethics of America with presumably with some terrible consequences, one of them being wide spread exhaustion. According to him, working hard to reach a dream couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Deresiewicz, because distribution of talent is “undemocratic” and hard work is futile, just an illusion of choice for the naïve masses.

This elitist view calmly dismisses any hopes that one has for changing less fortunate circumstances. It begs the question of what is talent. It must be something you are born with, something that takes you to through an Ivy League college and gives you secure employment for life. It’s a privilege that cannot be acquired through hard work.

Just last week, whilst on the other side of the planet, Gina Reinhart, the Australian mining magnate, caused a furore when she said that if you want to get wealthy “spend less time drinking, or smoking, or socialising, and more time working”. This may sound like a good tip to the wasteful, but it is nothing more unsettling than having a person that inherited a fortune of billions of dollars to give this kind of advice to the populace in general. The thousands of people, who work hard deep in the mines owned by her scratching the guts of the planet in search for minerals, don’t make themselves wealthy. They make her wealthy. In this context, the message has the opposite meaning, because the reality in the mine can be used to prove the point that hard work doesn’t make you rich, luck does.

So far, this idea of hard work does seem trivial. Who would want to labour when in the end there is nothing to celebrate, there is no change, but just more struggle when the genes won’t let you have it?

And yet, there are many who have no doubt that hard work is necessary to make it in life. Research studies show that if you concentrate your efforts through hard work you can master almost any skills. It is estimated that you need to invest ten years to achieve mastery in your chosen domain, if you put in the long hours. People who were born without such talent can succeed when initial evidence suggests otherwise. The legendary Wayne Gretzky comes to mind as a brilliant example. Against all odds, he became the best of all those who were deemed to be ‘talented’.

There is a common element of caution that we can learn from what Deresiewicz and Reinhart said: hard work without creation does not pay well.

If Deresiewicz remembers well, the core philosophy of The American Scholar is based the eponymous speech delivered almost 200 years ago. In that speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson talks brilliantly about the need for each of us to aspire to become One Man, as someone that is not subjugated to routine of his craft. For a scholar, that is to become a Man Thinking, not just “a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”. He goes on to say “History and exact science must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create”.

We suffer for too much hard work as a drill, not as a creation. We should question the mindless long work hours, but not the hard work driven by passion and desire to create something better. Replace the industrial factories with creative studios, repetition with innovation, and slavery with freedom.

Hard work is encouraged in schools. It is one of the character traits that are most valued as a prerequisite for individual and social improvement. Try to tell a teacher that talent is to be praised and not the effort! If we raise our children with the belief that hard work is an illusionary key to success, then our future is bleak.

Would Schools Do Better Without Homework and Grades?

“I cannot figure it out!” he said in frustration. My son was distressed. After a long gruelling schedule which started at 5:30am, by the time he started working on maths at 7pm after late and gruelling tennis training, the homework just seemed too much. He could not concentrate; the exhaustion was plainly clear in his body language: slouched shoulders, long face, and heavy eyelids.

I asked him how much homework he had to do that night. He had to work on maths and history. I suggested he does history first, but he wasn’t enthused by the idea. He wanted to do the more difficult part first. Despite the frustration and lack of progress, he did not want to back down and give up. He was not ready for that yet.

I offered to help. He insisted we start with the exercise which was causing him so much grief. After reading the problems and the first question, I realised it was in fact quite easy. His issue was mental blockage; he got stuck in a negative loop. I asked him the same question in a slightly different way and his face suddenly lighten up. The tiredness was gone like magic and the frustration disappeared as if it never happened. He answered the question so quickly, I could not follow him. Next, he hurriedly wrote the answer and in a flash the entire exercise was finished.

We talked a bit more that night about how they get the homework. I thought the teachers would guide their students about which exercises they should focus on as a minimum together with some problem solving strategies. It turned out that it wasn’t like that. In some cases, the system leaves it entirely up to the students to do their homework as they see it fit. If they learn something about geometry, the teacher would describe the homework for the next day by giving them a broad list of questions from which they can choose; nothing about individual problem solving strategy.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The traditional routine homework is the mirror copy of one way lecture in the classroom: a monotonous activity for etching knowledge in the students’ memories. Drill, drill, drill! The homework effort is considered linear. You work more, you solve more exercises and you get better at it. You work less, and you are not as prepared in answering the same type of questions in an exam session. It sounds logical. But is the effort linear? Is the student ready to spend energy in equal portions of effective effort during the homework time? The anatomy of a school day shows too many variations and stress points to support the hypothesis of a linear study. What happens when the student doesn’t know what to do? What happens if the student is not motivated or if it takes too long to solve one problem causing a mini time crisis?

If skill is required to solve a particular type of exercise, which is not covered or explained in the manual, how would the student overcome that hurdle? I am not suggesting that students should be hand-held all the way to save them of any pain, but in the current situation of information and tasks overload, students need a different kind of support.

The key is to teach thinking strategies, the art of coping with stress, how to think in different ways, be effective and stay sane. In the current model teachers give students the homework without any of these personal tools, there is nothing about how to think and how to deal with difficult situations. They teach them no ‘tricks’ about how to deal with frustration and how to recognise their own abilities and talents.

Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy said in a Ted conference presentation that the schools should let the students read the theory at home and do the homework at school where teachers can help them to learn how to think, and how to solve problems. It makes sense.

How damaging could this be for students that get stuck in some of these issues? “I feel so dumb!” my son told me before he solved the exercise. Why would he say that, when he is one of the best student in his grade? Because when you don’t succeed at working out something you feel dumb. What happens with students that don’t get to see other ways of thinking and the experience is repeated over a few weeks pushing them into a negative and self-downgrading belief? I am wondering how much of this could be attributed to the attitude of disconnect from school that some students have.

Anyway, I would argue, that schools should teach students how to deal with stress and recognise when dangerous thinking habits can form and take them down. Very often, students, and this goes for any adult too, cannot find solutions not because they don’t have the capacity to, but because they lack the emotional and cognitive tools to deal with difficult situations.

Why don’t schools teach thinking smart?

The problem with schools is that they have superimposed a different agenda. The performance indicators are not designed to measure improvements in students thinking and positive attitude, but scores at maths and literature assessment. For example, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia is the dominant metric used for measuring school and student performance. The NAPLAN results are used for public show and tell for everyone to see which schools perform better. On My School web site, the school performance is measured using the NAPLAN results. The information presented invites parents to judge a school based on NAPLAN results and financial profile.

An entire industry flourished under NAPLAN, “to capitalise on their [students, schools, teachers] anxieties” as Christopher Bantick put it in an article published in The Age. These assessment scores have become the focus of the public perception inching out other learning priorities (“Why teach a Shakespeare text at year 9 when it will be interrupted by a month of trial tests, spelling lists, endless grammar exercises and punctuation: sonnets out, NAPLAN in.”

There is no time for learning about thinking.

We talk abundantly about 21st century skills, but schools are too busy calibrating their operation in compliance with industrial educational standards. Everybody knows this, but it is just not enough time and the system doesn’t seem to find the resources and the determination to make a drastic change.

Will the next generation of students be able to cope with a world that changes dramatically when the static knowledge absorbed during the school time might be of little use? The Knox Grammar School headmaster John Weeks stated once that the focus on NAPLAN results “threatens to make us factories for one-dimensional students“. 40 years ago the education system was giving students tools which they could use with confidence to manage a career in organisations with fixed hierarchies, with prospect of lifetime employment. Today, the system is still giving students the same tools, but they are of little value. Back then the school classes were a rehearsal of future work place scenarios. Now, the class monologue of lecturing teachers and the linear homework are a rehearsal that prepares students for a scenario that is increasingly irrelevant in the real life.

Higher education faces similar problems, even at the top of the food chain. In “The Organization Kid”, published in The Atlantic in 2001, David Brooks describes what has become of most students studying at top universities in US: “… at the top of meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious”. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with being “bright, morally earnest” but if this is the product of a sausage factory like education system, it is a problem. When education is like a massive train where everyone is on board set for the same destination (get the exams right) no one will know what to do when the train needs to stop at a different destination.

Let’s drop the grades!

Maybe the grades are the culprit? Having a measurement system locked onto a model that is as relevant today as it hand crafting is to computer programming forces everyone to focus on the wrong outcomes. At the core of what we need to possess as a skill is the ability to figure out the answer to a complex question by interacting with data sources and other people.

I don’t mean that in a ‘trick’ way. I mean it as an ability to understand what is going on; what are the personal preferences, talents and experience and decide how to get information, learn and apply that knowledge to produce an outcome over time. This requires a capacity to evaluate the environment, but also to self-evaluate. Schools could teach students the art of self-evaluation and give them tools to deal with difficulties in ways that suits their condition.

The focus on grades, takes the focus away from how to become more productive, how to be confident, how to deal with your own difficulties, and how to adapt. The grades are artificial and encourage toxic competitiveness. Instead of grades we should have a system that describes personal attributes and skills. As an example, this system could give the following value “marks”: student X is agile, fast and detail driven while student Y is methodical, perceptive and creative. Student X had a preference for sports, mastering kinetic skills, and has an interest in operations; she has worked on organising sport events, robotics or public transport management. Student Y has interest for research in human sciences, social behaviour and organisation of enterprises; he has worked on writing essays and organising surveys.

By focusing on personal growth, mastering learning, self-discovery, problems-solving, creativity and collaboration, the students would be given tools they will be using for the rest of their lives. The grades are not that important anyway.