Category Archives: cognition

Looking for a new narrative

I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.

I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).

As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.

We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.

I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.

What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?

What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.

Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.

So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.

I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.

Inspired by Alda

ticket for alan alda talk

Easily one of my favourite things about working at a university is the rich range of speakers that come to share ideas with us. This week alone we have presentations for International Women’s Day and lectures on vote buying in Indonesia, Public Private Partnerships in infrastructure, Poverty alleviation in Brazil and Argentina, the Paris Climate Talks, the 2016 Defence White paper and exploring fertility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Last night we also had Alan Alda talking about science communication. He was amazing.

This isn’t something that I knew about him before but this is a long standing passion of his. He is the co-founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and hosted a tv series – Scientific American Frontiers – interviewing scientists around the world for more than a decade.

Funnily enough, I suspect that like many of the 1300+ people in the audience, that wasn’t my primary reason for going to the talk. (Though it did seem interesting in itself). Whether for his performances as Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, Sen. Arnold Vinick in The West Wing or most recently Pete in Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, Alda is an astounding actor and communicator and has won over many fans in his long career.

While Alda spoke directly about science communication, it was clear to me that everything he said could just as easily be applied to teaching practice, particularly in higher ed where there can be a tendency to get caught up in highly complex and dry technical language. (Which isn’t to say that this isn’t needed or that academics and scholars don’t need common specific terminology to communicate sophisticated content, more that particularly when introducing new concepts, it can be helpful to think about other cognitive processes that aid in learning)

In a nutshell, what I took away from the presentation was:

  • It’s ok to use plain English to explain concepts that the audience (student) isn’t familiar with
  • People retain information far better when it is attached to an emotion that they have experienced in receiving it.
  • Presenting your information as a narrative with a degree of showmanship will enhance engagement.
  • When you know too much about something, it can be easy to forget how to see it from the perspective of a novice (and adjust your explanation accordingly)

Alda illustrated all of these core ideas with stories and demonstrations that were exciting (a desperate rush for emergency surgery in Chile), disgusting (children thrown in a river in medieval times to ensure that public events stayed in public memory), amusing (an exercise in getting the audience to guess a song by having someone tap it out on the lectern) and truly sad (doomed lovers doing a heartbeat experiment)

Much of what he had to say resonated deeply with many ideas related to cognition and learning over the years that have sparked my interest in scenarios, game based learning and gamification. While he didn’t drill down into which researcher showed what, there is a wealth of research out there that has demonstrated the value of the emotional and personal connections that presenters/scientists/teachers can add to their teaching practices to make them resonate more with an audience.

When asked which areas of science have the biggest problems with this, he made the point that what the anti-vaccination campaigners on their side  (as far as persuasion goes) is the emotion and the intimacy of their personal stories. No idea how to counter this but I think he’s right.

There was also an additional point raised (timely on International Women’s Day) about how women in science sometimes feel that they have to present a more dispassionate and impersonal face to their audiences to avoid the stereotypes of “emotional” women. Again, no solutions but an interesting point.

The Q&A component of the talk was filmed and here it is