Monthly Archives: August 2014

Inspiration, concentration and motivation: learning about learning

A few weeks ago I saw a beautiful bird of prey up close. It was resting on a branch two metres from me, staring at me and probably wondering why I was smiling back dorkishly. The experience was amazing, I told a friend. “Why didn’t you put it on facebook?” he responded. His reply struck me because that same day I had read about a very similar situation in a novel: a girl had enjoyed watching birds without posting a message in the social media about it – and was reprimanded for it.

Obviously fiction and yet uncomfortably familiar, the passage came from Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, chronicling a young woman who joins the most powerful internet company of the world. The book raises questions about the effect of connectedness on our focused mode, a state of concentration without any distraction, as well as memory and the limits of human knowledge in the internet age. It  does so in a very eloquent way:

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. (…) Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.” Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage Books 2014)

The Circle inspired me to take a break from my favorite social medium for 30 days. Facebook’s digital calories had ceased to be harmless for me, particularly at work. Whenever I was confronted with a ‘cue’, a challenging work tasks, I routinely switched to Facebook to look for distraction. This habit of procrastination gave only temporary pleasure: I felt I was wasting my time and was disappointed in myself for failing to work in a focused mode. The only solution was to break the routine and quit Facebook in order to face work challenges head-on. The reward was improved concentration, finished tasks and a great sense of accomplishment. But the experiment had another reward.

The young woman in Eggers’ novel becomes convinced that she should record all her experiences, like watching birds, online lest she would forget them. All that happens, must be known! In Eggers’ book internet, and in particular the social media, serve as I kind of long-term and publicly accessible memory. It’s a thought-provoking idea, because in this type of storage of memories doesn’t have the filter we carry around in our cortex: online, we don’t have a say in which of our experiences become consolidated by active retrieval of experiences. Reminding experiences without that kind of filter might be less than desirable:

“Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage Books 2014)

Building strong neural structures to remember facts or events is empowering and crucial to enjoy our personal and professional life. Forgetting, however, is equally important: having a memory superseded by something else, discarding information that is in conflict with new learning. I might see a rare bird and by not recording it in a Facebook post, I risk forgetting that experience. Having quit Facebook, I realised that for me forgetting is an essential luxury for a healthy memory.

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Living on reclaimed land

Large parts of the Netherlands are polders: reclaimed land consisting of drained wetlands. Having mostly been used as pastures some of these areas of grassy land, lakes, ditches, reed lands, and swamps have become natural reserves. This map of 1901 shows the polder I live in: Botshol, reclaimed in the late 18th century, and now a reserve of the Society for preservation of nature monuments.

Botshol 1901

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Training for Humanitarian Aid: a Learning Challenge

I have the best job in the world: I help others to learn, and make the world a better place in the process. I’m a didactical specialist working with the international aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. Our assistance to people in distress is first and foremost medical and my role is to train my colleagues in giving the best quality care – as midwife, nurse, doctor, logistician or specialist in water and sanitation, as expatriate flying into the mission from Holland, India or Canada, or as a national staff member in our mission in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Papua New Guinea. My job is to find out how best to accommodate their learning.

Over the past two years, I’ve participated in a number of MOOCs on education and related subjects. My goal is to deepen my knowledge about theories, methods and best practices in training and leaning and to keep up-to-date with developments in these areas. How do we transfer knowledge, skills and behavior from one person to the other? How do we assess a learning need? How do we evaluate training and learning in systems for formal learning? And is there a way to do so in types of informal learning? What do the rapid developments in virtual learning and distance education mean for all these issues? Even after so many years of working in education, I still don’t know most of the answers to these questions and if I do, they are in desperate need of an update.

Satisfying my desire to know more about training and learning is not the biggest problem: applying that knowledge to the unique learning environment of Doctors Without Borders is a real challenge. Take, for instance, what I’ve learning in the first week of UC San Diego’s MOOC Learning How To Learn: it makes no sense to cram your head with information, it’s more effective to repeat what you’ve learned and space that repetition. It’s still better to throw in some exercise and a good night’s sleep! That’s a luxury learners feel they don’t have at Doctors Without Borders: time costs lives, and a training takes them away from their care for people who need shelter because of a war or natural disaster, who are sick and suffer from malnutrition. Staff appreciates learning opportunities because they realize they can take better care of people afterwards. But it’s impossible to stop them from cramming as much information as possible in their heads, and from sharing experiences until late at night.

Being creative in learning, as computational neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski pointed out during an interview, might actually help to overcome my challenges. At Doctors Without Borders we might not have the opportunity to build strong neural structures by spaced repetition of information during our training, but we can initiate opportunities for learners to do so afterwards, for example through distance learning. In a post-training-test we can establish what information training participants retained, and then can refer them to information sources for what they forgot.

I have a long way to go in terms of learning about learning. But I’m confident that Learning How To Learn and other educational MOOCs will help me doing a better job at that!

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