Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Rant of the Crowbar

I have spent entirely too much time this week reading rants on blogs all over the 'net. As Ernie (Golden Retriever) and I rounded the corner a block away, I reflected on the growth and maturity that my 19-year-old daughter has demonstrated over the past few months, and I heard my own rant formulating in my mind:

Learning is not mechanization and discipline. This is not so much the rant part; I believe in self-discipline, and I believe in helping others achieve it for themselves. Mechanization is not a bad thing for low-level detail and things that make sense to automate. But here is the rant part: Learning is not one of those things.

Learning is not memorization. Or, at least, the memorization part of learning is not the learning. It's not. Memorization done to remember specific bits of information is a process that is best automated or mechanized, using mnemonics or other tricks of association. Yes, they work. No, they are not learning.

Learning is not about agreeing with authority. Yes, some of you will have a hard time with this one, especially if you view the teacher as the ultimate authority whose years (or degrees, or awards, or publications, or honors.....), or other indicators of wisdom, suggest to you a guru at whose feet a student should worship. I'm not ranting on religion, faith, belief, or even leadership. I'm talking about learning. And agreeing with authority only because it is authority IS NOT LEARNING.

Enough ranting? Maybe. So what is learning?

For me, learning is a process of cognition, connection, expansion, and realization. It is the creation of new connections initiated in the neo-cortex of the human brain. It is the opening of possibilties.

In the age of the Internet, we don't need teachers to point us to data or even information. All of that is (for good or ill) already available, unmediated, for the price of the ability to spell a word that approximates the question you want an answer to.

Learning is about meaning. We need teachers to ask the questions, structure the experiences, reflect back to us our reactions, faclitate the the process that creates the connections. And as teachers, we need to start making learners' independence of us the primary goal of our "instruction."

End of rant. If you read this far - bless you, and forgive me.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seeing analogies: the brain's most powerful lever

Generally speaking, leverage is the ability to gain powerful results when applying only a moderate amount of energy. Mental leverage, more specifically, might refer to our ability to gain powerful thinking results by applying the brain's built-in capabilities.

So it is time to talk about what might be the most powerful lever built into our brains. It is powerful because it is easy for us - child's play for our neo-cortexes (or, depending on how literally you take Piaget, at least adolescent's play). It is the default tool for all learning - the ability to see similarities between relationships, the ability to see analogies.

If you are reading this blog, chances are good that you already know who Alex Osborn was. But if by some chance you are wondering if he might be related to Ozzy Osborn, then I have an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leverage I'm talking about. Supposing I told you that Ray Kroc (founder of MacDonald's) was related to fast food franchising in the same way that Alex Osborn was related to the process of brainstorming? Your mind might immediately jump to a guess about my friend Alex - that he originated brainstorming, that he popularized brainstorming, that he made a fortune in brainstorming.... And for the most part, you would be on target. Alex Osborn, author of Applied Imagination, 1953, was the advertising executive generally credited with both inventing and popularizing the method known as brainstorming. His book provided what he referred to as "the principles and procedures of creative problem-solving."

So here's my question: Assuming you were not familiar with Alex Osborn before, how did you arrive at your guess of what he might have done? Essentially, your brain reasoned from something you knew (the relationship of Ray Kroc to fast food franchising) to something that was unfamiliar (the relationship of Alex Osborn to brainstorming). Your reasoning was based on the similarity between the relationships. Ray Kroc himself may not have had anything in common with Alex. Finding some commonality between brainstorming and fast food franchising is a stretch at best. But the relationship between (on the one hand) Ray and what he originated with McDonald's and (on the other hand) Alex and what he did with brainstorming is similar - some would say "parallel."

What I find remarkable about this capability of "seeing analogies" is that no one had to teach it to you. By the time your brain could reason abstractly, it had probably developed this particular skill. Maybe you have only used it to talk about Oprah Winfrey as "the Michael Jordan of the talk show." Maybe you have used it to describe the relationship of necessity and invention ("motherhood"?). Or maybe you have used it to understand the historic relationship of the Soviet republics to the Soviet Union ("satellites"). In each of these examples, the same cognitive skill is at work: your brain is seeing a similarity between relationships.

There's a lot more to talk about here. If you are an educator, you're probably thinking about how much faster a student might learn a new subject if someone could just provide the right analogies. If you are a marketer, you may be thinking about how convincing a well-chosen analogy can be. If you are a scientist or a politician, you may be getting ready to protest this post, to assert how powerfully misleading an analogy can be when one is seeking to slant the facts. Baby boomers may recall, for example, the "domino theory" that was applied in the 1960s to justify the American presence in Vietnam.

All of these uses and misuses, of course, are exactly the point. I'm not necessarily suggesting that we need to use more analogies. Astute observers can easily make the case that our media and politicians are already guilty of overuse. I'm suggesting that gaining powerful thinking results requires understanding this capability of seeing analogies - so that we know how to understand an analogy, how to analyze its meaning and implications, and what to examine to determine whether it is apt. There's plenty more to talk about on the subject.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Leveraging a 3000-mile car trip

Actually, it was a 2800-mile car trip, but round numbers are better in titles. The thing about a car trip with your life partner is that you are together - really together. Every decision is a joint decision, even the option to make a restroom stop. I imagine that this kind of togetherness could lead to some conflicts. For us, it led to the increased commitment to invest in our relationship.

Of course, it wasn't just a car trip; it was occasioned by a major change in my life. One does not lose one's job every day, particularly in one's 50s, and particularly after 12 years of varying responsibilities for the same company. This could also be an occasion for adding stress to a family relationship.

But this was something that the two of us decided we actually wanted to do - to get away from the house, the kids, her job (she still has hers), and to hit the road. To help me (adopted Minnesotan that I am) re-connect with family, friends, and professional contacts from the East Coast. To see some places we had never seen before. To have some protected time together. In this situation, the decision to stop at a lock of the C&O canal is an important decision. A decision to spend 2 hours at a husband's alma mater that he has not visited in over 30 years is an important decision. A decision to kick back for an evening, drink wine, and watch the sunset (you guessed it) is an important decision.

This is a whole different kind of leverage. It is living one's life, and sharing with a partner. Even after 20 years together, we could still appreciate that sunset.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Leveraging space and time

As a temporary diversion from the topic of leveraging thinking processes, it may be time to think about leveraging time and space. Time and space? How do you leverage abstractions over which you have no control?

I started this post well over a week ago, still working at my desk in the den at home. Then my wife and I started a driving trip to the East Coast, and I realized what I had imagined: you leverage time and space by using it - by getting outside the daily box, by breaking up the routine, by hitting the road. And the destination does not have to be earth-shaking - a visit to your folks, dinner with friends, perhaps a stop at someplace you've always wanted to see (like Fallingwater in PA). That may be all it takes. Restorative for personal perspective, if not for the soul. Highly recommended.

We now return you to the regularly scheduled blog...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

So what might a cognitive lever look like?

What if we could lean on the operating strength of our brains just as the crowbar leans on the solid strength of the side of the box whose lid is being pried? Would it be possible to get that same kind of leverage, that multiplier effect, working mentally for us? (I already regret the use of the word mentally, but I'm struggling to come up with a better choice.) What might that mean, anyway?

With the physical crowbar, we can gain leverage by positioning the claws at just the right spot - a solid spot, where they will be able to push against a flat, strong surface area and support the force that will be exerted on the other end. If we can rely on the strength of that area to hold as we push, then the force we apply at the other end will be multiplied by a factor related to the length and strength of the crowbar (the lever). How do we find that same kind of leverage in our brains?

With the crowbar, the key was finding the right spot, the right position. I'm thinking that with the brain, the key is understanding the natural functions that the brain is optimally wired to handle, and taking advantage of the way they already work. In other words, leveraging existing functions. So what are the most powerful existing functions?

We didn't know much about brain functions 100 years ago, and precious little even into the mid-twentieth century. But the explosion of new medical technologies and research over the last 50 years has provided us with a wealth of insight into how the brain works. While few researchers in the field are likely to believe that we have brain functioning nailed (ouch - painful choice of metaphors), discoveries have increasingly led to a variety of applications, some commercialized, some not, and some perhaps commercialized prematurely.

Sticking with those "yet to be commercialized," I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite practitioners/researchers/authors (yes, he is all of those) - Elkhonon Goldberg. His first two books, The Executive Brain and The Wisdom Paradox are masterpieces of making complex research understandable to lay people (like me). There is plenty to mine in these books, plenty to apply, far too much to do justice to in a blog. So I'll just highlight one piece of his findings that has stuck with me and helped me understand why some good learning and thinking tools work - even how they work.

In the second book, The Wisdom Paradox, Goldberg explains a bit about the physiological differences found between the two hemispheres of the neo-cortex, and how these differences make it possible for us to recognize and remember patterns. (NO! Don't zone out - this is good stuff!!! I'm going to attempt to summarize, just so that you get the idea. But if you're interested, don't rely on my summary - check out his book. I may not have gotten it completely right.)

It seems that the right hemisphere is built mainly with neurons that are long and skinny - very long. The connections in the right hemisphere are often relatively "long distance" connections, enabling the neo-cortex to communicate with areas all over the brain very rapidly. His theory is that this structure enhances the ability of the cell groups in the right neo-cortex to quickly make "sense" of new sensory data.

The cells in the left neocortex, on the other hand, tend to be shorter, denser, more heavily "myellinated." Myellin is formed when the same cell pathways are activated over and over. The theory is that a pattern is getting strengthened when the myellin is forming.

So here's how it works: You see, hear, feel, etc. something new. The cells in the right hemisphere of your thinking brain (neo-cortex) pick up that sensory input and very rapidly send signals all over the brain, looking for the "meaning" of this new input. (I know - Dr. Goldberg might not like that word meaning.) Somewhere in the brain there is a match, or a fit, and a message goes back to the neo-cortex that this input has been recognized (re-cognized). It fits a pattern. This instance, if it is significant enough, may now get stored as another instance of that pattern - maybe another tiny, tiny spec of a sheet of myelin.

Too minutely mechanical for you? If that's the case, here's the point: I now have a pretty good idea of how pattern recognition might work in my brain. I understand that it's OK (maybe even preferred) for me to let my mind wander in multiple directions when I'm faced with some new stimulus - sensory or otherwise. I understand that my brain will automatically want to bring me candidates for matching patterns. Maybe most important, I understand that my job is to get clear on what the new stimulus really is, so that I give my brain the chance to identify the right candidates for a matching pattern.

Still too mechanical? OK, what do you imagine is going on in your mind when you look at the faces in a picture from your 25th, or 30th, or (gulp) 35th graduating class reunion? I think I'm experiencing a recognition power unleashed between my ears that makes a simple crowbar look like a Neanderthal's tool. Unless, of course, I don't recognize any faces....

A classic concrete lever

Years ago, when I first thought about the idea of starting my own enterprise, I got as far as a core idea: leverage is the reason that people buy. People spend money on goods and services because they can get what they want faster, better, or cheaper that way than by building it from scratch. No, it's not a terribly revolutionary idea - just an evolutionary personal revelation for me.

Those of us with a sales and marketing background are familiar with multiple models for "buyers' motivations." It dawned on me that all of these models boil down to one insight: that the basic buying decision is some version of the "build versus buy" question. I don't have time to cook, but I am hungry now, so I find a restaurant. Take it further back - I love to cook, but I don't have a farm, garden, or hunting capabilities, so I go to the grocery store. In both cases, I choose to use my time doing the part I want to do, and outsource the component needs to a specialist. You could call it the Dell Computer model of life. The core idea is finding the lever that increases the value of all of the other components.

Too abstract? OK, let's get really concrete, and take a look at the classic lever:

Yes, it's a crowbar. Nothing special about it - except that it's the one I bought two decades ago when the importance of leverage first found its way into my conscious mind. The educator in me couldn't resist taking this recent picture using a common flipchart as the background - more fodder for a future post. I called this shot, taken with my low-end cell phone camera, "Crowbar on White."

The crowbar is my symbol for this personal evolutionary revelation about leverage, the value that each of us adds with our own special sauce. When all else fails, that is what each of us needs to stand on - the way in which our contribution provides leverage, value, for someone else. We put our crowbars to work opening boxes and crates for others, or, even more powerfully, we act as a crowbar in their hands. My crowbar is a concrete symbol of the value of the leverage I can provide.

Think about a crowbar for a minute. It is a simple, elegant machine. Its shape and strength are optimized to multiply the force that one can exert through probing and prying, especially prying. As a former teacher, I recognize prying as a metaphor for self-directed research. Am I going too far afield?

What is your crowbar? And how can you use it to help someone today?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The power of a lever

Some dictionary definitions really say it all, giving you exactly the inspiration you need in an official quote to take on the world. Others may leave you a bit disappointed, like this one, from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, copyright 1978 (that happens to be the one on my shelf):

"Lever, n. 1. a simple machine consisting of a rigid body, typically a metal bar, pivoted on a fixed fulcrum. 2. a projecting handle used to adjust or operate a mechanism. 3. a means of accomplishment."

Why did they stop with #3? I get the importance of the concreteness of the first two definitions - if I see the physical lever, I have a better understanding of how it might work. But it's the third one that really interests me. To be fair to American Heritage, there is a neat little diagram in the margin, too, that shows how the weights and forces work in three types of levers. And, I will admit, the definition a few words down for leverage gets closer to what I'm looking for: "Positional advantage; power to act effectively." And, I guess I have to also admit that the primary mission of the dictionary is probably not to provide catchy quotes for a consultant's blog. Granted, all of the above. But let's get to the point.

The power of a lever starts with this concept of "positional advantage." Very concretely, where you place the lever does determine its effectiveness. That's true.

I'd also like to suggest that in today's all-at-once, everywhere, global-everything society, that advantage has been de-coupled from physical position. In other words, you can get the power of a lever, or at least, power analogous to the way a lever works ("leverage") in lots of different ways. Physical position is only one of them.

As soon as you can conceive of a "position" that is not physical, you can take this discussion of leverage in lots of different directions. Without even checking the Oxford English Dictionary, we can guess that the use of position as a verb might have started at least by the first quarter of the last century, when sports of all types became livelihoods, and people were hired to position the players (among other things). In marketing, for example (one of the fields in which I have some work experience), position became a metaphor a couple of decades ago, thanks to Al Ries and Jack Trout. And a discussion of leverage in business can easily become a seminar series.

But I'm calling this blog "non-random," so I probably ought to stick to the point. The purpose of this oddly named blog is to explore mental leverage; specifically, what it might mean to leverage the built-in power of the human brain. That's where we're headed (pun intended).