Tortoises. That’s it. Tortoises. We all need to be like tortoises. I’ve been listening to what John Cleese has to say in the video clip here, which is what got me thinking about them. I have to admit, it wasn’t where I started thinking. You might not associate tortoises with creativity or learning, but they provide an interesting illustration. This ten minute video features Mr Cleese, at the grand age of 69, talking about creativity, competence and learning:

A Tortoise Enclosure

John Cleese talks about creating an enclosure, a safe space where it is safe for the tortoise – our creative mind – to come out of its shell without its head being knocked by a passing object. An oasis in which we can be creative – free from interruptions and distractions (like the constant drip of incoming emails and other interruptions):

“You have to create boundaries of space, and you have to create boundaries of time.”

Boundaries, and the space that results from them, are essential. For me, that means taking a walk out of the office – either in my local woods, or wherever I can get away to. For others, that might be closing the office door or putting in ear phones and playing music.

After space, the other dimension is time. Creating time boundaries, a defined starting time and a stopping time, is actually great for productivity and creativity. After a brief twitter exchange with Amanda Rose (organising the Twestival for charity:water) and Bastian Lehmann  I realised I haven’t specifically blogged about time boxing (although it is the idea behind “…see what you can do in an hour“). Setting aside a fixed chunk of time enables you to focus on getting something done.

Learning New Things

The talk touches on learning, and that is really my subject here. John says:

“To know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as are required to be good at something.”

He then states that in reverse: if you are not good at something, you lack the skills to know that you are. A much better way of stating something I often have to tackle: We don’t know what we don’t know.

“Most people who have no idea what they are doing, have absolutely no idea that they have no idea what they are doing.” John Cleese.

The Science of Lifelong Learning

Behind his dry humour, John Cleese is making a very serious statement. Learning, life long learning, is an essential skill. We need to be like tortoises, not like hares, when it comes to our education. I was brought up in a generation where we hared our way through school, and, for the privileged few, university. A learning sprint, then work. The pace of change in society and business, and the speed at which new knowledge is being created, means that is no longer sufficient. Learning must now be a life long process. Like the tortoise, we need to plod on, in a steady and sustainable way. As John Cleese says, again with his unique humour:

“I try, today, to learn something new. Each day I want to learn something new – because I am very, very old… and I’ll be dead soon. So, I want to be as well informed as I can possibly be, when I die.”

Part of what drove me to start Redcatco was the concept of build learning organisations empowered by technology . Disparate communities linked by what is often called collaboration or social software today.

Businesses need to be places where people learn new things everyday. The only sustainable way for that to happen is as a result of people gaining knowledge from each other by sharing it. Those learners then build on that knowledge and share it in turn. That process is at the heart of innovation and development, from design and marketing to effective sales. I believe that learning best takes place in a social context (based on the work of Bandura and a number of other Psychologists).

This week I attended a panel at the RSA on the subject of life long learning, looking at what new research, especially in neuroscience, can tell us. There are lots of questions: What is the scope for lifelong learning, and what are the best methods to support it? We live in an ageing society, where people are staying in the work force for longer and longer periods of time. Can we still learn, even when we are old? Is the explosion in brain training (from 10 minute newspaper mental workouts to Kawashima’s brain training game) based on good science?

The speakers included Andrew Pollard, ESRC Institute of Education; Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL; Paul Howard-Jones, University of Bristol; Usha Goswami, Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge; Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA); and was chaired by Tom Schuller, Director of IFLL –  the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning. The session was recorded – will be on the RSA website in due course. You can read Matthew Taylor’s blog post on the evening too.

From my own investigations of brain plasticity research (the ability of the brain to adapt and change), it is evident that understanding about it has changed dramatically in the last few years. Developments like Project Prakash (which restores sight to people who with life-long blindness) has shown that our brains can learn and relearn significantly later into life than previously thought.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, UCL institute of cognitive neuroscience, asked if it was meaningful or helpful to reduce accounts of educational events toa  neural level. All the current “brain training products” are sold with big promises, but there have been no randomised, controlled trials on most of them. She talked about an article from Weisberg et al, “The Seductive Allure of Cognitive Neuroscience“, from 2008 which shows an interesting psychological phenomenon: we are suckers for pseudo science. We fall victim to specious explanations. Adding “brain words” into a bad explanation made people believe it more. Sarah-Jayne finished her talk with a slide of images of developing brains. While scientists used to think brain development stopped early in life, scans show that the brain actually continues to develop for decades.

Andrew Pollard argued from a very  different perspective, saying that we need to acknowledge the place of biography and identity in the learning process. It can’t just be studied at the neurological level, although such study does help – a point that all the other speakers seemed to agree with.

The RSA’s Matthew Taylor hypothesised that neuroscience will make a huge difference to our lives. The only threat is that there is too much hype around neuroscience. By the way, the same could be said for social media and Web 2.0 as well. What are the things that give us a desire to learn?

“Collaboration and the use of technology are the meta-learning skills that will be critical to life long learning.”

We can learn from arcade games. If we get up to 85% we are motivated to try again. How many people in schools are at that point? We need to keep ourselves at the point where we are doing well, but know we could do a bit better. Then we are motivated to try.

Usha Goswami, centre for neuroscience, University of Cambridge (who specialises in developmental dyslexia) talked about the developmental origins of flourishing. It is a well known list, including warm, responsive, contingent care and a family embedded in social network. I think that actually extends out to businesses that want to be learning organisations. Businesses that want to be learning organisations need to be supportive environments, with good networks into a broad community that can support their learning.

New research will, and should, be more interested in the emotional self regulation system. Early capability makes later learning more efficient. So  enhancing early capability at the outset of learning also increases the complexity of what can be learned. Small differences in perceptual systems can make big differences in the developmental trajectory. Think about a ship going off course. 1 degree off course, caught early, makes little difference. If it isn’t caught for a long time, you are miles from where you need to be. Early intervention is important – something else that extends out to be a business truth as well.

The interventions which promote cognitive reserves and resilience education might surprise you. It is a case of use it or loose it, another reason that we should be lifelong learners like John Cleese – learn something new everyday. Another very significant factor is physical exercise. Yes, you heard it. Before you go chasing after those cognitive enhancing drugs, get out for a walk or a run. Neurocognitive activation or cognitive training may be useful (i.e. brain games), but it really remains to be determined. What is known is that poor nutrition and poor quality of sleep can impair cognitive function. So, if you want to learn well, eat well and rest well too.

Paul Howard-Jones,  University of Bristol, asked if brain training can help. There is research to show that practice on a cognitive function can improve that cognitive function, the bigger question is does that generalize out to other activities. Does your executive team being great at Sudoku mean that you are going to be better at strategic planning? The ACTIVE Study (Willis et al., 2006) showed some improvement in  “fluid intelligence.” That is a good indicator of how well you will do academically.  Jaeggi’s results showed that some training improved working memory and fluid intelligence, so there is the possibility to produce brain training products that do work, but products on the market today have insufficient published evidence. Again, Paul noted that exercise helps with learning, academic achievements and motivation. Psychology is the link between neuroscience and education.

The Q&A was lively, with Peter Cook asking about “learning, unlearning and relearning” for businesses – something institutions like banks are going to have to do quite a bit of after recent events. One point that came up is that if you believe that there are hard neurological limits, you are actually less likely to reach them. Disposition and agency (believing in and taking responsibility) are critical learning factors. Likewise, learning is better when there are discussed objectives and clarity.

The word education literally means to bring on, in the sense of “to bring out” or “lead on”. It is something that we can continue to experience, and to expect for others, for the duration of our working lives, at the very least.