Plasticity: Q & A
We are compelled to be “life long learners” – what does
that mean exactly?
Biologically speaking, humans are born
to learn. Our brains evolved to have an extraordinary capacity
for restructuring themselves, which is what "learning
actually does. Most animals don't have much capacity (or
need) for learning—their brains are "hard-wired" which
is to say they function instinctively. Take a cow, for
example. A fully mature cow's brain is only 10% larger
than a newborn calf's. Of course, calves have to be able
to get up and walk very soon after birth. Their survival
depends on it. But other than getting along with other
members of the herd, cows don't have to learn much that
hasn't already been genetically programmed into them.
On the other hand, chimpanzees (with whom we share 98%
of our DNA) have a great capacity for learning. A newborn
chimp's brain doubles in size by the time it reaches maturity.
There is no definitive explanation as to why brains evolve
to have different restructuring capacities (i.e. learning
abilities). However, environment and physiology must have
significant roles in the matter. A chimp's environment
and social order is far more complex than that of a cow's.
Although the nursery rhyme tells us a cow jumped over the
moon at least once, no one has ever reported observing
a bovine swinging from a tree. That is to say chimps have
a body structure that allows them to move in ways that
are unimaginable for cows and other four-legged animals.
This allows them to make greater use of their environment.
In turn, the environment has greater opportunity to influence
the structure of their brains.
As impressive as the 100% growth of a chimp's brain is,
the human brain far outpaces it. An adult's brain is 300%
to 500% larger than an infant's. Of course, unlike cows
or even chimps, human babies are entirely helpless at birth.
They have a lot to learn right from the start. Environmental
and societal factors are tremendously influential throughout
their entire lives.
The issue isn't to become "life long learners," that's
our genetic heritage. The issue is what we do with our
capacity for restructuring our brains—how effectively we
learn and what we do with our learning.
Why do we have to work at being more effective learners
– haven't human beings always had to learn fundamentally
new ways of thinking and creating?
Our brains are naturally very efficient learners, which
is to say that brain cells (specifically neurons) quickly
and easily form new connections with each other. By the
way, neurons are the only cells in the entire body that
can communicate directly with one another. And they can
also easily and quickly disconnect. This accounts for temporary
or short-term memories. They can last a few seconds, for
instance long enough to remember a phone number you just
looked up to call. Or they may last a day or two, such
as remembering what you had for supper the day before yesterday.
Long-term memories are formed through the same process
as the short-term except that they are made more permanent
through an intense emotional experience or repetition.
Mention September 11, 2001 and Americans can tell you exactly
what they were doing when they first heard that the Twin
Towers had been destroyed. We remember our wedding days,
the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one for the
same reason—the experience connected billions of cells
throughout our brains. A song, an aroma, a picture, a flavor
can trigger a flood of memories when we least expect it.
There are other types of long-term memories as well:
memory - facts and figures like historic dates, multiplication
tables, names of things, etc.
• Episodic memory - personal experiences like a first kiss
or a last good-bye
• Procedural memory - "how-to" kind of knowledge as in
"how to dance the rumba," "how to fry an egg," or "how
to program a computer"
There are also unconscious memories, things that we didn't
know we learned. These sometimes show up as phobias or
unexplainable fears. They can also be preferences or prejudices—behaviors
we explain away as "just the way we are." We call them
personality or character but they were laid down as memories.
It's this efficiency at creating memories that can at
times interfere with effective learning. I think the difference
between efficiency and effectiveness was best described
by Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive .
He defined efficiency as "getting things done right" and
effectiveness as "getting the right things done."
Machines are built for efficiency. Computers are probably
the most efficient machines ever invented. They can calculate
and compare more in microseconds than the most brilliant
person can in a lifetime. But computers, even super computers,
don't know what they are doing or why. They are designed
to follow routines called programs. If something unexpected
happens in the program (for instance, a data entry mistake),
the computer stops. It freezes and has to be reset. Sometimes
a person, called a systems analyst, has to come in and
read through reams of programming code to find out what
went wrong. The computer can't explain anything. It can
only do what the programmer tells it to do. It can only
follow the routine.
For most of human history, for most people, work has been
largely a matter of following routines. They learned how
to plant a seed, sew a button, or shoe a horse through
the process of procedural memory—by doing it over and over
and over again. Even today much of what we do is accomplished
through procedural memory, whether it's brushing our teeth,
driving a car, or checking our e-mail.
But as machines have become more efficient, human labor
has become more complex. Humans are being required to do
things that machines can't—specifically, they're being
required to think. Even factory work has changed. One robot
can replace many workers, but the workers who keep their
jobs have to think like supervisors. They have to make
decisions and solve problems that are anything but routine.
Machines can be invented to do things right, but only
humans can determine what the right things are. We do this
• Identifying goals
• Defining the relevant facts or details
• Setting priorities
• Planning a course of action
• Evaluating the results
Modern industrial society requires that we all become
effective learners. Thanks to the Internet, we have access
to more data (i.e. facts and figures) than ever before.
However, it doesn't become useful information until we
decide how to process or organize it. Unfortunately, the
different ways information can be organized is not explicitly
addressed by formal education. For most people, schooling
has been and continues to be just a matter of learning
to follow routines.
What are some of the key differences between adult learners
and children in school – to what extent does school prepare
us to think?
The biggest difference between the adult learner
and the schoolchild is the brain itself. While much of our
brains are "hard-wired" from birth and responsible for the
survival and maintenance of our bodies, a significant portion
of the brain is plastic. In other words, it can "re-wire"
or restructure itself in response to internal or external
influences. This is a recent discovery, but keep in mind
that it's only been about 30 years since medical technology
enabled the first living brain to be observed in action.
Since then, neuro-cognitive science has been challenging
myths about how people think and learn.
In the early part of the 20 th century, behaviorists theorized
that people were born with their brains fully intact, with
a fixed intelligence that never changed by more than a
few IQ points throughout one's life. We now know, thanks
to brain scanning technologies like PET and fMRI, that
our brains can and do change throughout our lives. At certain
times, though, they change more rapidly than others.
It takes at least 2 years for a baby's brain to mature
enough to enable speech. Once it occurs, young children
develop an extraordinary capacity for memory, often to
the frustration or embarrassment of their parents. This
capacity for memory, particularly procedural and semantic,
is key to laying the foundation of modern education—in
other words, the 3 Rs, "reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic."
In the early grades, establishing routines is of primary
In the teen-age years the frontal lobes begin to mature.
This will continue until we're well into our twenties and
compose 40% of our brains. Frontal lobes enable a different
kind of memory than we've discussed so far—working memory.
The working memory is a kind of cauldron where current
sensory stimuli is mixed with short-term and long-term
memories. It enables us to recognize, recall, prioritize,
inhibit, evaluate, and decide—all the skills we need to
be effective, responsible adults.
Schools that provide a wide variety of activities and
actively encourage student participation do a great deal
to produce healthy, highly motivated, and productive adults.
Schools that channel students into specific activities
that they are particularly good at and isolate them from
failure in their weaker subjects do a great disservice
to their students and to society. These kids don't have
the opportunity to rebound from failure. As adults they
are reluctant to take risks and have difficulty “thinking
outside the box.”
The good news is that even if you were unlucky enough
to be specialized at an early age, your brain's plasticity
can make amends. You're never too old to learn, provided
you follow the 3 basic rules of effective learning:
• Attention—distinguish what is relevant to achieving your
• Rehearsal—practice achieving your objective conscientiously
How do you train yourself to become better at
critical thinking and problem solving – and how do you
know when you've achieved that – what are the signs?
Critical thinking is a term that gets tossed about
a lot but is rarely defined. Over 10 years ago the American
Philosophical Association (APA) issued a Delphi Research
Critical Thinking: A Statement of
Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment
and Instruction. In
their report, the APA identified the critical thinking
skills and sub-skills as follows:
• Interpretation: categorization,
decoding significance, clarifying meaning
• Analysis: examining ideas, identifying arguments, analyzing
• Evaluation: assessing claims, assessing arguments
• Inference: querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives,
• Explanation: stating results, justifying procedures,
• Self-regulation: self-examination, self-correction
The APA listed the following decision making and problem
solving behaviors as evidence of good critical thinking:
in stating the question or concern
• Orderliness in working with complexity
• Diligence in seeking relevant information
• Reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria
• Care in focusing attention on the concern at hand
• Persistence though difficulties that are encountered
• Precision to the degree permitted by the subject and
Studies show that the achievement of high academic goals
and/or successful careers does not prove good critical
thinking, decision making, or problem solving skills. What
is most significant is the individual's learning disposition.
According to the APA, a good critical thinker is someone
who habitually exhibits the following learning dispositions:
with regard to a wide range of issues
• Concern to become and remain generally well-informed
• Alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking
• Trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry
• Self-confidence in one's own ability to reason
• Open-mindedness regarding divergent world views
• Flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
• Understanding the opinions of other people
• Fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning
• Honesty in facing one's own biases, prejudices, stereotypes,
egocentric, or sociocentric tendencies
• Prudence in suspending, making, or altering judgments
• Willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest
reflection suggests that change is warranted
Looking through the above list, most intelligent people
feel confident that they already possess those skills.
They even put them into practice, some of the time. The
problem comes when we feel rushed, stressed, or just confused.
Then we're apt to resort to what David Perkins of Harvard
University called "default thinking." He said, "Default
happens when no special action is taken," in other words,
when we haven't consciously determined what result we want
or what is relative to achieving it.
Perkins divided default thinking into 4 categories. Each
produces a predictable negative behavior. For instance:
thinkers fail to consider alternative actions
• Narrow thinkers can't perceive alternative relationships
• Sprawling thinkers won't anticipate the result of their
• Fuzzy thinkers don't evaluate the effectiveness of their
Higher education can actually enhance our tendency toward
specific types of default thinking. Lawyers, physicists,
and mathematicians are more likely to be hasty and narrow
thinkers. Biologists and psychologists tend to be sprawling
thinkers. Economists lean toward fuzzy thinking. Of course,
there are exceptions to the rule. It's really a question
of how broad an education one has and how diverse one's
interests. But in general, as we become more specialized
in our professions, our perceptions narrow. We try to organize
all information and solve all problems in the way we've
been trained. To combat this tendency, we need to be aware
that information can be organized in several different
ways. The result we want will determine what information
is relevant and how we organize it.
I use visual puzzles with my clients to demonstrate and
practice the various ways information can be organized.
• Part-whole relationships
I also use puzzles that require:
• Identifying and correcting
• Playing with words
• Connecting dots
• Decoding numeric systems
Once they've been through a Designs for Strong Minds™ (DSM)
training program, my clients report they suddenly catch
themselves dealing with problems more objectively. They
notice that they're able to assess the response they're
receiving “on-the-fly” and adjust their behavior according
to achieve the results they want. Sometimes they'll even
change their plans when the original objective no longer
appears feasible. I don't know how to explain this except
to say that they've learned to make better use of their
What internal and external factors are necessary in
order that a person expand their learning capacity? What
are the best kinds of environments and motivational states
that facilitate "lifelong learning?"
By definition we cannot learn something we already know.
When we say we "know something," we mean our brains are
already structured to deal with the situation. Therefore,
to expand our learning capacity we have to set ourselves
up for failure. We have to risk the discomfort of not knowing
what to do next. We have to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.
Otherwise we fall back into default thinking. Then not
only do we fail to learn, we don't even recognize that
the opportunity to learn has presented itself to us.
Of course, not every experience has to be a lesson. By
the end of the day, we'd be mentally, emotionally, and
physically exhausted if we couldn't make use of established
routines. The key is taking a moment to think about the
result we want and what we're willing to accept. Effectiveness
and efficiency can, and should, work hand-in-hand. Then
by the end of the day, we can go to bed with a sense of
satisfaction that we've done our best with the opportunities
that were presented. We'll wake up with an enthusiasm for
the new challenges that await us.
We're life-long learners whether we want to be or not.
Our brains evolved that way. To make the best use of this
capacity, we have to lead our lives with conscious intent.
When we know the result we want (whether i