Indian educator Sugata Mitra shoved a live computer into a hole in a slum building wall in New Delhi, India. He watched from afar as five- and six-year-olds—illiterate children with no clue what the Internet was—happily gathered around, teaching themselves to browse. His hunch was right, their innate curiosity quickly grabbed hold of them, pulled these kids into the exotic weavings of the web. Eager to take this further, Mitra searched for remote, similarly disadvantaged populations in India. Bingo: Four hours after seeing a computer for the first time, groups of children with wide toothy smiles had learned by themselves how to record their music—on the Internet. India, the world’s largest democracy, is trying to break out of its cycle of poverty. Mitra's findings could definitely help. Way to go India! You may outpace China and even the United States as an economic force in the coming decades.
Conjuring the spirit of Socrates, who believed that all children had certain innate knowledge, Mitra smiled triumphantly, “Groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet irrespective of who or where they are.” These children were working in small groups, mixing challenges with fun, cooperative teamwork helped the learning come quicker and easier.1
Mitra started to make the tasks harder, for instance, challenging students to translate languages using a speech-to-text computer program but providing no further guidance. Two months later he came back and the kids’ accents had turned British! After several more months, the teachers started to report that, not only did their students now speak better English, they were improving in many areas of study. Mitra playfully challenges conventional education when he says, “They were Googling their homework! If there is stuff on Google, why would you need to stuff it into your head?”
Were early human brains stuffed with stuff? How did we humans organize thoughts and ideas before there were languages we could speak, read and write? Consider everything you juggle in your own head. Now consider getting all that stuff done without ever writing anything down. Were early humans more mystical in their connections? While Homo sapiens undoubtedly had language far earlier, these early versions of us were probably stuck remembering only the simplest of things. We only started to integrate thinking—to develop and communicate elaborate strategies and ideas—after the left and right hemispheres of the brain learned to talk to each other, roughly in the fourth millennium BCE. It’s no coincidence that this was around the time humans started to develop oral languages as we understand them today. Like the Holland Tunnel connects New York and New Jersey, this anatomical change started the long path towards conscious awareness we’ve been driving towards ever since (full disclosure: I’m from New Jersey, live in New York).
Going way, way back, the ancient Sumerians were linguists and it was through Sanskrit that grammar gave language structure. But early writing was used primarily for record keeping. You needed a scribe and the components were hundreds of heavy carved tablets of pictograms each one with its own complex meaning. And maybe you needed a cart and a donkey to carry all this around. Pretty darn complicated. An integrated, simplified system that would allow the brain to work a lot faster was clearly needed to pull Western cultures forward: The innovation of vowels in a compact 24–26 letter alphabet (thanks Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians!) was just what we needed.
A modern toddler of two knows 250 words, and can use a word correctly after hearing it only once. At two-and-a-half that child’s vocabulary has doubled and continues to expand geometrically. But while the human brain has evolved to have an innate understanding of language, it is not yet “designed” to read or write—there are no genes or areas set aside in the brain for those skills. So all children have the task of carving out their own neural pathways and circuitries through study and practice. Each child develops, as a result, a unique process for decoding language. And this affects the kid’s ability to organize and learn maybe for his/her entire life. As a result every person’s perspective on the world is as unique as their fingerprint.
PROPHET OF DOOMLanguage made another great leap forward when we evolved from a talking/hearing/seeing/remembering tradition to a new way of amassing knowledge—written text. But this change was very troubling to some early scholars. Plato, like Homer the blind poet, came from the Greek oral culture. He fretted that people would stop taking in knowledge that they would no longer probe and question if they didn’t memorize. He feared people would think they understood but stop short of “knowing” because if everything were readily available in print they would get lazy. “I’ll get back to that pile of papyrus later,” people might say. He feared people would never attain true wisdom. Thousands of years later, we are seeing Plato’s prophecy fulfilled; the amount of real information we “hold in our heads” seems to be pretty minimal. The modern mnemonic is narrowed down to the printed word on a screen or printed page, which is often, let’s face it, indiscriminately given way, way too much authority. In contrast, pre-literate cultures (the few tribes that still exist) have no alphabets, no history and no man-made inventions of logic or math. They remember through experience: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting and intuiting information. When was the last time you smelled a page or screen to remember it?
Whether we do it or not, rote learning is still pretty important, as unlikely US memory champ and author Joshua Foer2 points out, since that's how “stuff” ends up being stored in other parts of your brain for us to use later on. Garbage in, garbage out. We are, after all, reliant on a tidy organization of our millions of folders holding millions of files of long-term memories, facts, skills, et cetera in different parts of our brains that may be accessed when needed as part of our complex critical thinking process. And you know what? We don’t actually know where a lot of these folders are kept.
YOU GET ITAoccdrnig to rseerach cnoudtced at Cmarbigde Uinervtsiy, the olny iprmoatnt tnhig in raednig is taht the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn brian deos not raed ervey lteter: it gtes the gsit of waht is siad.3
We can each sum up the point of the film Groundhog Day even though it was never spelled out to any of us. And we may even agree! We can each say why we love or hate New York City (OK, we may not agree on this one). We get the gist of words and things even though we can't necessarily verbalize it. Our brains are designed to “clump” things together because when we can see patterns we automatically rationalize, make assumptions about the thing based on what we think we know. Pretty dangerous since if our folders may be kind of messed up (too many drugs, brainwashing, head trauma, etc.). But regardless, we do this thousands, if not millions, of times a day.
Designer Roger Whitehouse, with whom I happily shared a studio in years past, has studied the marvels of alphabets and their readability for many years. At one point, Rog posted different sheets of paper, one at a time, at the end of our very, very long hall. Then he asked each of us to stand way at the other end and recite what we saw on the paper. I strained to read “Qrztv,” but, to my surprise, when Roger changed to a new sheet of paper on which read the word “Random,” I saw it instantly. It was a word not disconnected letters and a different part of my brain had clicked in. The same is true with reading versus hearing. We’re much more used to hearing language than reading language, like by thousands and thousands of years.
Whitehouse, who is an environmental graphic designer, says, “With wayfinding signs, we have discovered that upper and lower case words are much more easily recognizable at the same size, than all capitals. This is because each word has a ‘footprint’ or outline shape that distinguishes it from other words, which doesn’t happen with all caps.” On a different issue, Whitehouse also says “At the age of about 55, I decided to learn to touch type, and was amazed to discover, not only that it made typing easier, but that it happened as a ‘sixth sense’ and didn’t use the conscious part of the brain that you need to hunt and peck, so you were not aware of typing, but solely of the content you were composing. You simply thought the words and watched them flow onto the page, enabling you to judge them critically as you did so.”
What do you say in your mind when you see the letter a in the word “saw”? Do you pronounce it “ah,” not “ay”? Amazingly don’t you instantly understand the context of the word “saw” in the sentence you're reading? You know whether to interpret the word as “the past tense of see” or a “tool for cutting” or “understood”? I bet you do. You do this very, very quickly, exercising in your own personal mental gymnasium that muscle we call the brain—constantly. And so it grows.
Before we had any big vocabulary of words, we had a vast, lush mental gallery of gestures, body language and drawing skills with which to communicate. Creative director and principal of Think Tank 3, Sharoz Makarechi, says, “An icon or simple image can telegraph entire concepts with the emotion it evokes. There are associative memories that are built over time; whether you’re young, old, literate or not, most people know what it means when they see an icon of a fork and knife on the highway, or even more simple, an arrow or line pointing the direction one should drive on the road and, of course, the most amazing set of symbols are those of any alphabet. There is an association to be made between proper typography, writing, illustration and, ultimately, communication design. At its best, design is a universal language. Along with photography, design helps close the gap.” And design is, happily for designers, now integral to technology.
GOOGLE MOMENTSWe’re Cyborgs thrusting our metallic arms in space, attaching to thousands of applications, Web sites, browsers on our smart phones and laptops. Big robotic smile on contact. Because once again we are rewiring our brains—and making yet another quantum leap. When we forget momentarily what it is we so desperately need to know, we are having a “Google Moment.”4 The fear held by oracle Marshall McLuhan, the father of communications and uncanny predictor of the Internet (30 years before it was invented) was eerily like Plato's. “The medium is the message.” McLuhan espoused. He believed that the medium can be distorted or override the content or meaning. He, a devout Catholic, also thought we could lose our souls. Maybe because we can’t stop overdosing on information? Do we risk devolving into sound bite tech junkies? This fear goes way back to the moment writing was invented: Even those robe-wearing, papyrus-reading Roman Senators worried about information overload.
Digital technology is clearly a bonanza that is pushing us forward as a species. We can’t deny that. It allows us to order our own vast and ever-expanding virtual library: We can go off in endless directions online within a text (unlike a book), hit a link, come back and reassess the text with new knowledge, go off again, consider the text further. We have the potential to be far more knowledgeable, far more informed if we take advantage of it in a disciplined way. Take that Plato and McLuhan! And all this is made possible by the kind of technology that they could not have fathomed. Children (who we hope and pray are also making mud pies and smelling grass) are eagerly figuring all this out while they are still in diapers. And they are drawn to working in teams to do so, as Mitra observes.
THE COOPERATION GENEDesigners are glued to their keyboards more than ever—in virtual offices (or cyber cafés), staring at rectangular plasma screens (full disclosure: me too) and I am here to say, we are not loving it. Solitary confinement is punishment in the penal code after all and a “time out” for kids. “Do your homework!” leads to isolation. Bad memories here. In protest, we need connection with others for our mental and spiritual health and development. Ah, to work on a good team.
Teamwork activates our mental gym in an important way, sharpening many essential non-word based skills—empathy, patience and cooperation—and softening inappropriateness, callousness and renegade behavior. Where words are clearly insufficient and technology limited, especially in a multicultural world, people time with all that entails—gestures, body language and guttural sounds—is part of our humanness. But with our greater sophistication and our increasing social isolation, is our mysticism, our ability to “read” people, been dulled?
Industrial designer Dean Kamen (the genius/college drop-out who designed the Segway) started the organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989 to encourage students (starting in kindergarten) to team up to make robots and specifically to energize American kids to become innovators and leaders while immersing themselves in science and engineering. Each team’s robot is automatically unique since the box doesn’t come with instructions, only a challenge to “do it yourselves” and then travel as a team with your invention to enroll it in a robot competition. Twenty-five hundred teams currently get that box of parts and a deadline. Teams get very graphic with costumes and makeup at the competitions, it’s kind of tribal. And FIRST is making science fun fun fun for boys and increasingly more for girls too; it’s projected to include over a quarter of a million students in 2011/2012 with the support of 90,000 volunteers and 3,500 corporations.
The word civility means “common purpose, sense of community, cooperation.” The Greek origin of civility—civitas—is “learning to live in the city.” Humans are unique in the family of great apes since we are hardwired to effectively cooperate, at least within their tribes. Ironically Homo sapiens also wiped out all the less innovative humanlike apes in their migration path (the Neanderthals, the Hobbits to name just two).
Elementary school educator and highly empathetic human John Hunter invented the World Peace Game in 1983. He wants children to learn through their bodies. He uses a hands-on political simulation in a distinctively low-tech and notably antiquated (tanks and ground troops abound—no drones) three-dimensional, four-tiered model to teach teams of fourth grade students the challenges of cooperation and communication under stress. They dive right in: Global warming, nuclear and oil spills, ethic and minority tensions, famine, break-away republics are all addressed by Hunter’s students. No problem! Hunter gloats, who gives little instruction, acting only as facilitator, “They solved global warming in a week.” In the process of playing such a deadly game, Hunter’s students also inevitably develop a greater sense of realism, empathy, courage, imagination—and civility—without being exclusive. They want everyone to win. And then it’s on to fifth grade.5
TEACHING HAPPINESSI don’t know about you, but, until college, I really hated school. While I started a million clubs when I was a little kid, I remember very few team efforts in school except Phys Ed (it was the ’60s, and it was public school). I was bored and I wasn’t motivated in most of my classes except art where I flourished (gaining the privilege to go out to the pond to draw and smoke). For instance, I had to repeat Latin and algebra over. What a drag. I didn’t get the point of either. Someone tell me how this was relevant to the life of a fifteen-year-old? There was little context. Sitting in rows, reading left to right, reading on paper—in isolation—was so, so boring. It all compounded my overall ennui. And then there were the depressing intimidation factors: comparisons made, fears of not shaping up, not fitting in. None of these conditions were conducive to Debbie Holland becoming a good team player.
Yet now, social skills are in high demand, more essential to some employers than even intellectual abilities. We’re living in a post-industrial age: Cookie-cutter skills are largely passé in the United States. Fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t yet been invented.6 But if schools are still focused on linear book learning, liberal arts, sitting in rows, being lectured to by an overworked teacher clueless about how to incorporate neuroscience into his/her curriculum (e.g., if you’re teaching about the Great Depression, do it before lunch so the kids are hungry) and technology. Our country is at a grave disadvantage otherwise. Recently I visited a Brooklyn public school’s fifth grade class and there was an interactive white board—covered in notes the teacher had taped to it. Even though she had a PhD in her specialty area, she had no idea how to use the technology provided. The kids responded accordingly. It was a hell hole.
Good teaching 101: Good teachers are both linear (step-by-step) and lateral (associative). Students have to be presented with an array of options, taught to think critically, to question and probe, to think on their feet not just on their butts. Teachers need to know where each of their students are in the continuum, what each student needs to know to move forward: Meet them where they are in their learning process, not where you wish they were. This is a tall order (and answers why many of our best teachers are exhausted, quitting) but when it can be done, good teamwork creates an environment in which learning can happen. One kid’s strength is another kid’s weakness and vice versa. You can ask silly, stupid, obvious questions because someone else may know. And nobody will laugh at you because they know you know something else. And no one will shame you. The student who dances to the beat of a different drum may be able to find out how to bring others into the dance. A balanced, communicating, trusting team is greater than the sum of its parts. Those are the lessons of teamwork and lead to employability and the love of learning. Boy do I wish we'd had that at Amity High.
The computer from Mitra, the 3-D structure from Hunter, the box from FIRST are all full of mystery; they are pure potential, a stimulating incentive to each and every student. Especially if you are encouraged to bring your unique perspective to the group, knowing that you don't have to go it alone is like dying and going to heaven. A team with a problem to solve and filled with highly motivated, happy students (of any age), willing and able to leave their comfort zones to truly expand their thinking, led by a teacher confident to sit back, that’s what good learning is.
If the purpose of evolution is indeed the development of consciousness, we will achieve that only by being open to new possibilities. Open to the possibility of happiness. Early civilizations lived in fear, blaming anything bad that happened to them on external forces—to gods (whom they bowed to) or strangers (whom they slaughtered). More and more we are looking inward, realizing our own complicity in charting our collective future for six billion humans and counting. So what does survival of the fittest look like today? It’s no longer the strongest, the meanest. It’s empathy, our ability to break down barriers, build trust among “strangers.” If happiness is something true, substantive and lasting (e.g., deep human connections, rich lasting experiences) not just simple pleasure which quickly evaporates, then what else does anyone want out of life but to be happy? ca
2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer, narrated by the author, audible.com.
4. A nod to Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing, narrated by the author, audible.com.
6. MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.