Great Debate: Why Arguing Is The Best Way To Learn
Carl Wieman is a Nobel-Prize winning physicist, and a professor who prided himself on his brilliant lectures. There was just one problem with Wieman’s teaching style: his students weren’t learning much. As it began to dawn on Wieman that his students were absorbing little by passively listening, he decided to try an experiment. He presented a fact in his lecture, then quizzed the students 15 minutes later on the fact. The proportion who remembered the information: just 10 percent.
Wieman himself comments: “To see whether we simply had mentally deficient students, I once repeated this experiment when I was giving a departmental colloquium at one of the leading physics departments in the United States. The audience was made up of physics faculty members and graduate students, but the result was about the same: around 10 percent.”
Wieman resolved to shake up the way his students learned—and what he did next carries an important lesson for all of us who want to promote effective learning at home, in the classroom and in the workplace. He had his students argue with one another. Turning to a nearby classmate, each student took a turn explaining and debating a concept from physics.
Wieman, who now focuses his professional energies on improving science education, says that such debates, along with other changes, lead to “substantially greater learning gains than are achieved with traditional lectures, with typical increases of 50 to 100%.” Yet most classes—and most meetings—still feature someone droning on at the front of the room. Shake up that ineffective format, the way Wieman did: ask your students or your employees to engage in explaining, persuading and debating the material at hand.
Or try it out on The Brilliant Blog. Below are invitations to debate with two of today’s most interesting thinkers: Dan Pink, author of the best-sellers A Whole New Mind and Drive, as well as the just-released To Sell Is Human, and Nicholas Carr, author of the best-selling and much talked-about 2010 book, The Shallows (and the Atlantic magazine article on which it was based, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). Read their messages to me and share your own thoughts in the comment section below.
A Debate with Dan Pink
Background: In a recent blog post, I recommended Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, and added, “When reading Pink’s book, just ignore the scientifically-unsupported ‘right brain’ and ‘left brain’ stuff. His insights are quite useful without it.”
Dan Pink then wrote to me:
As you know from the book, I say repeatedly that I use the lateralization of the brain as a metaphor—and that the science shows we use both sides of our brain for everything we do. I also devote the first chapter to exploring the science of lateralization, helping readers sort fact from fantasy.
Readers, what do you think? Does using the right brain/left brain terminology perpetuate a fallacy, or can it be used productively as a metaphor? Share your views in the comments section below.
Nicholas Carr then wrote to me:
Since “rewiring” is a vague (and frequently misleading) figurative term, when applied to the wireless brain, it would help here if you defined what you mean by “rewiring.” Instead of “rewiring,” let’s say “influencing the number and strength of synaptic connections among neurons.” One thing we know is that, within the broad constraints of genetics, the individual brain adapts to its environment. The environment influences both the number (anatomical change) and the strength (electrochemical change) of the brain’s synapses. The influence is exerted throughout the course of a person’s life (the brain is never nonresponsive to the environment) but the influence is strongest during a person’s youth, when the brain is at its most malleable. Tools, or technologies, are a very important part of the human environment, and the internet, or digital media in general, is certainly one of the most intensively used tools of the current age. And, indeed, the characteristics of the use of the internet (intensive, repetitive, immersive) are the characteristics that have been shown to have the most effects on brain plasticity.
Therefore, if by “rewiring” you mean something like “influencing the synaptic connections among neurons,” I would suggest that your statement “No, technology is not ‘rewiring’ young people’s brains” is misleading. Technology very much influences the synaptic structure of the brain, and because a young person’s brain is more malleable than an older person’s, the effects would be more pronounced in the younger person. So, for example, even though the basic process of memory consolidation doesn’t change, the way that process plays out in an individual brain may be altered by technology use, particularly intensive technology use. Similarly, even though the basic processes of attentiveness remain unchanged, an individual’s capacity for attentiveness (in all its forms) may be altered by technology use.
Of course, you may mean something entirely different by “rewiring the brain.” But, even so, I do think it’s incorrect to imply that the human (primate) brain is uninfluenced by tools, when there is such a large body of evidence to the contrary.
But I do think you’re absolutely right to emphasize that the digital native/digital immigrant dichotomy is largely nonsense, at least when it comes to the basic ways the brain works. We all have human brains, young and old alike.
Readers, what do you think? Are young people’s brains being changed by technology? Share your views in the comments section below.