Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Daniel H Pink's A Whole New Mind

I've just finished reading this book by Daniel H Pink. The basic premise of the book is that society has passed through several stages in the west: agricultural, industrial, informational and now into the conceptual stage. The second last stage listed favoured logical/linear thinking which is left brained, whereas the last stage is high touch, holistic and right brained.

The three pressures for this age according to Pink is abundance, Asia and automation. We live in an age where many of us do not want for more things (well perhaps more do not have need), don't go hungry, don't have to worry about ends meet, and have (apparent) endless choice. None of this is seen as a problem by Pink, not connected directly to a moral malaise or environmental degradation, but to him frees us to seek deeper meaning in life. More accurately he should have noted how it propels us to seek meaning due to its emptiness. Then there is Asia, where not only mundane jobs have gone (under sometimes slave labour conditions) but also more technical jobs in IT etc (to him efficiently, but I have heard too many stories from the IT industry and one wonders with QANTAS's slide in their safety record). This is set as a given and not a negative (again I want a critique of globalisation but that isn't the point of the book). The last is automation - computers can do it more quickly when it is simple calculation or process (he cites chess computers).

Did you know there are more designers than chemical engineers in the US now? We now live in an age where everything is designed, where products sell lifestyle and image and not just utility. Design is important because people want more than something to use. It is the old adage in education that if it does not look good, students will be turned off even if the content is there. In one sense none of this is news or new - go to a museum and see artifacts designed for look as well as use. Perhaps there was a time in modernist architecture, etc but I think people have always welcomed style. What is mildly disturbing however is how Pink buys into all this implies - that we are sold stuff we don't need that somehow makes us feel better because it looks good. Fair enough to buy something with flair, that is us - but doesn't he miss that we are being sold an empty lifestyle with this? Back to education, it does mean we need to think a lot more about look, navigation and so on and not just the learning outcomes.

Story is something I like but realised years ago I read mostly non-fiction, while John Ralston Saul warned can lead to a shrunken imagination in his book Voltaire's Bastards. To quote from Pink (quoting Steve Denning) "storytelling doesn't replace analytical thinking, it supplements it by enabling us to imagine new perspectives and new worlds". Stories are all right brain. People learn from narrative, find it more interesting and memorable than a list of facts (unless you are autistic or similar right brained limited). As I preacher I well appreciate this, illustration, stories etc. The bible is full of stories and preaching isn't about communicating ideas so much as allowing people to enter the biblical narrative. I've heard people warn about illustrations that are too powerful, but I suspect this comes too much from a doctrine driven view. As for science education, not sure how one makes meteorology into a narrative - although having said that I've been taught that a good paper has a story running though it (even though it is clipped by science-English). Perhaps it points to case study/problem solving learning more.

Symphony is the concept of the big picture. Interesting to note how many entrepreneurs are dyslexic and not small detail people. Big picture means cross disciplinary, forest for the trees thinking. It means going outside of the box, comfort zones, etc. Mindmapping, brainstorming, using metaphors. This gels very nicely with science and science education, especially in my field of meteorology. Drawing a synoptic chart requires a big picture view, as does setting a weather forecasting policy. The best science always understands itself in a broader context, as often we are very siloed in our thinking. A small part of my PhD was considering power laws and self-organised criticality in clouds in the tropics. Didn't go very far with it but it was an exercise in some cross disciplinary reading. I find reading broadly and chasing down footnotes to be fruitful. Sometimes just meandering through weblinks can provide new avenues on things, but it is also very time consuming with many dead ends. I think students do this in their - why am I doing this questioning, but struggle with it as a skill in areas like meteorology with the use of the forecasting funnel, pattern recognition or writing overviews. Practice in these areas is as important for weather forecasting as in life as much as the finer detail skills which a science education already promotes.

If you go to the Highlands of New Guinea or down town New York you soon find out that facial expressions are interpreted the same way everywhere. Humans can decode emotions, especially false ones. We appreciate empathy (people feeling with us) more than sympathy (people feeling for us). Empathy is the "walking a mile in someone else's shoes" (To Kill a Mockingbird). Empathy is an important life skill in a high touch world, pushing beyond the classic caricature of the unfeeling scientist. However, I am still unsure what role empathy has in education (other than when considering extending assignment deadlines, lol).

I was amused and disturbed to know that in the 40s, smiling at a Ford factory could get you fired! Today it is recognised play is not just for children, that having fun means learning better. Pink cites the value of computer games at promoting certain cognitive skills, though probably doesn't pay enough attention to the issues of aggression or of social isolation (though online gaming means this isn't a given). What was somewhat disturbing was using the game America's Army as a prime example, a recruiting tool for the US armed forces. It certainly teaches cognitive skills - desensitization to violence, glamourising of war, etc. The role of joy and humour of course should not be understated, though I think the whole idea of laughter clubs is a bit forced - why not find things that are funny, beautiful and poignant in life to laugh at? Humour in teaching has to be appropriate (APS code of conduct) but also timely. Gags for gags sake again miss the point and become formulaic. Cartoons are a copyright issue (dang).

Pink's final sense is that of meaning. People are meaning seekers and meaning makers. If Viktor Frankl could observe people seeking meaning in a concentration camp, then those of us in the comfortable West can also look for meaning. Pink notes the rise in interest in 'spirituality' and figures such as the Dalai Lama, research into holistic medicine and the neuroscience of spirituality. The word is vague enough to encompass secular ideas and a largely naturalized view to fit in with corporate culture, the work place and of course our high choice society. It was interesting though to note Pink co-opting the idea of Sabbath - a rest for labours and our hyper connected world. Something worth promoting in our 'flexible' working world. Certainly in my second life as a theologian wannabe meaning is highly significant as people come to church or read theology for meaning and purpose. However, in my daytime role, meaning is also significant. A national weather service serves a purpose larger than that of the individual bent on a 'science career' and a focus on service and context where ever possible, be it case study, impact study, interview etc motivates learner beyond the equation, exam or assessment to the meaning of their career.

In short, apart from my own philosophical/theological misgivings at some of the world view assumed or taken for granted, the idea of a right brained revolution to promote a more holistic take on life, business and learning is a good thing.

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