Monthly Archives: November 2009

Why experts are morons: a recipe for academic success

This morning there was quite a bit of tweeting, back and forth, about this article and exactly how stupid it is.

“If our attention span constricts to the point where we can only take information in 140-character sentences, then that doesn’t bode too well for our future,” said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University.

Yup, you read that right. Some guy with a Ph.D. who works at one of the best universities in the world (and who’s sufficiently good at his job that they made him director of a clinic) is talking — to all appearances quite seriously — about the idea that the human attention span might shrink to the length of a tweet.

In other news, if the world were made of custard, global warming might lead to major dessertification, if we could just just bake an apple crumble big enough.

Maybe there’s a good explanation. Maybe Dr Aboujaoude’s remarks were taken out of context by the San Francisco Chronicle. Or maybe they threw him this ad absurdum scenario and he ran with it because he’s a nice guy and thinks that even if reporters pose a dumb question, it would still be rude to call them on it.

Here’s my ill-conceived, half-baked thesis for the day: experts are morons.

Why? Well, we get very excited over stuff we think is new, because we’ve been too busy down in our own little silos. I pissed Harvey off earlier by posting, in good faith, a link to Tyler Cowen’s TED talk about the dangerous appeal of stories.

Kids, don’t even try to sell Harvey old rope. Even if you didn’t know it was old rope. He’ll know.

What I ended up saying to Harvey was essentially Look, there’s a movement afoot to try to to get storytelling back into learning, to replace the content firehosing that passes for big education these days, McDonalds-style — and this talk serves as a useful reminder that stories are invariably a gross oversimplification of the evidence.

What I should have been saying was: Dude, I spent umpteen years becoming a subject matter expert, and at no point did anyone tell me that I needed to apply my critical faculties to delivering the material I researched so painstakingly. I’m new at this; cut me some slack!

(It turns out that Harvey and I were somewhat at cross-purposes; such are the limitations of 140-character ‘discussion’.)

Here’s the thing: academic success favours those who focus their critical faculties on developing their subject area expertise.

Below is a recipe for modest success in academic life and for becoming a legitimate ‘expert’. (Quantities and ingredients may vary according to your needs and experience.)

  • You need to be bright-ish. Not supernova bright, just bright enough. (If you’re too bright in school, you’ll get bored; see next point.)
  • You need to be well-behaved. (If you don’t behave, you’ll be labelled disruptive and that will do exactly what you think it will to your chances of academic success. Yes, even if you are bored because lessons are too easy.)
  • It helps to crave everyone’s approval. (If you don’t care what your teachers or parents think, why would you try hard on subjects that don’t really interest you?)
  • Questioning authority probably isn’t in your nature. (Or if it is, it’s a very specific kind of critical thinking, like “hey, maybe nukes aren’t that great an idea, mmkay?”) This will serve you well later, in your tenured career.
  • You are comfortable letting other people set goals for you (“You think I should go to university? Great!”)
  • You acquire a certain nerd-like pleasure (flow, if you like) from gnawing on very specific questions.
  • Your school years have conditioned you to understand that most people are mean, and best avoided.
  • Metaphorically or actually, you have let a thousand cups of tea go cold while you geek out on your chosen subject.
  • … okay, that much will get you through university and into a postgraduate programme (Masters or Ph.D.) At this point, it will be particular helpful if you can screen out information about the world around you, because this will just distract and confuse you about the relevance of what you are doing. (Having a crisis of meaning is one of the fundamental stages of doing a Ph.D.)

    If you survive this process and get your doctorate, you enter the world of teaching, admin, research, publication, and grant-getting — listed in increasing order of importance to your new employer. Your Ph.D., the entry requirement to academia that you have worked so hard on, also serves as your passport to teaching. Pause a moment to reflect on the weirdness of that statement: subject expertise is used as a measure of how competent you are to communicate that information meaningfully to non-experts.

    (Some universities, mine included, are trying to address this systemic shortcoming by getting new lecturers to do a teaching certificate. This is a lot better than nothing, but it’s also quite possible to do the absolute minimum required to pass, then go on your merry way, unmoved and largely unchanged. At least we do ‘peer observation’, which is a nice way of seeing what other people are up to; it’s hard not to reflect on your own teaching when watching someone else deliver a session.)

    Once you’re on the big shiny merry-go-round of teaching-admin-research-publication-grant-getting, it’s even harder to drag your ass out of the mire of just trying to keep up with your subject area and across the road into the big field of flowers that is good educational practice. And when you do manage to haul yourself over there (at the cost, by the way, of time spent on research/publication/grant application — and no-one is going to reward you for that choice), you get disproportionately excited when people show you some of the shiny things that exist in the world, because you’ve been far, far too busy becoming a subject expert to notice them. This can make educators look like big, dumb puppies — for example when we’re over-keen to co-opt neuroscience.

    The other side-effect of being an ‘expert’ is that if you’re not naturally inclined to cause trouble, question the system, or think critically about more than subject-matter problems (and remember, you have floated to the top of an educational system that rewards exactly those qualities), then sometimes you end up saying really dumb stuff, because you’re too busy thinking “ooh, that would be interesting” — like what if we really could only take in 140 characters’ worth of stuff before our attention drifted — to fully consider the validity of the question.

    None of this is an excuse for living up to the ‘woolly professor’ stereotype, but I hope it helps to explain to people like Harvey why experts sometimes sound like they’re rediscovering — or even reinventing — the wheel. And as for us ‘experts’ (and boy, am I uncomfortable with that label) we need to try harder to think about the practical applications of what we do — and to remember, once in a while, to apply those finely-honed critical thinking skills to something other than our own subject areas. We’re not really morons, but to the casual observer, it’s an easy mistake to make.


    Obligatory afterword: there are a number of stellar educators who really do manage to apply their critical faculties to more than just their own subject area, and who manage to get through university and postgraduate qualifications despite asking really awkward questions and rocking the boat. If they ever isolate a gene for that, we should all go get spliced right away.


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    When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention

    Recently I was discussing presentations with a friend who is a student. Although being asked to make a presentation is a fairly common part of the student experience, and he has a reasonable idea of what’s involved, nobody has ever taught him or his peers how to do it.

    Because I spend more time thinking about presentations than is strictly healthy, I offered to write my friend an email, summarising my thoughts. But once I got started, it very quickly turned into a monster email, the kind that people tend to skim once and then write a quick one-line reply along the lines of “Thanks, that looks really interesting — I’ll come back to it when I have more time,” maybe because they’re intimidated by the sheer volume and content of it all. (Yeah, okay, this is really about me and how I procrastinate over reading emails that look like they will be hard work. You’re listening to WKLJ — the sound of guilty conscience.) Plus, numerous URLs turn email into hyperlink soup.

    So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

    Here are some common mistakes I see in student presentations:

    * Not having practiced the presentation enough.
    * Not knowing enough details of the story, including germane technical details/terminology/pronunciation.
    * Not picking a topic that they actually find interesting
    * Confusing slide preparation with presentation preparation.
    * Putting too much information on each slide.
    * Not thinking about what it will be like to be the audience for this presentation, rather than the presenter

    Notice how ‘being nervous’ is not on that list. We understand that students will be nervous about giving a presentation — being nervous about doing something fairly new in front of other people is completely understandable, and aside from one or two freakish individuals who take to presenting as though they’ve been doing it all their lives, everyone’s in the same boat. So relax :)

    None of those mistakes are really about what happens during the presentation: they are all about how students prepare for the presentation beforehand. My impression from several years of watching students give presentations is that they are quite relaxed about the preparation, then get scared when it comes to the presentation itself. But by the time you are ready to give your presentation, it’s too late to be nervous — because by then, you’ve either put in the work, or you haven’t. Preparation is worth being nervous about; standing up and talking isn’t.

    Ignore all the ‘rules’ about how to structure your slides. For every rule, there will be at least one instance in which it is not valid. Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

    * Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
    * Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
    * The 10/20/30 rule

    These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose. My opposition to putting reams of text on slides is well documented, but I bet there are presentations out there where that’s exactly what’s required — at least, on one or two slides. Likewise, having more than ten slides might be exactly what you need; hell, you might need a hundred. Rules stipulating the number of slides you should have, or how fast you should transition between them, conveniently ignore that these aspects of your presentation depend on (a) what you are talking about, (b) what’s on your slide, and (c) how long that takes your audience to apprehend. Rules about slides are rubbish, because they stop you from thinking critically about what — if anything — you need to show in support of the point you want to make.

    Ready-to-fill slide layouts are just another kind of rule. When you open Powerpoint and Keynote, they instantly start making suggestions about the layout of your slides. Bullet-lists feature prominently. When was the last time you enjoyed a presentation that had page after page of bullet points? Once you’ve figured out the story you’re telling, think about how each point could best be conveyed visually, and about whether you even need slides or visual aids at all.

    Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

    Some specific rules of attention are:

    People can really only retain about four bits of new, unrelated information — and sometimes not even that many. Don’t overstuff your presentation, and take care to signpost the key points — visually, verbally, however you want.

    It’s hard to process spoken and written words at the same time. Integrating your spoken words with pictorial slides makes it easier for the brain to process these two streams of information efficiently. This also helps your audience remember more of what you said.

    A story will keep people’s attention, because they will want to know what happens next. At Playful ’09 last week, Tassos Stevens talked about the compelling nature of indeterminacy, and asked the question Once a ball has been thrown, is it possible to look away before you know whether someone catches it? If you don’t know what your story is, or don’t convey that story clearly to your audience, they won’t stay focused; as Hitchcock knew very well, it’s all about suspense.

    People really like looking at screens. If you’ve ever been in a pub with the TV on and the sound off, you’ll know that screens are an attention-magnet. This is great when you’re giving your presentation and there’s something on the slide that you want people to look at, but not so great if they are still looking at the slide while you are talking about something else. There’s an easy fix — press B or W while in Slideshow mode: the screen will go black or white, respectively (this works in both Keynote and Powerpoint), and people’s attention will focus on you, because now you are the moving, shiny thing in the room. Toggle the same key when you’re ready to direct the audience’s attention to the screen again.

    Sustaining audience attention requires frequent changes. Simon Bostock once tweeted something great about how flow is when you stop noticing the joins between one parcel of attention and the next; this is the state you want to induce in your audience. Paradoxically, in order to get them to concentrate on something for a long time, you need to keep changing the thing they’re paying attention to, or they will get bored. Change stuff mindfully: I don’t mean adding clip-art or unrelated animations to your slides, I mean introduce something seriously astonishing. (Unexpectedness is a brilliant tool for wrangling people’s attention.) Less dramatically, you could use changes in your tone of voice, speaking volume, or where you are standing to draw the audience’s attention to a particular point. Evaluate your slides and consider whether they could be less formulaic; consider introducing some audience participation to get everyone out of the you-talk-while-they-listen rut.

    Your audience will tell you when their attention is wandering. Hopefully not out loud, and hopefully not by harshtagging your presentation. But you will know from looking at their faces where their attention is, and if it isn’t on you or your visual aids, you will know that you need to change something. Don’t be afraid to go a bit off-road in the service of keeping people interested; it’s a kindness and a courtesy to stay with your audience, and a presenter on auto-pilot is not a pretty sight.

    There are so many more things I could write about attention and presentations, but this is already overlong. So yeah, last rule: short is good. Like I said, rules are for breaking.


    Edit: There are some great additional points in the comments below.

    Edit 2: Olivia Mitchell has written a great post about seven ways to keep your audience’s attention. We’re all about attention hacks here at finiteattentionspan!

    [Marginalia: (1) Aesthetic is not a rule. Having a consistent look-and-feel (good colour palettes, consistent use of fonts and text size) can really elevate a presentation. (2) Constraints are not the same as rules. Obviously, most presentations will have a time-limit, and you need to respect that. And if you are doing Ignite or Pecha Kucha, there are some very specific constraints about slide timing (and, necessarily, about what goes on the slide, since viewing time is so short). But constraints are great news for creativity.]


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