THE BLOG

Rethinking How We Learn and Work

11/23/2010 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why, asked psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, do we get our best ideas in the shower? He was addressing an audience of educators and families sponsored by the 92nd Street Y in New York City, asking them to rethink how we are raising and teaching children.

Hallowell answered himself. It is the one last refuge, he said, the one place where we aren't being bombarded by media and where we can be alone with our thoughts and feelings.

Have you noticed, asked the technology thought leader Linda Stone, what happens when we sit hunched over our computers, responding to a steady stream of emails? Stone was speaking to a group of business leaders I had organized, asking them to rethink how we work and live today. Stone, too, answered herself. She said that we get "email apnea," which she has defined as a "temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing while doing email." She has written about the dangers of email apnea -- how it can disturb our bodies' balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide -- and even how it can trigger a physical flight or fight stress reaction, without giving our bodies the opportunity for rest and recovery so necessary for our mental and physical health.

I don't think it's an accident that there are so many calls to rethink how we learn and work today. Our images come from an industrial mentality. Interestingly, these images aren't just reflected in our ideas. Schools today often still look like classrooms of the past, desks all lined up, facing the teacher, who is supposed to dispense knowledge. And although offices have migrated away from an assembly line vision, the shift into cubicles is not that different from a factory floor mentality.

Technology is disrupting these visions. Barely a day goes by when I don't hear concern about what technology is doing to us and to our children. As Linda Stone has written, we can't continue to function on what she calls "continuous partial attention," which she differentiates from multi-tasking. We aren't just shifting from one task to another, she has written, but we are hyper-alert, paying attention to input coming from every direction at the same time, including listening to conversations, responding to computers and smart phones.

A page one article in article in the November 21st New York Times by Matt Richtel explores what is happening to children who are "growing up digital," asking how they can learn to focus in a world of distraction. This was the same conclusion I came to in my 10 years of research for Mind in the Making. The first essential skill I write about for children is "focus and self control." I point out, however, that we don't learn to focus by sitting still and listening passively but by active engagement.

There are some reoccurring commonalities in these calls for rethinking how we learn and work:

We need to focus on managing our attention and energy, not just our time. We tend to divide our days into time chunks. And that is definitely true for children. Think of the school day, separated into classes that change every 50 minutes or so. Now some schools are experimenting with providing longer time periods for learning and finding that it can be very effective. Linda Stone has noticed that adults who measure their accomplishments by what they can cross off their to-do lists are more burned out than those who manage their attention. And Tony Schwartz continues to show companies that they will be more effective if they focus on promoting employees' energy, not controlling their time.

We need to give ourselves time for rest and recovery. Ask anyone who is really proficient at anything -- from intellectual to artistic to physical pursuits. They need time for full engagement and time for rest and recovery, as well as time for plugging in and unplugging from technology. Yet, our images of working hard at school or at work revolve around running non-stop, squeezing more and more in. And recess at schools is increasingly being abandoned, presumably to provide more time for studies -- but often to the detriment of those studies.

We need experiences that are first hand, engaging, meaningful, and give us some autonomy. Reviews of the research on learning for Mind in the Making make it clear that these ingredients go into the best learning environments. So the teacher who tries to pour knowledge into children as empty vessels or the boss who has a command and control approach are less successful than those who provide us with experiences where we feel can make a difference, that are meaningful to us, where we have some say in what we do, and where there is a response to what we do. This is one reason that digital media can be so engaging. We aren't passive recipients -- we do something and there is a response. The best schools and workplaces are figuring out how to use these principles in designing learning and work experiences.

And let's not forget happiness and fun. At the business conference I organized, Ross Smith of Microsoft reported that when his team created games as a part of their work, their work results were much more impressive. Playful learning continues to emerge as significant in effective education. And it is no accident that the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh's new book on Delivering Happiness is a best seller.

It is time to rethink learning and working!