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Sitting Still In a Room

Sit still!

Sit still!

In the late 1650s, the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote an insightful sentence, “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit still in a room.”

Collected in Pascal’s unfinished Pensées, this little tweet from the 17th century has enlightened us for 350 years. In fact, it has recently received new impetus and momentum from an article in Science magazine.

Titled “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind”, the article reports on 11 different studies. Taken together, they show that people – and men especially – would rather receive electric shocks than sit alone in a room.

The article looks at default mode processing and asks two simple questions: “Do people choose to put themselves in default mode by disengaging with the external world? And when they are in this mode, is it a pleasing experience?” As the authors note, we might assume that it’s easier to guide our thoughts in “pleasant directions” when we disengage with the world. However, that’s not what they found.

To study these questions, the researchers asked students to sit still and alone in various locations (a research lab, a dorm room, etc.). They were simply asked to “entertain themselves with their thoughts….” After sitting still for six to 15 minutes, the students reported that it was hard to concentrate, their minds wandered, and, by and large, they didn’t enjoy the experience.

Maybe it’s just college students. But the researchers repeated the studies with people recruited from local churches and at a local farmer’s market. The results were quite similar. Indeed, the researchers found no evidence that demographic factors – gender, age, income, education, etc. – were producing the results. It seems that people from all walks of life just don’t like to sit alone and think.

The researchers then asked another question: “Would [the participants] rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?” Was it just the sitting still that made people stir crazy? The researchers told participants that, instead of just sitting still, they could press a button and receive an electric shock.

With the electric shock in place, the results differed significantly by gender. Two-thirds of the men gave themselves at least one electric shock; only one-fourth of the women did. In other words, a majority of men seem to prefer pain over thought.

That’s not encouraging. I’ve always had faith in reason. I believe that, with patience and goodwill, we should be able to reason our way through our problems. But, as the researchers point out, our “… minds are difficult to control…and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there.”

Perhaps meditation training would help. Perhaps we can learn to manage our thoughts and enjoy the process of thinking. Ultimately, however, the researchers conclude that, “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” That’s just what Pascal said. We haven’t made much progress in 350 years.

Stemming the STEM Tide

Can we make science fun?

Can we make science fun?

I sometimes get a bit depressed when reading about scholastic achievement in America. For instance, in the 2012 edition of the PISA tests (Program for International Student Achievement) American teenagers ranked as average or below average in math, science, and reading. (The test measures achievement for 15-year-olds).

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 mostly first-world countries, administers PISA every three years.  In addition to the member states, other countries can also request to take the tests. In 2012, 65 countries participated. Compared to the 65 countries, the USA ranked

  • 30th in math;
  • 23rd in science, and;
  • 20th in reading.

Since OECD first administered the tests in 2000, American performance has not changed much. Our relative position, however, has fallen as other countries have passed us by. Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, says that the results “must serve as a wake-up call” for the nation. (Here’s a good infographic on the results. Here’s an in-depth report from OECD.)

But is it really a crisis? Sure, it would be great to be number one in everything, but if we had to choose, would it be better to be first in teen achievement or in national achievement? According to the Bloomberg Innovation Quotient, for instance, America is the most innovative country in the world. The Global Innovation Index is a little less sanguine, but still ranks the USA as the fifth most innovative nation in the world.

It appears, then, that poor adolescent performance doesn’t lead directly to poorer national performance. Though our 15-year-olds are average (at best) perhaps our 21-year-olds are not. Perhaps our colleges and universities are picking up the slack. Perhaps innovation stems from creativity more than mastery of science, math, and reading. Perhaps our national diversity creates opportunities that are not found in more homogeneous countries. Perhaps … well, there are so many variables that it’s hard to sort them out.

In a related field, we’ve seen a lot of handwringing about STEM in America. STEM includes all disciplines in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Over the past several decades, critics have suggested that we’re recruiting too few students into STEM fields and that too many are dropping out. As with the PISA scores, analysts suggest that a crisis is brewing and must be fixed or we’ll inexorably decline as a nation.

Really? A recent article in Science magazine points out that “…new data poke major holes in the conventional wisdom.” For instance, conventional wisdom holds that the attrition rate for STEM students is very high. Indeed, as many as 50% of STEM students drop out or switch to non-STEM majors. That does sound high but nobody had researched the attrition rate in other disciplines. When researchers actually looked at other fields, they found the attrition rate in the humanities was 56% and in business was 50%. In other words, students really aren’t very good at deciding what to major in when they first arrive at university.

Conventional wisdom also holds that very few students transfer to STEM majors. STEM is characterized by “low inflow and high outflow”. But a study from Indiana University suggests otherwise. Of students who entered college expecting to major in a STEM field, 24% changed to a non-STEM field by the end of their first year. That sounds like a lot but the study also found that 27% of students who entered college in a non-STEM field had transferred to a STEM curriculum in their first year. As the Science article concludes, it’s a two-way street.

What does all this mean? I think it’s time to put on our critical thinking caps, step back, take a deep breath, and define the problem more clearly. I’m not arguing that there’s no problem. But I do believe that we’ve defined the problem incorrectly.

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