Geekend: Want To Be Smarter? Draw, Sing, Teach - InformationWeek

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8/22/2014
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David Wagner
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Geekend: Want To Be Smarter? Draw, Sing, Teach

Three new studies offer advice that can help us in the workplace.

Do you have trouble remembering things? Do you think you could be more successful at work or in school if you could just concentrate better? Wouldn't we all like to be even a little bit smarter? Three new studies have some advice for you: Learn to draw, sing, play a musical instrument, or start teaching others what you know.

Let's start with the subject you're likely able to do the least about: drawing. A study conducted at the MRC Social, Genetic, and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King's College London examined how kids' drawing skills show intelligence later in life. The researchers scored the drawings of 4-year-olds based on how well they depicted the reality of a human figure. For instance, a child got more points if his or her drawing included the right number of arms, legs, and facial features. At age 4 and again at age 14, the children who drew the pictures were administered nonverbal intelligence tests. Those who scored highest on their drawings at age 4 tended to be the most intelligent at age 14.

Judging by the test, this child might be a genius.

Having trouble figuring out what this drawing depicts? Is it a parent riding a hippo? A clown falling off a dinosaur? I'll wait until the end to tell you, but it isn't the perspective or the quality of the drawing that matters. This drawing (which was not done by anyone in the study) shows a person with hair, facial features, and the correct number of limbs riding an animal with teeth, a tail, and the correct number of facial features (but the incorrect number of legs).

The assumption is that children who observe the world around them better than others are likely to draw more accurately. They're also likely to observe the world better in general, which should lead to higher intelligence, or at least higher achievement.

[Is online education becoming the new normal? Read Remote Learning: Intriguing Options Emerge.]

Here's the thing, though: The correlation is "moderate." Drawing ability doesn't determine intelligence. It may be an indicator of it -- or at least an indicator of a skill that can be helpful in learning. So if you can't draw, you aren't doomed to a life as a crash test dummy. And no one is sure just yet if learning to draw will help you later in life, but the observation skills required sure come in handy.

A second study, conducted at Northwestern University, shows the importance of music in the development of learning mechanisms. The study tracked students in the university's Harmony Program, designed to give underprivileged kids access to musical training. Half the kids in the study were in the program and either took musical instrument lessons or sang in a choir. The other half were on the wait list. At the beginning of the program, all the kids showed similar reading and IQ levels.

After two years of music lessons for half the group, all the kids were asked to take a test. While they took the test, a distracting noise was repeated consistently in the background. The kids who had taken the music lessons were much better able to focus, despite the background noise. That skill was found to carry over into later life.

Why does this skill matter? Well, it's far more likely that kids from low-income families lack a quiet place to study than kids from higher-income families, so one way to help them is to give them the neural tools to learn in spite of distractions.

Later in life, regardless of family incomes growing up, most of us work in noisy, distracting environments. If you want to be more effective at work, consider a couple of years of music lessons. They may even help you deal with this.

If taking music lessons and learning how to draw seem like too much work, here's a study you can put into action right away. A Washington University in St. Louis study shows that people recall things much better if they think they're going to have to teach it to someone else.

The study asked a group of students to go through a series of read-and-recall exercises. Half the students were told they were going to be tested on the material. The other half were told that they would have to teach the material to another student. Both groups were given a test.

The group told they would have to teach had much better recall of the material and were able to organize their information more effectively. The main takeaway, according to the researchers, is that students don't always employ the best learning strategies, even when they expect to be tested. The prospect of having to teach the material forces them to deploy the strategies they learned. In my opinion, the study suggests a psychological desire not to look stupid in front of others.

This approach is used in many learning environments already, including multi-age classrooms. One of the best examples is the med school mantra of SODOTO -- see one, do one, teach one -- whereby students are asked to observe a procedure once, then perform the procedure with supervision, and then take on a supervisory role.

Try applying the SODOTO approach at work: Learn a new skill, technique, or process as if you would have to teach it to someone else on your team (or explain it in a meeting). Not only will you remember it better, so that you don't look like a fool, but you'll also organize it in your brain better, because you'll need to communicate it. You'll probably even learn it in more depth to begin with. Think about the difference between throwing a ball yourself and teaching a child to throw one. You don't think about where your hands and feet go until you need to teach someone else how to throw.

All three of these strategies have one thing in common: better observation skills. Whether it's looking carefully at what you draw, ignoring distractions to concentrate on a task, or learning a task better in order to teach it, all three will help improve your concentration, recall, and performance. Pick the strategy that works best for you, or mix and match them.

Oh, by the way, that picture was of a kid riding a horse. Did you see it? Maybe that's a cognitive skill worth cultivating, too.

What do you think? If you're a musician or an artist, do you think that skill makes you a better learner? Does teaching help you learn? What techniques do you use to get smarter and better at what you do? Tell us with a comment below.

You can hear more about this article on this week’s episode of InformationWeek Radio. We’ll be talking with the author at 2:00 PM EDT on Tuesday, August 26 — we hope you’ll join us! Register here.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/2/2014 | 11:48:46 AM
Re: You teach better what you need to learn
@tzubair- I know hard core gamification would work for me. If there was such a thing as a Star Trek holodeck I'd be in i for hours on end because of the real experience of running around a world (or maybe simulating being in an NFL game ore something) would be more fun. I personally don't like the treadmill as much as the real world. 

that said, I see gyms give pts for workouts and other gamefication techniques that don't work. I think the most important thing is that the game is fun. 
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
8/30/2014 | 11:15:29 PM
Re: Artist learning
Dave I thInk stream is a great add, reading is a foundational skill that influences mastering so many other disciplines.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/29/2014 | 11:54:40 AM
Re: Want To Be Smarter?
@zerox203- Right. There's nothing here that can be totally 100% prescriptive. I can't tell anyone how to be truly smart. What I can say is that certain skills can be honed through certain actions that you wouldn't notice have a direct connection. And that's cool.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/29/2014 | 11:52:42 AM
Re: You teach better what you need to learn
@SaneIT- I hadn't noticed that. But I'm guessing the reason is that when you do a job that uses almost entirely your brain, it is nice to find a hobby that does the opposite. My nearby gym now has one of those giant tractor tires people flip to workout with. I doubt I could flip it right now, but I'm really tempted to join the gym just so I can. 
Susan_Nunziata
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Susan_Nunziata,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 7:52:56 PM
Re: No stranger
@Dave: In my experience, both are true. In fact, in all of your examples, what I see is the ability to get into a "flow" state that allows you to concentrate and absorb or impart information regardless of what is happening around you.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 6:18:55 PM
Re: One room schoolhouse approach
@kstaron- Interesting. I don't know if there are one room school houses anymore, but my daughter is a multi-age classroom. She's now the oldest in the room and we're looking forward to her solidifying her skills by teaching the little ones. It is goign to be a very interesting year.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 6:15:55 PM
Re: You teach better what you need to learn
@tzubair- You are right about exercise as a motivator. At first, i hated going to the gym. Now, it is my favorite thing to do. I get cranky when I don't get to go. That hour or so of really paying attention to your body and not your mind is quite invigorating.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 6:13:59 PM
Re: You teach better what you need to learn
@SaneIT- Agreed to an extent. I think certian activities are better than others for certain skills you want to cultivate. But yes, something is always better than nothing. And activity is always cultivating something in the brain.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 6:06:48 PM
Re: No stranger
@waqasaltaf- Learn a musical instrument. In two years you'll be able to handle the noise. :) Report back here on what you play and how it worked. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/28/2014 | 5:56:42 PM
Re: Artist learning
@nasimon- Both of my kids like to draw like crazy. So i never had to foster that. The youngest loves to build with legos so I think he's got creativity down. The older one is taking music now and is loving it. I think mainly you just stick kids in front of stuff and they'll roll with it.
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