Meerkats and moles


Article by Matthew Boyle

Like many of my thoughts this one developed from a number of recent conversations. Two of them were around literature with two different (and very lovely) people. As we discussed favourite literature I casually asked as we went through some favourite authors, “do you like sci fi”? In each case the answers were similar, something to the effect of “I just don’t rate that crap”! This kind of conversation is of course very common and I’m sure you are all familiar with it. “I just don’t do science”! “Techy stuff leaves me cold”! “sports are just deeply uninteresting to me”. It seems that many people are very proud to define their dislikes; food for thought.

I have claimed for a long time now that I could spend some time listening to anyone’s passions. Bring your archetypal train-spotter into a coffee shop and plonk me in front of him with a nice cappuccino and I will make a good fist of a genuinely interested chat. I don’t think I will get into that hobby, but I will enjoy hearing why it is exciting to my conversational partner. There must, after all be something in it that attracts them? Just one hour, and I’ll bet I’ll learn something about it that interests me while connecting with an enthusiastic human being. My friend Martin, has said to me for years that there is no bad music if it’s live; I have only recently realised just how important and generally true what he has said is. When you listen to live music, you see more of the musician’s reality, and indeed as an audience you partner with the musician in making a kind of musical conversation. You get the passion and the subtle nuances in a way that a casual listen to a recording doesn’t really provide; you can fall for it in surprising ways.

For me, this generalises to all areas of learning. A scientist writing about the problem solving involved in searching for the gravitational waves predicted to suffuse space as echoes of the big bang, a choreographer discussing the physical metaphors used in a dance, a cyclist describing the training approach she has chosen, these are all areas that I can be turned-on by. There seems to me to be interest, passion, colour, challenge and promise in any area of learning. I’m sure there is stuff that I would struggle with, but I don’t think that list would define me, and I certainly can’t bring it to mind right now. So that has set me thinking as I mentioned already.

This article is a continuation of the questions posed in previous post, Lighthouses and Lasers. In that post, I asked whether some people were disposed to focus their learning time on one main area of learning while others spread their learning time really widely? In this I am curious about whether some people have a narrow area of interest, while others are capable of being interested in lots of different things? Are our meerkats, constantly alert and scanning the horizon for the next source of learning, products of a naturally curious wiring, or are they responding to a particular set of experiences? What of our moles, are they ignoring and avoiding large swathes of the world of learning because they are wired to only be comfortable knowing about a few chosen areas, or are they products of feedback and experience? Are our moles the same people who I described (playfully) as lasers in the other post? Are our meerkats always the same people who I called lighthouses? I think there is a possible connection, although I wonder if they might be unconnected or perhaps only loosely connected? You could be focused on learning only one thing most of your life, attaining expert status in it, but still feel a lively interest in any conversation about some different area of learning? You could have a laser focus on your chosen passion, but still be excited about everything else that you know you don’t have time to indulge in. The critical difference for me is the difference between focus and interest? Are these essentially two different, real-world learning styles?

I find myself becoming really interested in this idea of real-world learning styles. The work that professional teachers and educators are familiar with on learning styles so often references school-learning or exam-learning. One of the challenges of each and every dog is that we should remember that learning is so often organic, casual and ongoing. The personal styles that we bring to that might well be tied in with personality or past learning-experience; they might be related to something deeper like happiness? In the literature about happiness, people like Martin Seligman explore the evidence that simplicity in life choices, combined with “mindfulness”, (that idea that we should appreciate and be aware of the here and now), correlates with happier people. Could meerkats be less happy as the constant sense that something else offers a novel or important interest is characteristic of discontentedness? That is of course a bleak view. Could it be that the sheer joy of alighting on morsel after morsel of tasty learning is a joy-bringer in itself? Could the stimulation of being open to new ideas and attempting to make links to the meanings in unknown disciplines build intelligence and bring joyful conversations or social links? I’m afraid these are deep questions far beyond the scope of my all-too casual reading, so I should limit myself to the simple question of whether some people are indeed inclined to meerkat or mole tendencies?

One well researched area is of course personality traits. The psychologists’ own well-developed tool to describe people is the “big 5” personality traits which are fundamental indicators of probable behaviours. One of these is “openness to experience”. Might it be that this fundamental personality trait will also influence openness to new learning experiences? Probably in my view, but more learning about this is required for me.

It seems to me that the factors that could influence what I think is a real difference in observed behaviours could include:

  • school experiences. (what did you learn you were rubbish at)?
  • genetics. (always a factor)
  • friends. (is it cool to be keen on learning in your social group)?
  • career. (does it channel your learning energies)?

I would love to know how you, dear readers, see this?


Image from under CC license. Thanks.