Tourists Look Up

by Gordon McLeod
Tags: Reflection

Tourists Look Up

These are some musings on reflection as a learning activity - formed while having a couple of hours to do the 'tourist' bit en-route to a workshop in Trieste, Italy in April 2012. Mostly they're just nice pictures of architecture and sculptures - the actual workshop content follows later.

One of the things that struck me vividly was that my home city of Glasgow has architecture and sculpture every bit as fabulous and distinctive as that of Trieste (or of York, where I attended the ALT conference last year). But as a local I don't make any real effort to see the buildings around me in Glasgow. As I walked through the central square in Trieste I noticed that you could tell who the tourists were at a glance - not because they had cameras, but because they were the ones looking up. The local residents were simply going about their business, heads down.

It's a natural trait (and not limited to humans) to stop noticing things around you that aren't a threat. It's called habituation. The same thing happens when you move into a new house and the streetlight outside your window makes a buzzing sound that keeps you awake for hours. Within a couple of weeks you don't even notice it - but it's still there. What does that have to do with reflection? Well - everything really...

The most dangerous thing I did while in Italy was cross the road with the green man -  on a zebra crossing. Coming from the UK I had the natural expectation that when the green man was lit the cars and motorbikes would stop - it's a cultural thing. But no. Halfway across the road (and therefore committed to the journey) I could still see a stream of fast moving traffic piling around the corner just in front of me (and also behind me) - between me and the safety of the pavement. There was a brief lull in the flow of motorbikes and I quick stepped to the safety of the pavement with some relief. On asking the conference hosts about the local driving rules I was told "If there's nobody crossing the road cars keep moving - if there's someone in front of them they will stop".

This seemed a bit mad to me - but within two days I started to habituate to it too - and hurled myself onto the road challenging the cars to stop just like the local pedestrians did. Fortunately, they did - otherwise this blog would end a bit prematurely.

But back to reflection.

The point, really, is that anything we become familiar with is something that we stop noticing. Only by stepping out of our comfortable bubble will we experience things with a new perspective, and actually reflect (think) about what we are experiencing in a way that might challenge our conventional view - in other words to learn from the experience. This causes me some discomfort. Not because I'm suggesting that we need to experience new things in order to reflect on whether what we know is actually correct (I think that's a good thing), but rather:- does this mean that we need to continually experience new things - are we in effect in an arms race between our brain (and established preconceptions), and the outside world (of new ideas).

And if this is an arms race - how can we win? At what point do we say "I have learned enough to know something". When are we enlightened? To contrast this, Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Blink" provides fairly compelling evidence that very often our snap-decisions are more accurate than carefully thought through judgements - too often we overthink things and analyse to death our ideas and interpretations of our environment. I'm doing it now...

Perhaps the solution is to move on to something completely different. One of the observations that I made in Trieste is that there was an extremely visible police presence. There seemed to be a police car or patrolling officers at almost every junction - but their presence was neither intrusive nor intimidating. There was a reassurance of " We are here. There is no trouble, we are simply passing through". New ideas should be like that.

So I'll conclude by suggesting that unless we make a habit of experiencing our lives in different circumstances we may miss important facts that would critically change our attitudes or opinions. Perhaps the snap-decision process works well because the moment we start to ponder an idea we rely on old information rather than the initial raw data of an immediate experience. If that's the case then active reflection is something that should not be done within the same context as the work that is being reflected on. For example, thinking about how a piece of music is played might be better served by some distance - in time and space. Videoing the event and contrasting it with a related (but new) experience at a later date might make the reflection a more powerful process than simply sitting scribbling notes immediatey after the performance, as doing so is likely to fall back on existing patterns rather than creating opportunities for new ideas to emerge.

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Tourists Look Up

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