The Extended Mind: the Power of Thinking Outside the Brain | A Book Review by Jonathan Martin | 5 Min Read

Is there a name yet for the popular nonfiction genre in which primarily non-scholars round up a few dozen fascinating findings from recently published research in psychology, sociology, and economics; find a sometimes awkwardly fitting organizing theme, and write a well-polished series of anecdotes summarizing that research in a loose but often compelling argument about that theme?

I’m confident I’m not the only educator who eats these books up, some of which are non-specific to schooling (but still very applicable), and some of which are more squarely attentive to our work. Malcolm Gladwell is clearly the king of the genre, and some online scanning suggests that perhaps he’s put his name on it: these types of books are said to be “Gladwellian.”  Dan Pink has long been one of my favorites in this field, going back to his 2006 title A Whole New Mind; I also greatly enjoy Steven Johnson and Adam Grant (who is, unusually in this genre, a researcher himself), among others.

However, it’s becoming more difficult to read these narratives as “innocently” as we did before, as we become more aware of the social science “replication crisis.”   Often these books cherrypick from singular experiments and rarely refer to well-conducted meta-analytic research (and not even meta-analyses are rock solid these days).  To the best of my recollection, I have yet to ever read either of the following two phrases in any of these books: “happily, this research has been replicated,” or “we should take this finding with a large grain of salt until it has been successfully replicated.” For this reader, it’s long past time for phrases like these to become required in this genre of writing.

All of which is to say, while I was entirely delighted by the themes, the argument, and the narrative style of Annie Murphy Paul’s recently published book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside of the Brain, I’m sorry to report it neglects to address replication. I read the Kindle version, and a word search in that e-book for replicate, replicated, and replication finds only a single example in the entirety of the book, (and that one found only in a footnote.) 

Paul writes beautifully and provides an abundance of insights and implications worthy of educators’ attention, leading us to rethink our practice and expand our repertoire.  It is built on a well-structured pair of triplets, three sections each composed of three chapters.  Part I addresses Thinking with our Bodies, and is divided into thinking with sensations, with movement, and with gesture; Part II turns to Thinking with our Surroundings, such as natural spaces, built Spaces, and the “space of ideas;” Part III discusses Thinking with our Relationships: experts, peers, and groups.  Let me share just a few of the remarkable insights and implications offered up in parts I and III (section II is a bit less compelling.)

  • Encourage students to try to discern when they are feeling nervous — heart racing, sweaty palms, stomach fluttering. When they do, help them recognize that these same feelings occur when we feel excited, eager, even thrilled about something. Instead of offering the commonplace suggestion to calm down and seek to eliminate these sensations, instead, “reappraise” them by saying to oneself, “I’m not nervous, I’m excited.” Or, alternatively, tell yourself that the arousal caused by anxiety actually assists in improving performance, rather than being debilitating. In two research studies cited (one for each approach), this internal dialogue shift produced significantly better performances in a series of challenges, including in high-stakes testing. 
  • “Sitting quietly is not necessarily the best condition for learning in school” is a finding shared here from an article published by German researchers in 2018. This nugget is included alongside a short series of other reports, one entailing research among students with ADHD, and another sharing the observations from elementary school teachers and a principal, having installed standing desks, that students are now “more alert, attentive, and engaged.”  The claims here that our students should be considerably more active and energetic in their learning experiences are entirely aligned to my own bias, so I read all this with a nodding head, glad to see research in support.  But unfortunately, the actual evidence submitted leaves a bit to be desired.
  • Paul’s discussion of the power of gesture is among the book’s highlights.  “Gesturing doesn’t just help communicate spatial concepts to others; it also helps the gesturer herself understand the concepts more fully.”  Students that were shown two versions of an instructional video, one strongly supported with gesture and one lacking any use of gesture, demonstrated dramatically different retention 30 minutes later, with “subjects more than 50 percent more likely to remember the gesture-accompanied points.” Enhancing oral instruction with gestures is something foreign/world language teachers have long embraced in the AIM methodology, but Paul presents terrific support for the case that teachers across the spectrum ought to be using gestures far more widely, perhaps especially in Math and Science. Gesture appears to be so powerful that schools might even consider adding sign language lessons to their professional development agenda.
  • The penultimate chapter of the book, Thinking in Groups, could by itself seed discussion for three or four faculty meetings, particularly in schools working to improve the quality of collaboration in their classrooms.  Paul fully acknowledges that, sometimes, “group work” fails. “Uncritical group thinking can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions.” But steps can be taken to elevate group thinking to powerfully effective levels.  One is physical or behavioral synchrony: coordinating our movements or actions in ways as simple as coordinating swings on a swingset or synchronizing video gameplay.  Physical exertion especially can help: have students vigorously walk in step around the playground a few times.  Sharing feelings and engaging in empathy, or participating in rituals together such as family-style meals, also boost the collaborative effort.

Paul’s delight in discovery and eagerness to broaden pedagogy with these insights are infectious. Let’s hope that researchers will be similarly infected, and will go to work in the coming years to replicate some of the studies most pertinent to learning. In the meantime, we’re all good readers; we can take our own grains of salt as we read. Educators are encouraged to read this title carefully and consider how teaching and learning, from preschool to grad school, can apply Paul’s far-reaching recapitulation of the power of an extended mind. 

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan E. Martin taught at and led schools in California and Arizona from 1989 to 2012; over the past decade he has been a writer, school consultant, and professional development provider to more than a hundred schools and thousands of educators in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. His affiliations have included EdLeader21, OECD PISA, NWEA, NAIS, Mastery Transcript Consortium, Blackbaud, Enrollment Management Association, CWRA, and Think Through Math. He is the author of Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education (Routledge Press, 2020), as well as scores of e-books, special reports, and white papers over the past 10 years. He currently directs professional learning for a global not-for-profit educational organization.

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