Psychology

Perception and memory are shaped by what people want to believe. Idries Shah (Seekers After Truth, page 117) wrote about a spoof documentary in 1969:

The BBC 2 television man Tony Bilbow hoaxed viewers by saying that he had obtained film clips of 'The Great Pismo' and showed forgeries of the film. Then:

'Everybody began to remember The Great Pismo when he made his television debut. Letters piled into the BBC praising the 1920's comedian.

'A woman wrote enthusiastically: "My aunt was a great fan of the Great Pismo - she saw him at a show in Hastings." She added: "What a pity he was not recognized on television before she died in 1957." One man even sent in photographs of The Great Pismo's father.' (Daily Sketch, June 26, 1969, page 9.)

Click to go to the documentary on YouTube.



Quite some time ago, Nancy McKeand responded to a comment of mine about the role of facts in learning::

It is obvious that you have to know the facts before you can think critically about them.  What I should have said is that we don’t make the facts the important part of the lesson.  Teach them the facts.  (Although I think we have to be careful about what we call facts when we are teaching.  But that is another issue, I think.) But that isn’t what they should be held responsible for.  They should be help responsible for what they can do with the facts.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The ability to use information shows a deeper understanding of that item than simple recitation of information about the item. But I do think we need to carefully think about the types of doing we have students do. For instance, Nancy gives this example:

I started life (or at least it was so long ago it seems like I did!) as a history teacher.  Let me use that field and give you an example.  If I am teaching about the Civil War, I could have them memorize the facts: generals, battles, victories, etc.  I could give them a test on which they have to give me that information back.  I am teaching them the facts of the Civil War – as it was taught to me and many of the rest of us, I imagine.  The other option is that I could resent material about the Civil War (including those facts) and then have them do something with the information.  This fall when I do that, one thing my students are going to do is write a letter as a soldier from one side or the other.  It will require them to refer to those facts, but the facts are not the goal.  The goal is to have them understand what life might have been like for a soldier in the civil war, what he might have been thinking and feeling.  They will be free to look up as many of the facts as they need to when they write their letters.  I think that this will be more beneficial to them in terms of learning about that period of US history than having a multiple choice test on the facts in isolation.

I wonder about this letter exercise. Can they really understand the life of a soldier just by thinking about information? Wouldn’t that be like trying to understand what an apple tastes like without eating it? This doing can build imagination, but I'm not sure that it helps to understand how a soldier was "thinking and feeling."

In addition, it seems to me that the study of history should be to develop the skills of a historian, just as studying biology should develop biologist skills, and so on. (Of course, the expectations for students are adjusted according to their level of experience.) Historian skills focus on using sources: analyzing them critically for bias and motive, considering counterevidence, and so on. None of those skills seem to be applied in the writing of this type of letter.

So, although doing is important for learning, the type of doing needs to be carefully thought out.

McKeand continues,

Taking that example a step further, this could be a totally independent research project, actually.  I would not have to teach them any facts.  They could look the facts up themselves and then bring that knowledge to class to incorporate into class discussions and other activities.  This goes back to a discussion Charles and I had a long time ago: What is the role of the teacher — facilitator or expert?  I fall squarely on the facilitator side of that question.  Even if we learn facts, I don’t need to be the one to dispense them.

On the research project, I've never quite understood why many educators oppose their own dispensing of "facts." Why is it better for students to get the facts from someone else than from themselves?

Or, Why is it better for students to look up the facts themselves? Does it lead to better learning? Do people need to research on their own how nuts and bolts are used? Or can they just be told/shown and then apply that knowledge?

In a previous post on Learning with Examples, I cited Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf):

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.

...

Thus, ACT-R's theory of procedural learning claims that procedural skills are acquired by making references to past problem solutions while actively trying to solve new problems. Thus, it is both a theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example.

Note that the reason that it might be preferable for students to acquire facts via their own research is due to "redundant encoding" of the facts they come across, but this advantage is offset by their possible misunderstanding the "facts." What is preferable is that learning be tied to "actively trying to solve new problems," applying “facts” to new contexts. As finding information takes time, instructors need to consider what level of facts are given, what level should students research, and what activities can help students learn to apply those "facts" in normal and novel contexts. Again, the doing that we ask students to perform needs to be thought out instead of assuming that all doing is equal.

Others have written in more depth on this topic. Check out Anderson and Schunn's article mentioned above (along with other articles at that site) and read Stephen Downes' An operating system for the mind and Facts versus Skills.



Tori Rodriguez (in Scientific American) reports on how surroundings and metaphors influence our thinking and behavior. The conclusion is that it's possible to set up our environment to affect us in positive ways, including being more creative:

Study co-author Angela Leung, associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, says you might be able to encourage your own creativity by eliminating constraints to movement, such as by roving around a room or wandering through a park. The key is variety and spontaneity: “If you want to be more creative, run freely outside and do it randomly for the day. Get away from your typical route, time of day, music or even your pace,” Leung says.



Students are always wondering, actually worrying, about what they should major in. They've heard the mindless mantra that they should pursue their passion. Actually, I think having a "passion," if someone actually has one, is an illness, or at best an unsustainable goal. As I wrote in Passion vs. self-motivation (See also Creating passionate learners" and Passion: A deceptive concept.)

Passion is like candy: Momentarily pleasurable, but unable to sustain one's endeavor for any length of time.

For most, worrying about finding "the major" and "the career" is a waste of time because they're not going to figure it out. (What they might do in hindsight is to consider that the grass was greener in other disciplines.) My own career path, if you can call it that, exemplifies this. That is, although I enjoy my present job, I never knew what I wanted to do. Well, perhaps, I didn't. When I was 18, I was considering majoring in physical education as I did enjoy sports and exercise. However, my favorite high school teacher, who meant well, said, "you can do better than that." This was in the days when physical education majors were stereotyped as dumb jocks. Who knows? Perhaps if I had gone into physical education, I might have branched off into sports training or professional coaching.

Anyway, I got a degree in secondary education with teaching fields in biology and science. (My favorite teacher had taught biology and science.) Yet I really had no desire to teach at that time. However, I had always wanted to know how to fix my car. So, I joined the army and entered a 17-week course in automotive maintenance. (If I hadn't joined, my number was coming up and I would have been drafted into the infantry.) After training, I went to Wiesbaden, Germany, where I became the company clerk (a secretary), which I actually enjoyed. However, as I never applied my automotive training, I quickly forgot it.

After that, I tried college again, this time for computer science. I stayed a year, but somewhat discontent, I considered the military again as it was all that I knew. However, the army said this time I would have to go infantry. So, I turned to the navy, which trained me to become a Russian linguist.

Seven years later, becoming somewhat discontent again, I went back to college, this time majoring in electrical engineering at UT Austin. It was sort of interesting, but a year later, I signed up for a summer class of classical Greek (5 hours a day of class time over the summer for 12 credits). It was more than challenging, but it was also more interesting than EE, so I changed my major to classical Greek (along with studying Latin and Hebrew). I enjoyed learning dead languages. Still, it wasn't interesting enough to continue at the graduate level.

So, I switched to TESL (teaching English as a second language), got my master's, and taught for four years at the English Preparatory Department of Marmara University in Istanbul. The students worked hard, and they were a delight to teach.

Eventually, however, I wanted a change, so I returned to UT to pursue a PhD in TESL simply because I didn't know what else to do. After a year-and-a-half of that, I considered going to medical school and took biology and chemistry courses for a year, but soon realized that I didn't want to continue to memorize massive amounts of facts for the next six years, then have years of sleep loss as a medical intern, and more loss of sleep when being on call as a doctor. (I also considered getting a degree in accounting, but after one class, decided not to.)

So, I switched back to my PhD program, finished it, and finally arrived at Kean University where I've been since 2002. It's a good job, and I like it. But I've enjoyed all of my jobs (and majors). Sometimes I wish I'd taught or stayed an extra ten years in the military or finished computer science or become an accountant because in each of those possibilities, I could have retired some time ago. No doubt, I would have continued working in some other job, but I would have had the freedom of not having to do so.

What's clear from my own path is that I have never found a "passion" for anything. Rather, I enjoy what I'm doing at the moment for a period of time and then want to try something different. In a related article about not having a passion, Chana Joffe-Walt concludes:

Pursuing a passion — especially if it's a popular passion — often doesn't pay very well.

In other words, forget about having a passion, but be practical. Perhaps, if you do have or develop a passion, then do it in your spare time unless it can pay the bills. Instead, focus on enjoying what you're doing at the time and becoming absorbed in it, which itself leads to satisfaction (read Flow). Then, if something interesting opens up (as long as it can pay the bills), try it out.



Jonah Lehrer uses the example of Bob Dylan to explain creativity from a neuroscience perspective. Dylan was burnt out from his performance schedule, and wanting to quit music, he retired to a cabin in Woodstock to relax and do nothing:

It took a few days to adjust to the quiet of Woodstock. Dylan was suddenly alone with nothing but an empty notebook. And there was no need to fill this notebook – Dylan had been relieved of his creative burden. But then, just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. "It's a hard thing to describe," Dylan would later remember. "It's just this sense that you got something to say." What he felt was the itch of an imminent insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down. "I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit," Dylan said. "I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do." Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness, the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight. "I don't know where my songs come from," Dylan said. "It's like a ghost is writing a song." This was the thrilling discovery that saved Dylan's career: he could write vivid lines filled with possibility without knowing exactly what those possibilities were. He didn't need to know. He just needed to trust the ghost.

This "vomit" of insight comes from the left hemisphere of the brain. While the right side is responsible for conscious anaysis, the left side makes subconscious connections, unexpected ones that provide a different perspective on a puzzle or problem, and can come into play when the right side can't solve it. That insight (insight because it's unconscious) depends upon the groundwork laid by the conscious, analytic side of the brain. It doesn't really pop out of nowhere. Again, it's just looking at the same parts of a puzzle, but from new perspectives and seeing new connections.

Interestingly, constraints stimulate the creative process. Lehrer gives the example of poets writing sonnets and haikus, which have strict structural requirements.

Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.

So, creativity needs frustration—giving up hope that a solution is possible—to come into play. And apparently, it also involves a relaxing and putting aside of the problem.

It reminds me of sometimes going to sleep without solving a problem and waking up in the morning with the solution in my mind.

It also reminds me of what I've gleaned from the writings of Idries Shah. A student of Shah, Doris Lessing writes,

In a Sufi school you first learn what is being taught and, above all, how. Sufi books are designed to be read differently from our usual habit: quietly, non-argumentatively, willing to absorb what is there, noticing how a question in one part may be answered in another, observing juxtapositions and intimations of the unexpected, above all not interposing screens of 'received ideas' between the author and one's best self.

"Received ideas" point to the rational mind attempting to resolve a problem while the "unexpected" points to the insight of creativity stemming from forming new connections. Note that this enlightenment is not some supernatural phenomenon but instead is the normal process of creativity, of the ability to look at a problem or situation anew.

The approach of reading "quietly, non-argumentatively, willing to absorb what is there" reminds me of Peter Elbow's "The Believing Game".

the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them. We are using believing as a tool to scrutinize and test. But instead of scrutinizing fashionable or widely accepted ideas for hidden flaws, the believing game asks us to scrutinize unfashionable or even repellent ideas for hidden virtues. Often we cannot see what's good in someone else's idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it. When an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs--or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated---we often cannot see any merit in it.

Now, the believing game is not quite the same as Sufism (and to be fair to Elbow, he uses it to counterbalance the dominating "doubting game" in academia). That is, one is not "interposing screens of 'received ideas'"—whether believing or doubting. Instead, one is being open to seeing unexpected connections between ideas. It's a neutral stance rather than a "welcoming" one.

It would be interesting to develop a non-argumentative approach to writing the required argumentative papers in composition with the goal of seeing if creativity is stimulated.



ScienceBlog reports on how media multitasking is really multi-distracting.

Placed in a room containing a television and a computer and given a half hour to use either device, people on average switched their eyes back and forth between TV and computer a staggering 120 times in 27.5 minutes — or nearly once every 14 seconds, Carroll School of Management professors S. Adam Brasel and James Gips report in a forthcoming edition of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

...

What’s more, the subjects were not even aware of their own actions. On average, participants in the study thought they might have looked back and forth between the two devices about 15 times per half hour. In reality, they were looking nearly 10 times as often. And even if quick “glances” less than 1.5 seconds are removed from the equation, people were still switching over 70 times per half hour.

If simply being in an urban city can impair your memory and "dull your thinking", just imagine how much multitasking interferes with learning.



Roland Fryer, Professor of Economics at Harvard, conducted research on how incentive pay affected teacher and student performance. From the abstract:

Financial incentives for teachers to increase student performance is an increasingly popular education policy around the world. This paper describes a school-based randomized trial in over two-hundred New York City public schools designed to better understand the impact of teacher incentives on student achievement. I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.

In explaining these results, Fryer considered four possibilities, concluding,

we argue that the most likely explanation is that the NYC incentive scheme, along with all other American pilot initiatives thus far, is too complex and provides teachers with too little agency.

In other words, if people don't see a strong, direct connection between incentive pay and teaching, it won't motivate them to do teach better, and if they don't perceive themselves as in control over what and how they teach, then they won't be motivated to improve their teaching.

That fits in with the Learning and Fun post on Feynman, Daniel Pink's detesting of the question, "What is your passion?", and the perspectives of self-determination and flow (see, for example, Where Does Curiosity Go? and Engagement and Flow).

In short, to improve at one's work (or anything else), people need to feel that they in control of their lives and their work.



So – with a voice that quavers in expectation and an inflection that italicises the final word – they ask us again, "What's your passion?"

Ladies and gentlemen, I detest that question.

When someone poses it to me, my innards tighten. My vocabulary becomes a palette of aahs and ums. My chest wells with the urge to flee.

So writes Daniel Pink. His response is to ask "a more productive" question:

what do you do?

Pink's not against passion, but he says,

business can be a bit like love. When people first fall in love, they experience that woozy and besotted feeling that verges on obsessiveness. That's passion, and it's great. But as couples bond more enduringly, that fiery intensity can give way to a calmer warmth. That's true love – and that's where the magic is.

This concept corresponds to research on love by Helen Fisher, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers. She asserts that there are three types of love—lust, attraction, and attachment—that are governed simply by various hormones: Lust by testerone, attraction by dopamine, and attachment by oxytocin for women or vasopression for men.

Neither lust nor attraction can be maintained for long periods of time. They wear off. Those who promote passion, either in business or in education, are either exaggerating or deceiving themselves and others.

The "calmer warmth" of attachment via doing is attainable, and it's honest.

Relevant post: Creating Passionate Learners?



Four years ago, I reported on a study that showed that Emotion Overrules Reason. Joe Keohane (Boston Globe) writes about similar research in How Facts Backfire. A few excerpts:

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions.

the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic.

politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.



Grant, Adam M. (2008). Employees without a cause: The motivational effects of prosocial impact in public service. International Public Management Journal, 11, 48-66.

Abstract (from article):

Public service employees often lack opportunities to see the prosocial impact of their jobs—how their efforts make a difference in other people’s lives. Drawing on recent job design theory and research, I tested the hypothesis that the motivation of public service employees can be enhanced by connecting them to their prosocial impact. In a longitudinal quasi-experiment, a group of fundraising callers serving a public university met a fellowship student who benefited from the funds raised by the organization. A full month later, these callers increased significantly in the number of pledges and the amount of donation money that they obtained, whereas callers in a control group did not change on these measures. I discuss the implications of these results for theory, research, and practice related to work motivation in public service.

In other words, having personal contact with one's beneficiaries, even briefly, increases prosocial motivation, and, in turn, productivity.

With respect to teaching, of course, one has daily contact with one's beneficiaries, the students. Yet, 50% of all new teachers stop teaching within 5 years. Obviously, the environment must be countering prosocial motivation. Contact with students is not always positive, administrative support may not be adequate, and so on.

I did a quick search on zookeepers to see if they have a high rate of dropout, but couldn't find anything. Zookeepers' sense of calling, however, gives them a strong sense of moral duty that causes considerable personal sacrifice. They're not paid well, and their work is "physically demanding, dangerous, and uncomfortable" (Bunderson & Thompson, p. 42). Plus, they're on call. Yet, apparently, they don't quit at the same rate as teachers. Why?

A simple explanation would be that the percentage of zookeepers seeing their work as a calling is considerably greater than that of teachers.

Another possibility is this: Bunderson & Thompson state, "Our analysis of calling among zookeepers therefore points to a fundamental tension inherent in deeply meaningful work: deep meaning does not come without real responsibility" (p. 52). Are teachers given "real responsibility" nowadays?



Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People's relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.

Abstract (from article):

We present evidence suggesting that most people see their work as either a Job (focus on financial rewards and necessity rather than pleasure or fulfillment; not a major positive part of life), a Career (focus on advancement), or a Calling (focus on enjoyment of fulfilling, socially useful work). Employees at two work sites (n = 196) with a wide range of occupations from clerical to professional were unambiguous in seeing their work primarily in terms of a Job, Career, or Calling. Differences in respondents’ relations to their work could not be reduced to demographic or occupational differences; an homogenous subset of 24 college administrative assistants were, like the total sample of respondents, distributed evenly across Job, Career, and Calling.

It's easy to imagine that people might see their work as a job or a career, but it's interesting that any occupation can be seen as a calling although some occupations may more readily seem to fit the role of a calling.

Doing a quick Google search for "teaching calling" pulls up quite a few sites that consider teaching a calling, a career, or a job.

For myself, it's difficult to see any occupation as a calling. People's background and experience make them better at some occupations and worse at others.

At the same time, there seems to be a need for schools to have a particular attitude, a culture of caring and respect for their students (see also What Works in Teaching). Such a culture should result in better job satisfaction for the teachers (and perhaps prevent the high drop out rate of new teachers) and better success for the students. And it seems likely that how one perceives teaching—job, career, or calling—might have an effect on a school's culture.



Bunderson, J. S., & Thompson, J. A. (2009). The call of the wild: Zookeepers, callings, and the double-edged sword of deeply meaningful work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54, 32-57.

Abstract (from article):

A qualitative examination of work meaning in the zoo- keeping profession pointed to the centrality of the notion of work as a personal calling.The view of calling expressed by zookeepers, however, was closer in basic structure to the classical conceptualization of the Protestant reformers than it was to more recent formulations. We used qualitative data from interviews with U.S. zookeepers to develop hypotheses about the implications of this neoclassical conceptualization of calling for the relationship between individuals and their work. We found that a neoclassical calling is both binding and ennobling. On one hand, zookeepers with a sense of calling strongly identified with and found broader meaning and significance in their work and occupation. On the other hand, they were more likely to see their work as a moral duty, to sacrifice pay, personal time, and comfort for their work, and to hold their zoo to a higher standard. Results of a survey of zookeepers from 157 different zoos in the U.S. and Canada supported the hypotheses from our emergent theory.These results reveal the ways in which deeply meaningful work can become a double-edged sword.

Unless I were looking at it from a religious or spiritual perspective, I wouldn't have immediately thought of zookeeping as a "calling," but as the article notes, any career or job can be seen as a calling as long as the individual's primary purpose in work is oriented toward a cause or ideology, as opposed to working simply to pay the bills. In this regard, looking at zookeepers is a nice test case as much of the work of taking care of animals involves cleaning up after them, a not particularly appealing job.

As Bunderson and Thompson note, having a sense of calling can give life meaning and purpose as well as leading to personal sacrifice. Here are some quotations from zookeepers:

It’s a calling for me just because my whole life I’ve just been interested in animals. So looking back I should have known at some time I would be working with animals.

It’s a part of who I am and I don’t know if I can explain that. When you use that expression “it’s in your blood,” like football coaches and players can never retire because it’s in their blood. Whatever my genetic makeup is, I’m geared towards animals.

I was always interested in animals ever since I was a kid. I drove my mom nuts catching bugs and worms and frogs and salamanders, bringing home anything I could find . . . butterflies, stuff like that.

I slept and ate and read reptiles when I was a little boy. I thought that’s all there was. . . . Most boys my age, all they thought about was girls. Well, I thought about girls and reptiles.

I just always had every pet you could imagine—dogs, cats, ham- sters, gerbils, birds, reptiles of different sorts. I’ve always had an interest in animals and I said the zoo would be a good place to work.

A sense of calling is often associated with teaching, that teaching is more than just punching the clock: in at 8 and out at 5 (or earlier). Teaching involves working with others, helping students learn and prepare for their careers. It involves relationships of trust and respect (see What Works in Teaching).

I wonder how many people, teachers or others, have a sense of calling as strong as the zookeepers.



Grant, Adam M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, performance, and productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 48-58.

Abstract (from article):

Researchers have obtained conflicting results about the role of prosocial motivation in persistence, performance, and productivity. To resolve this discrepancy, I draw on self-determination theory, proposing that prosocial motivation is most likely to predict these outcomes when it is accompanied by intrinsic motivation. Two field studies support the hypothesis that intrinsic motivation moderates the association between prosocial motivation and persistence, performance, and productivity. In Study 1, intrinsic motivation strengthened the relationship between prosocial motivation and the overtime hour persistence of 58 firefighters. In Study 2, intrinsic motivation strengthened the relationship between prosocial motivation and the performance and productivity of 140 fundraising callers. Callers who reported high levels of both prosocial and intrinsic motivations raised more money 1 month later, and this moderated association was mediated by a larger number of calls made. I discuss implications for theory and research on work motivation.

In short, intrinsic motivation can strengthen prosocial motivation and thus increase task persistence, productivity, and performance.

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do an activity for the sake of the activity itself. That is, it is pleasurable to do a particular activity. Prosocial motivation is the desire to do an activity because it benefits others. Thus, intrinsic motivation and prosocial motivation differ in three areas:

self-regulation (autonomous vs. introjected/identified), goal directedness (process vs. outcome), and temporal focus (present vs. future).

Grant gives the example of someone who teaches both because they enjoy lecturing and also because they want to see their students learn. The former is intrinsic motivation derived from the pleasure of the process of lecturing in the present while the latter derives from identifying with a goal-directed outcome in the future.

In this example, the intrinsic motivation of lecturing leads teachers to identify with institutional outcomes and thus increases the level of prosocial motivation. If a teacher did not enjoy lecturing, then instrinsic motivation is low and prosocial motivation is driven primarily by the pressure to help others. In such a case task persistence, productivity, and performance are at lower levels. For myself, I enjoy preparing for class, trying to think of new and better ways to help students learn how to write. However, I don't enjoy grading and giving written feedback on essays. On the former, I can easily persist, spending a solid hour or two revising lesson plans. On the latter, I slow down quite a bit and take frequent breaks, lowering my productivity.

Grant began his article with this question, "Why do employees go above and beyond the call of duty to persist in performing their work effectively and productively?" In helping teachers and students to go above and beyond in their teaching and learning, it's important to "design work [and learning] contexts to cultivate both prosocial and intrinsic motivations."



Grant, Adam M., et al. (2007). Impact and the art of motivation maintenance: The effects of contact with beneficiaries on persistence behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 103 , 53-67.

Abstract (from article):

We tested the hypothesis that employees are willing to maintain their motivation when their work is relationally designed to provide opportunities for respectful contact with the beneficiaries of their efforts. In Experiment 1, a longitudinal field experiment in a fundraising organization, callers in an intervention group briefly interacted with a beneficiary; callers in two control groups read a letter from the beneficiary and discussed it amongst themselves or had no exposure to him. One month later, the intervention group displayed significantly greater persistence and job performance than the control groups. The intervention group increased significantly in persistence (142% more phone time) and job performance (171% more money raised); the control groups did not. Experiments 2 and 3 used a laboratory editing task to examine mediating mechanisms and boundary conditions. In Experiment 2, respectful contact with beneficiaries increased persistence, mediated by perceived impact. In Experiment 3, mere contact with beneficiaries and task significance interacted to increase persistence, mediated by affective commitment to beneficiaries. Implications for job design and work motivation are discussed.

Basically, when people have respectful interactions, even brief ones, with the beneficiaries of their work, their motivation, and their productivity, is increased and maintained.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Negative interactions can be demotivating.

And emotions and social relationships are not the only factors in motivation. Autonomy and competence play major roles, too. In fact, autonomy is arguably the major player in motivation. Yet although this research was not conducted in a classroom, it does indicate the importance of affect in the classroom with respecti to both teacher and student motivation and, consequently, performance.



Dylan McLain reports on a study showing that in their field of expertise experts process information differently:

What set the experts apart was that parts of their right brain hemispheres — which are more involved in pattern recognition — also lit up with activity. The experts were processing the information in two places at once.

The researchers also found that when the subjects were shown the chess diagrams, the novices looked directly at the pieces to recognize them, while the experts looked on the middle of the boards and took everything in with their peripheral vision.

One of researchers, Merim Bilalic, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said in an interview that the way the experts’ brains handled the chess tasks was more efficient. The study also showed that expertise is an acquired skill, not an innate one. “It tells you a very sobering message,” he said. “It tells you there are no shortcuts to expertise.”



David Jones, a PhD student at The Australian National University, writes about the progress on his dissertation, which looks at how educational institutions constrain the implementation of e-learning initiatives. In his most recent post People, Cognition, Rationality, and E-Learning, he reviews some of the literature on the irrationality of human decision making and states:

At the level of the individual, there is significant research to indicate that people do not make rational decisions. It has been shown that when making decisions people rely on strategies such as rules of thumb and heuristics to simplify decisions, several of which suffer from systematic biases that influence judgement (Tversky and Kahneman 1974).

We usually assume that people are rational, but when you think about it, it's pretty obvious we aren't. Otherwise, we would come to similar conclusions most of the time, and, quite obviously, we don't. In fact, the old saying "Don't discuss politics or religion" underscores how Emotions Overrule Reason and moves us to ignore facts that contradict our position. And that also applies to experts, who predict no better than non-experts.

So, if we and our students are primarily not rational, how do we move ourselves and them to rationality? Should we? Does learning need to be a rational endeavor?



Reading the different points of view on the arrest of Harvard professor Gates reminds me of this anecdote:

Saadi of Shiraz, in his Bostan, stated an important truth when he told this miniature tale :

A man met another, who was handsome, intelligent and elegant. He asked him who he was. The other said : 'I am the Devil.'

'But you cannot be,' said the first man, 'for the devil is evil and ugly.'

'My friend,' said Satan, 'you have been listening to my detractors.'

Source of anecdote: Idries Shah. Reflections. London: Octogon Press, 1968.



Typealyzer—a new tool for procrastinating (via Stephen Downes).

Typealyzer purportedly analyzes your blog's personality type as per a Myers-Briggs typology). Taking the ability of some algorithm to assess my personality via a contested psychological theory with a grain or two of skepticism, I found my blog's personality to be INTP:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

My take: The parts I like must be true, and the parts I don't, false. (See Emotion Overrules Reason.)

Nancy McKeand at Random Thoughts had a more thoughtful perspective. Although she usually tests INTJ, Tyepalyzer pegged her as ESTP:

While I took the test and began this post as a joke, it has made me think about how I am someone different online from in real life.  I can’t really explain it but I can see that I am an ESTP here

Different contexts do bring out different fragments of our personalities. Quite a bit of research on synchronous communication in classrooms, for instance, has shown that students who speak little, if at all, in class discussions, come alive in online discussions, and the converse apparently occurs, too.

In addition to contextual constraints and assuming for the moment a certain amount of validity and reliability, these personality analyses show preferences rather than absolutes, preferences whose degree of preference is not indicated. As noted above, Typealyzer is great for avoiding work.



What is the value of a degree in literature, philosophy, or humanities?

Literature
Frankly, I enjoy literature because as a human being, stories stir my imagination. As Doris Lessing, in her 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, stated,

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

And, in addition, I would love to have a good understanding of the craft involved in great stories so that I could appreciate them better.

But that's not the same as justifying their study to an external audience (see Fish's "Will the Humanities Save Us?"). Yet various articles make the assertion for a practical application of a degree in English. For instance, So you want to study ... A master's in English (Liz Ford) is a series of interviews on people who chose to study English, including why they did.

One individual stated, "One employer said, 'We want people who can think outside the box.'" Well, I imagine that English majors can certainly think outside of science or business boxes, but I'm not sure what value one of Shakespeare's sonnets would have in engineering design or accounting procedures.

Another stated, "More so than any other subject, English gives you transferable skills. You learn to write and express yourself well and learn communication skills." To some degree, I buy into this. Even so, it's a well-known fact that writing in a one style doesn't transfer well to another. One study (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman), for instance, showed the difficulty a doctoral student had in transferring his previous experience in writing (bachelor's and master's in education, along with an intensive eight week seminar on "The Writing Process: A Humanistic Perspective") into the field of rhetoric:

During his early months in the program ... An analysis of his papers reveals several months of confusion during whicdh his writing suffered from numerous stylistic problems: poor cohesion, disorganized paragraphs, lack of focus, inappropriate vocabulary.

One reason for the difficulty in writing transfer was

Nate is "wrestling with ideas" at the expense of organization and style

In other words, to write well, you need to know the content matter. In fact, although Nate did make progress, his

difficulties with cohesion and coherence persisted long after he gained a relative mastery over the material that he was studying in his courses

If this much difficulty occurred in transferring writing knowledge and skills from one social science discipline to another, imagine how much more difficulty will occur when transferring outside of the social sciences to business or the "hard" sciences.

Then, Why should anyone think that academic experience, regardless of discipline, would provide someone with good writing skills? Denis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, wrote an article entitled "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate",

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Yet, literature, as Lessing asserts, has a value in its stories. Stories may be the best way of learning. As Alicia Juarrero, a philosopher, asserts, understanding requires a hermeneutics that “provide[s] insight into and understanding of how something happened, that is, into its dynamics, background, and context” (p. 240), that is, stories (see Dynamics in action, Part III). The stories she speaks of, however, are not limited to literature but may take the nature of Shell Scenarios for managerial decision making or of Roger Shank's Socratic Arts, in which

students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Philosophy
Daniel Drolet, reporting on Philosophy's Makeover (via Stephen Downes), quotes Jeff Noonan,

“Philosophy develops communication skills, the ability to organize complex materials, negotiate between different positions and tease out different problems,” says Jeff Noonan, head of the philosophy department at the University of Windsor. “An extraordinary range of jobs require those abilities.”

And according to Daniel Gervais, a professor of law,

There’s definitely a thirst in business for people who can think creatively, analytically and outside the box

Although I would instinctively think that learning to think systematically and logically should be of help in solving certain types of problems, I know too little of philosophy to evaluate its practical use. Yet, isn't this claim about creative thinking and thinking outside the box the same as claimed by English majors? And wouldn't it also be subject to the limitation of a lack of subject matter knowledge? Perkins and Salomon in Teaching for Transfer write,

While the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic typically show transfer (for reasons to be discussed later), other sorts of knowledge and skill very often do not.

And philosophy would not seem to be a basic skill, although perhaps, as Perkins and Salomon note, certain skills such as "the role of evidence" and "general and important thinking strategies" may be applicable here. (See also The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross and Eklund's review of Heather Dykes' book Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy via Stephen Downes.)

Humanities
In addition to critical thinking outside-the-box skills, many argue that humanities can give character. Stanley Fish naysays that as wishful thinking in Will the Humanities Save Us?

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

And Fish's position is backed up by studies in character education. Lawrence Kohlberg found that reasoning was necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action, but moral reasoning and judgment were not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action.

Although Fish concludes that there is no practical "use" to the humanities, I'm more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to philosophy, as far as transfer of critical thinking goes. And although the evidence for transfer of thinking skills with respect to literature would not seem to be on the same level as philosophy, with Lessing, its stories can instill a "fire" within us that has its own value and without which we might not be human. In fact, along the lines of Juarrero and informed by literature, I would redesign, as much as possible, curricula to be great stories.

Offline references
Berkenkotter, C., T. N. Huckin, & J. Ackerman (1998). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.

Juarrero, A. (2002). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1999). The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education." In A. C. Ornstein and L. S. Behar-Horenstein, eds., Contemporary Issues in Curriculum, 4th ed. (pp. 163-75). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.



A miscellaneous mishmash of thoughts.

Subversion
A few months ago, Ken Carroll wrote a great post asking, Is Teaching a Subversive Activity?". He begins with

Some teachers see their work as a subversive act. To them, perhaps, western democracy is lacking, and requires their intervention. There is also an assumption that the teacher possesses the truth - that he knows with some degree of certainty what needs to be changed in our society and why.  

This is not how I see it. The real purpose of education, I believe, centers around  the pursuit of truth. The teacher’s role is to help learners find truth, not to instill a particular political view of the world, and still less to set them on a course of active subversion that the teacher chooses.  

Of course, one might argue that the pursuit of truth itself is a particular perspective that Ken holds, in fact, one that can be a subservsive activity. After all, which do people in power prefer for those under them? To pursue truth or to follow them? Even so, the entire post (and the comments) is worth your time to read.

Reading
What happens when one doesn't pursue truth? Arguments, of course. Just look at the phonics vs. whole language wars that have been going on for decades: Each side is so convinced of their position that they can't see any aspect of another position. This news on reading research (about a year old), Phonics, Whole-Word, and Whole-Language Processes Add Up to Determine Reading Speed, Study Shows, shows that opposing positions may not be opposing but complementary:

Pelli and Tillman's results show that letter-by-letter decoding, or phonics, is the dominant reading process, accounting for 62 percent of reading speed. However, both holistic word recognition (16 percent) and whole-language processes (22 percent) do contribute substantially to reading speed. Remarkably, the results show that the contributions of these three processes to reading speed are additive. The contribution of each process to reading speed is the same whether the other processes are working or not.

"The contributions made by phonics, holistic word recognition, and whole-language processes are not redundant," explained Pelli. "These three processes are not working on the same words and, in fact, make contributions to reading speed exclusive of one another."

Such research does make one wonder about all the fuss and buss over whether one should teach with phonics or with whole language approaches.

Creativity
Scientific American has an interesting article in which three experts are interviewed on How to unleash your creativity (via Chris Lott). Although many people believe that creativity is something you're born with, according to John Houtz, you

have to work at it; creativity isn’t necessarily going to come naturally.

And ccording to Robert Epstein, creativity has four skills:

There are four different skill sets, or competencies, that I’ve found are essential for creative expression. The first and most important competency is “capturing”—preserving new ideas as they occur to you and doing so without judging them. Your morning pages, Julia, are a perfect example of a capturing technique. There are many ways to capture new ideas. Otto Loewi won a Nobel Prize for work based on an idea about cell biology that he almost failed to capture. He had the idea in his sleep, woke up and scribbled the idea on a pad but found the next morning that he couldn’t read his notes or remember the idea. When the idea turned up in his dreams the following night, he used a better capturing technique: he put on his pants and went straight to his lab!

The second competency is called “challenging”—giving ourselves tough problems to solve. In tough situations, multiple behaviors compete with one another, and their interconnections create new behaviors and ideas. The third area is “broadening.” The more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections—so you can boost your creativity simply by learning interesting new things. And the last competency is “surrounding,” which has to do with how you manage your physical and social environments. The more interesting and diverse the things and the people around you, the more interesting your own ideas become.

Throughout the article, the different experts give different techniques for becoming more creative. One point I kept thinking about was that of not judging your ideas. That's similar to the invention technique of free writing in which one writes continuously for a period of time without stopping, without editing, without correcting, without evaluating the writing. And it reminds me of how Emotion Overrules Reason. When judging, emotion generally enters the picture and clouds one's ability to think straight--or to think new thoughts and see new connections, the foundation of creativity.

Flow
And it reminds me of the state of flow. (See Csikszentmihalyi's book titled Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.) In flow, one is so involved in an activity that distractions cease to exist and one loses awareness of oneself. Obviously, in a grade-centered environment, such as school, flow is not easy to attain. David Farmer, summarizing a lecture by Csikszentmihalyi, wrote,

He noted that a major constraint on people enjoying what they are doing is always being conscious of a fear of how they appear to others and what these others might think.

Charles Dietz, drawing from another of Csikszentmihalyi's books, wrote

One of their principal findings, published in Talented Teens – The Roots of Success and Failure was that ‘flow was the strongest predictor of subjective engagement and how far the student progressed in the school’s curriculum in his or her talent’.

The authors suggest three ‘promising steps for promoting optimal experience in the classroom’:

1. The most influential teachers were found to be those who always continue to nurture their interest in their subjects and do not take their ability to convey that enthusiasm for granted. Learning was found to flourish where the cultivation of passionate interest was a primary educational goal.

2. Attention should be paid to ‘conditions that enhance the experience of maximum rewards’. Everything should be done to minimise the impact of rules, exams and procedures and to focus on the inherent satisfaction of learning.

(In a more recent interview, Csikszentmihalyi has stated that although it makes some sense to work on students’ weaknesses, it makes even more sense to work on their strengths, ‘Because once someone has developed strengths, then everything else becomes easier.’)

3. Teachers must read the shifting needs of learners. The flow state is not a static one: once a skill has been mastered it is necessary to add more complexity if the student is not to become bored – there must always be a close fit between challenges and skills. The teacher’s sense of timing and pace, of when to intervene and when to hold back, is therefore crucial. There must be freedom wherever possible for the student to control the process, but teachers must also draw on their experience to channel students’ attention.

Edutopia has an interview with Csikszentmihalyi on Motivating people to learn.

Here's a video of Csikszentmihalyi talking on the "Flow of Goodness":



Teach for America (TFA) teachers are making a difference (via OL Daily). According to this six-year longitudinal study of high school students in North Carolina,

The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are particularly strong for math and science classes.

This is troubling: Five-week institute trained teachers do better than those with a degree in teaching, which usually includes two years of education courses. (And 34% of the non-TFA teachers had graduate degrees compared to less than 2% for TFA teachers.) How can that be? The report notes that TFA teachers are recruited from highly selective universities but placed

in the lowest-performing schools in the country ... [and] in the most demanding classrooms in these already challenging schools.

Yet, their students do better. Interestingly, TFA teachers also score higher than traditionally trained teachers on the PRAXIS exam. Is their success due to being more motivated? Do experienced teachers suffer demotivation over the years? Or is it because TFA teachers are stronger academically? I imagine it would be at least a combination of those factors, and perhaps others I'm not aware of.

What's troubling is that it is difficult to imagine the same scenario in another discipline. Take, for instance, engineering. Would you expect that a group of new college graduates would be better engineers than a group who had been in the field a while? Even if the newbies were from highly selective schools and the oldies weren't? Lots of questions but no solutions here.



A new study reports on the success of career school programs (Erik Eckholm, NY Times).

Now, a long-term and rigorous evaluation of nine career academies across the country, to be released in Washington on Friday, has found that eight years after graduation, participants had significantly higher employment and earnings than similar students in a control group.

Researchers believe that those who initially expressed interest in the academies may have shared similar motivation to succeed, whether or not they were chosen for the special program.

But this also suggests that something about the academy experience, apart from educational achievement, promoted greater success in the job market. One likely factor is the exposure the academies provide to a range of adults in real workplaces, said J. D. Hoye, who directed a “school-to-work” initiative for the Clinton administration and now heads the National Academy Foundation, which advises career academies on curriculums and other topics.

“The students see what work is like, and they build a network of caring adults at school and in the workplace,” Ms. Hoye said.

Students seem to benefit from being part of a special, small group, said Mark Bartholio, the academy director. Many do not pursue finance careers but instead go into teaching, social services or criminal justice, he said, but one graduate said the accounting skills he learned in the academy had enabled him to help start a small business.

This reminds me of Deborah Meiers (In Schools We Trust), who wrote:

Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure. (p. 2)

Students need to be around teachers they can trust and teachers who ask questions as learners, too. (p. 14)

And it reminds me of Deci & Ryan's self-determination theory in which motivation is affected by autonomy, competence, and social relations.

We often talk about making learning meaningful with a view towards connecting school learning to students' interests and activities, but meaningfulness can be stimulated by positive social relations and dampened by negative ones.



Ever notice that students seem to learn a particular rhetorical convention or grammar point, then go back to an earlier stage of writing. I've noticed that my learning seems to take one step forward, and then regress, too.

One Step Forward
A year ago. I had finally got around to fixing the trackback on my blog. It seemed strange: Although my page template had scripts for Haloscan but not for Yahoo maps api, the html code showed the latter but not the former. Apparently, around January while playing with the design, I changed which templates were being referenced to an older version in another folder. What led me to looking for the template location was something that Mark Bernstein, the designer of Tinderbox (the software I use to write this blog) had said on more than one occasion: Look at the HTML code.

Easy enough to change folders. After fixing it, however, I created another problem. After I added google analytics script to the page template, the sidebar dropped below the posts. It made no sense that the one would lead to the other, but I took the script out anyway. Sure enough, that didn't fix it. Comparing my template with another orginal one, I saw that somehow, while pasting in the script, I had somehow deleted six important characters after the post division: </div>.

One Step Forgotten
Apparently, despite the many times Mark has advised me to look at the HTML code and the few steps I've taken in doing so, I may still forget to look at the code. On Thursday, I downloaded Tinderbox 4.0. When I looked at the web version of a post I was working on, there was no formatting. It was as if the CSS had disappeared. For some reason, I didn't compare the before and after HTML codes. If I had, I would have seen that they were different. Anyway, I emailed Mark, who replied:

Also, there's a warning in the release notes about stylesheet export -- a new tag pair

       HTMLIndentedParagraphStart/End

need to be redefined as empty strings for notes that are exporting stylesheets or other code where paragraph markup is unwanted.

Sure enough. That was the problem. And another problem was that I hadn't seen the release notes. Usually they're included in the DMG image, but not this time. Now, common sense might've told me to look in the Help menu, but I didn't. After all, they hadn't been there before. It took another email from Mark to direct my attention to this possibility. It's hard to see something when you're looking in the wrong direction.

Like Student, Like Teacher
I'm much like my students. That is, although everything that Mark had told me was pretty much common sense, at least for someone who was overly familiar with Tinderbox, HTML, and CSS, it wasn't so for me. And although everything that I tell my students is common sense, at least for someone like me familiar with English, writing, and language elarning, it isn't so for my students. And like me looking at HTML code, my students often zigzag in their ability to remember grammar points like subject-verb agreement and rhetorical conventions, such as framing quotations. Why would that be?

Forgetting and Learning
Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets" (pdf) state that there are three learning processes (at the subsymbolic level):

1. Power Law of Learning. As a particular skill is practiced there is a gradual and systematic improvement in performance which corresponds to a power law. ...

2. Power Law of Forgetting. As time passes performance degrades, also according to a power function. ...

3. Multiplicative Effect of Practice and Retention. Most important, the Base-Level Equation implies a relationship between the combined variables of amount of practice and duration over which the information must be maintained. ...

This implies performance continuously improves with practice ... and continuously degrades with retention interval .... Most significantly the two factors multiply which means that increasing practice is a way to preserve the knowledge from the ravages of time.

As these are power laws, learning is a logarithmic function:


Picture by Hay Kranen / PD

In other words, (1) with practice, learning increases quickly; (2) with a lack of practice, retention of learning drops off quickly; and (3) the effects of (1) and (2) interact in a way that multiplies each other rather than just adds up.

In my case, I seldom look at release notes, infrequently look at HTML and CSS, and so easily forget. In the case of students, although they may be using English every day and may be writing every few days, they are only reminded every few weeks about subject-verb agreement or rhetorical conventions, when after turning in a draft, they receive my feedback. Their time on grammar and rhetorical conventions is insufficient to stabilize it. So, sometimes they remember and sometimes they don't.

Understanding these power laws is crucial to helping students improve their writing. Most of the literature on grammar feedback and error correction with L1 students say that it doesn't work, and the L2 research has had contradictory results. However, it's unlikely that students in any of this research practiced specific grammar points frequently enough to stabilize them. Of course, it may not be feasible for most students to practice enough and for most teachers to give feedback frequently enough in order to take advantage of these power laws of learning and forgetting. I have no real answers at this time, but for some of my earlier thoughts on error correction, see my series of posts beginning at Error Feedback in L2 Writing.



Dave Munger reports on research testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language influences our thoughts. In an experiment on distinguishing aliens,

The students who saw the labels learned the difference between approachable and unapproachable aliens significantly faster than students who didn't see the labels -- even though the labels gave them no information that wasn't available in the unlabeled condition. During the testing session, 8 new aliens that hadn't been seen before (but were clearly members of one of the categories) were introduced. Once again, the students who had seen the labels performed significantly better (no labels were present during the testing session).

Many of the students in the unlabeled group actually reported that they invented their own names to keep track of the two kinds of aliens. A second experiment confirmed the effect using spoken words as labels instead of written words. Interestingly, a third method of labeling, on-screen location, did not produce results significantly different from unlabeled objects.

Here, it seems, we have a clear case of language influencing thoughts. When people have a label for a category of objects, they learn how to identify objects in that category quicker than if they don't have a label. They're also better at identifying new objects that they haven't seen before.

These findings have implications for learning to write. That is, by giving students labels to recognize different aspects of writing, such as warrants for example, they will be able to recognize them more effectively in others' writing, and hopefully in their own writing. I've seen that in my own students' writing. One student, some years ago, wrote the following two observations in his journal:

Well, practicing, that’s good. ... rhetoric theory, it’s good, because ... you have to have some organization and I knew what was definition argument, and evaluation argument, but I didn’t have words and conceptions for this. ... You have kind of structure ... for some things, but rhetoric gives you concepts, it’s more easy to deal with it. ... sometimes we read something and you recognize this ... you know what the guy’s doing

I’m reading a text written by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1615 called “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (Drake, S. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo). I’m astonished with Galileo’s power of argumentation! He defends his scientific cause within the theological affairs and gives good reasons! I observed that he used in his text arguments of character such as quotations of St Augustine and other greats figures of the church….

As you can see, by learning labels, such as "arguments of character," or ethos, he now sees them in his readings and understands how Galileo is using them. Of course, we all use labels to give us an easy way to talk about something, such as the present perfect tense in grammar or thesis statement in organization. But now we have a better reason to use labels: they facilitate learning new concepts.

Update:

Culture affects your brain according to recent brain research at MIT (Live Science via Neuroanthropology).

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging.

It's possible that those preferences can change. From the article,

Gabrieli said he is interested in testing whether brain patterns change if a person immigrates.

"There's a hint that six months in a culture already changes you," he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. "It suggests that there's a lot of flexibility."

Although such findings could lead people to stereotype others, as Gabriele said,

I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives."

Neuroanthropology gave the following information on the research:

 Trey Hedden, Sarah Ketay, Arthur Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D.E. Gabrieli (2008). Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.  Psychological Science 19 (1), 12–17. 

ABSTRACT—Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally nonpreferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

These findings may explain in part why what is so clear to me as a teacher is not so clear to my students.



illusionFrom the Sun Herald (via Mark Bernstein) is this neat animated gif. If you see it turning clockwise, you're right-brained (meaning you use more of the right brain than the left), and if counterclockwise, left-brained. Weird, isn't it?

This illusion definitely fits with my experience, according to the Sun Herald's list of differences below: That is, I'm oriented toward logic, details, facts, words and language, math and science, practicality, and playing it safe. I seldom take risks or act impetuously. I was 48 before I got married! And although I'm good in math, geometry was my weakest area in math. I'm not quite so sure about lacking imagination, however. Of course, these are tendencies, not absolutes, but still, it's weird to me that one's brain-side dominance affects how you see this figure turn. I wonder how this might affect learning.

LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
knowing
acknowledges
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies
practical
safe

RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
believes
appreciates
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
impetuous
risk taking

Update: Stephen Downes says that it's not a matter of right- or left-brain dominance because

You can learn to see the dancer spin both ways - it has to do with where you focus your attention.

I've asked in a comment on how that works. Let's see if he will respond. Even so, if one has to learn how to do something to go against the brain's natural preference, then apparently something brain-related is occurring whether or not it's a brain hemisphere dominance. Perhaps, Stephen can comment on that, too. For right now, I tried looking in different ways but could only see it going counterclockwise, and Mark Bernstein could only see it going clockwise. It's still a fascinating illusion, and brains are still weird!

Update 2: Stephen Downes responded on where to focus: Focusing on the feet turns the dancer counterclockwise while focusing on the shoulders makes her appear to go clockwise. Sometimes that works for me, sometimes not. Mark Bernstein's site has two dancers turning, and sometimes, I can get them going opposite directions by focusing on the shoulders, and sometimes not. It does seem to be a matter of focusing, then. Thanks to Steve for clarifying this illusion.



At 43 Folders, there is a great video of then-14-year-old pianist Jennifer Lin playing, who also gives "her thoughts on flow and creativity" with respect to composing music. An excerpt of her process follows:

What I do first is, I make a lot of little musical ideas that you can just improvise here at the piano. I choose one of those to become the main theme, main melody. Once I choose my main theme, I have to decide out of all the styles of music, what style do I want. And this year I composed a romantic style. So for inspiration, I listened to Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and all the great romantic composers. Next I made the structure of the entire piece with my teachers. They helped me plan out the whole piece. The hard part is filling it in with musical ideas, because then you have to think. And then when the piece takes somewhat of a solidified form, you're supposed to actually polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition.

And another thing I enjoy doing is drawing. Drawing because I like to draw Japanese anime art. And once I realized it, there's a parallel between creating music and creating art, because for your motive or your little initial idea for your drawing. It's your character. You want to decide, who do you want to draw, or if you want to draw an original character. And then you want to decide how you're going to draw that character. Like am I going to use one page, am I going to draw it on the computer, am I going to use a two-page spread like in a comic book for more grandiose effect. And then you have to do the initial sketch of the character, which is like your structure of a piece, and then you add pen and pencil and whatever details you need. That's polishing the drawing.

Lin noticed a similar process for composing music and drawing anime art. It makes sense to me that the process is similar for many activities, including writing.

The need for scaffolding
Lin is a prodigy. She started studying music with Yamaha at the age of four. So, by the time of this video, she had been studying music intensively for 10 years, achieving the status of an expert (see The Expert Mind). Yet, notice that even at her level of experience, knowledge, and skill, her teachers helped her "structure" and "plan out the whole piece." That approach is somewhat at odds with the expressionist school of writing which wants students to find their own voice from the beginning, and composition theory that prefers to be non-directive. (In practice, many, probably most, composition instructors scaffold students by teaching about strategies, invention, and other processes.) Note that Lin found her musical "voice" by listening to great composers. Similarly, chess enthusiasts study the games of the grandmasters.

The need for extensive reading
Lin's approach, a typical one in music and chess, suggests that students need to read great authors to find their voice, and to do so over a lengthy period of time. One obstacle in teaching writing, however, is that few students read extensively, much less read great authors extensively. Another is that for ESL writers, finding a voice means finding one acceptable to native English speakers, not a voice true to them and to their culture. There is no way to bypass this need. Lin's ability to "polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition"--in writing, to revise the essay, edit the details, and then finetune the overall coherence of the composition--is directly related to her extensive background in music.

Bottleneck constraints on creativity and learning
Lin's approach also indicates that creativity stems from one's familiarity with one's discipline or content. One problem in teaching composition at the university level has been transfer. For a variety of reasons, what is learned in first-year composition doesn't seem to transfer well to later courses, especially in other disciplines. Part of that lack of transfer is due to a lack of discipline/content knowledge. In attempting to develop their writing, students face two hurdles, subject matter knowledge and writing knowledge, creating a bottleneck that constrains developing their writing. (On bottlenecks, see here and here and here.)

Suggestions in teaching writing
One consequence of a bottleneck perspective is that students learning to write should write on topics they know well. Of course, they should move beyond their personal knowledge and experience and research their topics. Even though Lin obviously knew the romantic composers, she immersed herself in their music again. Thus, students need to immerse themselves in the conversations, academic and popular, on their topic, so that the more they know the concepts and issues on a particular topic, the more they can focus on their writing.

Along these lines, students might write on (and continue to research) the same topic via a series of papers that will allow them to focus more on developing their writing. For instance, on any topic, papers might include:

  • a rhetorical analysis of posters, advertisements, or photos on the topic
  • a letter to the editor of a newspaper
  • a review of a book or film on the topic
  • a proposal to a concerned party to take action on the issue

Reading, analyzing, and writing in different genres can also help students to become more aware of rhetorical conventions as they see how the conventions vary across genre, audience, and context. And as with Lin's teachers, we need to "structure" how they fill in the details: introducing them to different strategies for developing their ideas and planning their composition, making academic conventions explicit (see They say / I say), and so on.

To sum up, developing one's writing, one's voice, one's creativity, is mostly a matter students of spending time on task, as Lin does. However, providing structure and reducing the bottleneck of subject matter knowledge can help students in this process.

Related posts
Engagement and FLow
Flow, Games, and Learning
Want to be creative? Slack off
Engagement, flow, and classroom activity
They Say / I Say
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing



We're all familiar with the notion of first impressions and how the first day of class is crucial for setting the tone for the entire semester. But how does it work?

Primed by our senses
Part of the answer can be found in Benedict Carey's article "Who's Minding the Mind? (New York Times via Will Thalheimer), which reports on psychology experiments showing that people are primed by their senses:

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

And the article gives quite a few more examples of how sounds, smells and sights can prime us, for instance:

In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

More sensory hardwiring
We're hardwired by our senses in many ways, one of which is beauty. The "waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a significant factor in judging female attractiveness" (Wikipedia). Symmetry is apparently a factor in judging beauty, too, not only in humans but also in other species (Feng). "[A]ttractive scents - like the smell of freshly baked bread - are already known to keep customers in a store for longer (New Scientist). Music affects us, too. In one piece of research, it was shown that labeling wines with flags representing country of origin (France or Germany) and playing French accordion and German beer-hall music on alternating days affected sales:

"Despite an overall bias in favor of French over German wine sales," they soberly reported last week in the prestigious science journal Nature, "French wine outsold German wine when French music was being played, whereas German wine outsold French wine when German music was played." What may be even more significant is that only six of the 44 customers who consented to fill out a questionnaire admitted that they had been influenced by the music.

The Power of Precedent and Cultural Norms
Similarly, students subconsciously notice cues about the instructor, about their classmates, and about the general classroom environment that prime them to act in particular ways. Of course, later sense impressions can also have an effect, perhaps contrary to the earlier ones. However, once a group, such as students in a class, has established a precedent, or culture, for particular ways of acting or feeling about writing, that precedent has a strong effect on later actions.

In The Psychological Foundations of Culture, Holly Arrow and K.L. Burns look at how small groups establish behavioral norms. Using both complexity science and Alan Page Fiske's social relational models of culture (see Social Relations and Classroom Activity for a brief explanation) as a basis, they studied four groups of college students playing social poker. These groups, for different reasons, formed different norms in their groups. Once formed, however, those norms tend to stay in place, although they can be disrupted.

A combined authority ranking/communal sharing model was popular but persisted. The group stuck with this norm not because they were happy, but because dissatisfaction did not translate into coordinated action. The market pricing/communal sharing norm disappeared when a dissident dyad shook up the system.

In other words, it takes effort to oppose or change norms, once they've been established. Remember the Stanley Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments? Just as our senses prime our actions subconsciously, so do societal norms.

Practice
What does that mean in practice? At the minimum, we should work at becoming more aware of how all that we do--from our appearance to our habits and attitudes to our gender--affects our students and us. (See here and here and here and here.) Actually, we're quite aware when an occasion is important to us. Few of us wear less than business attire when in a job interview or in court (see, for example, Judging by Appearance).

Of course, as noted in Trout's satire, How to Improve your Teaching Evaluation without Improving your Teaching!", we could approach this in a manipulative manner. That's not the point. As Robert Rosenthal, Professor of Psychology, remarks in his biographical blurb:

For nearly half a century I have been fascinated by the psychology of interpersonal expectations; the idea that one person's expectation for the behavior of another can come to serve as self-fulfilling prophecy. Our experiments have been conducted in laboratories and in the field, and we have learned that when teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect certain responses from their research participants they tend to get those responses. For almost as long as I've been interested in interpersonal expectations I've also been interested in various processes of nonverbal communication. In part, this interest developed when it became clear that the mediating mechanisms of interpersonal expectancy effects were to a large extent nonverbal. That is, when people expect more of those with whom they come in contact, they treat them differently nonverbally. Some of our most recent research on nonverbal behavior has examined "thin slices" of nonverbal behavior -- silent videos or tone-of-voice clips of about 30 seconds or less. Some of our more recent work with these thin slices shows that we can predict, using 30 seconds of instructors' nonverbal behavior, what end-of-term ratings college students will give their instructors. From thin slices of doctors' interactions with one set of patients, we can also predict which doctors are more likely to be sued by a different set of patients. Finally, jury verdicts can be predicted from the nonverbal behavior of the judges as they instruct the jury.

Similar to our senses instinctively priming our behavior, our nonverbal behavior reflects our (often unconscious) attitudes and expectations, which in turn, prime students' behavior and performance. We need to "mind our mind," to become more aware of our habits, attitudes, and expectations, from the first day of class on in order to help spark the intellectual performance that our students are capable of.



Baroness Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, considers the notion of learning styles to be "a waste of valuable time and resources" (Julie Henry, Telegraph via Education News):

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is "nonsense" from a neuroscientific point of view: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together - the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person's lips - that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

"The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits."

Thirty years without independent evidence!

Commenting on student-centered learning about a year ago, I said that learning styles were not as important as the modality of the task:

When I began school more than a few years ago, I never "discovered [my] own learning styles." I still don't know what my learning style is. And it doesn't seem to have slowed me down as far as learning is concerned. When I think about the activities in which I engaged: studying various "book" subjects, taking Wood Shop, playing baritone horn in the band, and being on the wrestling team in high school, if there is such a thing as a learning style (at least in a way that it significantly affects learning), it seems obvious that the modality of the activity decides what "style" of learning should be employed.

As Greenfield states, "our senses [are] working in unison." A little bit of reflection confirms this: When playing baritone horn, I was using my ear for music, my eyes for reading music notation and watching the director, my fingers on the valves and lips on the mouthpiece for controlling the pitch, and my entire body for correct posture. And it didn't matter which of my "learning styles" I preferred. I had to use what was needed for the modality of playing music, in this case auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities working together.

Greenfield is not alone. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia (American Educator), says,

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.

Willingham's article is worth reading in its entirety, but two of his points are:

  1. Some memories are stored as visual and auditory representations—but most memories are stored in terms of meaning.
  2. The different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another.

They seem clear enough. Despite the pervasive belief in the effectiveness of teaching according to students' learning styles, there's too little, if any, evidence supporting it--not to mention that the most important variable in learning is "time on task" (see The Expert Mind). From a pedagogical perspective, it seems Greenfield is right: Learning styles is nonsense.

Update of related articles (via ict-echo):
Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : A systematic and critical review
Stephen Draper's "Learning Styles (Notes)"



The Alliance for Excellent Education has issued a 77-page meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental research, the Writing Next Report (via Anne Davis), and have come up with the following recommendations for writing instruction:

Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction
  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material

The report notes that these 11 elements are,

effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning. [However] ... even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum.

The report adds this qualifer because, as they note, there may be effective strategies that have not yet been studied.

Grammar Instruction
The controversial topic of grammar instruction is also touched upon:

Grammar instruction in the studies reviewed involved the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences.The meta-analysis found an effect for this type of instruction for students across the full range of ability, but surprisingly, this effect was negative.This negative effect was small, but it was statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. Studies specifically examining the impact of grammar instruction with low-achieving writers also yielded negative results ... However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction, as this approach improves students’ writing quality while at the same time enhancing syntactic skills. In addition, a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing. Overall, the findings on grammar instruction suggest that, although teaching grammar is important, alternative procedures, such as sentence combining, are more effective than traditional approaches for improving the quality of students’ writing.

Most of the studies analyzed in this report looked at L1 students. However, decontextualized grammar instruction without frequent feedback is also unlikely to have a positive effect for L2 students. A while back, I noted that on the related topic of error feedback (see links below) to acquire competence in any field, extensive practice accompanied by appropriate feedback was necessary. It seems unlikely that grammar should be the lone exception.

Alternative Methods of Grammar Instruction
Perhaps grammar instruction/practice/feedback could become more effective if we were to design it along the lines of those 11 elements. For a beginning point, suppose we reorient some of those 11 elements toward grammar:

  1. Writing Strategies that teach students strategies for editing their grammar
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to explain and summarize grammar's rhetorical effects
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan grammatical choices and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the grammar they need to acquire
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for checking spelling and grammar
  6. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good grammar

One implementation of these elements can be found in the grammar logs recommended in Error Feedback: Practice. Grammar logs have specific grammar goals and models of the grammar points to be learned.

Theoretical Understanding of Grammar Instruction
Simply using these 11 elements, as even the report stated, is insufficient to design a "full writing curriculum." LIkewise, it's not enough to use them innovatively for grammar instruction without a theoretical understanding of why and how these 11 elements work. Along the lines of ACT-R Theory (see also Error Feedback: Theory), key elements of learning include:

  1. time on task
  2. the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  3. accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  4. feedback

It's easy to see from these elements why traditional grammar instruction doesn't work. Although it may use examples and explanations, students are not spending time on tasks integrating grammar into their writing (outside of fill-in-the-blank sentences) nor necessarily receiving appropriate feedback. In contrast, Writing Strategies, Summarization, Inquiry Activities, and Models of Study easily fit into these key elements of learning. Collaborative writing, however, is not always effective for learning. To be done appropriately, it needs to integrate accurate diagnosis and understanding of the task, along with feedback. Otherwise, collaborators can just as easily reinforce misunderstandings of grammar and writing. Word processing, because it can underline grammar and spelling questions, focuses students' attention on recurring errors, thus allowing for more diagnosis of the problem and encouraging more time on task.

The Writing Next Report is worth reading, and having a theoretical understanding of learning elements is important for integrating its recommendations effectively, whether for grammar instruction or other writing goals.

Error feedback posts



Why Use Turnitin?
My experience in my first-year composition (FYC) classes for ESL students indicates that many, perhaps most, students do not understand what constitutes plagiarism. Even after defining it and doing exercises, how to attribute sources properly remains difficult for my students, in part because of language and in part due to conceptual understanding. I still remember three months into one semester a few years back when, after I commented on an example of plagiarism, one student exclaimed, "That's what you mean by plagiarism?!" So, although I haven't used Turnitin much, what follows are my thoughts on how I plan to use Turnitin.

Before Using Turnitin
The main purpose of Turnitin should be a learning tool. Thus, establish an appropriate learning environment for using Turnitin. Rather than a "got'cha" environment, students should understand that Turnitin is a tool to help them see where they need to make changes in their paper, whether in revising or in citing. Generally speaking, don't penalize rough drafts for matches to other documents.

Teach how to use sources appropriately.

  1. Give examples of appropriate and inappropriate use with explanations of the differences.
  2. Have students practice recognizing whether a source is plagiarizing or not.
  3. Have students practice paraphrasing and quoting select passages.

This sequence of tasks helps to move students from a mental understanding of appropriate attribution to the ability to cite sources correctly. It's only a beginning, however. Students may need the entire semester of working and re-working with their papers to make their understanding and skill automatic in practice.

Using Turnitin
Explain to students why you are using Turnitin and how it works. Basically, learning to cite sources appropriately can take time, and Turnitin can help that process. Be sure to include a statement about its use and purpose in the class syllabus. (For a model of such a statement, see Greg Reihman's example.)

Students, rather than the instructor, should submit their papers to Turnitin and get an originality report. If there are problems, whether true or false positive, they can tackle it alone or you can discuss it together. Being able to see possible cases of plagiarism and to discuss actual examples are important for students to build up a contextualized understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. In those cases technically constituting plagiarism, students' access to turnitin's originality report function lets them see whether their writing needs work in summarizing, paraphrasing, or citing, and where it needs it. Thus, the originality reports can provide a point of departure for discussing what is plagiarism and what isn't, what is effective paraphrase and what isn't, and what must be cited and what doesn't. It also helps teachers to identify students who are having difficulty in learning these distinctions and to provide the extra help they need.

In addition, students can see how they have revised from one draft to the next. As Tracy Morse wrote,

Since Turnitin.com retains every submitted paper in its database, it is possible to submit different drafts of the same paper and learn from the plagiarism report generated from Turnitin.com how much one draft has changed from the next. The benefit for students is that they can have a quantitative report in the percentage referring to how much of their draft is the same, or "plagiarized" in Turnitin.com terms, to their previous draft submitted to the database.

This ability to see changes is helpful because students often feel that they have revised a paper when all they have done is edited it, making a few grammatical or vocabulary changes. Turnitin also has an anonymous peer review system. I haven't used Turnitin in this way (or for revising), but Dennis Jerz comments,

I also find the peer-review feature very useful. Students can trade anonymous peer reviews within the system. I find I have to ask very specific questions, since the system doesn't permit students to cross out a sentence or draw a wavy line under a confusing passage.. the system doesn't really encourage global revisions, but this limitation does force me to decide, for each peer review, what are the specific things I most want students to be looking for when they review each other's work. And that forces me to focus on whether I'm actually teaching those skills to the students.

Motivation
Much has been claimed about the potential for Turnitin to alienate students. But actually, it has the potential to motivate students. According to self-determination theory, motivation is driven by three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) write,

teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Naturally, Turnitin could be used in controlling ways. However, if students (instead of the teacher) are submitting their work to Turnitin and taking responsibility for learning to use sources in an encouraging atmostphere, then their autonomy is being supported. In addition, being able to see these distinctions in originality reports should help them learn to use sources more competently, thus again motivating students as they themselves see their improvement in using sources.

Caveats
(For more detailed caveats, see Nick Carbone's "Strategies for Teaching with Online Tools" and Sharon Gerald's "Confessions of a User".)

  • Turnitin is a tool, not a teacher. It supports instruction; it does not subsitute for it.
  • Turnitin can give false positives in their originality reports.
  • Turnitin can also give false negatives: It does not find every instance of plagiarism.
  • The teacher must interpret the originality reports. The percentage number provided with an originality report does not necessarily correspond to an amount of plagiarism.
  • Students are learning. Unless clearly indicated otherwise, consider most instances of "plagiarism" detected through Turnitin to be non-intentional and an opportunity to help students better understand how to use sources.

Briefly
Turnitin, used properly, can be one tool among others, not simply for catching plagiarism, but more importantly for teaching students how to use sources appropriately.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Rhetoric
Turnitin and Intellectual Property
Turnitin Bibliography



On Monday, three of my colleagues and I presented at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference on designing assignments that motivate students to write. We looked at motivating high school students, analyzing bumper stickers, and using youth culture music. We wanted to provide activities that participants could take and use immediately in their classes, but we also wanted to give the theory with which to evaluate their present assignments and, if necessary, tweak them to make them more engaging.

The theory part fell on me, and I used self-determination theory (which I've talked about before here and here). As noted in these posts, motivation depends upon three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) state,

[T]eachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Controlling includes giving rewards, as well as imposing deadlines and other directives. After students have become accustomed to receiving rewards for doing a particular activity, they lose interest in it if those rewards are removed. Of course, teachers have the responsibility for ensuring that students meet course and institutional expectations. Many of my students have time constraints of work and family to the extent that if there were no imposed deadlines, these other priorities would preclude their doing the necessary study. Still, as much as possible, we need to give students choice and opportunties for directing their learning and determining their own goals if we want them to learn.



Quite a few people are agush in enthusiasm about Twitter, a new social networking application that allows quick messages to others. Here's Tim Lauer's Twitter Updates for 2007-04-19:

  • Reading: “Get a First Life: A One Page Satire of Second Life” (http://tinyurl.com/2m9t8a) #
  • Good Morning from Portland… #
  • At Lewis… putting together a painting easel for our life skills classroom… #
  • Visiting another school this morning #
  • Back at school for a bit, than to another meeting…. #
  • In an admin meeting… #

I'm not sure why Tim puts this on his blog nor why anyone would be interested in it. But some obviously are. Liz Lawley writes her thoughts on twitter,

I’m completely fascinated by Twitter right now—in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

Clarence Fisher (Twittervision) has "a mash - up of Google maps and Twitter allowing you to see all of the Twitterers (Twits?) posts in real time posted on a world map." Beth Kanter wonders about Twitter for Nonprofits: Waste of Time or Potentially Useful?. (She has quite a few links to others writing on Twitter.)

But as Kathy Sierra noted some time ago in her article The Twitter Curve, people need to be careful about frittering away their time multi-tasking on less than trivial pursuits. She wrote,

For those of you who don't know about Twitter, it has one purpose in life--to be (in its own words)--A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? And people answer it. And answer it. And answer it. Over and over and over again, every moment of every hour, people type in a word, fragment, or sentence about what they're doing right then. (Let's overlook the fact that there can be only one true answer to the question: "I'm typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now... which is typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now." Or something else that makes my head hurt.)

About a month ago, she noted being in a minority (Is Twitter TOO Good?). The worst thing is,

this onslaught [of twittering] is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And Twitter can keep us from achieving, as noted in her article How to be an Expert, Philip Ross's The Expert Mind, and my post Forget IQ. Just Work Hard! Twittering one's time away may be momentarily pleasurable, but real pleasure, real achievement, and real learning--whether it's learning a language, learning to write, or learning in general--come from real, focused, and challenging endeavors.

Update: Robin Good has posted an excellent introduction to Twitter.



For the convenience of one location, here are my posts on error feedback, along with my sources and links if available.

My posts:

Sources:

Anderson, J. R., Fincham, J. M., & Douglass, S. (1997). The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill (pdf). Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 932-945.

Anderson, J. R., & Schunn, C. D. (2000). Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf). In R. Glaser (ed.), Advances in instructional psychology: Educational design and cognitive science (pp. 1-33). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (LE).

Bitchener, J., Young, S., & Cameron, D. (2005). The effect of different types of feedback on student ESL writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14, 191-205.

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263. (See here, here, and here for synopses of this work and others by Dweck.)

Chandler, J. (2003). The effects of various kinds of error feedback for improvement in the accuracy and fluency of L2 student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 267-296.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior (pdf). Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268. (See homepage for more on self-determination theory.)

DeKeyser, R. (2007). Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Wiliams (eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and research motivation. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Ericsson, K.A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert Performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725-747.

Ferris, D. (2004). The "grammar correction" debate in L2 writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime...?) (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49-62.

---- (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

---- (2002). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

---- (1999). The case for grammar correction in L2 writing classes: A response to Truscott (1996). Journal of Second Language Writing, 8, 1-11.

Ferris, D., & Hedgcock, J. (2005). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process, and practice (2nd ed.). Mahway, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E. (2004). Teaching academic ESL writing: Practical techniques in vocabulary and grammar. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) (2002). New perspectives on grammar teaching in second language classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: LE.

MIles, J. (2002). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. TESL-EJ 6.

Ross, P. (2006). The expert mind. Scientific American, 295(2), 64-71.

Truscott, J. (2004). Evidence and conjective on the effects of correction: A response to Chandler (pdf). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 337-343.

---- (1999). The case for "The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. A response to Ferris (pdf). JJournal of Second Language Writing, 8, 111-122.

---- (1996). The case against error correction in L2 writing courses (pdf). Language Learning 46, 327-369.

Yates, R., & Kenkel, J. (2002). Responding to sentence-level errors in student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 29-47.

Below are bibliography pages with downloadable articles related to the above sources (and some repetition, of course):

ACT-R Theory
Self-determination theory



From the previous posts on learning theory (here and here), two crucial points were:

  1. Acquiring expertise in any field, including language, requires extensive practice.
  2. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.

You have to be motivated to practice extensively. Videogamers are and do. They can spend 50-100 hours on a game. Imagine a student spending 50-100 hours writing an essay! In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine ... [is] its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. ... Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve.

These principles of expertise and competence are also seen in two theories of motivation: self-determination theory and flow.

In self-determiantion theory, motivation is driven by three needs:

  1. autonomy,
  2. social relatedness, and
  3. competence, including informational (not evaluative) feedback on competence, that is, feedback that supports autonomy in learning as opposed to controlling it.

Flow is a state in which one is fully engaged in the task at hand (see this review of Csikszentmihaly's book Finding Flow). Another post noted that flow occurs under certain conditions, three of which are:

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. tasks that challenge (without unduly frustrating) one's skills

These needs and conditions are an integral part of video games. But have they been in providing error feedback?

Probably not as directly as in other arenas. Just look at the condition of "immediate feedback." In my own first-year composition classes, error feedback is given mostly on essay drafts, which I receive every 2-3 weeks and return in 2-7 days. Can you imagine a basketball coach giving feedback only every few weeks and then a few days after the practice in question?

Although it's not as easy to incorporate these motivation principles into error feedback, I have a few ideas I'll discuss in the next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography



As noted in the previous post on theory in error feedback, the research on expertise and ACT-R Theory suggest that learning a language is similar to learning other activities like chess, music, and math. In this post, we'll look at Skill Acquisition Theory (SAT), which is based upon the work in ACT-R.

Robert DeKeyser (2007) has a good overview of Skill Acquisition Theory. (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) As he notes, development has three stages: declarative, procedural, and automatic (from ACT-R Theory). Declarative knowledge refers to explicit knowledge about a topic, as in "knowing" and talking about grammar rules. Procedural knowledge is implicit knowledge that refers to behavior, such as speaking or writing a language. Of course, there are different levels of proficiency in using a language, and thus automaticity is not an "all-or-nothing affair". Automaticity occurs toward the endpoint of extensive practice, toward the point at which one has become completely fluent in a language. From the perspective of SAT, the sequence of these stages is crucial, as is the appropriate "combination of abstract rules and concrete examples" at the declarative stage.

According to DeKeyser, Skill Acquisition Theory does not explain all of language learning and apparently is most effective at beginner levels. He states that SAT works best with

  1. high-aptitutde adult learners engaged in
  2. the learning of simple structures at
  3. fairly early stages of learning
  4. in instructional contexts

It seems obvious that young children will not respond as well as adults to the use of declarative knowledge as their ability to understand rules and explanations is more limited. Conversely, as rules become more complex, they may become too difficult to understand in the form of declarative knowledge. Thus, it's possible that learning (or acquiriing) complex rules may rely more upon implicit processes. Anderson and Schunn (pdf) say something similar:

As knowledge domains become more advanced, their underlying cognitive structure tends to become more obscure. Thus, while it may remain easy to provide feedback on what the final answer is, it becomes difficult to provide feedback on the individual mental steps that lead to the final answer. Teachers often are unaware, at an explicit level, of what this knowledge is and do not know how to teach it to children.

Anderson and Schunn are pointing to the need to diagnose a task and break it down into its components in order to provide effective feedback. When we can't componentialize a task, then feedback becomes considerably less effective. Basically, we can only say then, "No, that's not right" or "Yes, that's it."

Thus, with respect to error correction, we need

  • rules that are not obscure,
  • examples of the rules, and
  • understandable explanations of those rules.

The ability to use declarative knowledge in the learning process does not accelerate acquisition. Rather, it eliminates wasted time and effort.

Before turning to practical suggestions for error correction, I'll look at motivation in my next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography



When the evidence for error feedback is "scant", mostly what we have to go on is theory. Those who oppose error correction would likely assume a nativist framework that includes:

  1. Language acquisition (whether first or second language) differs from general learning processes.
  2. Language acquisition and general learning processes do not interact.
  3. The process of language acquisition cannot be accelerated.

Without reviewing the research, let me say that there are those, even in L1 studies, that assert that language acquistion results from general learning processes (e.g., Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain"). And alternative theories also exist in second language acqusition, such as Skill Acquistion Theory and Associate-Cognitive CREED (Construction-based, Rational, Exemplar-driven, Emergent, and Dialectic). (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) So, why would anyone want to take a nativist position? There are more than a few reasons. The main one seems to be the poverty of the stimulus, but in part, one reason seems to be that language acquisition is seen as inexplicably complex while other learning endeavors seem simple in comparison. I would like to suggest that the comparisons being made are simple, but not the objects, or processes, being compared.

I've mentioned Philip Ross's article "The Expert Mind" (in Scientific American, see also my post) on more than one occasion, but it's worthwhile to return to it often. It states,

The preponderance of evidence is that experts are made, not born.

Although not innate, expertise takes time to develop. In general, it takes "takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." Thus, although it doesn't take much to learn how to move the pieces in chess, becoming a grandmaster of strategy, however, takes at least a decade of intense practice. Similarly, although it doesn't take much to learn a few basic grammar rules and a small vocabulary, becoming fluent in another language--that is, acquiring the "grandmaster status" of a native speaker--takes at least 10 years of intense practice, too.

If the amount of time to acquire expertise is similar between chess, music, art, math, and language, that suggests for learning a language,

  1. the crucial element is practice rather than some language module
  2. the process cannot be accelerated.

Because the process cannot be accelerated, it may matter little whether one takes an nativist or general learning process approach to language acquistion. Note, however, that all practice is not equal. From the article,

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

The case of enthusiasts practicing without advancing is reminiscent of fossilization, and the "effortful study" reminds me of Krashen's i+1 principle for input. One difference is "point[ing] up weakenesses for future study," a "monitor" approach that Krashen would say does not contribute to language acquisition.

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) make similar assertions:

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

However, they qualify that to mean "effective time on task." Once again, not all practice is equal. In the case of ACT-R Theory, "effective time on task" is promoted through

  • the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  • accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  • feedback

It seems that research on expertise and ACT-R Theory would support some form of error correction. Because Skill Acquistion Theory, which draws upon ACT-R and similar theories, focuses on SLA, in my next post, I'll look at it in a little more detail.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography



Po Bronson (NY Magazine) writes a lengthy article titled "How Not to Talk to your Kids:The Inverse Power of Praise", which looks primarily Carol Dweck's research on motivation showing that praising children for their intelligence causes them to underperform. The article begins:

What do we make of a boy like Thomas?

Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are “the smart kids.” Thomas’s one of them, and he likes belonging.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’s father tried to reason with him. “Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out some effort.” (Eventually, he mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father.)

Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?

Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

In brief, praise that is directed towards one's self-esteem not only doesn't improve students' performance, it can even cause performance to deteriorate by causing students

  1. to avoid risk
  2. to give up on a task instead of exerting more effort and
  3. to believe that they are not autonomous.

For praise to be effective,

  1. It must be specific to the task being performed.
  2. It must be sincere.
  3. It must be intermittent.
  4. It should be given during the process not at the end of a task.

On #3, if praise is given too often, then effort becomes tied to the reward of praise, and when praise is removed, so is one's effort. It needs to be tied to effort. And for the same line of reasoning, on #4, praise needs to focus on the process not the product of "success." So, praise is important, but it must be given timely and wisely.



curiosity

Why do babies and young children seem to lose much of their curiosity in school? One reason, I believe, is that school undermines their autonomy and competence, which, according to self-determination theory, decreases intrinsic motivation and curiosity.

Kashdan and Fincham's book chapter, "Facilitating Curiosity: A Social and Self-Regulatory Perspective for Scientifically Based Interventions" (pdf), states that curiosity accounts for about "10% of the variance in achievement and performance outcomes." That's quite a bit. In their conclusion, they write,

Central to developing successful curiosity interventions is the enhancement of task curiosity, such as positive affect, feelings of self-determination, performance enhancement, and the acquisition of skill and knowledge.

One implication I take away from what the authors are saying is that we need to move away from breadth and more to depth. Constant cramming of meaningless facts doesn't give the time needed to develop competence in an area outside of memorization and grades. And constant cramming is usually a result of teacher-directed instead of student-initiated activity. Not that teachers don't need to direct at times and not that "knowledge" is not necessary. Rather, to nurture curiosity, students need the time to delve into concepts and practices so that their competence can develop, and they need to exercise self-determination by having a voice in course objectives and activity.

Much of what teachers need to do is to create environments that stimulate curiosity, the development of competence, and "authentic" self-determination. Rather than memorize ideas to be regurgitated on exams, students need "idea environments" in which they play with ideas, bounce them back and forth among themselves and others, and actually use them.

Related post: Engagement and Flow



It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Have you ever noticed that second thoughts are often better than first ones? In my previous post, my first thoughts were to tie engagment to autonomy and time on task. Two days later, on my desk staring at me was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". "Flow" fits the notion of engagement better. From the book, flow is

the state in whch people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Most of us have had that "involved" moment happen, when we concentrated our attention so intensely on solving a problem, reading a book, climbing a mountain, on some task, that we lost track of time and when we became aware of our surroundings, a few hours or more had passed by as if they were minutes. Such "flow", according to Csikszentmihalyi, is "optimal experience" that leads to happiness and creativity.

Flow occurs when certain conditions are met, four of which are

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. focused attention
  4. tasks that challenge (without frustrating) one's skills

Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows why flow should be taken into consideration when designing class tasks.

If a task is not challenging enough, boredom sets in, while too great a challenge results in anxiety, and both cases result in task, and thus learning, avoidance. As one's skills increase, then the challenge must also increase for one to remain in a state of flow. Because flow is an enjoyable experience, one continues to increase the challenge level (as from A1 to A4 and so on), and consequently continues to improve one's skills because doing so is necessary to stay in a flow state. Thus, we see the importance of "engaging" students in school. From the book,

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Of course, easier said than done, especially when one's students (mine, for example) often hold full-time jobs while being full-time plus students. Too much work and too little time constantly puts my students in states of frustration. Even when not, flow states are not a regular occurrence in life; according to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor),

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

So, it's unlikely that in formal learning contexts that states of flow will be become the norm every day all day. After all, not all tasks are enjoyable, but they might be necessary, just as grading is a necessary but tedious part of teaching. Still, it seems more and more that students are being turned off by classroom learning. As Csikszentmihalyi asserts,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

They don't, because they don't see the relevance of school learning. The relevance of math, for example, remains hidden until it is needed in a real world context such as engineering. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, in former times, young children learned in real settings, whether it was hunting, farming, or some trade. They could see first hand the relevance of their activity. Similarly, students playing sports and music see the relevance of any associated instruction. More importantly, goals are clear and feedback is immediate, as in chess when a piece has been taken.

Now, I still agree with Artichoke that student satisfaction/enjoyment is not a reliable measure of learning and that much talk about "engagement" is more jumping on a not-too-well-thought-out, feel-good bandwagon than anything else, but I want to look at this one point:

And engagement, despite Prensky’s slickly marketable “engage me or enrage me” stuff,  engagement is not a self report measure of wonderment and awe but rather a reflection of the determined and persistent focus that a learner needs to promote learning.

As Brabazon notes in her provocative book Digital Hemlock  “To read remember, understand, synthesise and interpret knowledge is often drudgery.  To learn with effectiveness requires repetition, practice and failure.”’ (p9)

Why should repetition, practice and failure be equated with drudgery? James Paul Gee (pdf) notes how in good video games,

mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.

Yet gamers play hours on end, repeating the same moves over and over. And this is true, too, of playing sports, music, and chess. Yet, one seldom hears of the repetition in these arenas as drudgery, perhaps hard, perhaps demanding, but not drudgery. In fact, flow can be achieved in something as apparently boring as working on an assembly line. In his book, Csikszentmihalyi recounts the example of Rico:

The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform—the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record? Like the runner who trains for years to shave a few seconds off his best performance on the track, Rico has trained himself to better his time on the assembly line. With the painstaking care of a surgeon, he has worked out a private routine for how to use his tools, how to do his moves. After five years, his best average for a day has been twenty-eight seconds per unit. ... when he is working at top performance the experience is so enthralling that it is almost painful for him to slow down. "It's better than anything else," Rico says. "It's a whole lot better than watching TV." Rico know that very soon he will reach the limit beyond which he will no longer be able to improve his performance at his job. So twice a week he takes evening courses in electronics. When he has his diploma he will seek a more complex job, one that presumably he will confront with the same enthusiasm he has shown so far. (pp. 39-40)

Apparently, it is not repetition or practice per se that is drudgery. Perhaps, in school learning, repetition is not accompanied by variation, and so becomes drudgery. Perhaps, school repetition too often lacks the clear goals and immediate feedback of video games, sports, music, and chess, and so becomes drudgery. We need to find ways of integrating repetition and practice into school learning without them becoming drudgerous.

In the comments section, Artichoke stated,

the problem does seem to lie in the many differing meanings we attribute to "engagement".

If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Definitely. But the everyday meaning of engagement seems congruent with the academic concept of flow. In fact, one of Csikszentmihalyi's books is titled "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life". Perhaps informing our understanding of engagement with the research on flow can help us move forward in "engaging" our students. Flow, again, requires clear goals, immediate feedback, challenging tasks, and variation in those tasks. If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Related posts and articles:



"effective time on task" and "self-determination" are important pillars of the learning process.

Engagement is a term heard everywhere in educational circles. But how do we measure it? Is engagement always relevant to learning? Artichoke asks these questions and others:

“Engagement” is an interesting notion, as is “rich and authentic”. When I hear schools advocating the use of student inquiry and authentic contexts over other pedagogical approaches on the grounds that it engages (and thus apparently motivates) students, I always want to ask

  • How do you assess engagement?
  • How different are these measures when students are learning through inquiry activities than when they are learning through other pedagogical approaches? And
  • What difference do you find in student learning outcomes that can be causally attributed to your measures of engagement?

And when I think about “rich and authentic” I want to ask, authentic to whom? I want to know why “rich and authentic” is a more popular descriptor of the quantity and quality of the learning experience than “educationally relevant”

Perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Engagement is a fuzzy and anecdotal term. Still, I suppose when I use that term, I'm really referring to time on task and self-determination. In terms of self-determination theory, acting autonomously promotes intrinisic motivation, which in turn leads to more time on task. And it's clear that the more "effective time on task" there is (see Implications of ACT-R Theory: No Magic Bullets (pdf)), the more learning can take place.

So, yes, we need to be careful in our bandying about the terms "engagement" and "rich and authentic." Having said that, "effective time on task" and "self-determination" are important pillars of the learning process.



Aaron Nelson at Teacher in Development has an interesting post on Teaching and Learning: How to Increase Transfer. Referring to my post on The Transfer of Expertise, he said,

the teacher must first of all DELIVER content in meaningful ways.

To illustrate, he gave an example. One of his students had requested help on how to learn word and preposition combinations. After asking her for a few weeks how he could provide that help, he came up with the creative and engaging notion of combining photos from Flickr with Powerpoint to help students "visualize word/preposition combinations in meaningful ways." What's even more pedagogically interesting to me is that he listened carefully to his student to understand how he could best help her.

At the end of his post, Nelson asked:

How are you being relevant to your students? Would you share how you make meaningful links between your content and your student’s lives?

So, now, I'll share one example of how I listened to a student to make the content more meaningful. A few years ago, one of my students made the claim that Japanese cars were better than American cars. A few days later, I entered the classroom with a PowerPoint presentation to have the students confront contradictions between that claim and the fact that not everyone bought a Japanese car. First, however, I asked the students whether or not they agreed with the other student. They all did. Next, I asked what their criteria were for evaluating Japanese cars as better than American cars. After they had listed quite a few, I then began the following series of PowerPoint slides:

  • Cars, Criteria, and Audience
  • Which car would you prefer to own?
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • American Corvette (with accompanying picture)
  • What car would a Texan prefer to own? (with a picture of John Wayne as a dusty cowboy)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Dodge Ram pickup (with accompanying picture)
  • What would Schnarzenegger prefer to own? (with a picture of the Terminator holding a shotgun)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Harley Davidson (with accompanying picture)

This presentation, pitting a Japanese car, the Honda civic, against American products, stirred up much discussion on how audiences differed in their values and in their criteria for purchasing cars, thus causing the students to reflect on contradictions between the evaluation criteria they initially formulated and the criteria that different audiences used in purchasing vehicles, and hopefully enabling them to construct a better understanding of audience that they might be able to transfer to other contexts.

Like Nelson, as a result of listening, I had responded with a presentation and tasks that would engage my students. So, I would add that to be able to "deliver content in meaningful ways," a key component is listening carefully to our students to understand their reality.

On a sidenote, although it was likely not intended, the notion of "delivering content" can suggest a transmission model of teaching/learning. With respect to student learning, you do not "connect your content with your students' reality." Connections we make reflect our learning, not the students. Rather, we establish conditions that facilitate their connecting their reality to our "content." This shift of perspective might be perceived as trivial, but for me, it is an important one because the perspectives we give voice to shape our pedagogical practices, whether consciously or not. Learning is not to a passive process of receiving knowledge, but an active process of constructing meaning as when Nelson's students "figure[d] out" prepositions and "create[d] their own sentences."

If transfer is to occur, it will be a result of students doing the connecting. Thus, in addition to listening, another key component of effective pedagogy is a focus on the learning environment, on conditions that can facilitate learning, as in Nelson's innovation of combining Flickr and Powerpoint to create "an interesting and highly visual way to work on prepositions."

A few related posts:
If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me
Is there anything new under the sun?
Chains of experience



Philip Ross wrote a good review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American via elearningpost via elearnspace via Stephen's Edu_RSS). Some excepts:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?

"Effortful study" is related to ACT-R theory and in some ways just seems to be common sense. What seems to be missing in this article is the recognition that the 10-year rule when applied to reading and math equals 20 years, unless we double the total amount of "effortful study" in each and every day. Although we might argue that reading (especially reading) and math have greater application to more subjects, it would still mean that students would need to focus on a career subject at an early age in order to become an expert.

The ten-year rule also puts into better perspective why people take so long to acquire a second language. Language fluency requires expertise in the language. Add to that expertise in writing in a second language means adding even more time.

The article also notes that experts do not exist in abundance:

Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees.

Some questions: Is this a problem for education? In general? That is, should people in general strive for expertise in their fields? Or simply to be competent? With respect to second language learning, how should the 10-year rule affect our approach to language teaching and our expectations about language learning?



Earlier in "Education Leads to Immaturity", I commented briefly on Charlton's hypothesis that people are becoming more immature. I'd have to read the study to see how Charlton came to these conclusions. Still, in some ways, this relationship makes sense. Maturity is closely tied to responsibility. And as long as one is in school, responsibility is at a minimum for several reasons. One is that students are not stakeholders in their education: They have no, or little, voice in how their education should proceed. Another reason is that they have no, or little, direct feedback on how their education will contribute to their future interests, careers, and lives. (For student voice, see Listening to Students and for the value of feedback, see Flow, Games, and Learning. And somewhat related, download Maehr & McInerney's book chapter, Motivation as Personal Investment.)

I imagine one thing that would help would be to have students share responsibility in the governance of classes and schools, and in the direction and nature of their learning, along with graduates (from recent to not-so-recent) serving as ex-officio members to provide feedback as to the consequences (successes and failures) of their education preparing them for their careers.

As I continue to think about this, it doesn't seem so odd that the level of education correlates with immaturity. What does seem odd is that schools do not have curricula that help students become responsible and mature. What seems unlikely is that schools will redesign their curricula accordingly as long as they remain overfocused on testing. Unless, of course, they can test maturity, too. What seems likely is that NCLB's testing mania results from "highly educated" politicians, acting outside of their areas of competence, being "unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.” Interestingly, "highly educated" educators who are supposedly acting within their areas of competence apparently also have unbalanced priorities on testing. Perhaps, we're back to "Emotion Overrules Reason". Or perhaps what Charlton has come across is a variation on "Experts predict no better than non-experts":

The experts’ trouble in Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong.

And hating to be wrong, many continue to love the road of testing what can easily be counted rather than measuring what counts.

The article on Charlton's hypothesis also stated:

A “child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge” is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, Charlton believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

Actually, I don't mind being unfinished as long as I have the flexibility to keep learning.



The end of "The Social Nature of Blog Comments", a post in which I applied Alan Fiske's social relational models to blog commenting, states that these relational models can also affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Let's take a look at each of the relational models to see practically how they can operate in a class.

Communal Sharing (CS): Have you ever noticed that students tend to sit in the same seats throughout the semester that they occupied on the first day of class? When classes are "homogenous", it may be simply a matter of keeping one's initial territory staked out. In an ESL class, however, students quickly aggregate with members of their home countries. In one of my classes a few years back, such groupings stood out: five Chinese students (in pairs or triads) usually sat together, as did two Indonesians. The two Malaysians were usually within one seat of each other, and the lone Turkish student, a male, always sat with one of the other two males. The two Spanish speakers did not sit together, because on the first day, they had sat with others, and quickly grouping with others, did not break those groups, although they would speak together at the beginning of class and they did a collaborative paper together at the end of the semester, as did the three younger Chinese, and also four other women. Briefly, these students formed groups on the basis of nationality, gender, or initial seating position in the case of the two Spanish speakers.

None of this is particularly new. When teaching or working abroad, expatriates form groups. In the U.S., we often see students hanging out in the student union or dormitories with other students of their own background. It's normal to seek out people like yourself. In the classroom, however, forming groups on the basis of language encourages students to use their L1 instead of the L2. In an EFL setting, students may form groups with friends rather than on the basis of complementary abilities that may be more useful for learning. Most teachers know this. Still, having a theoretical understanding of how and why groups form, along with an understanding of student social expectations, can help in designing class activities involving group work.

Authority Ranking (AR): Generally speaking, authority ranking is the main social relational model governing interaction between students and instructor, but it is usually not so among students. There are exceptions. For instance, the social cue of age seems to delineate an AR model among Chinese students. In my classes, I've noticed that the eldest Chinese student seems to hold a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group. In one of my classes, for instance, the eldest, a female, was usually the only one who would speak in whole class discussions, unless I called upon a younger Chinese student. Depending on whether one wants the students to participate equally in a conversation, it might be important to consider whether and how an AR model might be operating.

The AR model explains why students are averse to peer reviewing essays. Such a task is perceived as placing one student in a position of authority, a position that violates the Communal Sharing and Equality Matching models that students use in their social relations with one another. If a teacher wants students to engage in peer review, then it should be framed so it is not perceived as an action of authority but of collaboration in which students are helping one another as equals rather than directing as authorities.

An AR model may be permitted in one situation but not in another. In my other post, I noted that although students usually follow a teacher’s guidance, they may not in some contexts. Graduate ESL (English as a second language) students will accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but reject content changes if the paper is in their discipline, an area in which the student feels they have more authority than the teacher. I've also noticed that older students tend to disagree more, too. Age grants a certain amount of authority.

Authority Ranking is a legitimate, not a power, relationship when both teacher and students (or employer and employees, or supervisor and supervisees) agree on the parameters of authority. Only when one, either teacher or student, insists on a certain outcome and obtains it without the other's approval does it become a power relationship. Yes, the distinction can be a fine line.

Equality Matching (EM): EM and CS are the main social relational models operating among students with knowledge being a major resource shared. In one of my classes, two students sought help from the class mathematics major for help in their lower-division mathematics courses. Another student, writing a paper on the notion of jihad in Islam, queried many Muslims who resided in her dormitory. Other students consulted students who had previously taken the class. Without more information, it is difficult to differentiate between communal sharing and equality matching in these examples. That is, if no return of a favor was expected in these cases, then the knowledge was a communal resource available to all. If a potential favor was expected at some time in the future, then the social relational model would be an equality matching one. Even so, these students sought resources in groups of which they were members, whether ethnicity or dormitory, so that both communal sharing and equality matching relational models were likely influencing their social interactions.

Although not common, EM can also occur between student and teacher. One of my students agreed to do interviews for my research because it was “a good chance to practice speech.” In effect, we exchanged favors.

EM supports the use of cooperative learning, in which students have different tasks and must share their results with team members in order to complete their own project. Note that the students need to have different tasks rather than the same ones; otherwise, no real favor or resource is being exchanged.

Market Pricing (MP): Market pricing is not a relational model operating often among students and teachers. Still, students do have expectations concerning course work. ESL students may not consider group work to be beneficial. One told me, “I think I can learn more from the teacher than I just talk with students.” Another said she paid attention to my comments on her paper but not her classmates. And a third complained about "not getting some lectures." In other words, they were not getting a good enough deal for the tuition they were paying and the "education" they were expecting. In combination with the other three relational models, peer reviewing, and sometimes group work, can be a tough sell to students.

Violating Models: When social relational models are violated, discomfort and sanctions can occur. In one class, a student who was initially with a group of all women students intentionally formed her own group of four computer science majors (she was a CS major) because as she said,

Like they were talking about their country, but I didn't knew about what they were talking about, so it wasn't interesting to me, or whatever I'm talking, it wasn't interesting to them, and this was the problem.

In other words, she felt excluded from the group talking about their country, a violation of the CS model and pehaps EM model. Needing to form a communal social relationship, she created one in which they all had computer science in common (instead of gender), a social bond based on similar interests.

In a different case, four students working in a group found it difficult to continue to work together. Three students mentioned their difficulty in their observations, and the fourth student asked not to be assigned with the other three for the rest of the semester. He wrote:

Actually it’s really hard for me to work with a group. We always have different ideas. This is good, but we need to synthesize these ideas and produce a work which reflects everybody’s ideas. Sometimes we need to forego our ideas even though we believe that the ideas are right. Always there are trade-offs. But I think, I gain more than I lost by working with a group, if I can learn how to accept people’s ideas. In the beginning of the class, I was poorer on group study. Probably, I didn’t know how to do it. I cannot say that I totally learned how to cooperate on the same work, but I opened the locked door in this class and I will go in through very soon.

Apparently, this student was rather forceful in promoting his ideas and perceived by group members as inappropriately exercising authority in a context requiring communal sharing or equality matching. The violation of the expected social relational model(s) was sufficiently strong that the three excluded him from their group in future interactions and he asked not to be placed in that group again.

Note that not all saw him as exerting authority inappropriately. Some students considered him to be an important knowledge resource. Comments they made included:

He had his “own ideas,” which was “very important.”

"He’s a smart person, that’s why I always come up to him if I have any question, person-to-person."

So, although the psychological foundations of social relational models are biological, the expression of social relationships is dependent upon one's perception and sociocultural history. And perception and history changes over time. Because social relational models are instinctive, the student apparently felt a need to belong (CS) with those other three classmates and worked hard at accepting others’ ideas (EM rather than AR), an effort that seemed to have been recognized by them as they did collaborate on tasks later in the semester.

These social relational models, although always operating, are expressed differently by different cultures with different combinations of relational models being more prevalent in particular contexts. For the most part, however, students tend toward Communal Sharing and Equality Matching. Students, actually all of us, engage in activity as much for the social relationships engendered as for the goal of the activity. We are by nature social beings. Thus, activities that violate these models can create discomfort and resistance, as in the case of peer reviewing essays. Thus, to faciliate learning in the classroom, it's important to frame tasks and activities so that students perceive them as an expression of an appropriate social relational model.



I've partially fixed my webdesign problem with Internet Explorer. The sidebar can be seen. However, on IE 6, a supposedly transparent spacer covers the title, and on IE 5.2, the sidebar has dropped down. I have no more time right now. Maybe in December?

Working on my own design instead of just using the templates provided wasn't easy, especially as my HTML knowledge is limited, while my CSS knowledge is even more limited. So, why did I go through frustration instead of just using the templates? Where'd the motivation come from? Both the notion of flow and self-determination theory can shed some light here.

From the perspective of flow, I had clear goals, immediate feedback, focused attention, a sense of control (at least when I was successful), and a merging of action and awareness (see Flow, Games, and Learning and Flow Theory): As I tinkered with the design, I could quickly see what worked and what didn't. And the time flew by as I focused on the task at hand.

In self-determination theory, three needs for intrinsic motivation are autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. I'm not quite sure how social relatedness applies here, but it's obvious that I had some competence (or I couldn't have finished what I had begun) and that I was fully autonomous in choosing what I wanted to do, how I went about it, and what I accepted as the final (for now) product. Despite the frustration, solving the puzzle of creating my own design was fun and satisfying.

Now I wonder, How often do our students enjoy the puzzle of learning? Looking back at my own undergraduate days, I'm not sure I enjoyed learning as much then as I do now. First off, the amount of cramming required for a high GPA required for going to graduate school simply took the fun out of learning. Note the word "required," a staple of educational institutions, which precludes much of autonomy. Of course, there were other factors, such as lack of time: I had to work my way through school. Lack of time affects the ability to develop competence--as noted above by my problem with Internet Explorer.

So, how do we go about creating environments that promote flow and self-determination in our classes? More on that later.



A little while ago, my seven-year-old son asserted on doing his homework,

I'm so smart. I have everything in my brain.

However, about ten minutes later when I asked him to tie his own shoelaces, he said,

I can't. I know the first part, but I don't know the second part. Is it the thumb or two fingers?

His comments reminded me of the book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, which posits a fundamental circularity between cognition and experience. There is no disembodied mind directing our actions: All knowledge is enacted via experience.

Eleanor Rosch gave a talk at the American Psychological Association a few years ago titled "What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind". She ended her talk with some quotes from the autobiography of Peter Ralston, a world martial arts champion:

One: The starting point: ambition, focused intention “As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. Period!”

Two: Recognition of the unsatisfactoriness of the ordinary conscious way of doing things. (May come with success) “Around that time, I would go to classes and fight black belts and win, but still feel like I lost…Something wasn’t right…. I was winning from natural ability, but I wasn’t winning because I really understood anything…”

Three: Finding the unbiased mind beyond fear and desire. Opening perceptions. Appreciation. “It was in that situation that I first learned to drop fear of getting hit, or of winning or losing… What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening. I just saw a fist coming and I’d move…When I’d get worried about it, I’d get stuck somewhere and get hit… It’s a beautiful secret, an exacting and tremendous feedback.”

Four: Expansion of the knowing field. Also some change in sense of time. “…abilities like being able to read somebody’s disposition accurately started to come. The moment they would think to hit me I would stop them. That’s it. Handled. I just kept finishing everything before it got started.”

Five: Actions from awareness; simply knowing what to do and it’s always appropriate “New abilities started to arise… I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do. I just knew. That blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing…very simple, very simple.”

Six: Comes full circle; transformation of the original ambition and intention “I decided that if I were to continue to do this, I wanted to start contributing what I did and what I knew in a much larger way. I wanted to transform the martial arts in the world into a place for the development of the human being, and of honesty.”

Quite a bit of what Ralston says is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, a process of total enagement in an activity for its own sake with the result that one feels a sense of satisfaction and loses track of time. Flow has eight dimensions, not all of which must be operating at once (from EduTech Wiki):

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

It seems obvious that Ralston often enjoyed the state of flow. Many athletes do, as do video gamers, gardeners, and others. According to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor), however, flow is not typical:

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

Elsewhere, Csikszentmihalyi wrote,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

And they don't, because school is seldom a place of "intense living." Of course, work isn't, either, but that's not the point. If we wish for students to enjoy learning, then it would help to design our classes so that they are more conducive for states of flow to occur.

Sometimes, the system just works against states of flow. For instance, my ESL students are expected to reach levels of English that, although possible, are often more than challenging due to obligations constraining their study time, such as working 20, 30, and 40 hours a week. In addition to working full time, most of my night students (and some of my day students) are married (or single) with children.

Still, another condition for flow is clear goals and immediate feedback. As I look at my composition syllabus, those goals are probably not clear enough to my students, and feedback is usually delayed. It shouldn't be too difficult to make the goals clearer, but it's more difficult to give immediate feedback on essays. I usually grade them on the weekend, and so there's a 5- to 7-day delay.

What would be interesting would to develop a software tutor for writing that could provide immediate feedback and guidance. John Anderson et al. has an interesting article "Cognitive Tutors: Lessons Learned". The article discusses different tutors (algebra, geometry, LISP) used to facilitate student learning and mentions a few problems:

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

Isn't it terrible when motivation becomes a problem? A tutor application for writing would likely be harder to create than it is for math. Math has right and wrong answers, and the wrong answers can fall into different types of errors for which a tutor can be programmed to respond. Writing is fuzzier than math. It's not right or wrong: it's more or less effective. But if it could be done, it would have the advantage of many of the conditions for flow.

Another possibility would be to create video games in which writing plays a major role. James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book "What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" strongly supports using games in education. Christine Simmons ("Video games seen as way to train, learn") reports that the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) "has developed three 3-D video games to be used for training and education," two of which are for firefighting and immunology. On the latter one:

"Immune Attack," places players on a tiny vessel that can travel inside the human body. The game aims to educate high school, college and graduate-level students in immunology. The goal is to find and attack dangerous bacteria, said Kay Howell, vice president for information technologies at the FAS.

Shaffer et al. have a paper on "Video Games and the Future of Learning". As they note:

The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army —games that introduce civilians to military ideology. Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history (Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our Own).

I doubt that most of my students would be interested in a game designed simply to write better. But what if writing were a crucial element in the game? Perhaps games for journalists, business managers, lawyers, and others for whom writing is an integral part of the job? Or perhaps redesign existing games to put the focus on writing? I have more questions than answers. But Shaffer et al. comment on the implicit learning theory behind video games:

Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values, and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.

So, we need a game in which students "live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of" a rhetorician. Hmm. I think I would enjoy, playing that game.

On a final note, educators, myself included, often try to ease students' way into materials as much as possible, thus sometimes (often?) "dumbing down" their learning. In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn't its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.

Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn't happen much in our routine-driven schools, where "good" students are often just good at "doing school."

How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren't trained as cognitive scientists. It's a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn't teach players how to play it well, it won't sell well. Game companies don't rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material - aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete.

"Hover[ing] at the boundary of a student's competence" and challenging students "to adapt and evolve" with immediate feedback put players in a state of flow. Hmm. Would it be possible to design an entire course as a video game?



As I mentioned in my last post on commenting, Seth Godin was seen as arrogant when he disabled comments on his blog. Some asserted that blogging was about the conversation. Although I earlier said that it wasn't about the conversation, in a way, it is. More precisely, it's about the social relations between people that conversation enables. In looking at how Seth's post triggered a blogospheric uproar, we might consider how his post violated people's perceptions of the social relationships "required" in blogging from the perspective of social relational models, a theoretical model for social interaction posited by Alan Fiske, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fiske proposes that four relational models in various combinations govern all social interactions. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Although I've posted before on these social relations (see "The Internet and Ownership" and "Academic Blogging"), it's been a while. So, I'll review those models and then look at how they can explain people's reactions to disabling comments.

Communal Sharing is a relationship among a bounded group of people in which members are considered equivalent and have equal access to the group's resources, such as in the case of family members having equal access to the refrigerator regardless of who purchased the food or students having equal access to library resources regardless of whether they are on full scholarship, paying in-state tuition, or out-of state tuition. In communal sharing, people identify with their group and conform to its characteristics and behavior.

Authority Ranking is a linear, hierarchical relationship in which one person is above or below another person instead of being equivalent. The higher person has more privileges, status, and control, while the lower person is entitled to protection and care. It is not a matter of power, which is an asocial relationship, but of a social model that supports legitimate authority. Those in subordinate positions grant their leaders authority. That authority may be allowed in one situation but not in another. For example, students generally follow a teacher’s rules and directions. However, it is not uncommon for students to disagree with their teacher when they hold expertise in a particular area. In ESL (English as a second language) writing courses, for instance, graduate students accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but may reject content corrections in discipline-related papers because they consider themselves to have more authority with respect to their discipline. And Authority Ranking can co-exist with Communal Sharing as in the case of parents in a family.

Equality Matching is a relationship in which there is a one-to-one correspondence in the transfer of resources, often with a delay in response, such as when a someone extends a favor, which is expected eventually to be returned in kind. Unlike in Communal Sharing relationships in which accounts are not kept, they are in Equality Matching. Consequently, if too many favors are owed, an Equality Matching relationship can turn into an Authority Ranking relationship.

In contrast, Market Pricing is an exchange of resources based on proportionality, that is, a ratio or rate, such as exchanging goods or services in return for money. People want to get the best deal for themselves, or at least a fair deal.

In any particular action, more than one of these are usually operating, although it is normal for more than one to be more prominent than the others.

In addition to the social relational models, there are also asocial models in which people either ignore others or use others as a means to some end. Having evolved and emerged from psychological mechanisms, Fiske’s social relational models are the building blocks of cultures. Just as the four building blocks of DNA account for the diversity of species, so, too, do the four social relational models account for the diversity of cultures.

When we look at the many comments about Seth Godin, one word that comes up is "arrogant." Why? The tone does seem flippant. By itself, however, such a tone from most bloggers wouldn't have triggered such a response. More likely, the response resulted from his violating the Communal Sharing model. Although the blogging community does not have a uniform opinion on commenting, the overwhelming majority believe that to be a blog, it should have comments. Previously, bloggers had access to posting their opinions at Seth's site, and now they don't. Previously, they were part of Seth's "bounded group," wide-open as it may have been. Now they aren't. By unilaterally disabling comments, Seth was also violating the Authority Ranking model. That is, he was perceived to be acting from a position of authority that they did not grant (when not granted, it is considered an abuse of power). The combination of breaking off from the community and asserting authority, both actions violating social relational models, led to the blogging community's strong reaction.

Seth, on the other hand,might have been treating it as a Market Pricing relationship: He figured that the uproar would increase his traffic and was worth the backlash, thus an attempt to make the best deal for himself. Or, perhaps as he wrote:

I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them.

Just looking at his previous post on "On how to get traffic for your blog", you can see 113 comments and 76 trackbacks. Plus, Seth often writes 4 or more posts in a day. Commenters expect some interaction, as EFL Geek wrote:

If an author choose to disable comments I think that is fine, I don’t really support it, but that’s a fair choice. What bothers me is that authors who have comments enabled but never respond to any comments by their readership.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would expect that Seth would respond to all commenters. Still, it's rather easy to imagine that he may have thought that he wasn't getting a good enough deal out of the comments to make it worth his while to keep them and respond to them. It's also possible that an Equality Matching model played some part. That is, when someone comments on your blog, you feel the obligation, as Seth said, to respond in kind. Obviously, he couldn't do so, and rather than feel uncomfortable about not fulfilling the social obligation of matching the comment, he simply withdrew from the conversation that maintained the relationship.

When people use different social relational models to their interactions with one another, conflict is likely to ensue. However, although the people involved may attribute their reactions to a variety of causes, they are governed unconsciously just as much, if not more, by underlying psychological mechanisms that guide social relations.

Obviously, these mechanisms can affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Just consider the aversion of many students to peer reviewing essays and the social relational models that are likely underlying that aversion. However, that's a topic for a later post.



Kathy Sierra of "Creating passionate users" has an interesting article, "Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain."

Basically, it's that emotions are contagious, or you become like who you associate with. Of course, folklore wisdom already has this concept, as in "birds of a feather flock together." Our ESL/EFL students pick up the accent of their instructors, albeit influenced by their own language. However, folklore, as she notes, also has notions that are wrong, or at least suspect in their application:

And there's this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation--"if you can't say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can't be authentic and honest." While that may be true, here's what the psychologists say:

"Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that "letting it rip" with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry with) resolve the situation.

It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge."

In the case of folklore on being happy, Kathy brings in research supporting it, research on mirror neurons and emotional contagion. The importance of protecting one's happiness cannot be underestimated:

So, when Robert [Scoble] says he wants to spend time hanging around "happy people" and keeping his distance from "deeply unhappy" people, he's keeping his brain from making--over the long term--negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it's his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help--it's simply the way brains work.

Kathy also touches on the fact that happiness is good for one's health, which I had read about. One study, for instance, showed that positive emotions were "associated with greater resistance to developing a common cold" What I didn't know was that it improved one's reasoning. She writes:

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

"Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people's ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. "

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

A key work here is "suggest," meaning that it's not ironclad. Other factors are likely involved. The two studies I keep quoting clearly show that inflexibility in one's position shuts off thinking. Is it possible to be happily inflexible?

Perhaps, this is rather simplistic, but I'm wondering if happiness in general can lead to being better able to learn. That is, Is being better able to think logically related to, or does it lead to, being better able to learn? Lots of questions. No answers right now.



Here's an interesting story from Idries Shah's book Tales of the Dervishes:


One dark night a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. 'What is the matter?' he called down.

'I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized.' responded the other.

'Hold, friend, and I'll fetch a ladder and rope,' said the dervish.

'One moment please!' said the grammarian. 'Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.'

'If that is so much more important than the essentials,' shouted the dervish, 'you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.'

And he went his way.


This story reminds me of the psychology study, which I mentioned in an earlier posting, "Emotion overrules reason," that found that staunch Democrats and Republications are "both adept at ignoring facts,"

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

As someone said thousands of years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9), at least when it comes to understanding human behavior. Our pet theories can "immobilize" us, preventing us from seeing others' perspectives (see again "Everybody's an Expert" by Louis Menand).

So, where does this take us? For me, I return to a paper I wrote on the application of radical constructivism to writing in another language. Radical constructivism is based on Jean Piaget's work and is a perspective on knowing by Ernst von Glasersfeld, who asserted that knowledge is constructed actively by an individual in a way that fits one's experience, that provides a viable explanation of one's experience.

In looking at how students learn, many simply accept that learning is "merely a straightforward process of building upon students’ prior experiences and filling in schemas with new data, or knowledge. Rather, learning to write involves a process of reflecting and acting on contradictions between students’ existing schemas and their present experiences."

In looking at how teachers interact with students, we might believe "that these contradictions should be resolved in favor of the teacher’s “correct” model. The concept of viability reminds us that reality cannot be directly perceived. Teachers, as well as students, construct models representing their experiences rather than an actual reality. Thus, the student’s schema may not only be coherent according to his or her experiences but may also be insightful and effective. ... [Thus], we must listen closely to hear what is productive in the students’ models and build from there (Confrey, 1991, 1998)."

So, although this notion may not be new, still it is worth repeating: Listening may be a instructor's most valuable asset for learning how to teach.



Louis Menand reviews the book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at Berkeley. His research asserts

that people who make prediction their business—people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us.

In fact, Tetlock says that the best known experts are worse than the average person on the street in making predictions. As Menand writes,

The experts’ trouble in Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong.

Just like the other psychological study that found that staunch Democrats and Republications rationalize facts away that contradict their position, Tetlock found that well-known predictors did the same, plus they also gave information supporting their position more leeway, a double whammy on predicting.

I wonder how this applies to teachers' expectations on which students will perform well in the classroom, to instructors' theoretical positions in designing curricula, and to researchers' defense of their theories.



In my previous post, I discussed foregoing the term "passionate learners" for "enjoying learners." I'd like to take it a step further and talk about "curious" learners. Actually, most people are curious; they just aren't that curious about school subjects. As Csikszentmihalyi states:

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

Perhaps students do not wish to because teachers transmit information instead of engaging students in creating knowledge. Perhaps they do not wish to because school subjects are disconnected from their own communities and societal activities. And perhaps they do not wish to because they do not have the experiences to make connections to school knowledge.

Then, again, am I myself really curious about everything I come across? I remember considering majoring in math and I signed up for two classes (geometry and diff eq). I read the first few chapters before the class, went to class the first day, and thought to myself: Boring!! I had no experience to see any relevance to this dry subject. And that ended my math major.

Turning to writing, I like it much more. I especially enjoy playing with words and tweaking sentences to make them more rhetorically effective. That natural (?) interest in language may be the reason I enjoy teaching ESL and studying languages. Still, I have to say that learning languages is frustrating when I try to communicate unsuccessfully. So, I can sympathize with the overwhelming majority of my students who say that they do not like writing, especially in English. When speaking, many "mistakes" go by unnoticed or unremarked upon. Writing accompanied by teacher comments, however, stares them in the face with the fact that they still have not mastered English, a process that will take probably ten years or more. Of course, giving students more control over the topics and genres of writing helps. But that's not enough for a long lasting curiousity in learning to write better. What else can help?



The blog Creating Passionate Users is written by a trio who are

all passionate about the brain and metacognition, most especially--how the brain works and how to exploit it for better learning and memory. Oh yeah, and how to recognize when someone else (including one of us) is applying brain-based techniques to get you to do something.

I enjoy reading their insights on learning, but I wonder about the emphasis on "passion." What does it mean to be a passionate learner? How would being passionate differ from being obsessive? How many people are truly passionate, or obsessive, about anything?

According to Dictionary.com, passion is defined as "A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger" and obsession is defined as "A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion." I'm not quite sure where "a powerful emotion" ends and "an unreasonable emotion" begins. Perhaps it's a matter of societal approval as it is for the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic.

I wonder about this distinction because I enjoy learning and a variety of activities, but I find it difficult to consider myself passionate about learning or these other pastimes. Of course, I could be a little strange, but I like to think that more people are like me than unlike me.

We might compare passion and enjoyment to attraction and attachment in Helen Fisher's, an anthropologist at Rutgers, research on love. In her work, attraction, or romantic love, is caused by high levels of dopamine and norephinephrine. It's a euphoric chemical high that cannot be maintained, but eventually wears off. In contrast, attachment, stimulated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, is associated with feelings of comfort, peace, and stability, and unlike attraction can last longer than a year, even a lifetime. Extrapolating, if we consider an educational goal to be life-long learners, we need to move away from passion and toward an enjoyment of learning.

One theoretical construct that can be of use in this move is flow. Flow, a theory developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, a professor of psychology formerly at the University of Chicago, refers to an experience of total involvement and deep concentration. Most people experience flow at one time or another, and some frequently. I can remember being so absorbed in a game of chess or that I was oblivious to my surroundings for an hour. The conditions of flow are clear goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, and matching one's skills to the challenge, none of which relate to emotion.

Flow is a type of intrinsic motivation, a doing of the activity for the sake of the activity rather than extrinsic pressures. Csikszentmihalyi notes that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is needed for people to want to learn, but that intrinsic motivation should be educators' focus "to make children aware of how much fun learning can be."

I imagine the phrase "creating passionate learners" is more hyperbole than anything else, but perhaps we should simply consider motivating students to have "fun" learning.



We read often about the teacher-centered and teacher-controlled classroom, how that teacher exerts power in the classroom. As Fiske in his social relational models theory notes, power is not the same as legitimate authority. Power is an asocial relationship while authority is social, because authority is agreed to by those involved.

Alhtough authority may be granted in most areas, it can be challenged in others. ESL students with expertise have been known to challenge teacher corrections of content. In my own class, a student once challenged the course focus on argumentation, suggesting that the course should work on all English skills, including conversation.

More interestingly, authority may operate among students in some cultures. In my classes, I have noticed that Chinese students generally defer to the eldest among them, whether male or female, and usually, in whole-class discussions, the eldest would be the one who might speak. Apparently, the eldest in a Chinese group, holds a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group.

Most teachers try to have all the students participate equally in a class, but should we when such participation goes against cultural expectations of social relationships? Is there a balance that needs to be recognized?



LiveScience reports on a study, "Both Democrats and Republicans Adept at Ignoring Facts." A study found that, whether Democrat or Republican, those who have strong beliefs do not listen to facts that contradict their position.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

Also,

The brain imaging revealed a consistent pattern. Both Republicans and Democrats consistently denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate but detected contradictions in the opposing candidate.

"The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and the person can learn very little from new data," Westen said.

These findings are likely true not only of politics but of any emotionally charged subject or simply of any subject that one takes for granted. These findings also explain why it is so difficult for students in composition courses to tackle topics, such as abortion or religion, if they hold strong opinions about them. I wonder how students (or anyone) can be led to use reason in emotionally charged topics. Should we just avoid such topics? Or find ways to de-emotionalize them and re-reasonize them?



Dave Munger (in Cognitive Daily, a blog reviewing psychology articles) reports on the findings of Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman. They found that self-discipline was a better indicator of school performance for 8th graders than IQ: Self-discipline had a .67 correlation with GPA while IQ had only a .32 correlation. In addition, there was no correlation between IQ and self-discipline. This makes sense. Anderson and Schunn (2000) assert that there are no magic bullets in learning, but rather the most important factor is effective time on task. Munger wonders,

Perhaps the most important question which remains is how best to teach children self-discipline — or whether it can be taught at all.

I wonder how self-discipline is related to self-determination (i.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness).



Returning to the theme of education, it's safe to assume that not all character education programs are successful. Lynn Revell (2002), who conductied research at 12 schools (seven elementary and five high schools), reported that high school students tended to be “cynical or sceptical about specific character traits promoted by Character Education,” especially those students in non-magnet schools who were even “hostile” (pp. 427-428), despite the similarity of programs across schools and the enthusiastic support of parents and school staff. Leming (2000) reported that a literature-based character program promoted cognitive skills among elementary students, but had “mixed results” with respect to affect and behavior. As Kohlberg (1999) states, reasoning is necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action; however, moral reasoning and judgment are not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action, most likely because principles are not integrated into one's identity.

Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory would assert that for individuals to pursue ethical values, internalize them as their own values, and integrate them into their self, their behavior must be self-determined and the environment must satisfy psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, with autonomy referring to the volitional “experience of integration and freedom” and relatedness referring to “the desire to feel connected to others—to love and care, and to be loved and cared for” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 231).

Thus, we return to the concept of love as an essential component of leading students (and ourselves) into developing character.



Carl Zimmer of the New York Times reported in an article "Children learn by monkey see, monkey do. Chimps don't" on psychological studies concluding that human beings are hard-wired to learn via imitation.

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said.

Much of learning theory posits that reflection is a deeper form of learning while imitation is a lower form of learning (e.g., Engeström). Yet, there is also an understanding that examples and models facilitate learning. John Anderson of ACT-R learning theory (i.e., declarative and procedural knwoledge) states that there is no real difference between self-generated learning and passive reception of knowledge (unless the former "produces multiple ways to retrieve the material"). Extrapolating to the difference between imitation and reflection, I wonder when reflection is worth the time invested and how much of a difference it really makes.



How are/will/can blogs change academia? Weblogs in Higher EducationDennis Jerz, and Henry Falwell of Crooked Timber all have something to say about this. Fallwell, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Blogging sacrifices some depth of thought -- it's difficult to state a complex thesis in the average blogpost -- but provides in return a freedom and flexibility that normal academic publishing can't match. ...

blogs can improve the circulation of ideas in a field, by highlighting new, interesting papers and giving brief descriptions of their contents. ...

Most important, the scholarly blogosphere offers academics a place where they can reconnect with the public. ...

Both group blogs and the many hundreds of individual academic blogs that have been created in the last three years are pioneering something new and exciting. They're the seeds of a collective conversation, which draws together different disciplines (sometimes through vigorous argument, sometimes through friendly interaction), which doesn't reproduce traditional academic distinctions of privilege and rank, and which connects academic debates to a broader arena of public discussion. It's not entirely surprising that academic blogs have provoked some fear and hostility; they represent a serious challenge to well-established patterns of behavior in the academy. Some academics view them as an unbecoming occupation for junior (and senior) scholars; in the words of Alex Halavais of the State University of New York at Buffalo, they seem "threatening to those who are established in academia, to financial interests, and to ... well, decorum." Not exactly dignified; a little undisciplined; carnivalesque. Sometimes signal, sometimes noise. But exactly because of this, they provide a kind of space for the exuberant debate of ideas, for connecting scholarship to the outside world, which we haven't had for a long while. We should embrace them wholeheartedly.

The notion of a "collective conversation" is compelling, offering the promise of an egalitarian conversation, of a better conversation, of a better academic exchange. Yet, as Falwell notes, only "seeds" are present. Most bloggers, especially academic bloggers, write as in a closet with others opening the door but rarely. Moreover, the opening of doors over time will likely follow a power law, with a few being read by the many. In what ways is that "collective"?

So, why blog when we can just keep a private journal of our academic musings? This collective conversation, nascent as it may be, is obviously a social activity. Referring to Fiske's social relational models (communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing), several models appear to be interacting (depending on the individual, one may be more prominent than others). One is the desire to belong to the "conversation" of academia, which is rather difficult to do as a newcomer. Established names appear more frequently than newcomers, and not all have equal opportunities to participate: For example, compare teaching loads of research institutions to those of teaching institutions. A second may be the desire to increase one's authority by decreasing the control of established bottlenecks of conversation, such as journals. In a sense, one is also marketing oneself, attempting to get a better deal in terms of recognition and status. Perhaps over time as a network of conversants is established, equality matching becomes active.

Note that Fallwell's article speaks of a collective conversation that discusses and debates ideas and knowledge, an academic idealization. Fiske's theory suggests that social relational models are driving academic blogging, an implementation of an instinctual reality. To be continued.



From the Quality of Life Research Center (via Jeremy Hiebett) is an article published in School Psychology Quarterly co-authored by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist long associated with flow, the experience of optimal engagement. Here's their abstract:

We present a conceptualization of student engagement based on the culmination of concentration, interest, and enjoyment (i.e., flow). Using a longitudinal sample of 526 high school students across the US, we investigated how adolescents spent their time in high school and the conditions under which they reported being engaged. Participants experienced increased engagement when the perceived challenge of the task and their own skills were high and in balance, the instruction was relevant, and the learning environment was under their control. Participants were also more engaged in individual and group work vs. listening to lectures, watching videos, or taking exams. Suggestions to increase engagement, such as providing focused on learning activities that support students’ autonomy and provide an appropriate level of challenge for students’ skills, conclude the paper.

For those interested in the sampling methods used by Csikszentmihalyi, "Happiness in Everyday Life: The Uses of Experience Sampling" will be of help.