DT&L2018 spotlight presentation: The Teaching Gestalt

The teaching gestalt  presentation slides (PDF, 9MB)

This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.

The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.

Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.

The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control.  I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.

Addicted to learning or addicted to grades?

Skinner teaching machine 08

Figure 1: Skinner’s teaching machine

It is not much of a surprise that many apps are designed to be addictive, nor that there is a whole discipline behind making them so, but I was particularly interested in the delightfully named Dopamine Labs‘ use of behaviourist techniques (operant conditioning with variable ratio scheduling, I think), and the reasoning behind it. As the article puts it:

One of the most popular techniques … is called variable reinforcement or variable rewards. 
It involves three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward.
A push notification, such as a message that someone has commented on your Facebook photo, is a trigger; opening the app is the action; and the reward could be a “like” or a “share” of a message you posted.
These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel happy, possibly even euphoric, Brown says.
“Just by controlling when and how you give people that little burst of dopamine, you can get them to go from using [the app] a couple times a week to using it dozens of times a week.”

For well-designed social media and games, the reward is intrinsic to the activity, and perfectly aligned with its function. If the intent is to create addicts – which, in both kinds of system, it probably is – the trick is to design an environment that builds rewards into the algorithms (the rules) of the system, and to keep them coming, ideally making it possible for the rewards to increase in intensity as the user gains greater expertise or experience, but varying ratios or intervals between rewards to keep things interesting. Though this particular example falls out from behaviourist theory, it is also well supported by cognitivist and brain-based understandings of how we think. Drug dealers know this too, as it happens. If you want to keep people using your product, this is how to make your product particularly addictive.

Learning addicts

Lovers of learning experience addiction too. The more we learn, the more there is to learn, the greater the depth and pleasure there is to be found in doing so, and the sporadic ups and downs, especially when faced with challenges we eventually solve, are part of the joy of it. Increasing mastery of anything is a reward in itself that seems quite intrinsic to our make-up, and to that of many other animals. Doing it in a social context is even better, as we share in the learning of others and gain value (social capital, different perspectives, help overcoming problems, etc) in the process. We gain greater control, greater autonomy, greater capability to live our lives as we want to live them, which is very motivating. As long as the reward comes from the activity itself, and the activity is not harmful, this is good news. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are innately motivated to learn, because learning is an extremely valuable survival characteristic. Learning generally makes dopamine positively drip from our eyeballs.

So what’s the problem with applying the principle in education?

None at all, until you hit something that you do not wish to learn, that is too difficult to master right now, that is too boring, that has no obvious rewards in and of itself. The correct response to this problem is, ideally, to find what there is to love in it. Good teachers can help with that a lot, inspiring, revealing, supporting, demonstrating, and discussing. Other learners can make a huge difference too, supporting, modelling behaviours, filling gaps, and so on. We very often learn things for other people, with other people, or because of other people. Educational systems offer a good substrate for that.

If intrinsic motivation fails to move us, then at least the motivation should be self-determined. Figure 2 shows a very successful and well-validated model of motivation (from Ryan and Deci) that, amongst other things, usefully describes differing degrees of extrinsic motivation (external, introjected, identified, and integrated) that, as they approach the right of the diagram, increasingly approach intrinsic motivation in value, though ‘external regulation’ is rather different, of which more soon. When intrinsic motivation fails, what we need is some kind of internal regulation to push us onwards. It is not a bad idea to find some internally regulated reason that aligns with your beliefs about yourself and your goals, or that at least fits with some purpose or goal that you find valuable. It’s sometimes useful to develop a bit of ‘grit‘ – to be able to do something that you don’t love doing in order to be able to do things that you do love doing, to find reasons for learning stuff that are meaningful and fit with your personal values, even if the immediately presenting activity is not fun in itself. Again, teachers and other people can help a lot with that, by showing ways that they are doing so themselves, by providing support, by engaging, or by being the reason that we do something in the first place. It’s all very social, at its heart.


Figure 2: Forms of motivation

That social element is important, and not clearly represented in the diagram, despite being a critical aspect of intrinsic motivation and mattering a lot for the ‘higher’ identified forms of extrinsic motivation. From an evolutionary perspective, I suspect this ability to learn because of the presence of others accounts for our species’ apparent dominance in our ecosystems. We are not particularly clever as independent individuals but, collectively, we are mighty smart. This could not be the case without having an innate inclination to value, and to gain value from, other people, and for this to have the consequence that others very materially contribute towards our motivation to do something. I guess I should mention that ‘innate’ does not mean ‘pre-programmed’ – this is almost certainly an emergent phenomenon. But it is a big part of who we are.

Grade addicts

So far so good. Educational systems are, at least in principle, very effective ways of bringing people together. It all goes horribly wrong, however, when the educators’ response to amotivation (or worse, to motivation to avoid) is to change the rules by throwing in extrinsic rewards and punishments, like grades, say, or applying other controls to the process like forced attendance. Externally regulated extrinsic motivation is extremely dangerous.

Extrinsic rewards and punishments do work, in the sense that they coerce people and other animals into behaving as the giver of the rewards or punishments wishes them to behave. And yes, dopamine is implicated. This immediate effectiveness is what makes them so alluring. But it’s like giving an athlete performance-enhancing but ultimately harmful drugs. Rewards and punishments are also highly addictive and, like other addictions, you need more and more to sustain your addiction because you become inured to the effects, and withdrawal gets more painful the longer you are addicted. This works two ways. Those that get the rewards (the good grades, gold stars, praise, whatever) go on to want more of them, and will do what they need to get them, whether or not there are any further benefits (like, say, learning). Cheating is one popular way to do this. Tactical study, where the student tries to do what will get good grades rather than learn for the love of it, is another. But grading, though extrinsically motivating for the most part, is not always effective: bad grades can achieve the opposite effect, like drugs spiked with something horrible. Those that get grades as punishments often try to avoid them by whatever means they can: dropping out and cheating (a way to bypass the system to get hold of the good stuff) are popular solutions.

The biggest problems, however, come when you take the rewards/punishments away. As a vast body of research has shown and continues to show, this diminishes intrinsic motivation and often eliminates it altogether. If people are not very inclined to do something then you can temporarily boost interest by adding extrinsic rewards or punishments but, when you take them away, people are considerably less inclined to do the thing than they were before your started even when they originally liked to do it. At a high level this can be explained by the fact that, in giving a reward or punishment, you are drawing attention away from (crowding out) the thing itself and, at the same time, sending a strong signal that the activity itself is not rewarding enough in itself to be worth doing. But I am not sure that this fully explains the very strong negative effects on motivation that we actually see when rewards or punishments are withdrawn. I idly speculate that part of the reason for this effect might be the dopamine crash. We come to associate an activity with a dopamine boost and, when that boost is no longer forthcoming, it can be very disappointing, like smoking a nicotine-free cigarette (trust me – that’s awful). Cold turkey is not the best state to be in, especially when you associate it with an activity like learning something. It could really put you off a subject. This is just a thought: I know of no evidence that it is true, but it seems a plausible hypothesis that would be worth testing.

Whatever the cause, the effects are terrible. By extrinsically driving our students, we kill the love of the activity itself for those that might have loved it, and permanently prevent those that might have later found it valuable from ever wanting to do it again. Remarkably few survive unscathed, and a disproportionate number of those that do go on to become teachers, and so the cycle continues. I don’t think this is how education should be, and I don’t think it is what most of us in the system intend from it.

Getting out of the loop

The only really effective way to ensure lifelong interest and ongoing love of learning is to find the reward in the activity itself, not in an extrinsic reward. The games and social applications described in this article do that very well but it is important to remember that the intent of the designers of the applications is to increase addiction to them in order to sell or promote the product, and that there is perfect alignment between the reward and the activity itself. This is built into the rule system. In an education system that is driven by marks, we are making grades (not learning) the product, and making those the source of the addiction. This is very different. It has nothing to do with the activity of learning itself: it is extrinsic to the process. It might be even more effective give our students addictive drugs (higher concentrations equate to higher grades) to increase the incentive. I’m surprised no one has tried this.

But, seriously, what we really need to be doing is to make learning the addiction.

We can reduce the harm to an extent by removing grades from the teaching process and focusing on useful feedback and encouragement instead. If forced to judge, we can use pass/fail grades that are still harmful but not quite as controlling. If we are inexplicably drawn to grading, then we can build systems similar to those of ‘likes’ and badges of social media where, instead of rewards we give awards – in other words, we remove the expectation of a grade but, where merit is found, sometimes show our approval – and we can make that a social process, so that it is not dominated by a teacher and therefore does not involve exercise of arbitrary power. We can use pedagogies that give teachers and students the chance to model and demonstrate their passion and interest. We can encourage students to reflect on why they are doing it, ideally shared so they can gain inspiration from others. We can help students to integrate work with other things that matter to them. We can help them personalize their own learning so that it is appropriately challenging, not too dull, not to hard, and so that it matches the goals they set for themselves. We can help them to set those goals, and help them to figure out how to attain them. We can make them participants in the grading process, picking outcomes and assessments that match their interests and needs. We can build communities that support and nourish learning through sharing and mutual support. This is just a small sample of ways – there are really quite a few things that we can do, even within a broken system, to make learning addictive, to find ways to make it rewarding in and of itself, even when there is little initial interest to build upon. But we are still stuck in a system that treats grades as rewards, so we are still faced with a furious current pushing against all of our efforts.

Really, we need to change the system, but just  a bit: our current educational systems have evolved for pragmatic reasons, mainly because alternatives are too expensive or inconvenient for teachers to manage, not because they are any good for learners. One of the consequences of that is that it is almost impossible to run an institutional course or program without at least some form of grading, even if only at pass/fail level, even if only at the end.

An obvious big part of the solution is to decouple learning and grading. Some more advanced competency-based approaches already do that, as do things like challenge assessments and assessment of prior experience and learning, to some extent project/essay/thesis paths, outcomes-based programs, and even some kinds of professional exams (the latter not in a good way, for the most part, because they tend to drive the process). However, there are risks that universities might turn into an up-market version of driving schools, teaching how to pass the tests and doing just as they are doing now, rather than enabling more expansive learning as they should. To avoid that, it is critical that learners are involved in helping to determine their own personalized outcomes, and very much not to have those learning outcomes ‘personalized’ for them – personal, not personalized, as Alfie Kohn puts it and as Stephen Downes agrees. Grades that learners control, for activities that they choose to undertake, are many times better than grades that someone else imposes. It would also be a good idea either to split teaching activities into assemblable chunks, or into open narratives, without alignment with specific awards or qualifications. Students might build competences from smaller pieces – often from different sources – in order to seek a specific award, or might gain more than one award from a single learning narrative (or perhaps from a couple that overlap). It would be a very good idea to provide ways to mentor and help learners to seek appropriate paths, perhaps through personal tuition, and/or through automated help, and/or through membership of supportive communities (I am a fan of action learning sets for this kind of thing). Such mechanisms might also assist in the preparation of portfolios of evidence that would be an obvious way to manage the formal assessment process. I’m not in any way suggesting that we educators (especially for adult learners) should get rid of our accreditation role, merely that we should stop using it to drive our teaching and to enforce compliance in our students.

I think that such relatively small tweaks to how we teach and assess could have massive benefits further upstream. In one fell swoop it would change the focus of educational systems from grades to learning, and change the reward structure from extrinsic to intrinsic. Instead of building fixed-length courses with measurable outcomes that we the teachers control, we could create ecosystems for learning, where cooperation and collaboration would have greater value than competition, where learners are really part of a club, not a cohort, where teachers are perceived as enablers of learning, not as causes, and certainly not as judges. The words ‘learner-centred’ have been much over-used, often being a shorthand for ‘a friendlier way of making students comply with our demands’ or ‘helping students to get better grades’, but I think they fairly accurately denote what this sort of system would entail when taken seriously. Some of my friends and colleagues prefer ‘learning-centred’ and that works for me too. But really this is about being more human and more humane. It’s about breaking the machines that determine what we do and how we do it, and focusing instead on what we – collectively and individually – want to be. We can do this by thinking carefully about what motivates people, as opposed to attempting to motivate them. As soon as our attitude is one of ‘how can we make our students to this?’ rather than ‘how can we help our students to do this?’ we have failed. It’s easy to create addicts of extrinsic motivation. It is hard to make addicts of learning. But, sometimes, the hard way is the right way.


Address of the bookmark: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/marketplace-phones-1.4384876

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2816324/addicted-to-learning-or-addicted-to-grades