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.


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The cost of admission to the unlearning zone

picture of dull classroom (pubic domain)I describe some of what I do as ‘unteaching’, so I find this highly critical article by Miss Smith – The Unlearning Zone –  interesting. Miss Smith dislikes the terms ‘ unteaching’ and ‘unlearning’ for some well-expressed aesthetic and practical reasons: as she puts it, they are terms “that would not be out of place in a particularly self-satisfied piece of poststructuralist literary analysis circa 1994.”  I partially agree. However, she also seems equally unenamoured with what she thinks they stand for. I disagree with her profoundly on this so, as she claims to be new to these terms, here is my attempt to explain a little about what I mean by them and why I think they are a useful part of the educators’ lexicon, and why they are crucially important for learners’ development in general.

First the terms…

Yes, ‘unteaching’ is an ugly neoligism and it doesn’t really make sense: that’s part of the appeal of using it – a bit of cognitive dissonance can be useful for drawing attention to something. However, it is totally true that someone who is untaught is just someone who has not (yet) been taught, so ‘unteaching’, seen through that light, is at best pointless, at worst self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it does seem to follow pretty naturally from ‘unlearning’ which, contrary to Miss Smith’s assertion, has been in common use for centuries and makes perfect sense. Have you ever had to unlearn bad habits? Me too.

As I understand it, ‘unteach’ is to ‘teach’ as ‘undo’ is to ‘do’.  Unteaching is still teaching, just as undoing is still doing, and unlearning is still learning. Perhaps deteaching would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call it, unteaching is concerned with intentionally dismantling the taught belief that teaching is about exerting power over learners to teach, and replacing it with the attitude that teachers are there to empower learners to learn. This is not a particularly radical idea. It is what all teachers should do anyway, I reckon. But it is worth drawing attention to it as a distinct activity because it runs counter to the tide, and the problem it addresses is virtually ubiquitous in education up to, and sometimes at, doctoral level.

Traditional teaching of the sort Miss Smith seems to defend in her critique does a lot more than teach a subject, skill, or way of thinking. It teaches that learning is a chore that is not valuable in and of itself, that learners must be forced to do it for some other purpose, often someone else’s purpose. It teaches that teaching is something done to students by a teacher: at its worst, it teaches that teaching is telling; at best, that teaching involves telling someone to do something. It’s not that (many) teachers deliberately seek these outcomes, but that they are the most likely lessons to be learned, because they are the ones that are repeated most often. The need for unteaching arises because traditional teaching, with luck in addition to whatever it intends to teach, teaches some terrible lessons about learning and the role of teaching in that process that must be unlearned.

What is unteaching?

Miss Smith claims that unteaching means “open plan classes, unstructured lessons and bean bags.” That’s not the way I see it at all. Unlike traditional teaching, with its timetables, lesson plans, learning objectives, and uniform tests, unteaching does not have its own technologies and methods, though it does, for sure, tend to be a precursor to connectivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and other more learner-centred ways of thinking about the learning process, which may sometimes be used as part of the process of unteaching itself. Such methods, models, and attitudes emerge fairly naturally when you stop forcing people to do your bidding. However, they are just as capable of being used in a controlling way as the worst of instructivist methods: the number of reports on such interventions that include words like ‘students must…’, ‘I make my students…’ or (less blatantly) ‘students (do X)’ far outnumber all others, and that is the very opposite of unteaching. The specific technologies (including pedagogies as much as open-plan classrooms and beanbags) are not the point. Lectures, drill-and-practice and other instructivist methods are absolutely fine, as long as:

  1. they at least attempt to do the job that students want or need,
  2. they are willingly and deliberately chosen by students,
  3. students are well-informed enough to make those choices, and
  4. students can choose to learn otherwise at any time.

No matter how cool and groovy your problem-based, inquiry-based, active methods might be, if they are imposed on students (especially with the use of threats for non-compliance and rewards for compliance – e.g. qualifications, grades, etc) then it is not unteaching at all: it’s just another way of doing the same kind of teaching that caused the problem in the first place. But if students have control – and ‘control’ includes being able to delegate control to someone else who can scaffold, advise, assist, instruct, direct, and help them when needed, as well as being able to take it back whenever they wish – then such methods can be very useful. So can lectures. To all those educational researchers that object to lectures, I ask whether they have ever found them valuable in a conference (and , if not, why did they go to a conference in the first place?). It’s not the pedagogy of lectures that is at fault. It’s the requirement to attend them and the accompanying expectation that people are going to learn what you are teaching as a result. That’s, simply put, empirically wrong. It doesn’t mean that lecturees learn nothing. Far from it. But what you teach and what they learn are different kinds of animal.

Problems with unteaching

It’s really easy to be a bad unteacher – I think that is what Miss Smith is railing against, and it’s a fair criticism. I’m often pretty bad at it myself, though I have had a few successes along the way too. Unteaching and, especially, the pedagogies that result from having done unteaching, are far more likely to go wrong, and they take a lot more emotional, intellectual, and social effort than traditional teaching because they don’t come pre-assembled. They have no convenient structures and processes in place to do the teaching for you.  Traditional teaching ‘works’ even when it doesn’t. If you throw someone into a school system, with all its attendant rewards, punishments, timetables, rules and curricula, and if you give them the odd textbook and assessment along the way, then most students will wind up learning something like what is intended to be taught by the system, no matter how awful the teachers might be. In such a system, students will rarely learn well, rarely persistently, rarely passionately, seldom kindly, and the love of learning will have been squashed out of many of them along the way (survivors often become academics and teachers themselves). But they will mostly pass tests at the end of it. With a bit of luck many might even have gained a bit of useful knowledge or skill, albeit that much will be not just wasted and forgotten as easily as a hotel room number when your stay is over, but actively disliked by the end of it. And, of course, they will have learned dependent ways of learning that will serve them poorly outside institutional systems.

To make things far worse, those very structures that assist the traditional teacher (grades, compulsory attendance, fixed outcomes, concept of failure, etc) are deeply antagonistic to unteaching and are exactly why it is needed in the first place. Unteachers face a huge upstream struggle against an overwhelming tide that threatens to drown passionate learning every inch of the way. The results of unteaching can be hard to defend within a traditional educational system because, by conventional measures, it is often inefficient and time-consuming. But conventional measures only make sense when you are trying to make everyone do the same things, through the same means, with the same ends, measured by and in order to meet the same criteria. That’s precisely the problem.

The final nail in unteaching’s coffin is that it is applied very unevenly across the educational system, so every freedom it brings is counterbalanced by a mass of reiterated antagonistic lessons from other courses and programs. Every time we unteach someone, two others reteach them.  Ideally, we should design educational systems that are friendlier to and more supportive of learner autonomy, and that are (above all else) respectful of learners as human beings. In K-12 teaching there are plenty of models to draw from, including Summerhill, Steiner (AKA Waldorf) schools, Montessori schools, Experiential Learning Schools etc. Few are even close to perfect, but most are at least no worse than their conventional counterparts, and they start with an attitude of respect for the children rather than a desire to make them conform. That alone makes them worthwhile. There are even some regional systems, such as those found in Finland or (recently) British Columbia, that are heading broadly in the right direction. In universities and colleges there are plenty of working models, from Oxford tutorials to Cambridge supervisions, to traditional theses and projects, to independent study courses and programs, to competency-based programs, to PLAR/APEL portfolios, and much more. It is not a new idea at all. There is copious literature and many theoretical models that have stood the test of time, from andragogy to communities of practice, through to teachings from Freire, Illich, Dewey and even (a bit quirkily) Vygotsky. Furthermore, generically and innately, most distance and e-learning unteaches better than its p-learning counterparts because teachers cannot exert the same level of control and students must learn to learn independently. Sadly, much of it is spoiled by coercing students with grades, thereby providing the worst of both worlds: students are forced to behave as the teacher demands in their terminal behaviours but, without physical copresence, are less empowered by guidance and emotional/social support with the process. Much of my own research and teaching is concerned with inverting that dynamic – increasing empowerment and social support through online learning, while decreasing coercion. I’d like to believe that my institution, Athabasca University, is largely dedicated to the same goal, though we do mostly have a way to go before we get it right.

Why it matters

Unteaching is to a large extent concerned with helping learners – including adult learners – to get back to the point at which most children start their school careers – driven by curiosity, personal interest, social value, joy, delight – but that is schooled out of them over years of being taught dependency.  Once misconceptions about what education is for, what teachers do, and how we learn, have been removed, teaching can happen much more effectively: supporting, nurturing, inspiring, challenging, responding, etc, but not controlling, not making students do things they are not ready to do for reasons that mean little to them and have even less to do with what they are learning.

However, though it is an immensely valuable terminal outcome, improved learning is perhaps not the biggest reason for unteaching. The real issue is moral: it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest value is that students are far more likely to have been treated with the respect, care, and honour that all human beings deserve along the way. Not ‘care’ of the sort you would give to a dog when you train it to be obedient and well behaved. Care of the sort that recognizes and valorizes autonomy and diversity, that respects individuals, that cherishes their creativity and passion, that sees learners as ends in themselves, not products or (perish the thought) customers. That’s a lesson worth teaching, a way of being that is worth modelling. If that demands more effort, if it is more fallible, and if it means that fewer students pass your tests, then I’m OK with that. That’s the price of admission to the unlearning zone.


Recording of my TCC2016 keynote: The Distributed Teacher

This is the recording of my keynote at the TCC2016 online conference, on the nature of learning and teaching: the inherently social, distributed nature of it, why e-learning is fundamentally different from p-learning, and how we harmfully transfer pedagogies and processes from physical classrooms to online contexts in which they do not belong. If you want to watch it, skip the first 5 minutes because there was a problem with the sound and video (I hate you, Adobe Connect): the talk itself begins at a few seconds after the 5 minute mark.

Downloadable slides and details of the themes are at

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Why do we not ban use of cellphones in online learning?

Banning mobile phones is cargo cult science is a good, laudably brief, dismissive, critical review of the dangerously-reported recently published study by the London School of Economics that, amongst other things, shows a correlation between banning of mobile phones in schools and improved grades. As the title of the post suggests, the report does not show that banning mobile phones in schools is what improves grades in any way at all, despite the fact that the report writers do seem to believe that this is what they have shown: indeed, they recommend banning mobile phones as a cost effective measure to improve grades! That is so opposite to the obvious conclusion it is not even funny. To me, it shows a terrible failure at a massive systemic level. It’s not cellphone use that’s the problem – it’s the teaching. More precisely, it’s the system of teaching. I am sure that the vast majority of individual teachers are doing wonders, under extremely adverse circumstances. But they are doing so in a completely broken system. 

The interesting thing for me is that this would never come up as an issue for online and distance learners. Well, almost never: perhaps occasionally, study guides might recommend you set aside undistracted time for some (not all) kinds of study and webinar leaders might suggest that participants switch off phones and other distractions. But this is only at most a bit of practical advice, not an edict.

The point here is that command-and-control teaching methods of traditional classrooms have no meaning or relevance in online learning. This makes it all the more odd that we continue to see substantially the same pedagogies being used for online teaching as those found in the over-controlling environment of teacher-led classrooms. Obvious culprits like lecture-based MOOCs are just the more visible tip of this weird bit of skeuomorphism but the general principle runs across the board from instructivist textbooks through more enlightened uses of social constructivist methods in discussion forums. Too often, implicitly or explicitly, we act under the illusion that how we teach is how people learn, as though we still had students trapped in a classroom, controlling (almost literally) their every move.  The unholy and inseparable continued twinning of fixed-length courses and the use of grades to drive student progress is very much to blame, though a lack of imagination doesn’t help. These technologies evolved because of the physics of classrooms, not because they are good ways to support learning. In almost every way, they are actually antagonistic to learning. Online learning can, does and should liberate learners, giving them control. So let’s stop teaching them as though we were the ones in charge. It is crazy that we should voluntarily shackle ourselves when there is absolutely no need for it.

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