19 May 2018

R&D Proposal

Currently the concept of psychological energy management does not exist in our school system, nor in most of our society.* For K-12 there is a variety of data going back decades showing that a significant amount of energy has been wasted through patterns of diminishing motivation and engagement, but we have nothing in place to substantively change that pattern.

It is time to manage how psychological energy is generated and used in schools. Like a race car driver, we need to know not only our position on the course (e.g. academics), we also need to know how much energy we have available to complete the race (e.g. motivation & engagement). Using the well-established theoretical framework of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) we can talk productively about how psychological energy is generated, allocated, and used. Psychological energy is generated when primary psychological needs are met. Allocation (a.k.a. motivation) determines how much energy we will invest in the available activities. Energy use (a.k.a. engagement) is how efficiently we burn the energy as we participate in the activities. This project would create methods of tracking and influencing how well energy is being generated, allocated, and used in schools and the impacts that the observed patterns have on valued outcomes. 

The management of systems requires good feedback. The reason we are currently failing at the larger systems-level of schooling is that the wrong feedback is getting our attention. Our schools are novices when it comes to executive functions and, more importantly, the deeper learning processes that will positively affect executive functions. Success requires expertise. The relevant form of organizational expression of expertise is when cultural patterns automatically incorporate a function without the designation of a role to manage it. Successful business organizations do not need a Vice President of Profit because the function of producing a profit is automatically fulfilled by the organization as a whole. Schools need to automatically fulfill the function of producing deeper learning.

The difference between a novice and an expert is that the expert has become habituated to attending to multiple streams of feedback in automatic, non-conscious ways. Humans can only become true experts by switching their cognitive functions to fast automatic processes informed by good feedback. The critical phrase in that last sentence was “good feedback.” This is where schools have failed. They are not getting good feedback about how to develop deeper learning. Right now we need to pay attention to the motivation and engagement of students and teachers, the psychological conditions that facilitate deeper learning which will also improve executive functions.

The feedback issue is not about the quality of information, it is about which information is needed. By analogy consider a 1984 Chevy Corvette, a classic muscle car. I was just a sophomore in high school when it came out and it became an object of envy when a family friend bought one. Specifically, consider the driver's instrument panel in front of the steering wheel (see attachment). It consists of three boxes with the speedometer and tachometer being the largest displays. What would happen if they left out the fuel gauge in the center? Obviously, that would be a big problem. It is only “obvious” because we are so used to having and using fuel gauges. If gas-fueled cars had never had them, we would think that tracking fuel consumption through the clever use of odometers and purchase records was fine.

Our school systems have been keeping track of academic outcomes forever and we accept that as normal, but that is only because we didn't previously know how to create any other kind of “gauge” for learning. Focusing on academics is like a driver focusing only on the speedometer and the tachometer to the neglect of the gas gauge. If prominence of display is any indication, for the driver of a Corvette the car's overland speed and the engine's rotational speed are the most important information. Despite its size the fuel gauge is crucial because having no fuel defeats the entire enterprise. Given that humans are not closed systems with regards to the “fuel” for learning we do not always run the tank dry. But the consistent and robust pattern of disengagement observed in schools and later in the workplace (reported for decades by both Gallup and a variety of psychological researchers) suggests that we are very poorly managing the “fuel” levels of students and teachers.
We humans are energy systems, not content systems. The basic design of mainstream schooling treats us as content systems. We need to stop managing the system as if the delivery, storage, and accounting of content were enough. We need a more direct gauge of learning. We need to start considering how energy flows at different levels of scale within our systems of schooling. Academic outcomes are like overland speed; they are important, but if you don't attend to the sources of the energy that make the whole thing work, you defeat your ultimate purpose. Fueling up a race car is not a highlight of racing, but without it there is no race. Motivation and engagement are how we attend to the “fueling” of the learning process. They are not the sexy bits, but they are the bits that make it all happen. It is time to take them seriously and figure out how to gauge the burning of psychological energy in schools.

The R&D focus of this project is the management of motivation and engagement. Based on the long established theoretical framework of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) it is clear that the leverage point for change is the systematic improvement of primary psychological need supports. Here is a simplified causal model derived from SDT:

Need Supports → Needs Satisfied → Good Quality of Motivation → Deep Engagement → Deep Learning (including executive function development)→ Better Observed Outcomes

Need Thwarting → Needs Unsatisfied → Poor Quality of Motivation → Shallow Engagement → Shallow Learning (including executive function stagnation)→ Worse Observed Outcomes

There are some radically different school models that have scientific data suggesting that they defy the mainstream pattern of declining motivation and engagement. But, those models are mostly on the fringes (like EdVisions, which has received some Gates support). They hold out great promise as potential sources of innovation, but only if the organizational strengths that support motivation and engagement are valued and preserved. Also, their tendency to de-emphasize academics needs to be considered in light of the psychological advantages that may be conferred by that unusual pedagogical commitment.

-- The preceding proposal is a draft that I am planning on submitting to the Chan-Zuckerberg/ Gates request for information about potential research and development projects.
* Energy management as a success strategy was first presented in the best-selling business book The Power of Full Engagementby Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

26 December 2017

A Perennial Education Debate

As John Dewey put it in 1938, “The history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without: that it is based upon natural endowments [versus] a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.” (p.1)

When Self-Determination Theory co-founder Richard Ryan teamed up with fellow psychologist Martin Lynch in 2003 to examine this age-old controversy in light of research they set the stage thus:

“Views on autonomy and control in education are strongly connected with answers to some prior questions. If one assumes humans are naturally inclined to learn, allowing students to learn autonomously makes sense. However, if it is assumed that students are inherently unmotivated or disinclined, then control is more readily justified. If one believes that society depends on the specific body of knowledge or skills that must be disseminated, or character traits that must be inculcated, then using force to compel learning might be in order. However, if one assumes that useful knowledge takes many forms and is ever-changing, then controlling what must be learned makes less sense. Similarly, if one’s goal is not obedience but moral autonomy, one will be less concerned with control, though one may regard moral autonomy as the ultimate goal while holding that some degree of control must be exercised in preparing children for later autonomy. Philosophers' views of the matter have divided especially around the matter of what motives are spontaneously present in children and whether control is helpful or unhelpful in educating children for autonomy.” (p.263)

They found that, “the use of external controls to motivate students is often associated with a distrust of human nature that assumes students will not absorb, and teachers will not teach, what is essential unless strongly guided to do so through external controls. By contrast, the advocacy of autonomous learning depends on a view of humans as inherently desiring to know and disposed to assimilate ambient social values and knowledge, whenever they are properly cared for. … [A] teachers philosophy of education and motivation readily results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (p.269-70)

The conservative fear that an education lacking structure could lead to poor results is well founded. The progressive fear that an education characterized by too much control could lead to poor results is also well founded. These fears result in pedagogues and policy makers fighting over how much control to impose (the currently dominant view in mainstream schools) versus how much freedom to impose (a marginal but growing segment of the industry). These reactions are understandable given those fears.

The problem arises from how actions taken in response to these fears are applied in a manner that undermines the psychological foundations of deep learning. I suspect that everyone would agree that deeper learning is the desired result (at least for their own children). I take it as a basic tenet of fairness that the same psychological conditions need to apply for all children, since the aspect of psychology I am concerned with is universal, not culturally contingent. Therefore, I contend that we psychologists do not need to take sides in the pedagogical debate, we need to ensure that the psychological foundations are universally solid and then let the pedagogues work it out amongst themselves.

If conservative pedagogues want to offer a standardized test-driven curriculum then they should be free to do so, as long as they are able to show that they maintain the psychological conditions that are necessary for deeper learning of that curriculum. They would need to show that their students and teachers maintain their intrinsic motivation and engagement for the typical activities of schooling. If the intrinsic motivation and engagement of students diminish over time then they need to figure out how to do their thing in a manner that maintains those psychological conditions for deeper learning.

The same is true of the progressive educators pedagogues who are inclined to impose freedom. If they can show that their students and teachers are maintaining their intrinsic motivation and engagement for the typical activities of schooling then they are doing fine.

Given the psychological research I've seen so far I suspect the conservative pedagogues will have more difficulties with this kind of accountability, but that might not be the case over the long term. They might figure out how to do it. They have the advantage of being closer to the default image of schooling in most people's minds. They just have to figure out how to get that institutional arrangement to work in terms of motivation and engagement. The point is to eliminate the abuses of power that can go with the structures they favor.


The same elimination of abuses of power is crucial to the long term success of the progressive pedagogies that make freedom their raison d'ĂȘtre. In the past this side of the pedagogical spectrum has tended to equate structure with a lack of freedom and conclude that freedom requires a lack of structure. Psychological research has shown that this attitude was in error. Their challenge will be figuring out which kinds of structure are the most useful for achieving their goals and getting the use of those structures to become a commonly accepted image of schooling.  

11 December 2017

Shape of Earth Resource

I'm just putting a few things that I think address the shape of the earth in respectable ways, just in case I decide I want to weigh in sometime.

This first video is one in which the presenter is doing an experiment which would demonstrate the specific geometric relationships between three points of know relationships to a calm flat body of water. This is a crucial piece of information because it determines a starting point for then gathering other information to determine the overall shape. I have been disappointed with other videos for being too cavalier about measuring the specific relationship of the camera to the water's surface.



I take this experiment to establish clearly that three points that are all exactly the same distance from the surface of calm water would not be in a straight line, thus the earth cannot be concave nor flat. The earth must be some kind of concave shape in which about 50 millimeters per half mile of curvature.