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.
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