Psychological "urban myths" come in a few flavours. Some, such as the idea that high self-esteem leads to less violent behaviour, are so completely, hilariously, overwhelmingly, unambiguously wrong* that you'd be hard-pressed to make up something so deliciously ironic. Others, such as the idea of "motivating" people with contingent external rewards, are deeply flawed, though not utterly wrong under all circumstances**. Then there are the cases where the popular thinking may be more or less right, but the benefits have been overstated and costs overlooked. This article targets one such case.
The power of a clear goal is regularly extolled by people from fields as disparate as game design and life coaching, and has a significant body of scientific evidence going for it. In particular, specific and challenging goals are thought to be the best kind. Specific goals allow for clear feedback, another powerful feature of good learning and work environments. For example, "go to the gym three times a week" is something that you can be clear about whether you're achieving, in a way in which "exercise more" doesn't allow you to be. Challenging goals encourage you to stretch yourself, to get the most out of yourself while not being so difficult that you abandon hope of achieving them.
What could possibly be wrong with this? Lisa Ordóñez and her co-authors consider a number of problems. I counted seven, which neatly fits in with Snow White's seven dwarves, except that I had to give them different, rather more unfortunate names. Specific, challenging goals [dwarves] can do the following:
1. Degrade performance ['underachiever'];
2. Shift of focus away from other important goals ['absent-minded'];
3. Harm personal relationships ['tactless'];
4. Corrode organisational culture ['antisocial'];
5. Motivate risky and unethical behaviours ['thoughtless'];
6. Inhibit learning ['rigid']; and
7. Harm intrinsic motivation ['ennui'].
In reading the paper one thing in particular struck me: there were no nasty side-effects of goals that were challenging but not specific. It was the specificity of goals that was causing all the above problems. Challenge could cause specific goals to "go wild" even more, but on its own, challenge doesn't seem to be causing these ill effects.
So how do we square the above side-effects with the known benefits of specific, challenging goals? The authors give us the following analogy: although a strong medicine may be very good at curing a disease, giving it to a healthy person would only make them feel worse due to the side effects. Similarly, specific and challenging goals should be given out carefully, only in situations where they are needed and can fix a problem, rather than willy-nilly to everyone, even those who are already performing well.
Enjoy the episode.
*Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem. Roy Baumeister, Laura Smart, and Joseph Boden, Psychological Review, 1996.
**See Drive (episode 2 of this podcast) and Punished by Rewards (episodes 5a and 5b).
So far, we have seen a several books with messages relating to the psychology of motivation, particularly to the conditions under which people have greater motivations to do difficult tasks (Drive, Punished by Rewards), as well as what kinds of attitudes lead to greater learning and improvement (Mindset). In The Practicing Mind, we get a look at the phenomenology of these conditions, i.e. what does it feel like to be intrinsically motivated and have a growth mindset?
Thomas Sterner is a jazz pianist and piano restorer. As a child he found practice to be boring and frustrating, but with time he came to both enjoy it and see greater progress, which he puts down to an originally mostly subconscious understanding of how practice should be carried out. He was particularly struck by the need for a greater public understanding of practice when he took up golf in his mid-thirties.
On the golf course, he would see people who had been playing golf for ten or twenty years who still didn't look much better than beginners. They would be terrible at the game, and yet not know why, or how to change their game. He compares them to musicians who have been playing the piano for twenty years and yet still didn't know that they were supposed to play with their fingers, not their elbows.
Sterner shows us his philosophy of the power and meaning of discipline, focus, and the quieting of the mind. Laced with insights from eastern philosophies, the author shows us the futility of expecting perfection, and the contentment we can gain from an honest relationship with what we are doing. His ideas are applicable in almost any domain of life, if we are to believe, as he does, that "all of life is practice".
The Practicing Mind is something of an unusual book for this podcast in that it proposes ways of practicing better without any evidence other than the author's own experiences to back up its claims. In a bookshop, it would quite possibly be filed under "self-help" rather than "education". And yet, I find this first-person account to be refreshing after speaking about these issues at length from a detached, scientific standpoint. I hope that taking the personal perspective of this individual expert will be something that benefits you as much as it has me.
Enjoy the episode.
Finally! An episode with the word "teacher" in the title. What kind of teacher is Andrei Toom? And what interesting comparisons does make between education in Soviet Russia and in the USA?
Andrei Toom is a mathematician, and "teacher" here refers to his teaching of undergraduates. The fact that he self-identifies as a teacher should already strike many as strange. In the US, and to some extent in the UK as well, university research staff generally see undergraduate teaching as a burden that is best minimised or gotten rid of, rather than a duty to be fulfilled, a chance to inspire the next generation, or a central part of their job description. Toom not only doesn't see things this way, but is rather disappointed that American professors do, which is one of the things that he communicates to us through his essay.
Starting us off with a description of the difficulties of being an intellectual in the highly censored, dictatorial environment that was Soviet Russia, he then discusses the strange paradoxes of being a professor or a student in a country held up as a paragon of freedom. US students and professors find themselves in an odd situation, he tells us, whereby "the market" seems to play a similar autocratic role to the one that "the system" played in the USSR.
For example, American undergraduates are usually only interested in gaining a piece of paper to certify that they have gained knowledge, not in actually gaining the knowledge - the kind of bureaucratic absurdity that he thought could only exist in a communist state, and yet in Russia students were actually interested in learning something. Not only this, American students seem to frame learning as a loss, in the sense that if they can get all their grades without learning anything, then they would much rather do so. It is as if they are "buying" their degree certificates with learning, rather than thinking of the learning itself as intrinsically valuable. And as with any transaction, the less they have to "pay", the better.
The knowledge that the students do get is brittle. It is only considered to be applicable within the context of exam questions, and ones structured exactly the same as the ones they had seen before. Any, even minor, deviation from what they have seen before is considered irrelevant or too difficult. Toom found that he needed to shore up students' basic mathematics to get them to be able to take the course they were enrolled in, but the students were mostly unwilling to cooperate. Their reaction of defiance rather than shame at not knowing basic maths leads him to question their apparent "right to ignorance".
And yet, the strange power dynamics of American universities mean that the situation stays this way. The students who only want the grades complain, but those who want knowledge don't. There have been cases where students have sued universities for better grades, but no cases where they sued them for more or better knowledge.
I felt that this would be a good time to have an episode on something a bit different to what we've had so far. The focus has been on psychology, and will continue to be for some time, as I feel that it's important to have a good grounding in psychology before going on to such topics as teaching methods and international comparisons. Here we can at least have a flavour of some interesting topics in higher education, international comparison, and the effect of the nature of society, to broaden our perspective and give us a little break from the subject of psychology and cognitive science. It should hopefully also convince you that we will be talking about teaching in this podcast, not just animals and management!
Enjoy the episode.
Well well, the grand finale. We've seen in the previous episode how laboratory studies have shown that extrinsic rewards lead to reduced motivation and lower-quality work, as well as a priori arguments for why it's a bad idea to incentivise behaviours with rewards. For those of you who are still unconvinced, I'm losing hope a bit since I've spent a total of about 3 hours so far over two episodes (last episode and episode 2) talking about why rewards are a really bad idea. Here goes my last chance at convincing you, and your last chance to see the light.
With one more chance, what will I talk about? I imagine that those people still saying "yeah, but..." might be most convinced by research based on real-life situations, rather than on laboratory studies. Well, as luck would have it, this is exactly what Alfie Kohn covers next in his book. Picture a group of company directors from various industries talking to one another about their observations that incentive plans have caused damage to their organisations. Picture teachers, "incentivised" by controlling external accountability measures, becoming more authoritarian to the kids in their classrooms in turn - and children learning less as a result (research* has shown this, no kidding). Picture children becoming less cooperative and generous as they are given rewards for good behaviour.
For those of you who are convinced by now (hopefully most of you!), you might still be saying something like "I can see the importance of these findings, but what realistic alternatives are there to using punishments and rewards?" Thankfully, Alfie Kohn spends Part 3 of the book tackling just this issue. I don't want to spoil it for you too much, but let's just say, it can be done.
Even if just one teacher reduces or eliminates the use of contingent sweets or stickers, class rankings, inappropriate praise, or grades as a result of having listened to these past two episodes, then they will have been worth producing. Aiming a bit higher, wouldn't it be great if we could turn our society, and our world, into one that realises the value and the potential of intrinsic motivation, and the dangers of extrinsic motivators?
Enjoy the episode.
* "Controlling Teacher Strategies: Undermining Children's Self-Determination and Performance" by Cheryl Flint, Ann K. Boggiano, and Marty Barrett; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990.
You'll remember from Daniel Pink's Drive (episode 2) that common assumptions about how rewards affect motivation and behaviour have it all wrong. Common sense tells us that to motivate somebody to do a better job, we should offer them a material reward, but scientific experiments show us that this is one of the best ways to demotivate people.
Perhaps you weren't so easily convinced. Well, good news! Alfie Kohn has written a book which argues in the finest detail and with the most colossal empirical support that rewards are bad for you and for everyone else. Starting off with an argument from principle, that there's something sinister and potentially immoral about offering rewards in the first place, he continues with a book-length exposition of all the terrible things that rewards can do, according to experimental psychology.
Why should you care? Because, if you're a teacher giving out grades for assignments, then the evidence strongly suggests that you are undermining your students' motivation. If you're a parent and you reward your child for studying, then you are reinforcing the idea that learning is a useless chore with no intrinsic benefits, done only for the goodie at the end. And if you offer praise when somebody does a good deed, scientific evidence shows that you are making them less ethical and less likely to do a good deed in the future in the absence of an external reward.
The really great thing about Alfie Kohn is his reliance on evidence as opposed to common sense or rhetoric to get his points across. Although he does use the latter where appropriate, it is clear throughout all of his books, no less this one, that his conclusions are well-supported by scientific enquiry. This book is a shining example of well-grounded argumentation (and of myth-busting). At the risk of not sounding impartial anymore, I'm willing to say that, as far as his approach to evidence is concerned, I personally consider Alfie Kohn to be a kind of professional role model.
So much is said in this book, that I can barely even attempt to fit it into a blog post. I've had to split up the episode into two parts to fit it all in. I hope this week's episode leaves you hungry for more.
Enjoy the episode.