A new way to go about interdisciplinary learning

Currently, under the traditional education system, the vast majority of a students’ schooling takes place in classes divided by academic discipline:

English, Math, Geography, Science, etc.

And this pattern continues on from ~Grade 3, all the way to university. So, for instance, most management students take the following “core courses”:

Finance, Marketing, Operations, Human Resources, etc.

And then go on to study 1-3 academic disciplines. In one of my previous posts, I described how schools need to show students the meaningful connections between the different things they’re learning in school. Well, our students rarely ever get a chance to make connections between these subjects. It’s as if they’re living double lives, (or rather, 5-9 “lives” at a time)! Each subject is taught in separate classrooms, separate teachers, separate material, and often with different sets of classmates.

So far, there have been good efforts to promote interdisciplinary learning. These efforts are great, and should be promoted in our schools. For instance,

1) Some teachers so try to incorporate material from other disciplines. For instance, when a poli sci prof includes a bit of sociological network theory in 1 or 2 of their social movements lectures. (In particular, the teachers who do this, tend to be the ones who have some autonomy to determine the content they teach, rather than being restricted by government mandates, departmental rules, and the like.)

2) Many schools are trying to help students integrate their learning by introducing multidisciplinary courses, and “integrative/capstone project” courses.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe these methods are great, and should be promoted. But I just don’t think they go far enough for at least 2 reasons:

1) Often times, a topic which spans over multiple disciplines is explored, but no perspective taking is ever quite achieved. What do I mean by that? Well, picture you and a friend sitting in a room, and one of you holds up a sculpture (by some famous artist) between the two of you. If each of you is asked to describe the sculpture, the two of you will most likely come up with similar but different answers, because each of you is viewing the object from a different perspective. Now, to use the example I brought up earlier, picture political science being one of you, and sociology being the other. Often what happens when a teacher introduces an interdisciplinary topic, they are still viewing it from their disciplines’ perspective. The interdisciplinary learning then becomes relatively superficial in nature.

2) At most, students take 1-2 interdisciplinary courses out of several years of schooling. It’s like learning to professionally sing using karaoke rather than a music coach. They don’t cut to the heart of the matter. To “go further” with interdisciplinary learning, we need to challenge our assumption that students’ learning always has to be organized  by discipline.

MBA Program Cores

Many leading-edge business schools are already starting to approach education from the perspective of issues, rather than disciplines. Take the Yale School of Management, for instance. Their MBA core is structured by “Organizational Perspectives.” Students take courses such as:

Competitor
Customer
Investor
Sourcing and Managing Funds
State and Society
Employee
Innovator
etc.

As Yale describes it,
“Today, managerial careers cross functions, organizations, and industries, as well as cultural and political boundaries. Yale SOM teaches management fundamentals in an integrated way — the way successful managers must function every day. […] This focus on organizational role, instead of disciplinary topic, creates a richer, more relevant context for students to learn the concepts they need to succeed as leaders.”

These courses form a coherent narrative, which is, what our brains are actually looking for. This method of structuring is more realistic, because this is what people normally do. People don’t wake up in the morning and think, “what kind of geography am I going to do today?”, they think, “how am I going to solve this problem of mine?” and then draw from whatever disciplines/schools of thought that are necessary to solve the problem. Of course, some jobs are very specialized, but many others are ones where people have to build bridges between different kinds of information.

But who says that you need to wait 15 years to get to your Master’s level to get this kind of interdisciplinary schooling? And who says that you need to become a management student to do so? My recommendation here is to bring this kind of structuring to more schools, and to more subjects, and to have it trickle down to the undergrad, and high school levels. But remember, this is not to replace traditional disciplines, but to complement them. Students should feel free to pick some courses that are organized around traditional disciplines, and some others that are not.

Bird courses, as an example of extrinsic motivation

Many university students pick their elective courses based on how easy they are. Any time a course becomes significantly easier than the rest on campus, it starts to become known as a “bird course.” For example, in the university where I’m studying, some of the most well-known “bird courses” are “Natural Disasters” and “The Art of Listening.” These courses quickly become really popular, because hey, who wouldn’t want to raise their GPA?

But this, to me, is one of the effects of students being externally motivated – how they’re being motivated to act by grades, rather than by the course material itself. Consequently, thousands of students end up taking courses that aren’t very meaningful to them, and that aren’t in line with their life goals and interests. To put it bluntly, it wastes the students’ time and energy, as well as the schools’.

In order to behave in an intrinsically motivated fashion, a student has to work against the system, rather than with it. They have to reassure themselves that “even if I don’t do well, it’s OK, because I’m going to learn a lot of meaningful information.”

So how do we fix this?

This is much easier said than done. In an ideal world, we would give students credits for being more or less interested and/or personally invested in their courses. But then, there’d be nothing stopping students from claiming to be 100% intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. And we could resort to lie detector tests to sort that out, but of course, that’s just ridiculous and invasive!

Psychologists have actually found many, many ways to test someone’s level of intrinsic motivation on any given task. For instance, you can have a person perform an activity for a specific period of time. And then, once that time is up, you give the person “free time” to do whatever they please. The more the person continues to spend their time on the first activity, the more that person is said to be intrinsically motivated.

This could be successfully applied to a school setting, but definitely NOT if it affects students’ grades. Because the minute they perceive that this test will affect their grade, they will spend all of their “free time” doing their activity. So the problem is not being able to track intrinsic motivation. The problem is when we try to use intrinsic motivation as a diagnostic tool, in order to determine a person’s grade, or to reward or punish them in any, shape, or form. Because rewards and punishments are just that – extrinsic motivators!

“Making room” for intrinsic motivation

So the solution then is not to track intrinsic motivation, but to make room for it. To give students a space (and resources) where they can pursue their interests, without having to be obsessed about their transcript, their resume, or “what a future employer/school will think about this.”

And there are many ways to go about doing this. One of such solutions is actually one that’s already in place in some schools here in North America: pass/fail courses. Here, as long as a student passes the course, it will show up as a “pass” on their transcript. The specific grade they get in the course will not affect their GPA. This solution is easier to implement than some of the other ones I will present in the future, because it fits so nicely into the rest of the traditional (and completely outdated!) system. It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion, but it’s a start, and it’s headed in the right direction.

We need to expand the pass/fail system to high school and CEGEP levels, and properly explain it within the context of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to students. I have no idea why these concepts have been around for over 40 years, and yet the vast majority of students have never been taught them, even though (1) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – what, we never had the chance to tell them about this even once? (2) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – these concepts are so prevalent and relevant in their lives!!

Conclusions:

  1. “Bird courses” are a prime example of extrinsically motivated students.
  2. Intrinsic motivation can be measured, but not if the person knows that they will receive a reward and/or punishment as a result of the measurement’s outcome.
  3. Tracking students’ intrinsic motivation (in the “non-contingent” manner) will not decrease it, but nor will it increase it. In order to foster intrinsic motivation, you need to “make room” for it (in terms of space, time, and resources).
  4. One (but definitely not the only) way to “make room” for intrinsic motivation is to use and properly explain the pass/fail system.

The Hole-in-the-Wall project, as an example of intrinsic motivation

The Hole-in-the-Wall project was dreamed up by Dr. Sugata Mitra, a scientist in Delhi. He wondered, “what would happen if you stuck a computer in a wall in a poor neighbourhood, and let children have free access to it with no supervision?’

The computer was an instant hit with the kids. There was always a line-up for it! The children taught themselves to not only use the computer, but to play the educational games installed on it.

“Now, there are 48 of these across Delhi, and the idea has caught on across the world.”

This is an example of how children really are intrinsically motivated to learn and become educated. You see, no one ever forced them to use the computer, and the children received no external rewards or grades or gold stars for playing the games. But yet, many of them keep coming back to it, again and again, and day after day. “Amazing,” eh?

On a personal level, this is something that I’d like to do someday – something really awesome like this that imparts the gift and the joy of learning to youth.

To learn more about the Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd, visit http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com

Values-based education

I believe that our education should be more explicitly values-based. Of course, it’s important to have students go through an educational process. But students also need time to step out off of their proverbial treadmill, and take a look at what they’re doing and why. To be more mindful, and conscious of their education, rather than “just going through the motions.” The same goes for our teachers, staff, and school administrators, who also sometimes lose sight of our many “raisons d’être.”

Edit: Here is a GREAT example of a values-based education! I just discovered this great TEDx talk by Zoe Weil, the President of the Institute for Humane Education. Weil talks about how students need to learn much more than just math, English, and science. They need to learn to be morally conscious, and globally aware… to be a part of the world’s solutions, rather than to perpetuate its problems.

What students and teachers are really thinking about

People often talk about what we learn in school, and offer suggestions on how to change or upgrade our schools’ curriculum. (I, for one, have several recommendations on this front. More on those in the future!) But I have yet to see someone outline a step-by-step process of schooling that students go through in our system. So here’s my first attempt at it.

Let’s look at the process of what goes on when a student writes an essay for school.

Note: I’m saying “essay” here, but you can replace this with “research paper,” “project,” “lab report,” or any other long piece of text that a student is asked to write.

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
  2. The student writes the essay.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again. Either,

a) The student throws it away at the end of the school year.
b) The teacher stores it, and then shreds it after a few years.
c) The student stores it in their room, closet, or basement. They usually never look at it again, except on occasion, when they feel like reminiscing.

Alright, so what’s on their minds?

Let’s look at this process from the perspective of moment-by-moment consciousness. In other words, what are the students and teachers thinking about during each of these stages? What’s occupying their minds? What’s motivating them to act?

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
    They describes the main purposes of the essay, and how it fits into the curriculum, and this is great. But it doesn’t last very long. The discussion quickly segways into grading, rules, timing.
    Student questions revolve around grading:
    “How many pages long should it be?”, “Do we need a cover page?”, “What’s the late penalty?” etc.
  2. The student writes the essay.
    Their primary goal here is to get a good grade.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
    Their questions usually revolve around optimizing their grade. Because, after all, the students who get the best grades are the ones who are able to “psych out” their teacher a bit.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
    While they’re reading, they’re mainly focusing on how well they hold up against the criteria that they previously established. (Granted, I’ve personally only ever had one experience with grading papers, but I can attest that was the #1 thing on my mind the entire time I was correcting.)
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
    The student looks through the paper to make sure that they got a fair grade. They make sure the teacher added up the points correctly. Many of them only look at the questions/parts where they lost points. They don’t even care to look at what they did right, because hey, as long as you got the credit, what else matters??
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
    Most of the time, the student is here to contest the parts of the essay they think were wrongly graded as incorrect/poor.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again.

Notice how at every step of the process, everyone’s main focus is on the grading of the essay. De jure, grades are supposed to be a means to an end, but de facto, the subject material is treated as the means, while the grades is treated like the end. As John Holt puts it, “We encourage [students] to feel that the end and aim of all they do in school is nothing more than to get a good mark on a test, or to impress someone with what they seem to know.”

Caveats

Now, admittedly the above analysis makes a lot of sweeping generalizations.

1. First of all, students actually do spend a lot of time thinking about the course material. It’s not like it’s being ignored or anything! And some of these essays, and teacher-student conversations can and do get very deep.

I would argue, however, that the breadth and depth of their contemplation is only as deep as the grading asks of them. Most students are very busy, and their grades in their other classes would suffer if they went deeper or more broad then what is required of them. This only gets worse in university, when students are pressured to read more and write more in a shorter amount of time. The pressure to do well also increases, as students are now working towards a GPA, and are facing tougher “competition” among their classmates. Then, there are even less opportunities for deeper thinking and creative insights.

Some schools pride themselves on how they set “high standards” for their students, by requiring them to do more, read more, and memorize more. But ironically, these “higher standards” often lead to lower quality education.

2. Second of all, there are also individual differences between students. Some will be more intrinsically motivated in each subject than others. And that’s to be accepted, understood, and even celebrated in my opinion. But that doesn’t take away from how, I believe, the dominant culture among students is to be grade-focused and extrinsically motivated.

3. The second diagram is called an “ideal” for a reason. Reaching this ideal is easier said than done, and it’s impractical for it to be reached 100% of the time. But that’s OK, and it doesn’t take away from us striving towards that ideal, letting students know about this ideal, and reminding students about this ideal when times get rough or boring.

What’s more important: learning, or measuring our learning?

MindShift posted this question on their Facebook page.

“Why do students go from unbounded curiosity to learning in school that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question.”

 

And here was my response:

“1) Because teachers implicitly endorse the worldview that has been passed on to them throughout their own schooling: that being an intellectual is more about how much knowledge you’ve acquired and retained, rather than about HOW you think and process whatever enters yours life. (When really, it’s a mix of both!)

2) Because we’re uncomfortable with not knowing to what degree our teaching is being effective. So we design our curricula around things that are quickly and easily measurable. And “knowing the right answer” on a multiple choice test is far easier to measure than “asking a thoughtful question.””

Introducing Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

One of my “3 big causes” that I outline in this blog’s tagline is intrinsic motivation. This will be a concept that I intend on coming back to again and again. Now I know that most of you already know what these are… I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page before I start flaunting these terms around!

Intrinsic Motivation (IM) is when you engage in an activity for its own sake. You do it, because you want to do it, and you fully endorse what you’re doing. The activity itself rewards you with a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, or enjoyment.

Extrinsic Motivation (EM) is the complete opposite of IM. It’s when you do an activity in order to receive an external reward, such as money, grades, or prizes. You perceive the activity you engage in as a means to an end.

IM and EM have been studied quite a lot in social psychology. They are at the heart of many psychological theories, including Cognitive Evaluation theory, and Self-Determination Theory. Countless studies have been done that look at the difference in effects of IM and EM, ever since the 1960s, and continuing today. Even as we speak. Heck, I’m currently a participant in a longitudinal study about EM, IM, and life goals!

For instance, studies have shown that the following correlate positively with intrinsic motivation:

1. Enjoyment
2. Pursuit of challenge
3. Cognitive flexibility and Creativity
4. Spontaneity and Expressiveness
5. Positive Emotional Tone in relating to other

The concepts of IM and EM apply so well to education. For instance, in her studies, Susan Harter found that students’ level of curiosity and interest in school actually decrease as they age (and move through the school system). There was a particular drop when students moved from elementary to junior high school. All of the following were found to be external motivators which caused this:

1.Rewards
2.Punishment
3.Negative Reinforcement (Threats)
4.Surveillance
5.Deadlines
6.Evaluation
7.Goal Imposition
8.Competition

Don’t these sound all too familiar in our current educational system? And while the solution to this is most certainly not to simply get rid of all of those external motivators, this most definitely opens the door to break down our assumptions about each of these external motivators, and to question their effectiveness. For instance, grades may be a great way to get a student to read throughout the semester, but if done in a controlling way, it may lead to students wanting to read less after they graduate from school – not quite the “future-oriented” result we were looking for!

It is often said that our current educational system was born during the time of the industrial revolution. But, I believe, now that we have made huge progress in the field of motivational psychology, it is about time to have our educational system catch up! We need to start approaching these techniques in light of the psychological advances we’ve been making over the past few decades. And I intend to help out in this effort in some of my future posts.

In the meantime, I encourage you to watch “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation” if you haven’t seen it already.