Reading backwards

Hey, everyone. I’ve noticed that a lot of new people have been visiting this site lately. I really appreciate it!
For those of who you are new, I would highly recommend reading this blog in the order that I wrote my posts – ie, starting from the old, and then going towards the new. Not only is my best work so far at the beginning, but read this way, the posts form a sort of coherent narrative.

Letting students choose the contents of a lecture

Last year, (as she does every year,) my cognition professor did something incredible. She allowed our class (0f 600+ students) to determine what the material for the last week of the course would be. We held an in-class vote on it, and eventually the topic of Autism won out.

So why am I pointing this out? Well, according to SDT (self-determination theory), there are countless benefits to giving people choices when they’re completing an activity. In Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci writes about a study he did on this effect. All participants were given the change to work on a set of puzzles. However, participants in the experimental group were offered a choice about which puzzles to work on, while those in the control group were assigned particular puzzles. As a result, those in the experimental condition (1) spent more time playing with the puzzles and (2) reported liking them more.

As Deci goes on explaining himself, I see snippets of what my cognition teacher did, and the ramifications of it:

“The opportunity to make even these small choices had made a difference in their experience and strengthened their intrinsic motivation. … People who were asked to do a particular task but allowed the freedom of having some say in how to do it were more fully engaged by the activity. …

Providing choice is a central feature in supporting a person’s autonomy. It is thus important that people in positions of authority begin to consider how to provide more choice. Even in crowded classrooms, fast-paced offices, or harried doctors’ offices there are ways, and the more creative one is, the more possibilities one will find. Why not give students choice about what field trips to take and what topics to write their papers about, for example? …

[Meaningful choice] encourages people to fully endorse what they are doing; it pulls them into the activity and allows them to feel a greater sense of volition; it decreases their alienation.

In all of my time going through schooling (and that’s 17 years and counting!), I have never seen a teacher give students choice in such a manner. Teachers often let students choose what topic to do their assignments on, but they never let them determine the content of their lectures.

For thinking creatively and democratically, and for proving that education reforms can take place even in large, alienating lecture hall classes, this action my cognition teacher took deserves her the title of education trailblazer!

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:

Sourcing and Managing Funds
State and Society

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!!


  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

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.