Sunday, December 16, 2018

If learning is an evolved adaptation, then why aren't teens curious?

The Duke Institute of Brain Studies has taken an interest in BreakAway Learning, and we're delighted to have this blog contribution from Duke graduate student, Leon Li. Leon focuses his research on psychology, language, and shared intentionality. His work highlights the human social cognitive capacity for reasoning about others' mental states. Learn more about his work at: 

Greetings, BreakAway family! When Colleen kindly asked me to write a blog post relating psychology to the BreakAway project, my thoughts turned to some ideas from developmental psychology that I hope to share here. To begin, I am grateful to Colleen for the wonderful opportunity to write a blog post relating psychology to the vision of the BreakAway Learning Project. 

BreakAway raises two concerns about the education system: 1) the education is not motivating, and 2) the education is not useful. Ideally, we want the system to embody both motivation and usefulness: we want students to be highly motivated to learn things that are highly useful. 

Where did boredom come from?

It seems that society is reluctant to allow students to pursue their intrinsic motivations, for fear that the topics that would be most motivating to students would not be very useful (e.g., the worry that students would just devote their time to learning how to mix beats on Garageband). The position that society seems to have settled on is to compromise motivation for usefulness, that is, to compel students to study topics that are not motivating but are, at least, useful. 

BreakAway’s critique, however, is that the current system may not be motivating or useful! 

I am sympathetic to this critique. Since I don’t know much about economics, I can’t comment on how to improve usefulness. Here, though, are some thoughts about motivation.

My impression about the motivation to learn is that learning is optimal (i.e., most motivated and most effective) when it occurs in a goal-directed, socially situated setting. This is because learning is a cognitive skill that has evolved over millions of years to be adaptive for a particular kind of setting. It stands to reason that learning, as an evolved adaptation, would function best in the naturalistic setting for which it evolved.

What was the naturalistic setting for which learning evolved? Certainly, it was not the setting that we use today, namely, age-segregated classrooms that teach abstract, specialized, and inapplicable knowledge (and then burden the rest of the students’ time with tedious homework).

Rather, learning evolved to take place in the spontaneous movements of everyday life. Learning evolved to enable children to participate, from an early age, in all the various normative, cultural, economic, and instrumental practices that constituted their in-group’s way of living. The fact that children are intrinsically motivated to learn and to participate in culture is apparent to anthropologists and parents everywhere.

Thus, the real question is not: how do we inspire curiosity? A bright curiosity already exists from the start. The real question is: why does curiosity go away? Or, to put it another way: how do we keep curiosity from going away?

Here is a preliminary answer. If learning is best adapted for a certain kind of setting, it stands to reason that the motivation to learn will be best preserved if the natural setting for learning is likewise preserved. Here is where BreakAway’s proposal seems intuitive and fitting: provide students with settings where they can pursue their intrinsic motivations, and then facilitate the pursuit of those interests with the guidance of adult experts.

I think that these settings would really strengthen the motivation to learn. The real joy of learning, I think, is the joy of discovering things together. We may say that shared intentionality (i.e., the
Shared experiences and knowledge are inherent to
learning.  That is, our brains work better with peers.
alignment of mental states onto shared referents, such as shared experiences or shared knowledge) is inherent to learning. Two important settings of shared intentionality are peer interaction and expert guidance. Of course, both are vital contributors to the learning process.

In peer interaction, learning really takes on a spirit of discovery. When experts are not around to present students with “the truth” in a readily packaged form, then students must turn to their own reasoning, deliberation, and exchange of ideas to construct a vision of what makes sense. What makes peer interaction so special is that it actually reflects how science works at the boundaries of knowledge. Scientists who work on unanswered questions cannot turn to experts, since the knowledge has not yet been found. Instead, scientists turn to each other.

On the basis of their existing knowledge, scientists formulate questions and hypotheses, propose and administer methods to pursue those questions, interpret their data, and present all the steps of their questioning, hypothesizing, data collection, and data interpretation to their peers in the scientific community. The scientific process is dynamic, and the boundaries of knowledge are always changing. To give students a portrayal of science as a “list of right answers” is really to deprive them of the experience and the joy of thinking – real thinking – about how to make sense of the unknown.

In addition to peer interaction, expert guidance is also crucial. After all, expertise does exist; it is not like we have no previously established knowledge deserving of our confidence.

Students could really benefit from the company of experts. Experts not only know the material of their expertise, but they also know what they don’t know – and what others are likely to not know. In psychology, there is a bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the tendency for novices to overestimate their knowledge because they don’t know what they don’t know. In addition to helping students counteract the Dunning-Kruger effect, experts can help students in all sorts of ways: helping them ask the right questions, helping them look in the right places for answers, and providing encouragement. Overall, we may say that experts may provide “scaffolding” for students who are, so to speak, building their knowledge from the ground up.

It makes sense to situate learning within its natural evolutionary setting: in collaborative groups where students pursue their intrinsic interests, while being guided by the wisdom and expertise of their elders. The idea that learning should be situated within its natural setting is a simple one, but an elegant one and perhaps a much-needed one in this time.

Monday, December 10, 2018

College-aged kids before 40? The lonely feeling of 'Stop! This whole thing is a hoax!'

So I started having kids at twenty, and now we have five. No need to go over the odd demographic niche I’ve been living in from attic-of-pizza-restaurant to condemned-tear-down in northern Virginia. I love my kids, I go to church, I homeschool. I also have a graduate degree, speak three languages and worked as a development economist for twenty years. It’s the running theme in my life that I kind of don’t fit in anywhere.

But in particular, it hurts to watch my older teens struggle with the overwhelming cultural demand for college-going, when I know the hype-in-slick-packaging, the readily available unbundled alternatives, and the real pain of debt repayment. It hurts, because their friends’ parents are all 50+ and happy as pigs in shit to send Zoe and Chloe to Barnard and Smith ($72,000/year be damned! She’s my pride and joy!), and because my age-mates are all at Gymboree.

I post rants against high school (it subdivides and micro-manages teens’ days to the point that nothing excites them. They become cynical, disengaged, mechanical models of what they think admissions committees expect), and my family and peers quietly click elsewhere. They are all happily snapping photos of 3- and 5- and 8-year-olds at school and pumpkin patches. Most of them see school as the heart of their lives, the wellspring of activities, friendships and community.
"War is peace. Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength."

I post to homeschooling groups, but I feel like only a handful of us are homeschooling teenagers. Other posts are about physically juggling children, cooking and crafts, and the kind of hesitant creativity that seeks continual validation from a thousand other moms. Which books are you using? Which curriculum for such-and-such? Approaching the teen years is a fall-off in conversation. Seems like the kids quietly returned to school, or moms felt over their heads with pipe-cleaner and construction-paper projects. A few tentative mentions of things like edX and MasterClass, but so little reaction that it seems most haven’t heard of it yet. I’m not even sure if I belong in homeschool groups, because in fairness, I’m not really the one doing the schooling. I co-write curricula with my teens every about every two months, then find online resources and hire grad students to co-implement with them.

Among the overseas parent groups that we’re part of, as with most homeschooling groups, it seems the brave, pioneering approach to younger kids (He’s learning so much in Phnom Penh! Life is his classroom in Bishkek!) gives way to timid, conformist pragmatism with teens (He’ll need his APs, and we’ve got to work on that resume!), and so the return to U.S. and formal high school enrollment.

And then there are my tech-industry friends. I guess these guys also belong in the Gymboree category, because the smarter you get, the longer it takes to make a baby in America. I get so confused talking to them. Nobody wants to sound stupid. Of course we are all using Scratch. Of course we follow Sebastian Thrun’s tweets. Everybody is advancing in his free time in coding and art-photography and home micro-brewing. The revolution in education, skills and networking has already happened, Colleen, didn’t you know? They are a curious bunch, because as social progressives, by-and-large they are instinctively defensive about public schools. Teachers are heroes. Schools are the root of the community (cause none of them goes to church). And it helps that they’ve all got great zip-codes. But I suspect theirs is the kind of backyard, wine-and-cheese progressivism that will ease toward closed-circle Math Olympiads, ArtofProblemSolving teams, engineering tutorials, and timely, well-documented volunteer initiatives around the Bay area, all in time for an MIT application. In short, there hasn’t really been a revolution in education, skills and networking, but new formats to an age-old, elite choreography whose subtle cues--wink, nod--their offspring will certainly follow.

And so, my parental peers turn out to be thickly padded, brand-sensitive, or else dimly aware of lower-cost alternatives. My age-peers are still lactating, or else caught up in the warm-and-fuzzy-feeling of zip-code-lucky primary schools.
Believe, believe, believe!
School-bashing to them is like Santa-denial. I can’t bear the reactions in their faces.

But somebody’s got to listen, and I’m finding kinship in my expanding network of Facebook friends, about 18-25 years old in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, and Ukraine. Our connections are the result of years of university-project work and I think a message that’s resonating. School sucks! It’s not only boring, but where they live, it’s devoid of relevant content, corrupt, and required by law. Worst of all, kids are swept into it at a trusting age, conditioned to comply and that compliance--that is, obedience, obsequiousness, neatness, memorization, regurgitation--promises success in the real economy. As teens, they feel, but can’t say, that a decade of their lives is being stolen and wasted. Public universities in these countries often looks much the same.

And so it’s these young adults, 19, 23, 25 who link up with me and seem to share an excitement in finally speaking out. They are emerging from a brain-washed process. They’re disillusioned. They’re pissed. It’s a generation that asks, “What the hell have I been doing?”
Girls gathering in Kart-e-char Kabul for BreakAway
Learning mentored co-study session. They are
pursuing individualized study plans in health,
 journalism and coding.
Because only now they are seeing that the real stuff is on Udemy, YouTube, 24Symbols, Udacity, Codecademy… They have nothing that a modern corporation or international employer wants. They are starting from scratch.

It’s for them that I’m speaking out, even as my age-mates respond with blank, hurt smiles, my sons’ friends scream and flap their hands when their mail arrives, my techie friends have written me off as a Christian conservative. It’s hard to jump in front of anybody else’s teens, wave your arms and say “You’ve got it all wrong! Get off the train now!” And among the upper-middle income, social-signal-sensitive families, the track that Zoe and Chloe will follow in these years is sacred. What I’m shouting--“Get off! Spend a day clicking around YouTube! Volunteer full-time for two-months! Go study at Kenyatta University or NIT-Delhi for a semester! Check out Bartleby! Try Udemy! Take a homestay in western China! Skype daily in another language! Try a local internship! Link-up with experts around the world!”--offers none of the trusted branding and packaging. It sounds suspicious and perverse.

Too bad for brainwashed-by-high-school American teens with plenty of household credit, low ambition and no sense of ownership of their learning. Have fun at Wet-Paper-Bag-College-of-Undergraduate-Degrees. While you are plagiarizing essays and parroting each other’s politics, an unseen cohort is passing you by. They are the emerging millions of intermediate- and advanced-English speakers in low-income countries. They have mobile 3G and cracked-screen Samsungs, but they are sensing sooner than you will that the system is a waste of time. They are cobbling together at $20 and $30/month skills in coding, machine learning, project management, graphic design, translation, and social media-marketing. They would be thrilled to earn $10,000/year. And that’s about a quarter of the student debt that the average American 24-year-old has.

Am I crazy?