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.

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