Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Motivation, Outcomes, and Bandwidth

I suppose every generation creates its share of hideous neologisms and circumlocutions. For me "on a regular basis" (instead of "regularly"), is one of the worst. I made the mistake of telling my daughter how much I hate it, and now she uses it regularly just to annoy me. But "incentivize" must also rank up there the list of 20th century abominations. The idea is simple, and is probably linked to the recently debunked myth of markets that are perfectly efficient and people who always act in their own best economic interests. Paul Krugman describes this empirical enlightenment of economists vividly in his recent New York Times piece "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?".

It reminds me of something I read a long time ago about an engineer doing research on the effect of a crowd on wireless transmission, beginning with: assume that a person is a one-meter diameter sphere of water... Assumptions and approximations have to be watched carefully.

I was reminded of "incentivize" a couple of days ago when I came across a TED talk by Dan Pink on the science of motivation. It's a 17 minute video you can see here. I will summarize some of his points here, but you might find it more interesting to watch the video first. The topic of the talk was motivation: what types work in what circumstances. This is an interesting topic in higher education because of various obvious reasons, including one you may not think of right off. More on that later.

Motivation isn't as simple as it seems, it seems. Consider the crazy things we do in the name of motivation. A car cuts us off in traffic and we may get angry, wave interesting gestures and honk at the driver. We might even call the police and report it if the behavior is egregious enough. Why are we doing that? At the bottom of it, I would posit that we are unconsciously trying to incentivize the driver not to do such things again through negative reinforcement. But in most cases, the odds that we will ever encounter this particular driver in that situation again are probably remote. (Consider how you might behave differently if it were your neighbor rather than a stranger, to see some of the complexities here.) So we are wasting our time at best, and possibly even acting against our own best interests. But such inclinations run deep. It's worth bringing their effects to the light of day.

We seem to have an instinct to incentivize (I'm going to get that word out of my system), even when it isn't likely to do any good. As pointed out above, our actions could make the situation worse. I assume that there are evolutionary reasons for these tendencies: a million years of living in social groups must have had some effect on our programming. There seems to be a general societal purpose to such actions (see this article, for example).

So now to Dan Pink's talk (spoilers ahead). He makes the same point forcefully, applied to the workplace: managers don't understand incentives and are mostly doing the wrong thing to motivate employees. Here are some quotes from the transcript.

Sam Glucksberg did a Candle Problem experiment to learn about the effect of incentives:
He gathered his participants. And he said, "I'm going to time you. How quickly you can solve this problem?" To one group he said, I'm going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem.

To the second group he offered rewards. He said, "If you're in the top 25 percent of the fastest times you get five dollars. If you're the fastest of everyone we're testing here today you get 20 dollars."
It took the second group three and a half minutes longer on average to solve the problem. This is counter-intuitive. As Dan Pink puts it:
You've got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity. And it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity.
And most amazing is the claim:
This has been replicated over and over and over again, for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators, if you do this, then you get that, work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science. And also one of the most ignored.
Further research, again using the Candle Problem, showed that incentives can positively affect performance, but only when the problem was simplified to a rote (I would say low-complexity analytical) task. The result reinforces the idea that the prospect of immediate reward (or punishment) causes us to reduce creative, conceptual approaches to problems in favor of direct obvious connections.

Since this is September, it's easy to make the leap to 9/11 as an example. In the early 1900s, the czarist Russian security organ had an imaginative idea: what if the terrorists (which were blooming everywhere) got it into their heads to crash an airplane into a building? I read about this in Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy. Compare that creative idea to the actual response to the horrible actuality: a very narrow focus on preventing exactly the same thing from happening again. This isn't criticism--it's very natural and sensible--the point is that a big whomping motivation narrowed attention to what exactly the problem was seen to be in an obvious sense, not what it could be in the larger sense. If you read my last post about generalizing through recursion, you'll see what I mean. Here's a list of Bad Things That Can Happen, which have nothing to do with taking off your shoes before you board a plane:
  1. A near-earth asteroid could hit us
  2. The caldera at Yellowstone could blow
  3. Gene hacking of biological viruses becomes as common as computer-virus hacking, and some 18 year-old sets off a catastrophe (you do remember the 90s?)
  4. Nanotech goo takes over the world
  5. The oceans turn to acid as the climate heats up
  6. Environmental toxins are having epigenetic effects that will last generations
  7. A housing bubble could blow up the banking industry.
These are the sort of broad-spectrum dangers you're not likely to think about while your house is on fire. I think it's fair to summarize the findings Dan Pink describes as "incentives narrow focus."

If these findings are valid, much of the way management is done in business, including higher education, is wrong. In the video, Mr. Pink talks about some alternatives.

Relating this to education. If you've been in the classroom, you've probably been as frustrated as I have been by the question "is this going to be on the test?" To the mind of a "lifelong learner" this is entirely the wrong attitude. But it's easy to see from the perspective of motivational cause and effect that the incentives we apply would lead directly to that question. To use that awful word again, we incentivize students with grades. Why should we find it surprising that they tend to narrowly fixate on grades?

Dan Pink has created a consulting business out of this idea, where he pitches:
And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy, the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery, the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
Whether or not this is a formula that works, or is Utopian dream is unknown, but the ideas are certainly worth considering. Notice that of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, only the second one is a cognitive skill. The other two are affective, or noncognitive, or in jargon-free plain English: emotions.
I think there is untapped opportunity to try to engineer ways to motivate students more sensibly--to model and inculcate autonomy and purpose, and illuminate the role of zeal in creating mastery. That's all good, and I think there are opportunities especially for small liberal arts schools here. It's particularly ironic that incentivizing may actively hinder the teaching of critical thinking, which is supposed to be what grades-bound liberal arts colleges are suppose to be good at. But there's a bigger question.

"A Virtual Revolution is Brewing for Colleges" from The Washington Post is the latest article I've seen predicting the doom of traditional higher education. I blogged about this topic recently here. The argument is that for many subjects, education can happen conveniently and cheaply over the Internet, and that competition will drive the bricks and mortarboard model to ruin (except for the elite institutions that rely on deep pockets or have massive self-sustaining endowments).

What, aside from inertia, stands in the way of this transformation? I think one of the biggest problems for online education is the noncognitive load it places on the consumer: they have to be motivated to log in and do the work. They have to minimize the distractions of Facebook and a million other things while working on the computer. I don't have any statistics to back this up, so I may be completely wrong. But it seems to me that one current advantage of a residential school is the pervasive culture that comes with it. As imperfect as it is, there is social pull to come to class and not humiliate oneself by flunking every test. In the nearly anonymous hyperspace of online classes, I imagine that this is less so. In-person interactions are naturally more engaging that online ones. Is that really true? If so, how long will it remain true?

For the moment, I can't conceive that online teaching can approach the richness of a good professor's interactions with students in class, the dining hall, and in the office--the social engagement that includes mentoring and a kind of tribe-like kinship that comes from the circle of mutual acquaintances and shared experiences that play out in full-color, real-time, three-D.

In short, the bandwidth for real life ("rl" in cyberspeak, contrasting with, say, "vr" for virtual reality, or specifically "sl" for the online world Second Life) is still far superior to anything modems can deliver. But rather than leveraging this advantage, rl institutions waste most of the bandwidth. We're generally not engaging students on autonomy and purpose in the pursuit of mastery. We care about grades and bureaucracy and grants from the government.

Tentative conclusions. There may be a niche for second-tier institutions in the new education landscape to provide premium rl education, but only if they seriously address the engagement problem. George Kuh of the NSSE comes at this from another angle, and he actually does have some statistics. The point isn't just the survival of the traditional model, it's to provide a service that is superior to online education because of bandwidth and proximity: a million years of evolution has programmed us to live reasonably well together in social groups, and that should be taken advantage of.

De-emphasizing traditional grades is one step in that direction. Read my post about Western Governor's University to see a model for how that is already happening (online). But that's only part of it. A portfolio that a student can carry with them (and accumulate as a life-long resume) could contain evidence of not just subject mastery but also explicitly address noncognitive traits like purpose. Higher education has been allergic to "purpose" since it became largely secular. It's time to reconnect with the big "why" questions outside of a hermetically sealed philosophy course.

Online education isn't going to stand still, of course. Already there are very motivated people working on the problem of creating learning communities online. These visionaries think big, and for the most part, think "cheap" or "free" (search open education on this blog). Bandwidth will increase, rl will become more conflated with vr, and the next generations will perhaps feel at home in a warm LCD glow as they do in rl. For institutions frittering away their bandwidth advantage now, remember what happened to CDs. MP3s are generally inferior to CDs because the latter are compressed. But MP3 rule because bandwidth loses to convenience.

We might think of online education as a low-pass filter that employs only the deep end of the spectrum, like the telephone company only transmits a small range of frequencies when you talk in order to save money. What value is the high-frequency stuff? Can it be used to engage students in ways that vr can't approach? I don't know, but I think for the time being the answer is yes. I'll now take off my sackcloth, shave my beard, abandon the giant urn, and give up this prophetic conceit (I can't go to work like this) after one final prognostication:

It's a good time to be an energetic new college or university president with a creative, entrepreneurial spirit. There are opportunities. It's a bad time to be locked into the traditional model of private higher education that demands a high price and then blows the bandwidth.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dave:

    We’re also inspired and motivated by the work of Daniel Pink and appreciate your interest in the man behind the groundbreaking bestseller, A WHOLE NEW MIND. I’m excited to let you know that December 29 marks the release of Pink’s latest book, DRIVE.

    Bursting with big ideas, DRIVE is the rare book that will change how you think and transform how you live.

    Forget everything you thought you knew about how to motivate people--at work, at school, at home. It's wrong. As Daniel H. Pink explains in his new and paradigm-shattering book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today's world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

    Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does--and how that affects every aspect of our lives. He demonstrates that while the old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approach worked successfully in the 20th century, it's precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today's challenges. In Drive, he reveals the three elements of true motivation:

    *Autonomy- the desire to direct our own lives
    *Mastery- the urge to get better and better at something that matters
    *Purpose- the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

    We hope Daniel Pink’s DRIVE will open your eyes and change the way you think in 2010!

    Please visit www.danpink.com and www.riverheadbooks.com for additional details.