Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tony Brainstorms vs the Lizard Brain! (or Motivation in Higher Ed)

Ok, no comic this time, but I couldn't resist the title... Also, a shout out to @shellifowler for the idea, she talks about "Lizard Brains" fairly often.

I had a weird realization as I started writing my last post about the difference between "Online Courses" and "Connected Courses". To be honest, I haven't been contributing (in the form of blog posts) in the substantive way I'd hoped and/or the course designers intended with their prompts. That's not the weird realization. The weird thought I've had is:
I'm not getting any negative feedback.
I've had some very positive discussions and comments come from the posts that I have managed to share, but no one's needling me to "get my productivity up... or else!" This is very strange in the context of a course in Higher Education.

My first thought in response was:
Sometimes I think we need negative feedback.
The Triune Brain: Filters between Thought and Action
To understand why I felt this way, I'll first need to educate you a bit on a topic about which I actually have no earthly idea. But the image works and I like it. I make no claims to scientific accuracy here.

According to this image, the functions of the "Three Brains: are:

  1. Neomammalian Complex: Rational or Thinking Brain
  2. Paleomammalian Complex: Emotional or Feeling Brain
  3. Reptilian Complex: Instinctual or Dinosaur Brain (I love that we've picked dinosaurs as the image for instinct. Why not bees, or tuna fish?)
Let's treat the head as the place where decisions for action occur and the body as the mechanism for action. The path taken by an idea from inception to action passes through 3 filters:
  1. A rational idea based on information we have and logical connection of past experience to new situations
  2. An emotional filter in which we apply meaning to the proposed action
  3. An instinctual filter that alters the action in the interest of self-preservation
In other words, the Lizard Brain stands between logic, rationality, emotion, and action. As educators we seem to target the Rational or Thinking Brains of our students. We're starting to recognize the importance of the Emotional or Feeling Brain in terms of creativity and context-building. Unfortunately, I think most often we only end up appealing to our students' Reptilian Complexes.

Dangers of the Lizard Brain
There's a problem with the instinctual part of our brains. They aren't very smart. In fact, there are many times where we take actions in the interest of self-preservation that are actually more harmful than helpful (see The Prisoners' Dilemma, for example).

The truth of life is that we are in a constant state of deciding what NOT to do. I'm writing this post at the moment. I've chosen (either actively or subconsciously) to not go jogging, analyze the data for my dissertation, or watch TV in front of the fire at this moment. There are actually an infinite number of things that I'm not doing right now, and only one that I am. 

Life is filled with tradeoffs. How we manage them says a lot about who we are and what we value. Keep a log of how you spend your time for the next week and then reflect. Does the way you actually spend your time (the only resource you can never get more of) really reflect your values? Eek.

But there is a finer point on it. The Lizards in us twist the results of this exercise. They don't have any values beyond self-preservation. When faced with a trade between two actions the Lizard steers us toward that which it perceives to be most beneficial. When we chose an action that appears necessary but not truly reflective of our values, the Lizard tunes out our disappointment.

Wait, weren't we talking about Motivation and Co-Learning?
OK, back to where I started this post now. The weird thing about connected courses (compared to other courses I've taken) is that I'm not getting any negative feedback. My lizard brain can tune out my own disappointment with myself in the interest of practicality. My practicality can always find something more important than blogging. So I've participated as a spectator rather than a contributor or co-learner. And this is a course about a topic that I am passionate about! Instructors: do everything you can to create active, awesome, inclusive co-learning spaces. But remember, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Even if he loves it. How do I get past this!!??

Maybe sometimes we do need negative feedback ("you're not living up to your end of the deal, Tony B."). Co-learners need feedback. In a room of hundreds of people its easy to melt into the crowd and get left behind. These types of learning experiences as they exist require extreme motivation and discipline on the part of the student. Perhaps this is a reason for the low MOOC completion rates? There are very few consequences for not engaging fully (just a lump in your stomach, if you care).

To continue the self-deprecation, I thrive on positive feedback. That's how this blog came to exist. People responded strongly to some of the first things I wrote, which made me want to keep digging and keep writing. That's great for a while.  But now I've worked myself up to need to write the next hit over just writing. I'm reminded of the incredibly poignant story of Michael Jackson's crippling fear after "Thriller," wondering how he could ever top it.

External motivation always fails. 
Fear does not breed creativity. 
Neither does praise.
Had the blogging "requirement" for this course looked like a weekly participation grade things may have been different for me. If I knew each week's contribution was worth a certain, unrecoverable, portion of my grade I would have prioritized differently. Do we actually need the fear of an indelible grade to keep us going in the middle of the semester? It certainly produces a response in students. But is it genuine? What would I have to say if I were writing while being held for ransom by some elusive "A"?

On the flip side, we could view high grades as a reward to be earned rather than viewing low grades as a punishment for "poor" performance. This mentality is exactly what lead's to the "Thriller Effect." Fear of not getting praise for your next great work is just as crippling as fear of punishment.

Fear is the business of the Lizard Brain.
And the Lizard Brain isn't capable of reflective thought.
No matter what way we view grades (reward or punishment), they lead students to fear the results of trying, exploring, and taking risks. As long as we try to "motivate" students with repercussions for "getting the wrong answer," or "failing," we are appealing to their Lizard Brains. As long as we try to inspire creativity by rewarding "success" or "getting the right answer," we are feeding the Iguanas hiding at the tops of their spines. We are blocking the reflective thought of their Neomammalian Thinking  Brains. We are stifling the context-building of their Paleomammalian Feeling Brains.

Students are strategizers. Rather than focusing on learning, they game the system. They are forced to. We're teaching time-management and making trade-offs by requiring that students do both.
"I can afford to lose points here so I can focus on earning the points over there that I really need."
How can we elevate students' thinking?

Co-Learning as Co-Motivation
I've already written about the idea that in a co-learning environment co-creation is both a learning mechanism and a learning outcome.

Another learning mechanism and outcome of a connected course is co-motivation. An introspective experience in which the co-learners help each other form and discover their own motivations. This is not cheerleading each other to get homework done. This is reflecting in a co-learning environment on why, on building the context that motivates the individual, and sharing that context with other co-learners.

An important aspect of this is that the instructors are engaged and committed to the experience as well. Not as a game to trick students into opening up. Engagement from the instructors is critical to honestly empower learners, to break down the social structures plaguing most classrooms, and (most importantly) to model the constant flux of life. How many of you are doing what you're doing for the reasons you started out years ago? I'm not. That's OK and our students need to know it.

Imagine the following exchange. You can decide which line is spoken by the "student" and which by the "teacher".
"I hate calculus. I am only here because the Mechanical Engineering department requires me to be."
"Perhaps we can explore that and find a deeper reason for  why you would choose to grabble with a subject that is disinteresting to you on the surface." 
The goal of this co-motivation is to find true motivation that comes from within. Motivation that stems from something deeper than good feelings from peers or grades. Certainly something deeper than avoiding bad feelings that accompany low grades.

My Motivation
(built in my experience as a co-learner)
I said earlier that had this course included a weekly grade based on productivity I would have managed my time MUCH differently. I actually wouldn't have taken the course at all so I could focus on my dissertation. The Chameleon in me would have hidden from ANYTHING that represented a guaranteed distraction. The point here is that I've had an incredible experience. The course structure empowered me to engage in the ways that were meaningful for me and my co-learners. We've created new artifacts that further flesh out the idea of a connected course. We've co-discovered more about our own motivations. 

My motivation for co-participating in this course turned out to be the motivation for almost all of my  current professional efforts. It's deeply personal and hard to put to words. But here's my best try:
Dear future students, I'm doing everything I can to get ready for you. Someday we are going to learn much more than how Thermodynamics works together. We're going to teach each other the meaning of it. We're going to create the meaning of it.
We can see what happens when we act out of self-motivations rather than external pressures in this passage from "Michael Jackson: The Pressure to Beat It".
It's March 1987, and it's getting late. Westlake Studio is deserted except for Michael, Quincy, Bubbles the chimpanzee, and a few technicians. "Smelly," as Jones calls Michael (possibly because the singer is so obsessively clean), still wants to lay down more vocal tracks. On the recording console in front of Quincy sits a comic strip clipped from a newspaper, the punch line to which reads: "Michael Jackson is 30 years old and he's never had a date." Michael picks it up and reads it. Then he puts it back gently and turns away. He seems hurt by the words. Half a beat passes, then he giggles like a schoolboy, and walks into the recording booth. 
Alone in the semidarkness, illuminated softly by a single spotlight, he starts to sing. This, finally, is what it's all about. Somewhere out there Prince has finished his new record and Run-DMC are thinking about theirs and Walter Yetnikoff is learning to live with the CBS balance sheets. But that's some other place. Here, for now, none of that exists; there are no problems, no merchandise deals, no deadlines, no family rivalries. It's just Michael and the song. 
Suddenly, he is no longer the dreamy, whispering recluse. He is no longer soft. He attacks the song, dancing, waving his hands, moving with unexpected power. He is in his own world, but for once, it's a world that others beside himself can believe in. For these few moments, at least, he is neither a joke nor an icon, just a very, very talented singer.

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