Puppet on a String: A Summary of My Corruption by Extrinsic Rewards

I recently posted that I was thinking about my own contributions and asking what, if anything, would denote something that could be recognised as my mastery of my discipline. On thinking about this, I realised that, once again, I was asking someone else to value my work. For those of you who are educational specialists, rather than a discipline researcher who is on his way to becoming an educational researcher within the discipline, this is probably somewhat amusing, given I keep talking about the need to reduce extrinsic motivation in my students.

I have changed career several times and, if you look at why I’ve done this, a pattern quickly emerges. I tend to leave at the point where I have become competent enough that other people start to tell me that what I am doing is useful, valuable and start trying to reward me. Yet, I go into jobs seeking that kind of recognition and reward. I am corrupted in my intent, by the rewards, and then my intrinsic reward mechanisms become compromised and, after becoming deeply unhappy, I leave.

I realised, over the weekend, that I was becoming so pre-occupied with external approval that it was making me extremely vulnerable to criticism and it was corrupting me in trying to do something that is, whether I like it or not, very important and that I also happen to be good at.

Right now, I am in the middle of trying to work out how to divorce myself from the external rewards that I, irritatingly, crave and that, ultimately, then reduce the joy I take in doing things for my own reasons. It’s not surprising that the tasks that I enjoy the most at the moment are the big challenges, the ones where I’m working several levels above my pay grade or the usual expectations of someone of my level. I’m doing these things because they’re important and, because I’m doing it ‘out of cycle’ so to speak, I can’t be externally rewarded for them – I can just do a good job.

It’s in this same mode of thinking that I’ve decided not to spend any time applying for any local teaching and excellence awards. (I was about to comment on my potential eligibility but this is just another quest for a pat on the head – so I’ve deleted it.) I am either doing my job in the way that I should, and the expectations should be of a satisfactory performance that provides students with an excellent experience, or I should receive guidance, counselling and remedial assistance from my employer. Ultimately, if I don’t meet the standards then I should probably be fired. But if I’m doing well, then that is my job and I don’t need a piece of paper or a cheque to make things better. In fact, that money and time (in deciding upon the awards or writing the applications) should be directed to people who need the improvement, not people who are excelling. I have a meeting with my boss on Friday week and he will tell me whether I’m meeting standard or not.

Now there is a great deal of difference between writing a long application for an award (which is probably not the best investment of time and is seeking extrinsic recognition) and being sent on a course that might be useful because you’ve demonstrated an ability to do something (providing you with useful skills and the ability to develop further). As a general principle, skill development is going to be more useful than a pat on a head. Skill development also works for everyone, it’s just that the courses you use for development vary from person to person.

But this is, of course, completely at odds with the extensive systems of measurement that are now being placed on academics. We are (with widely varying levels of accuracy) measured extensively in terms of learning and teaching, research and administration. By not applying for these awards, I may be significantly altering my possibility of later promotion and opportunity. And, yet, I have to ask myself if I really need to be promoted? What does it mean? I’ve already discovered that people are happy to let you do a wide range of jobs without the requisite ‘academic level’ if you can demonstrate enough aptitude. Sure, it would mean I’d never be able to do certain jobs but, having a look at those jobs, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. 🙂

This is a strange time for me. I can now see the strings around me and how they’ve pulled me around for all of my life. Because I am such a strong believer in being as honest as possible with my students, it has forced me to be honest with myself, as I tear apart the framework I teach within to see how I can improve it and help my students to become self-regulated, intrinsically motivated and happy. Authenticity is the core for me and it is why I can teach with passion.

I was looking at Facebook recently and thinking about the “Like” button. I use it to mean “I am happy about this” or “I support you” but, rather than telling someone this, I hit the “Like” button. I’ve recently noticed that there are “Like” levels in WordPress and as I’ve hit, arbitrary, milestones I’ve received insincere automated badges.

Some of my readers (thank you, again) have been letting me know how they have been using the stuff from here and that has been really helpful for me. I realise that, in this community, “Like” generally means “I agree” or “Nicely written thoughts that ring true” but getting an actual account of how someone has used something that I said turned out to be really powerful. (Unsurprisingly, given how much Kohn I’m reading at the moment!)

So – where to from here? The first thing is to keep to my 40-45 hour working week. That has allowed me to get enough reflection time to get to this stage. I suspect the next is to keep plugging away at everything. This is most definitely not the time to throw everything in the air and meditate in a field. I’ve been trying to think about the advice that I would give to a student in a similar situation and I think I would tell them to keep doing everything and set some time aside over the next couple of weeks to identify the key issues, then start stripping away clutter until they were able to get a clear view of how they could achieve what was important to them. It will, at least, be a start.

Thomas Pynchon on Education, as Quoted in Playboy Magazine

I greatly enjoy reading and I read fairly widely. There are books that I enjoy more than others, certainly, but it’s rare that I find a book that doesn’t have something to teach me: in terms of conveyed knowledge, shared experience or the importance of editing. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I was thinking about the works of Thomas Pynchon recently and some of the quotes that we have from the author himself, as well as those contained within the books, and one that sticks out for me was:

Why should things be easy to understand?

(Pynchon to Jules Siegel regarding the complexity of “V”, from a Playboy interview, 1977)

“Run away with me.” said Roseman when the coffee came.
“Where?” she asked. That shut him up.
(The Crying of Lot 49, 1966)

It’s a very good question and one I think about a lot. “Too clever by half” and “too difficult to understand” are very easy ways to dismiss people or things that you don’t like. From an educator’s viewpoint, this is a constant hurdle that we have to leap across, especially if the students in our care have only been exposed to the easily digestible up until now. I’ve talked before about dependence on a single point of authority, which will give you all the answers in due time, and it’s not a great way to train critical thinkers – of course, it’s the antithesis.

Most things are not easy to understand, which is why teachers exist. If we could have solved the transfer of knowledge problem the moment we set stylus to clay on the banks of the Tigris, then we would have done so. Our history is full of easy discoveries of things that just happen, as well as the more complex that required diligence and sacrifice of effort. Grapes turn into wine in the presence of oxygen – the wine industry was going to happen the moment the first time a goatherd noticed her goats falling over. Knowledge does not flow from person to person as easily. There are internal barriers to deal with in transmission from you to the world, then the mutagenic ether of knowledge transmission from person to person, and finally the barriers inside the head of the receiver.

If it was going to happen, then perhaps it would have happened when we developed libraries. You could go in and browse the collected thoughts of generations. Yet, we still needed teachers and educational institutions and, while it is easy to say that this is a requirement for certification and the associated authorities, the successful person has not needed an armful of qualifications and parchments until relatively recently, so while we are suffering from a deluge of over-dependence on certification, I don’t see this as the leading justification for the role of the teacher in knowledge transfer.

One of the critical roles of the educator is to take things that are complicated and hard to understand and, with a knowledge of what the students need and their developmental stage, present the information in a way that it is comprehensible. Now, I realise that this puts me at odds, again, with people who believe that students have to struggle to attain knowledge, to demonstrate their effort and to maintain the worth of the discipline. I don’t believe that’s the role of an educator – I think that life will throw up quite enough barriers to achieving success without me force-failing someone because he or she slightly under-performs relative to other students. It’s not as if you send a child to primary school expecting that 25% of them will validly fail. (If you do, I’m both stunned and I’d love to see your reasoning!) I’ve talked with educators who are required to fail students, as part of curve grading, because their entry requirements allow anyone to come in, with any level of preparation. Those same educators are, for the most part, demoralised and unconvinced of the path that they are required to take – but they have families, and mortgages, and would like to eat tomorrow. When we walk about making things hard to understand, or not making them easier to understand, we are not only robbing the students of the joy of discovery and the thrill of legitimate achievement, we are robbing ourselves of the joy of the student who actually gets it. Yes, education is more than a linked set of “A-ha” moments but they are the sweetest fruit in a vast, ancient and ever-growing orchard.

No, I’m not (and am never) saying that anyone should automatically pass. But if someone has done what we’ve asked them to do and we have not demanded some supplication to a towering monument of obscurity in order to make them fight their way through to the facts, then I would expect a reasonably prepared student to ‘pass’ – and by that I mean take in the knowledge, incorporate it and be able to make use of it, building upon it in the future.

I, like most academics in Australia, get a lot of sample textbooks to assess for use in courses and my assessment criteria are very simple. How far can I read through the book before I get confused? How useful is the index in dealing with that confusion? Can I find the answer to a straightforward and relevant question within a couple of minutes? Can I find my way through the book?

I have four degrees, including a PhD. I am well-read and pretty literate. I have knowledge built around industry, Army, manual labour and academia. If a textbook is confusing me then it is utterly useless for my students. There is no need for things to be easy to understand but, if I am going to educate people, then I have to make sure that I put things together in a way that a reasonably prepared student can learn the knowledge that I need her or him to learn. We don’t need to require that everything be simple, we just have to remember that there is already an army of knowledge transformers, teachers, who are there in order to turn the complex into the simple for the purposes of learning.

We can retain our complexity, as long as we retain sight of our requirement to educate fairly and honestly. Pynchon’s question is ageless and still, very, valid.

The Big Picture and the Drug of Easy Understanding: Part II (Eclectic Boogaloo)

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the desire to place work into some sort of grand scheme, referring to movies and films, and illustrating why it’s hard to guarantee consistency from a sketch of your strategy unless you implement everything before you make it available to people. While building upon previous work is very useful, as I’m doing now, if you want to keep later works short by referring back to a shared context established in a previous work, it does make you susceptible to inconsistency if a later work makes you realise that assumptions in a previous work were actually wrong. As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’m actually writing these posts side by side and scheduling them for later, to ensure that I don’t make any more mistakes than I have to, which I can’t easily correct because the work is already displayed.

Some strategies are easier to imagine than others.

Strategic approaches to the construction of long term and complex works are essential, but a strategic plan needs to be sufficiently detailed in order to guide the works produced from it. You might get away with an abstract strategy if you produce all of the related works at one time and view them together. But, assuming that works are so long term that they can’t be produced in one sitting, you don’t want to have to seriously revise previous productions or, worse, change the strategy. This is particularly damaging when you are working with students because any significant change to the knowledge construction that you’ve been working with is going to cost you a lot of credibility and risk a high level of disengagement. Students will tolerate an amount of honest mistake, assuming that you are honest and that it is a mistake, but they tend to be very judgmental regarding poor time planning and what they perceive as laziness.

And that, in my opinion, is completely fair because we tend not to allow them poor time planning either. Going into an examination with a misunderstanding of the details of the overlying strategy will result in a non-negotiable fail, not extended understanding from the marking groups who are looking at examination performance. For me, this is an issue of professional ethics in that a consistent and fair delivery of teaching materials will facilitate learning, firstly by keeping the knowledge pathways ‘clean’ but also by establishing a relationship that you are working as hard to be fair to the student as you can, hence their effort is not wasted and you establish a bond of trust.

Now while I would love to say that this means that I have written every lecture completely before starting a new course, this would not be the truth. But this does mean that my strategic planning for new works and knowledge is broken down to a fairly fine grain plan before I start the course running. I wrote a new course last semester and the overall course had been broken up by area, sub-area, learning outcome and was built with all practicals, tutorials and activities clearly indicated. I had also spent a long time identifying the design of the overall course and the focus that we would be taking throughout, down to the structure of every lecture. When it came to writing the lectures themselves, I knew which lectures would contain ‘achievement’ items (the drug aspect where students get a buzz from the “A-ha!” moment), I knew where the pivotal points were and I’d also spent some time working out which skills I could expect in this group, and which skills later courses would expect from them.

We do have a big picture for teaching our students, in that they are part of a particular implementation of a degree that will qualify them in such-and-such a discipline. We can see the discipline syllabi, current learning and teaching practices, our local requirements and the resources that we have to carry all of this out. But this is no longer a strategy and, the more I worked with things, the more I realised that I had produced a tactical (or operational) plan for each week of the lectures – and I had to be diligent about this because one third of my lectures were being given by someone who was a new lecturer. So, on top of all the planning, every lecture had to be self-contained and instructionally annotated so that a new lecturer, with some briefing from me, could carry it out. And it all had to fit together so that structurally, semantically and stylistically, it all looked like one smooth flow.

Had I left the strategic planning to one side, in either not pursuing it or in leaving it too late, or had I not looked at all of the strategic elements that I had to consider, then my operational plan for each week would have been ad hoc or non-existent. Worse, it may have been an unattainable plan; a waste of my time and the students’ efforts. We have far less excuse than George Lucas does for pretending that Star Wars was part of some enormous nine movie vision – although, to be fair, it doesn’t mean that this wasn’t somewhere in his head, but it obviously wasn’t sufficiently well plotted to guarantee a required level of consistency to make us really believe that statement.

The Big Picture is a framing that helps certain creative works drag you in and make more money, whereas in other words it is a valid structure that supports and develops consistency within a shared context. Our work as educators fits squarely into the final category. Without a solid plan, we risk making short-sighted decisions that please us or the student with ‘easy’ reward activities or the answers that come to hand at the time.

I’m not saying that certain elements have to be left out of our teaching, or that we have to be rigid in an inflexible structure, but consistency and reliability are two very important aspects of gaining student trust and, if holding it together over six serial instalments is too hard for Stephen King, then trying to achieve this, without some serious and detailed planning, over 36 lectures spanning four months is probably too much for most of us. The Big Picture, for us, is something that I believe we can find and use very effectively to make our teaching even better, effectively reducing our workload throughout the semester because we don’t have to carry out massive revisions or fixes, with a little more investment of time up front.

(Afterthought: I had no idea that Dr Steele has released an album called “Eclectic Boogaloo”. I was riffing on the old “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” thing. In my defence, it was the 80s and we all looked like this:

This is considered one of the worst movies ever made. Yes, even when you take Gigli into account.


The Big Picture and the Drug of Easy Understanding: Part I

There is a tendency to frame artistic works such as films and books inside a larger frame. It’s hard to find a fantasy novel that isn’t “Book 1 of the Mallomarion Epistemology Cycle” or a certain type of mainstream film that doesn’t relate to a previous film (as II, III or higher) or as a re-interpretation of a film in the face of another canon (the re-re-reboot cycle). There are still independent artistic endeavours within this, certainly, but there is also a strong temptation to assess something’s critical success and then go on to make another version of it, in an attempt to make more money. Some things were always multi-part entities in the planning and early stages (such as the Lord of the Rings books and hence movies), some had multiplicity thrust upon them after unlikely success (yes, Star Wars, I’m looking at you, although you are strangely similar to Hidden Fortress so you aren’t even the start point of the cycle).

From a commercial viewpoint, selling something that only sells itself is nowhere near as interesting as selling something that draws you into a consumption cycle. This does, however, have a nasty habit of affecting the underlying works. You only have to look at the relative length of the Harry Potter books, and the quality of editing contained within, to realise that Rowling reached a point where people stopped cutting her books down – even if that led to chapters of aimless meandering in a tent in later books. Books one to three are, to me, far, far better than the later ones, where commercial influence, the desire to have a blockbuster and the pressure of producing works that would continue to bring in more consumers and potentially transfer better to the screen made some (at least for me) detrimental changes to the work.

This is the lure of the Big Picture – that we can place everything inside a grand plan, a scheme laid out from the beginning, and it will validate everything that has gone before, while including everything that is yet to come. Thus, all answers will be given, our confusion will turn to understanding and we will get that nice warm feeling from wrapping everything up. In many respects, however, the number of things that are actually developed within a frame like this, and remain consistent, is very small. Stephen King experimented with serial writing (short instalments released regularly) for a while, including the original version of “The Green Mile”. He is a very talented and experienced writer and he still found that he had made some errors in already published instalments that he had to either ignore or correct in later instalments. Although he had a clear plan for the work, he introduced errors to public view and he discovered them in later full fleshings of the writing. He makes a note in the book of the Green Mile that one of the most obvious, to him, was having someone scratch their nose with their hand while in a straitjacket. Not having all of the work to look at leaves you open to these kinds of errors, even where you do have a plan, unless you have implemented everything fully before you deploy it.

So it’s no surprise that we’re utterly confused by the prequels to Star Wars, because (despite Lucas’ protestations), it is obvious that there was not even a detailed sketch of what would happen. The same can be said of the series “Lost” where any consistency that was able to be salvaged from it was a happy accident, as the writers had no idea what half of the early things actually were – it just seemed cool. And, as far as I’m concerned, there is no movie called Highlander 2.

Seriously, this is just someone attempting Photoshop. Anything else is untrue.

(I should note that this post is Part 1 of 2, but I am writing both parts side by side, to try and prevent myself from depending in Part 2 upon something that I got wrong in Part 1.)

To take this into an educational space, it is tempting to try and construct learning from a sequence of high-reward moments of understanding. Our students are both delighted and delightful when they “get” something – it’s a joy to behold and one of the great rewards of the teacher. But, much like watching TED talks every day won’t turn you into a genius, it is the total construction of the learning experience that provides something that is consistent throughout and does not have to endure any unexpected reversals or contradictions later on. We don’t have a commercial focus here to hook the students. Instead, we want to keep them going throughout the necessary, but occasionally less exciting, foundation work that will build them up to the point where they are ready to go, in Martin Gardner’s words, “A-ha!”

My problem arises if I teach something that, when I develop a later part of the course, turns out to not provide a complete basis, reinterprets the work in a way that doesn’t support a later point or places an emphasis upon the wrong aspect. Perhaps we are just making the students look at the wrong thing, only to realise later that had we looked at the details, rather than our overall plan, we would have noticed this error. But, now, it is too late and the wrong message is out there.

This is one of the problems of gamification, as I’ve referred to previously, in that we focus on the drug of understanding as a fiero (fierce joy) moment to the exclusion of the actual education experience that the game and reward elements should be reinforcing. This is one of the problems of stating that something is within a structure when it isn’t: any coincidence of aims or correlation of activities is a happy accident, serendipity rather than strategy.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll discuss some more aspects of this and the implications that I believe it has for all of us as educators.

Codes of Conduct: Being a Grown-Up.

I always hope that my students are functioning at a higher level, heading towards functional adulthood, to some extent. After all, if they need to go to the bathroom, they can usually manage that in a clean and tidy manner. They dress themselves. They can answer questions. So why do some of them act like children when it comes to good/bad behaviour?

I searched for “adult child” and found this. I think Craig Ferguson should sue.

I was reading Darlena’s blog post about one of Rafe Esquith’s books and she referred to Rafe’s referral to Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development, which I ‘quote-quote’ here:

  1. I do not want to get into trouble.
  2. I want a reward.
  3. I want to please someone.
  4. I always follow the rules.
  5. I am considerate of other people.
  6. I have a personal code of behaviour.

I’ve been talking around these points for a while, in terms of the Perry classifications of duality, multiplicity and commitment. What disappoints me the most is when I have to deal with students who are either trying not to get into trouble or only work for reward – and these are their prime motivations. There’s a world of difference between having students who do things because they have worked through everything we’ve talked about and decided to commit to that approach (step 6 in this scale) and those who only do it because they feel that they will get punished if they don’t.

I always say that I expect a lot of my students and, fairly early on, I do expect them to have formed a personal code of conduct. Yes, I expect them to be timely in their submissions, but because they understand that assignment placement is deliberate and assists them in knowledge formation. Yes, I expect them to not plagiarise or cheat, but because to do so deprives them of learning opportunities. I expect them not to talk in class because they don’t want to deprive other people of learning opportunities (which is a bit of points 5 and 6).

I press this point a lot. I say that I reward what they know, as long as it’s relevant, rather than punishing them for getting things wrong. I encourage them to participate, to be aware of other people, to interact and work with me to make the knowledge transfer more effective – to allow them to construct the mental frameworks required to produce the knowledge for themselves.

I really don’t think it’s good enough to say “Well, students always do X and what can you do?” I have a number of people in my classes who have discovered, to their mounting amazement, that I basically won’t accept behaviour that doesn’t meet reasonable standards. I mean what I say when I say things and I don’t change my mind just because someone asks me. I’m tough on plagiarism and cheating. I don’t let people bully me or other people. And, amazingly, I don’t see many of these behaviours in my class.

I encourage a constructive and positive approach for all of my students – but the basis of this is that they have to establish a personal code of conduct that I can work with. If they go down this path, then everything else tends to follow and we can go a fantastic educational journey together. If they’re still stuck, doing the minimum they can get away with, because they don’t want to get yelled at, then my first (and far more difficult) task is to reach them, try and get them to think beyond using this as their only motivator.

Now, of course, the golden rule is that if you want a student to do something, then giving marks for it is the best way to go – and that’s a technique I use, and I’ve discussed it before. But it’s never JUST the marks. There’s always  reward in terms of scaffolding, or personal satisfaction, or insight. I want fiero! I also don’t want the students to do things just because I ask them to, because they want to please me. I have a middling amount of lecturing charisma but I’m always aware that I have to be content first/showmanship second. If I do that, then students are less likely to fall into the trap of trying to do things just because I ask them to.

I’m really not the kind of teacher who needs an apple on the desk. (I already have two iMacs and a MacBook Air. Ba-dum-*ting*)

Number 4 is one that I really want to steer people away from. Yes, rules should be followed – except where they shouldn’t. You may not know this but it is completely legitimate for a solider in the Australian Army to refuse to follow an illegal order. (Yes, it will probably not go very well but it’s still an option.) If a soldier, who is normally bound by the chain of command to follow orders, believes the order to be illegal (“No prisoners” being one of them) they don’t have to follow it. Australian soldiers are encouraged to exercise discretion and thought because that makes them better soldiers – they can fill in the blanks when the situation changes and potentially improve things. The price, of course, is that a thinker thinks.

Same for students. I want students who change the world, who make things better, who may occasionally walk on the grass to get to that bright new future even when the signs say ‘stay off the grass’. However, without a personal code of conduct, which rules you can bend or break are going to be fairly arbitrarily selected and are far more likely to have a selfish focus. We want rule bending in the face of sound ethics, not rationalisation.

As I said, it’s a lot to ask of students but, as I’ve always said, if I don’t ask for it, and tell people what I want, I can’t expect it and I certainly can’t build on it.

Card Shouting: Teaching Probability and Useful Feedback Techniques by… Yelling at Cards

I introduced a teaching tool I call ‘Card Shouting’ into some of my lectures a while ago – usually those dealing with Puzzle Based Learning or thinking techniques. What does Card Shouting do? It demonstrates probability, shows why experimental construction is important and engages your class for the rest of the lecture. So what is Card Shouting?

(As a note, I’ve been a bit rushed today and I may not have put this the best way that I could. I apologise for that in advance and look forward to constructive suggestions for clarity.)

Take a standard deck of cards, shuffle it and put it face down somewhere where the class can see it. (You either need very big cards or a document camera so that everyone can see this in a large class. In a small class a standard deck is fine.)

Then explain the rules, with a little patter. Here’s an example of what I say: “I’m sick and tired of losing at Poker! I’ve decided that I want to train a pack of cards to give me the cards I want. Which ones do I want? High cards, lots of them! What don’t I want? Low cards – I don’t want any really low cards.”

Pause to leaf through the deck and pull out a Ace, King and Queen. Also grab a 2,3 and 4. Any suit is fine. Hold up the Ace, King and Queen.

“Ok, these guys are my favourites. What I’m going to do, after this, is shuffle everything back in and draw a card from the top of the deck and flip it up so you can see it. If it’s one of these (A, K, Q), I want to hear positive things – I want ‘yeahs!’ and applause and good stuff. But if it’s one of these (hold up 2,3 and 4) I want boos and hisses and something negative. If it’s not either – well, we don’t do anything.” (Big tip: put a list of the accepted positive and negative phrases on the board. It’s much easier that having to lecture people on not swearing)

“Let’s find out what works best: praise or yelling- but we’re going to have measure our outcomes. I want to know if my training is working! If I draw a bad card and abuse it, I want to see improvement – I don’t want to see one of the bad cards on the next draw. If I draw a good card, and praise it, I want the deck to give me another good card – if it’s lower than a J, I’ve wasted my praise!” Then work through with the class how you can measure positive and negative reaction from the cards – we’ve already set up the basis for this in yesterday’s post, so here’s that diagram again.

In this case, we record a tick in the top left hand box if we get a good card and, after praising it, we get another good card. We put a tick in top right hand box if we draw a bad card, abuse the deck, and then get anything that is NOT a bad card. Similarly for the bottom row, if we praise it and the next card is not good, we put a mark in the bottom left hand box and, finally, if we abuse the card and the next card is still bad, we record a mark in the bottom right hand box.

Now you shuffle and start drawing cards, getting the reactions and then, based on the card after the reaction, record improvement or decline in the face of praise and abuse. If you draw something that’s neither good NOR bad to start with – you can ignore it. We only care about the situation when we have drawn a good or a bad card and what the immediate next card is.

The pattern should emerge relatively quickly. Your card shouting is working! If you get a card in the bad zone, you shout at it, and it’s 3 times as likely to improve. But wait, praise doesn’t do anything for these cards! You can praise a card and, again, roughly 3 times as often – it gets worse and drops out of the praise zone!

Not only have we trained the deck, we’ve shown that abuse is a far more powerful training tool!


What? Why is this working? I discussed this in outline yesterday when I pointed out it’s a commonly held belief that negative reinforcement is more likely to cause beneficial outcome based on observation – but I didn’t say why.

Well, let’s think about the problem. First of all, to make the maths easy, I’m going to pull the Ace out of the deck. Sorry, Ace. Now I have 12 cards, 2 to K.

Let me redefine my good cards as J, Q, K. I’ve already defined my bad cards as 2, 3, 4. There are 12 different card values overall. Let me make the problem even simpler. If we encounter a good card, and praise it, what are the chances that I get another good card? (Let’s assume that we have put together a million shuffled decks, so the removal of one card doesn’t alter the probabilities much.)

Well, there are 3 good card values, out of 12, and 9 card values that aren’t good – so that’s 9/12 (75%) chance that I will get a not good card after a good card. What about if I only have 12 cards? Well, if I draw a K, I now only have the Q and the J left in my good card set, compared to 9 other cards. So I have a 9/11 chance of getting a worse card! 75% chance of the next card being worse is actually the best situation.

You can probably see where this is going. I have a similar chance of showing improvement after I’ve abused the deck for giving me a bad card.

Shouting at the cards had no effect on the situation at all – success and failure are defined so that the chances of them occurring serially (success following success, failure following failure) are unlikely but, more subtly, we extend the definition of bad when we have a good card – and vice versa! If we draw any card from 5 to 10 normally, we don’t care about it, but if we want to stay in the good zone, then these 6 cards get added to the bad cards temporarily – we have effectively redefined our standards and made it harder to get the good result. Here’s a diagram, with colour for emphasis, to show the usually neutral outcomes are grouped with the extreme.. No wonder we get the results we do! The rules that we use have determined what our outcome MUST look like.

So, that’s Card Shouting. It seems a bit silly but it allows you to start talking about measurement and illustrate that the way you define things is important. It introduces probability in terms of counting. (You can also ask lots of other questions like “What would happen if good was 8-K and bad was 2-7?”)

My final post on this, tomorrow, is going to tie this all together to talk about giving students feedback, and why we have to move beyond simple definitions of positive and negative, to focus on adding constructive behaviours and reducing destructive behaviours. We’re going to talk about adding some Kings and removing some deuces. See you then.

SIGCSE Oh, oh, oh, it’s magic!

If you’re at SIGCSE, then you’re probably one of the 1,000,000 people who jammed into the pretty amazing Wednesday session, Demystifying Computing with Magic, with Dan Garcia and David Ginat. Dan and David coped very well with a room that seemed to hold more and more people – in keeping with a magic show, we were all apparently trapped in a magic box.

The key ideas behind this session was that Dan and David would show us five tricks that would teach or introduce important computing notions, such as discrete maths, problem representation, algorithmic patterns and, the catch-all, general notions. Drawing on Silver’s 1997 paper, Fostering Creativity Through Instruction Rich In Mathematical Problem Solving and Problem Posing (It’s better in German, trust me), they focused on the notions of fluence (diverse directions for exploration), flexibility (adaptation to the task at hand – synonymous with cognitive flexibility), originality (unfamiliar utilisation of familiar notation), and awareness (being aware of the possible fixations[?] – to be honest, I didn’t quite get this and am still looking at this concept).

The tricks themselves were all fun and had a strong basis in the classical conceit of the stage magician that everything is as it seems, while being underpinned by a rigorous computational framework that explained the trick but in a way that inspired the Gardernesque a-ha! One trick guaranteed that three people could, without knowing the colour of their own hats, be able to guess their own hat colour, based on observing the two other hats, and it would be guaranteed that at least one person would get it right. There were card tricks – showing the important of encoding and the importance of preparation – modular arithmetic, algorithms, correctness proofs and, amusingly, error handling.

Overall, a great session, as evidenced by the level of participation and the number of people stacked three-high by the door. I had so many people sitting near my feet I began to wonder if I’d started a cult.

The final trick, Fitch Cheney’s Five Card Trick was very well done and my only minor irritation is that we were planning to use it in our Puzzle Based Learning workshop on Saturday – but if it’s going to be done by someone else, then all you can ask is that they do it well and it was performed well and explained very clearly. It even had 8 A-Ha’s! That’s enough to produce 2.66 Norwegian pop bands! If you have a chance to see this session anywhere else, I strongly recommend it.

(A useful website, http://www.cs4fn.org/magic, was mentioned at the end, with lots of resources and explanation for those of you looking to insert a little mathemagic into your teaching.)

Give me a coffee, I’m about to teach something boring.

I think that you always know when you’ve delivered a good lecture. I mentioned fiero a while ago – that feeling of joyful success that makes you want to punch the air. When you get that from a lecture, because you nailed the explanations or everyone participated or a difficult demo came off, you feel good. You feel great.

After a bit of teaching, I came to know the feeling that I associated with a good lecture even in the preparatory stage – I would sometimes be nervous because I wanted the lecture to go well but I was never bored, or dreading the lecture, or grabbing a strong coffee to keep my edge. But I also came to know the opposite feeling. When I’d been dropped in to teach someone else’s material, which I didn’t know so well and that wasn’t in my style. When I hadn’t had a chance to tidy up my own notes from last year or this was the lecture that I’d always planned to rewrite.

That’s when I’d grab a coffee. Because it would keep me awake and stop me yawning while I managed to put myself to sleep. And not really want to be there. And try to get out as soon as possible.

Now, if I’m going to sleep, what is happening in every row behind the first three, where the keen and mature age students sit. Behind the wall of keen, it’s tumbleweed city. Wait long enough and someone will go sufficiently deeply to sleep that they’ll fall off their chair. How could they not? You’re boring yourself, or you don’t believe in it, so you’ve picked up some liquid edge to keep yourself going! The last thing you want to do is to give the caffeine-addicted, energy drink consuming student body even MORE of an excuse to drink caffeinated energy drink – one day, someone is going to explode.

My body was, of course, trying to tell me something important.


(My body speaks in capitals.)

After a while, I got to the level where I could think about a course and read my gut. I’d get that feeling early, that yawny, “I need a coffee” feeling to mask the fact that the content or delivery was boring me. That’s why I spend so much time fixing things up, because I’ve found it far easier to teach a good course that makes me feel good, than teaching a bad course that makes me feel bad. The time spent, which is often non-trivial, comes back to me in nights spent sleeping deeply, rewarding student engagement, and lack of terror. 🙂

We don’t always have the luxury of doing this – we don’t always have the access, time or resources. But, by seizing control when we can and leaving ourselves open to fiero and delight, instead of fear and dread, we do end up making our jobs easier, our teaching better, our students happier and our caffeine levels down.

Well, no more than a few a day. I still like coffee, I prefer to have it as a choice, rather than as an anti-boredom device!


Fiero! The joy that makes you want to punch the air.

After a fun couple of hours writing the previous post, I’ve decided to hunker down and read some more books on data visualisation. However, I wanted to update you on my Summer Research Scholarship student – the one who was developing the game. Well, he demo’d the basic computerised version on Friday and, simply, it works, it’s fun, and he’s got a simple text display going. Next week it’s GUI + networking design and build, then two more weeks of coding and wrapping it up for week 6 with API documentation, extensible framework and a plan for porting it to Android and iPhone.

Let me remind you that he started two weeks ago, was given some books, a brief, and a lot of access to me and my time, as well as my planning skills and overall management. In that time, he has learnt about an entirely new way of presenting information, come up with six ideas, found the best one and chased it with an amazing passion. In two weeks he has a simple working game that could be played right now. The more I work with students, the more I realise that my fears about what they can’t achieve often become constraints on what I allow them to achieve. I (implicitly or explicitly) tell people that This is enough when it sets a false level of achievement for the struggling and it bores the gifted. Yes, there are varying levels of ability and we must educate all of our students, but I’ve seen so many people soar when I’ve given them open skies and a jet pack, that I can spend the time to help those who are still walking, or have fallen once or twice. My belief is that most, if not all, will fly one day. If I don’t believe that, then what am I doing?

It’s the weekend and I’m blogging this because I want you to know how much we can do, as educators, as people, as mentors and, sometimes, as the ones who stand back and let people try. We have to build our world in a way that it’s possible to fly but it’s not fatal to fall.

It’s an enormous challenge and I love it. Fiero is a word that we use for that feeling of achievement and joy that makes you raise your fists into the air and punch out to the sky because you can’t contain how good you feel. My student had such a moment when he worked out one of the core design issues that turned his game from dull to fun. He told me about it, using terminology he’d picked up on this project to describe that joy. Now, I have that feeling because I think that good things are happen. What more can any of us ask for in our jobs, once the mundane issues are settled?

Have a great weekend! Find the joy! Punch the air!