Monday, March 05, 2012

The Undoing Stress We Foist On Our Students

When my older son was in first grade he got tested for the "gifted program."  Anxious and naive as parents, my wife and I wanted, of course, to be told our child was gifted.  Don't all parents want to be told that about their children?  The woman who ran the program indicated to us that gifted children like to be tested, so that in itself shouldn't be stressful.   I didn't quite understand her point, since my son couldn't yet read.  Apparently they had ways to work around that (not really) minor impediment.  Lo and behold, he proved to be gifted according to the test.  We were proud of our son.  He then got put into the gifted classroom for second grade.

There were several factors that made this environment stressful on him.  Like me when I was his age, he was both the youngest and the biggest student in the class.  Because we guessed correctly that he would be a large kid, we thought he should be in the next grade up, though his birthday made him borderline for this.  Then it turned out that the gifted classroom combined grades.  The classroom our son was in had both second and third grades.  With some of the third graders there was almost a two-year age differential; in my opinion that's a lot at such a young age.  And the teacher was on the youngish side herself, not necessarily an issue but it proved to be so in this case.

My son was still not reading on his own. The teacher assigned a lot of homework.  He couldn't do the homework.  Indeed, the teacher made no accommodation regarding where my son was as a learner.  We had several emotion filled evenings about doing the homework.  The situation did not seem to be righting itself so my wife and I complained to the person who ran the gifted program.  She blamed the teacher, but no matter whose fault it was that didn't itself offer up a path to better the situation.  So my wife and I decided to move our son to a regular classroom for the remainder of second grade.  We also decided to take our son to a private reading specialist.  They tested him on how he read, concluded he had a learning disability, something on the lines of dyslexia, and offered up "whole reading" sessions to help him make progress.  Those sessions did help.  Eventually the school concluded that he qualified to see a reading specialist there and he had pullout sessions with that person for some time.

My wife and I had triangle meetings with both the reading specialist and the teacher.  It was clear at those sessions that they were in consult with one another about our son.  They noted the progress he made.  He caught up and became a good enough reader that he no longer qualified for the extra help.  I'm pleased to report all these years later, my son is now a sophomore in college at Illinois, that he is doing well and is a serious reader, of the New York Times and of non-school fiction.  Elsewhere I've written about his essential goodness.  I think that mattered in this case, a trial that he saw his way through. This episode had the possibility of creating permanent damage, but it didn't because the source of the stress was resolved.

* * * * *

My operating hypothesis is that when school creates a continual stress that is not resolved there is dysfunction in the relationship between the student and school that manifests in a variety of ways.  Some of it might show up by the student being present in body but not in spirit, low keying the experience so as not to let it have an emotional impact.  Another alternative is student cynicism and alienation, if not outright anger.  Students have a right to expect that school provides nurture.  When it becomes clear it doesn't, the student needs to find an alternative explanation of what school is in reality.  The quick and available answer is that it's a big game of jumping through hoops, one that is entirely unrelated to personal growth.  One needs to play the game because, presumably, a good job awaits at the other end of the tunnel as long as one wins at the game.  Still another possibility is to stop playing the game entirely and do something else, in the spirit of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, stay true to one's passion irrespective of whether that path runs the possibility of ruin.

I should also point out that some students don't experience much stress and find the same environment nurturing.  They enjoy school and view it as a place that affirms their inner selves.  This gets one to wonder whether in assigning blame if it's the student's or the environment's fault for the dysfunction, when it does happen.

Recently there have been quite a few pieces on the role of habit in determining our behavior.  My suspicion is that initially students try a variety of coping strategies to navigate the academic environment, especially if the approach they used in high school no longer seems to be working.  When one approach seems to work it hardens and becomes habit.  Thereafter the environment might very well change and become more nurturing and less stressful, but the already formed habit trumps that, so the behavior hardly changes if at all.

I was driven to write this post because of the absenteeism I've witnessed in my undergraduate Economics of Organizations class and the tardiness with which some of the students complete the work (or don't submit the work at all).   Based on correspondence with some students it is clear that stress incurred in one course has negative impact on performance in other courses.  That stress may arise from group work where other members of the group don't pull their weight.  Or it may happen as a result of having multiple exams within a very short time window.  Or, perhaps, the material in some class is especially challenging, but the course is required so dropping it is not an attractive alternative.  Many students tend to go on a binge with respect to their school work.  One sign of this is pulling an all-nighter.  This, of course, disrupts the sleep cycle for some days thereafter.  The behavior is myopic and immature.  What else would you expect from a twenty year old kid?  The binge behavior in conjunction with the external sources of stress can create a vicious cycle. 

A couple of weeks ago on the course Web site, I posted a link to a humorous page on Murphy's Laws for Education, and told the students to focus on the Laws of Applied Terror.  Then in class the following day I posted a corollary:

Every instructor assumes that you have nothing else to do except study for that instructor's course.

With that I was trying to be humorous, but also sensitive to the students' reality.  In the correspondence I mentioned, one of the students made reference to the Law of Applied Terror.  That's not a joke.

* * * * *

On my trip to Florida last week I started to read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.   It is about the relationship between our intuitive and automatic thinking, called System 1, and our deliberate and mindful thinking, called System 2.  The message is that System 1 usually has its way.  Much of the time that's fine and indeed often it is necessary.  Some of the time, however, System 1 makes mistakes.  Then it needs an assist from System 2 to correct the errors.  System 2 can fatigue and then not keep up. This is when the mistakes prevail. 

Reading chapter 3 in the book, The Lazy Controller, I got depressed.  The chapter starts out well enough, discussing the concept Flow, which according to the author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has its origins in earlier conceptions, such as Abraham Maslow's notion of peak experience.  Kahneman brings up flow to talk about when System 2 performs optimally without tiring.  This occurs when there is no outside interference and hence no conclusions generated by System 1 to monitor.  All concentration can be placed on the object of attention.   In my recollection, I first experienced flow doing math.  Later in college it sometimes happened in conversations with housemates.  Then again it occurred in solitary activity, learning economics in grad school.  And when I used to jog, the "runner's high" one would get after doing 5 miles a day for a couple of weeks, which would kick in during the middle of the run, had aspects of flow as well.  I've experienced flow in writing blog posts, though not this one, which has been a bit of a struggle for me to produce.  Flow represents an ideal for how System 2 might be utilized.  Presumably the more flow experiences we have, the happier we are and the more we want to generate future flow experiences.

Then Kahneman introduces the downside, by discussing the bat and ball problem.  (It is described here, part way down the page.)  This is an example of what we used to call a word problem in high school algebra.  But the algebra is hidden.  If one writes down the equations, one will get the right answer.  The algebra is not hard.  But instead one might do it in one's head and guess the answer.  The numbers are chosen to encourage an intuitive answer which, unfortunately, is wrong.  Kahneman then reports about administering the bat and ball problem to students at ritzy Ivy League colleges.  Shockingly, 50% of them get it wrong.  At less prestigious institutions, the number that gets it wrong can exceed 80%.  

Kahneman argues, I think he's correct in this, that people who get this problem wrong don't check their answer, because if they did they'd spot their error.  He calls students who don't check their work intellectually lazy.  This is plausible to me, but I want to entertain some other possibilities as explanation, because if Kahneman is right in this and in his next point as well, then its very hard not to be an elitist with regard to "rationality," what at the end of the chapter Kahneman describes as the appropriate label for System 2's effective monitoring of System 1. 

I know from other examples that sometimes students sandbag on a test, deliberately earning themselves a low score, because that is to their advantage later.  On placement exams that entering freshmen take, some will sandbag so they can repeat essentially the same class they had in high school.  They won't learn much new this way, but it will help the GPA.  It's hard to imagine why a student would sandbag on the bat and ball problem, but it's easy to believe that the student doesn't care about the answer, one way or the other.   If you don't care, why check the answer, which involves effort?  Not checking, by a different use of the word rationality, is then optimal.   To conclude laziness on the part of the student, as Kahneman does, the student would have to care about the answer, but also find checking the answer tiresome.  Perhaps if in the bat and ball experiments the student getting it wrong was made publicly known and that was a source of embarrassment to the student, it would be sufficient to generate the Kahneman conclusion. 

Let me give a different possibility to explain the lack of checking.  This one I base on being a parent watching his kid do math homework using a calculator.   I didn't use a calculator in high school.  The technology wasn't yet available.  Kahneman is 20 years older than I am.  Surely he didn't use a calculator either.  We learned arithmetic by working problems with a pencil and paper.  It became a badge of honor for the better students to go beyond that and do hard multiplication problems, or even division problems, in one's head.  When you do this on a regular basis, you learn to check your work as part of the process.  Calculators don't make arithmetic mistakes.  You might verify that you typed in the right stuff, but if you're sure you did that there is no need to run the numbers again.  So the checking habit really may be less of a necessity now.  (This is the same sort of argument that with spell check and grammar check built in, there is less reason to proofread beyond that.  One reason why I compose these blog posts directly in the Web page, rather than in a Word document first, is to not have the grammar checker.  I still think proof reading is important so I try to incentivize it.)  

Kahneman then goes on to talk about the measuring willpower experiments run by Walter Mischel with four-year old children, done in the 1960s.  The experiments seemed strongly predictive of success in later life.  Those with a lack of willpower at four frequently developed emotional or dependency problems later while those with strong willpower were frequently quite successful in later life.  

The juxtaposition of the analysis from the bat and ball results with the measuring willpower results is what I found so depressing.  Kahneman seemed to be saying - "we've got so many lazy thinkers out there and we're stuck with that."  It doesn't seem to offer up a way to improve matters.  Is there a right sort of education that might help?  At the college level, we seem to have a lot of education that is of the wrong sort.  It is provided by instructors who expect intelligence and willpower from their students and implicitly also expect that the student had an expression of both in their prior studies.  It is a form of instruction appropriate for a proper subset of the students at best.  What about the rest of the students?  

I have some reason to question Kahneman's juxtaposition.  Anyone who has eaten a meal with me knows I'm a fresser.  It's not hard to suppose that were I a participant in one of Mischel's experiments, I'd have taken the cookie right away, showing no willpower whatsoever.  On the other hand, when working an algebra problem I do check the math.  Indeed, when I'm making a more involved argument, as I am in this post, I check it for internal consistency.  This is a long acquired habit.  So my type occupies a cell of the matrix that Kahneman would deem unlikely.  And that suggests to me that perhaps something other than willpower should be the focus, something that can be learned, something more in line with flow, something that combats the laziness.

It would be nice if psychologists could all agree so the rest of us who read about psychological issues could get the story straight.  I say that tongue in cheek.  There are too many jokes about laying economists end to end for me to expect such agreement as a realistic outcome.  Ellen J. Langer is no fan of deferred gratification (what willpower is supposed to produce).  She's very much against the idea of telling students to "pay attention."  Let them follow their own interests.  That's how they will best learn.  In my critique of her book, On the Power of Mindful Learning, I concurred with her on this point.   Yet I also found fault in that she offers up no alternative to take it's place.  So I offered up my own - sitzfleisch, which in my definition means not letting go of an idea easily once it's been taken up.  

I presume Kahneman should have taken up this notion himself, because it offers such a nice way to tie System 1 into System 2.  But as with Langer, I think there is something of a trap for the behavioral psychologists in so relying on the evidence from experiments and not at all on evidence that comes from introspection (or relying on introspection only to corroborate the experimental results).   Let me paint the picture here of how this works, starting with this delightful quote that I know some will find surprising. 

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Gertrude Stein

When in that lolling around mode System 1 is working to identify the next object of focus for System 2 to work on.  For example, watching a TV show a face of an actor that is familiar to you from another context might appear.  You intuit the familiarity immediately, but you can't place how you know the face and who the actor is.  This is the spark that's needed to launch the inquiry.  The face problem can be a grabber.  Once you're hooked there's no turning back till you figure it all out. Then System 2 takes over as you go through your inquiry.  And as long as that inquiry is proceeding nicely you can do that content in your activity.  This is flow.  Before reaching your conclusion, however, you may get stuck, at which point flow stops.  You seem to have run out of leads and yet you still haven't matched the face.  Do you give up at this point?  If you have sitzfleisch, you don't.  You may start to do other functional activities unrelated to this inquiry, partly because you have obligations that you need to address but also so System 1 can come back in and generate a possibility that hasn't yet occurred to you.  During this time it can be uncomfortable, unlike the initial idling, because you have an expectation that an answer will be found.  That's a bother.  Feeling bothered, more than feeling inspired, is the emotion at root with the sitzfleisch, though of course we all want to feel inspired to generate the flow.  Past success at such quests doesn't so much provide confidence that this one will succeed as it makes one not want to admit that it won't.  That too is part of the sitzfleisch.  It is learned, not something we're born with.  If the original intuition wasn't a hallucination, eventually System 1 does generate a spark that illuminates the path to the answer, at which point there is both joy and a sense of relief.   Perhaps a point of frustration to an outsider, to get to that illuminating spark takes as long as it takes.  Internet search engines might make it seem the entire query can be concluded in short order.  Often that is true, but it is not a guarantee.

I should also point out here that when engaged in such a query it's hard to also be focused on something else that requires attention.  So while the individual is actually quite attentive to the task, this might very well make the individual appear lazy to an outsider who wants to bring in some other object into focus.

* * * * *

This brings me full circle to the subject of this post.  Learning for courses does not encourage sitzfleisch in those who don't yet have it.  There is a fixed time endpoint for when the learning should occur (when the exam is given or the term paper is due).  Students do tend to procrastinate.  We all do, though we do not all express it in the same arena.  Part of the binging is simply that.  Just as these late starting students are getting into it, the game is coming to an end.  Initiating earlier would help.  This is why more frequent lower stakes assignments are better than a small number of high stakes tests.  But if the assignments are for low stakes only, why should the students take them seriously?  Why won't they respond, instead, as many students seem to with the bat and ball problem, producing the quick intuition but then never getting beyond that.

My answer to that question may seem ridiculous.  Initially the students should exert effort because they are idealistic.  It might prove to be a good experience so let's give it a try at first.  Doing the assignments seriously then needs to have a rewarding aspect to it with the reward coming from the doing.  If this were a realistic goal, it would create a virtuous cycle.   Perhaps not all subjects can be taught this way (organic chemistry comes to mind).  As things are now, however, many courses are not taught this way because we haven't thought to try.  It's time that we did.

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