Sunday, September 14, 2014

Making things interesting in the Age of Narcissism

Liking Work Really Matters, proclaims the Gray Matter column in this past weekend's New York Times. As author Paul O'Keefe, assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College in Singapore explains:

Some of us are lucky enough to find our goals interesting — but that won’t always be the case. If interest is critical, how can we take a boring activity and make it interesting?
The answer, as O'Keefe presents it, turns out to be a complete validation of two things education experts have long been promoting: personal connections and group work:
Research by the psychologists Chris S. Hulleman of the University of Virginia and Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin suggests that for most of us, whether we find something interesting is largely a matter of whether we find it personally valuable. For many students, science is boring because they don’t think it’s relevant to their lives.
With this in mind, the researchers asked high school science students to periodically do some writing over the course of a semester. They randomly selected half of them to summarize what they had learned in their class. The other half wrote about the usefulness of science in their own lives, thereby making it personally relevant and valuable.
At the end of the semester, the researchers found that, compared with those who simply summarized the material, the ones who reflected on its personal relevance reported more interest in science — as well as significantly higher grades, on average by almost a full grade point. This was particularly true for those with the lowest expectations for performing well in their class.
Research also shows that social engagement in activities can foster interest. In a study I co-wrote in the Journal of Educational Psychology, we had middle school students play a math-focused video game either alone, in competition with another student or in collaboration with another student. Compared with those who played alone, those playing with a partner reported greater interest in the game and a stronger desire to master it. [Emphasis added]
There are several problems here. First, there's the depressing (or cynical) assumption that people only find personal value in that which is relevant to their lives. That would appear to rule out entire fields--for example, ancient history, esoteric languages, or abstract mathematics, i.e., pretty much everything removed or abstracted from the here and now.

Those who trumpet personal relevance as the only route to interesting ignore the possibilities that:

a. not everyone is a narcissist, and
b. the features that make something interesting often stem from their irrelevance to our personal lives.

Indeed, I suspect that the least narcissistic and more intellectually curious of students find that these personal connections assignments detract from what's actually interesting. So is making everyone write personal connections (as many teachers, in fact, already do) really the best strategy? Why not instead figure out how to generate an outward-looking intellectual curiosity in all students? We might begin with a curriculum that is inherently interesting (i.e., appropriately challenging, tailored to different ability levels, not white-washed by language police, and not based on standardized testing); a curriculum taught by Sages on Stages who themselves are intellectually curious and who know how to make things interesting to others.

Moving from Relevance to Cooperative Learning, it's worth noting how O'Keefe's social engagement study looked only at games (math games), and that, in discussing its conclusions, O'Keefe fails to distinguish between the competition vs. cooperation results. This failure is rather surprising: competitive learning is more or less the opposite of cooperative learning, and it's only the latter that our schools have taken to extremes.

Interestingly, O'Keefe doesn't link to this second study; I tracked it down the abstract here:
The present research examined how mode of play in an educational mathematics video game impacts learning, performance, and motivation. The game was designed for the practice and automation of arithmetic skills to increase fluency and was adapted to allow for individual, competitive, or collaborative game play. Participants (N = 58) from urban middle schools were randomly assigned to each experimental condition. Results suggested that, in comparison to individual play, competition increased in-game learning, whereas collaboration decreased performance during the experimental play session. Although out-of-game math fluency improved overall, it did not vary by condition. Furthermore, competition and collaboration elicited greater situational interest and enjoyment and invoked a stronger mastery goal orientation. Additionally, collaboration resulted in stronger intentions to play the game again and to recommend it to others. [Emphasis added]
Note that collaboration actually worsened game-time performance, and that its only benefits related to how positively the participants felt about the experience (including their reported interest!). I wonder why the Gray Matter column left this out. Perhaps the Times didn't consider it fit to print--perhaps because it isn't relevant to the personal lives, values, and agendas of its intended readers.

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