Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Active, Not Passive; Autonomy, Not Subordination

When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome — by a factor of five to one.

That quote comes from a Harvard Business Review article that a friend shared with me recently, Increase Your Team's Motivation Five-Fold.  It calls the conclusion that choice leads to commitment "an inconvenient truth about human nature."  The subtitle of Daniel Pink's book Drive, which similarly emphasizes autonomy as one of three keys to motivation, calls the same phenomenon "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us."  Is it really that inconvenient and surprising, though, when we really think about what gets us excited versus what bores us?  I believe that if we really pursue these ideas, study ourselves and others with an eye toward "human nature," they--in contradiction, perhaps, to conventional wisdom--seem obvious and common sense.

Of course, if it was so obvious then people (like me) wouldn't feel the need to write about it and I wouldn't still be making new mental connections related to the topic.

This is, I believe, the fifth time I've referenced Drive in one of my posts.  I reviewed it in One of the Worst Things You Can Inflict Upon Me Is Boredom, placed it in a socio-political context in Free Market Values: Or, Laissez-Faire Morality, considered its impact on the changing world of libraries as they become centers of production (as opposed to consumption) in Connected Libraries, and worked it into a personal manifesto of sorts in I Think I'm Chaotic Lawful.  Key to all my uses of the book is the idea that people are more motivated, more committed to outcomes, when they can choose for themselves to pursue those outcomes, when they have autonomy about how they will use their time and energy and when they take ownership of what they are working on.  When people are allowed to decide for themselves, their work takes on an entirely different, much more personal dimension.  When someone else tells me what to do, a contrarian part of me instinctively resists and ultimately the results belong to someone else, so I'm not all that invested in the outcomes; when I choose to do it for me, it's mine and I gladly put myself into it fully, with pride of ownership in the results.

If you'd like to know more about Pink's book, his research and the results that lead to these conclusions, this ten-minute video is an excellent summary:

So that part of the Harvard Business Review article is somewhat rehashed territory for me; what has me excited today and making new connections is what it says next:
Conventional approaches to change management underestimate this impact. The rational thinker sees it as a waste of time to let others self-discover what he or she already knows — why not just tell them and be done with it? Unfortunately this approach steals from others the energy needed to drive change that comes through a sense of ownership of "the answer."
When I read that, a light bulb went off in my head and I said to myself, That's not just my philosophy of motivation, it's also my philosophy of learning and education in a nutshell.  It's been a few years since I've written about education, as I've focused more recently on leadership and management (along with politics and libraries and other stuff), but I used to be a teacher and school librarian, and in 2006 I blogged a short education manifesto: What Does This Mean to You? Or, Do You Want Me Teaching Your Children?  In it, I quoted from the Wikipedia article on "Constructivist Epistemology" (as it existed at the time), then wrote:
Knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing subject.

According to the social constructivist approach, instructors have to adapt to the role of facilitators and not teachers. Where a teacher gives a didactic lecture which covers the subject matter, a facilitator helps the learner to get to his or her own understanding of the content. In the former scenario the learner plays a passive role and in the latter scenario the learner plays an active role in the learning process. The emphasis thus turns away from the instructor and the content, and towards the learner.

The learning experience is both subjective and objective and requires that the instructor’s culture, values and background become an essential part of the interplay between learners and tasks in the shaping of meaning. Learners compare their version of the truth with that of the instructor and fellow learners in order to get to a new, socially tested version of truth.

I guess what it all comes down to is I believe learning is a process. To truly understand something, a person has to experience it, discover it for him or herself, make sense of it in terms of what he or she already knows, and internalize it. He or she has to take ownership of the knowledge and make it his or her own. Someone can describe "hot" to you, but you'll never really know what they mean until you stick your hand on the stovetop burner. Then you "know." We try to understand new things in relation to what we already know, so our context--everything we've already learned--shapes the way we perceive reality; our perception of information and the way we come to understand it "creates" the knowledge that comes out of it. To facilitate learning, then, you have to create an environment that leads to learning experiences, that allows the process of encountering new information and making meaning of it to take place. You can guide that process and have goals in mind, but have to understand that it ultimately depends upon the student.
Much less formally, I wrote in Of Teaching and Learning:
I remember one time sitting in class--middle school science, maybe, but the specifics are fuzzy--and thinking to myself, "If our goal is to learn about the world, why do we spend all day sitting inside windowless rooms reading and talking about it instead of outside experiencing it?" . . .

And when I was doing my library media practicum hours and spending my first significant time in an elementary school as an adult, I was struck by just how much of what we teach kids is to wait their turn. Sit quietly until the teacher gets to them. Stand in line until everyone behaves. I would guess the average student spends as much time waiting around as being taught, and then much of that teaching treats the child as a passive recipient instead of an active learner.
I also linked to a good article about lecture as an ineffective teaching method in Lecture Learning, with a brief intro that included: Lecture is about the least effective instructional method out there, yet that's generally what you get in college. It makes the students passive. As a general rule, people remember very little of what they hear; what they remember most is what they do. So if you want students to learn, have them do something, not just sit and listen.


And, more recently in Another Convergence, I linked to an article:
Student's Brain Flatlines During Class

In a report designed to prove the feasibility of measuring electrodermal activity on subjects going about their daily life, at least one student showed near brain-death during class.

Am I exaggerating?  Yes.  But, even so, brain patterns during class matched watching TV closer than any other activity on the list.  Studying and homework, lab work, and socializing got more of his attention… sleep was a veritable mental work-out compared to class.

The point of it all being that meaningful learning primarily occurs when students have experiences that they are actively invested in, that they feel--at least on some level--that they are choosing to participate in and take ownership of the final product they produce, as well as the new knowledge and wisdom internalized along the way.  They must be allowed to reach their own conclusions.

Workplace motivation is the same as school-based learning is the same as personal motivation is the same as independent learning is the same as reading pleasure and recreational activities and play and creating and coming to grips with all kinds of change, personal, institutional, and societal.  It's a process.  A personal investment.  A choice.  An action.  A journey to an outcome.  And if you try to skip that journey and head straight to the outcome, give people the answer without the process, none of it will amount to much of anything.

Also from the Harvard Business Review article:
In speaking to HBR in November 2008, John Chambers, chairman and CEO of networking specialist Cisco Systems, described his experience in this regard, "It was hard for me at first to learn to be collaborative. The minute I'd get into a meeting, I'd listen for about 10 minutes while the team discussed a problem. I knew what the answer was, and eventually I'd say, 'All right, here's what we're going to do.' But when I learned to let go and give the team the time to come to the right conclusion, I found they made just as good decisions, or even better — and just as important, they were even more invested in the decision and thus executed with greater speed and commitment."
In talking to my friend about the article, she shared that it came from a webinar on apps and websites students can use to share their work with each other.  She shared with me this infographic, which, along with the specific information related to the webinar's topic, also captures the connections I've been making.  It's worth a look.  As part of that conversation, I wrote: "Parents who've tried to pass wisdom on to their kids (drinking is dangerous, first love fades, etc.) can tell you this is absolutely true."  She responded, referencing a movie we both enjoyed (and a book I plan to read): "And then does it relate to the movie Cloud Atlas.  "We" are always learning.  We can't learn from the previous generation.  We must "learn" for ourselves."

There's another blog post in that that I might write about the constancy of the human experience and how I don't see us on a gradual progression of accumulated wisdom as a species, but that's for another time (perhaps after reading Cloud Atlas).  The point now is that we do much better when we understand that those around us must be allowed to learn (experience, engage, choose) for themselves.  We must "learn" for ourselves.


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