kitchen table math, the sequel: how to create a virtual culture

Thursday, May 28, 2009

how to create a virtual culture

Why do people actually study when they go to college? Why do they complete any assignment? Why in the world does delaying real life for several years while they are young to spend time in serial windowless rooms with tiny desks seem normal? It's not even so much that it's important, because there's little evidence at the time that it's Important enough to forego other activities for several years when those other activities have immediate knowable rewards. Humans simply aren't built to be rational in that way, able to weigh competing hypotheses with accurate probabilities. They need immediate reinforcement and rewards, and the long term rewards of career or salary have little to do with it. The medium term rewards of encouragement, respect, and pride from loved ones is also too far off to have much to do with it.

The (housed-near-campus) university system works, largely, by creating a kind of group delusion that what you're doing in school right now is normal. It works because the majority of your peers are doing the same thing: going to class, going to coffee or the library to study, going home to repeat until done. Breaking out of that cycle would cause concern or worry on your behalf by many; shame or humiliation could come. The system keeps reinforcing as long as a critical mass of people all believes the same way.

Telepresence can't create this. Remote distance learning can't create this. What structures can create enough social capital that someone would do the studying/work necessary to succeed? Family can, especially if the children are housed at home. But if you are on your own, what else can create this level of reinforcement? Of positive reinforcement for studying, and negatively reinforcing punting?

Someone suggested an idea to me, and I thought of another. Both are based on competitions (does this work better for men than women?)

The first is a team, led by a coach that competes against other teams.
The second is a set of individual competitions.

I still see that the second one is more difficult to work on; you need something to force you to buy into the peer group you are competing against. But the first idea has promise.

No one maligns the use of drills in competition sports. But the more interesting aspect is what you owe each other. You wouldn't want to let your team down, so you do the drill. If you don't, your coach benches you. Your individual strengths are pushed, and still you're expected to support each other rather than rest on the other members' skills. Both the intra-team competition and inter-team competition can really motivate, if you really buy into the notion that you're a team.

Now, to me, teams succeed or fail based on their coach. What skills do coaches have that teachers should have but often don't?

Without a coach, though, I think this system fails--it too easily becomes gamed by the students replacing real competition with their own "fake" competition. Someone needs to prevent everyone from just defaulting, and someone needs to reinforce shame and pride when appropriate.

Of course, there's nothing limiting this model only to virtual schooling. Even in real classrooms, team competition could help create a culture of success. How many competitions happen inside a KIPP school?


Anonymous said...

Competition used to be a regular part of school: posting the perfect scores on weekly spelling tests, who can get the most math problems done correctly in a given amount of time etc. Then someone decided that was bad, because if there are winners, there are losers. Of course, I'm sure that mainstreaming and heterogeneous grouping were heavily involved in that decision.

BTW, as the parent of several full-time elite athletes, I have observed that when kids get to a certain level they provide their own motivation; the coach's role is to help them increase their fitness, skills and tactics. I have frequently seen this in kids under 12; once instructed by the coach, the kids do significant conditioning and skills work outside of practices. However, athletes are given status and recognition not offered to outstanding students. Unfortunately.

Catherine Johnson said...

BTW, as the parent of several full-time elite athletes, I have observed that when kids get to a certain level they provide their own motivation; the coach's role is to help them increase their fitness, skills and tactics.I'm very interested in how this happens.

So you've observed that these kids don't necessarily have this motivation from the outset?

They develop it after reaching a certain level?

This is important for people to know.

VickyS said...

Interesting idea.

Some kids still find ways to compete academically. In my son's precalc class the kids tell each other their test scores. They want to beat each other, or unseat the top dog. I think it's healthy and motivating.

Another teacher provides anonymous class rankings in each of his classes to students on regular intervals. This also motivates him. When he sees he is 8th out of 17 he tries to do better and move up.

I am a big fan of academic competition. I am also an educational dinosaur I guess.

Catherine Johnson said...

Another teacher provides anonymous class rankings in each of his classes to students on regular intervals.I never thought of that!

SteveH said...

I had a programming job once where everyone's salary was posted on a bulletin board for a few weeks after raises came out.

Anonymous said...

Catherine - they don't NECESSARILY have the motivation from the beginning; some do, some don't. If they don't have/acquire it, they don't last long at the elite level. If they don't work on their own, they drop in relation to the kids who do and they get cut from the team. That bothers some people, but not everyone has the same interests. There's a finite amount of time and kids have different priorities. Someone who drops from an elite team to a less-competitive one, so he can spend more time on band/orchestra (or anything else) is making a perfectly rational decision to spend most of his extracurricular time on the activity he likes most. I don't see that as a problem, although some do.

BTW, I have never seen a situation where parents were pushing the kid into a sport he didn't want to do, or to do on at a full-committment level, that lasted more than short term. You can't make kids get up at 4:00 am two or three days a week for swim practice for very long. Or make a young soccer player work on skills for at least half an hour a day, even if there is practice.

I think it was someone on this blog that said to rename the "drill and kill" that the schools so hate; it should be "drill builds skill". Amen. In sports, you can see it and so can everyone else. Without competition and OBJECTIVE results, it's harder to see in academics.

Catherine Johnson said...

This was a mistake I made with C: I didn't require him to take music lessons.

He wanted to take guitar lessons, & did take guitar lessons, but it turned out to be hard instead of fun & he quit within a week or two.

I was working under deadline & wasn't focused...and I didn't make the cognitive leap I did manage to make with tennis, which was that I needed to provide the oomph for a year or two by insisting that he stick with it. I should have said: you're going to learn to play the guitar/piano/whatever. Period.

With tennis, it hit me one day, when I was picking him up from a day tennis camp, that This Was It: this was his sport. He was OK at it, he liked it, he was progressing --- so bingo.

There were plenty of times when he would have let it slide, but Ed & I didn't let it slide. We made him go to lessons.

As a result, he's quite a good tennis player and ended up playing for Hogwarts this year. I think he was 2nd doubles.

He definitely doesn't have the get-up-and-go you're talking about -- and probably would have quit the team this year if we'd allowed that. (aacck)

With tennis, it was obvious to me that a) he needed to be reasonably proficient in a sport he could play the rest of his life, and b) playing on a team & sticking with the team are good things.

It seems as if, along with losing traditional notions of what an education is, we've also lost traditional notions of what it is to be "well-rounded."

These days "well-rounded" seems to mean: did the U.N. Model club at school.

It used to mean you made your kids take piano lessons & learn a sport or two!

VickyS said...

The high school teacher that provides those anonymous rankings to his students (yes, isn't that an awesome idea??) is a master teacher.

He's never been to ed school.

He is an M.D. (a former army neurosurgeon, actually) and also got a law degree in mid-life. He teaches chemistry, physics, health, international law, and mock trial.

We're talking well-rounded. Experienced. Compassionate. No nonsense. Committed.

And of course he lacks the proper credentials to teach in public school.

Without a private school system, this outstanding teacher would not be able to teach.

Anonymous said...

I knew a PhD scientist at the National Institutes of Health who taught a doctoral-level pathophysiology class at a local university, and a practicing surgeorn who taught undergraduate anatomy at another college but they wouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools either.

Getting qualified people to teach science is especially difficult in small, geographically isolated towns, but I remember reading a suggestion that sounded very promising. Most towns have a nearby pharmacy and the pharmacist would be a potential chemistry and/or math teacher; the local teachers' union went crazy: not "qualified", can't allow teaching just one course etc.
Of course, professionals from the community might not be very interested in wasting their time trying to teach kids who have neither the prerequisite math/science knowledge nor the desire to work to master the material. Problems in high school go all the way back to kindergarten. Talk about a culture of success... need to "reinforce shame and pride."