Take your nose out of the grade book and behold wonder!

In the video we saw during class, Dan Pink talks about higher rewards leading to worse performance on cognitive tasks. However, he doesn’t describe the experiment well enough to understand why/how higher rewards impact cognitive skills. His other video does a better job with the candle experiment. In this one, he describes that the higher reward narrows subject focus so much that they can’t think outside the box to solve the problem. This matches with the quote used by Alfie Kohn :

A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  “Ten years,” the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  “Then 20 years,” the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student in the Ashram.  “In that case, 30 years,” the master replied.  His explanation:  “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I didn’t register the impact of Pink’s work until I read Kohn’s. Then I got hit by memories of finals time with friends calculating what grade they needed to get grade X in each class. While I’d like to say I was above this practice, that I didn’t feel those needs because I would rather be studying instead, such words would be a lie. In the classes that I enjoyed, I don’t think I ever calculated a theoretical grade, but in the boring or disinteresting classes there was a lot of “I could probably accept a lower grade in exchange for my sanity…”. What’s worse about this is how focused people are on only grades.

Students want a degree to get a job, and think that grades will affect their job chances. The truth is that your professional network and your ability to interact with people will pull far, far more weight in the job market. However, students feel more compelled to study than to attend networking socials and conferences. I have a terribly hard time getting students to attend events for my club (when they’ve already told me they are interested) because they’re afraid to take time out away from the lab or studying.  I offered a free week in Detroit to eat food and network at the largest and most important conference in my field, no presentations required, and no one would take me up on the offer. That is insane to me. I basically had to force close friends to go because I had already booked housing with university funding. I’ll do the same thing next year too. Students are so focused on finishing degrees or getting good grades that they miss the opportunities that make life good. It’s a sickness at this point, and I blame this need to keep an eye on your grade/end goal. Finishing is important, but if you enjoy the journey you’re far more likely to make it out alive.

With this in mind, what are some opportunities you’ve missed because you were afraid of setting yourself back or getting a lower grade? What experiences have you enjoyed at some cost?


Edit: With the vast interest in this conference I’m “dragging” people to, I thought I’d give a little context. The conference is the annual conference for the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), know as ANTEC. Last year it was in Orlando, this year it’s in Detroit, and next year it is apparently in  San Antonio. My advisor is the club advisor so I kind of got guilted in signing up for a leadership position when my lab mates wanted to step down. Since starting I’ve started to love the opportunity and I want to give it a bigger presence around campus. VT has an amazing polymer/plastics program and that makes it a great place to use a club/organization like SPE to dispel the many misconceptions about plastics (yes they stick around forever, but they are so efficient to make it makes paper bags look like hummers – you win some, you lose some) and teach amazing things (like plastic eating fungi)! Anyhoo, to make an impact I applied to a bunch of funding opportunities through VT and SPE and got some. I’m also tabling for my department at their career fair/expo thing, so I got some support from the Macromolecules Innovation Institute to talk up VT to anyone considering grad school in the polymer field. So if you’ve got any vague connection to plastics you want to take advantage of, hit me up for next year’s conference (or come to the SPE meeting on March 1st).

Also, for anyone interested in a cheap local conference, in 2020, VT is hosting the National Graduate Research Polymers Conference (NGRPC2020) through ACS. It’s a great time to learn about how plastics affect you. And currently, we plan to offer VT students a discount…but that is still being worked on.

</shameless plug>

Mindlessly Mindful, a Tale of Excessive Curiosity

This week’s readings made me realize I should tell y’all something about myself. I’m annoyingly curious. I’m that person who hears the words “I don’t know” and is googling the answer before the sentence is even finished. I’m a strong believer that if we have roughly all of humanity’s knowledge in our pocket, we might as well use it. This curiosity has driven me to waste tons of extra time on various tasks because I want to know just a little bit more.

As I’ve gotten older, this has led to me getting antsy and annoyed at any class that tries to teach me something that I feel won’t lead to a lasting skill or understanding of some sort. From my experience, required classes rarely have more than a 5% application to my research/life, especially if formatted as an information dump. To me, such classes are a waste of my time.

As it turns out, I dislike these courses because they feel mindless to me. I sit in those classes and zone out because enough material is easy/old that it’s difficult to think critically about the information. It’s hard to just accept information as it’s piled on top of you at a rate that doesn’t allow in-depth question/answer sessions.

To combat such classes I’ve started adapting assignments such that they force me to learn something on my own. Instead of throwing data into excel and letting it make an ugly plot, I started taking the time to learn a coding language and analyze the raw data by myself. I ignored software options to calculate peaks and slopes, opting to program derivatives and other things instead. This technique took way more of my time, but it also taught me way more. I was deliberate about my learning and had to think about the content from a variety of angles before I could implement the necessary strategies.

This is to say that while I’m a strong proponent of teachers reworking classes to push students toward mindful learning, sometimes students have to learn to be mindful themselves. We have the ability to turn the tables and say hey, your way isn’t working, but this way worked really well for me.

Ideally, both teacher and student would work towards a mindful learning approach. However, I think this would take extra work for both parties. So my question is, how do we convince people to put in the extra effort? I had wanted to learn to program, so the effort was worth it to understand something I’d been putting off for years. Without that incentive, I think I would have just suffered through the class.

Gamify All the Things

This week had interesting timing as I spent much of my “free” time looking at mobile conference app websites. A lot of them emphasize that you can gamify (yeah, it makes me uncomfortable that this is a word too) your conference to get people really involved/invested in the conference. Then I start reading about the same idea for learning. I had previously seen this for learning good habits, and I think many of us have play exam jeopardy or something similar to try to make learning fun.

However, the quest to learn floored me. The amount of emphasis on all aspects of the gamification process is astounding. This is a tremendous way to get children involved and critically thinking about problems. Programming your own games requires you to explicitly solve many tiny problems that you normally wouldn’t realize you’re solving. This teaches kids to critically asses everything they do, but in a fun way. It’s absolutely amazing really. I can’t help but be tremendously jealous of these young programmers.

This brings me to my next point though. The money that quest to learn must have, to supply Macbooks to students, is way out of reach for most schools. Even today, teachers across the country are complaining about basic teaching supplies like pens and pencils being out of reach. I can’t help but feel that this program comes from a place of tremendous privilege that is unobtainable for the majority of schools in this country, and certainly in the global community. The learning techniques are wonderful, but unless we change our funding priorities in a big way, they are only going to facilitate a larger divide between the haves and the have-nots.

What are your thoughts? Is gamification the future of teaching? Is it a temporary fad? Or is it another tool for gentrification?