what to learn and learning what to choose.
The 9th key to learning.
is key in learning? This is the ninth of a number of keys that are
meant to bring understanding about what learning is and how leaning can
be improved by understanding the message of those keys. This key is
about why choice makes learning possible.
gives us experience with choosing enabling us to be less fearful of
This experience in choosing enables us to gain expertise in choosing
that results in us making better choices and thus taking greater
responsibility for our lives.
enables us to be self determined instead of controlled. When controlled
we lose the desire to initiate anything including learning. Choice then
motivates us to learn because the desire to learn remains and is
reinforced by the pleasure derived from learning.
also enables us to to find out what we like to do and learn, which in
turn makes it more probable that we end up in a vocation where we do
and learn those things that we like. It also makes it more probable
that we end up in a vocation that is more useful, where we are more
productive, and where our work is of greater quality.
It's about what to learn and
how choosing wisely is essential in learning. This key sets out how
without choice it is almost impossible to learn, how in order to be
motivated we need to have a choice. It is also about how to best make
choices; how others can help us in making these choices; and what tools
are currently available in helping us make these choices.
to learn, how to learn, where to learn, when to learn and with whom to
learn are all choices that we have to make almost
continuously throughout our lives. For the most part it could be said
that humans usually make a complete mess of this, but there is hope.
"The greatest power that a person
possesses is the power to choose." J. Martin Kohe
gives us experience with choosing.
Fearing to choose.
as infants, are unable to choose, and unless they are groomed to make
choices, they may well not wish to do so. It is after all easier to let
someone else choose for you. Indeed, different cultures have different
ideas about what children should make choices about, and when. Like
everything we learn, however, learning how to choose does not just
naturally develop. To learn how to do it well we have to try and fail
and try and fail again. Choosing well is a skill.
Like many skills the skill of choosing well is one that is best learned
and practiced when as young as possible. Without practice in choosing
when young, learners may fear choice or be overwhelmed by the sheer
amount of choices they must make as adults. Only if children practice
making choices when they are young is there any possibility of their
being experts at choosing when they reach adulthood. The earlier a child has
experience of choosing, the better choices
he/she will make later in life and the less afraid or overwhelmed they
Fear of children making bad
is an unfortunate attitude about childhood, in western society,
that assumes children need to be protected from making
and a fear that if children are allowed to makes choices for themselves
they will make wrong or bad ones. But if we do not let children make
and make the choices for them, how can we expect them to be able to
make choices when eventually they become adult. Do they somehow reach a
point in life where magically they become able to make choices without
previous practice? Much more likely they are suddenly dropped
terrifying world where they must make choices to survive. It is a world
of sink or
swim (no practice).
Parents must choose not to choose
for their children.
must do many things for babies and make choices for them, they must
let babies do for themselves and make choices themselves. If parents do
not let their children do things they will never learn how to do them.
Likewise if they do not let their children make choices they will
never learn how to choose. It is a process where parents start out
protecting and supporting their children by choosing for them, but must
gradually let go and
let their children choose for themselves.
Choice enables us to be self determined instead
and motivation to learn.
Without choice there is no self.
The choice, not to choose, is not a
human's natural state and is always, in some hidden way, imposed by
others. When a child chooses not to choose he/she is being controlled
and through not choosing is giving up his/her ability to determine what
he/she will do, think
and be. Parents if they are good parents understand this.
should not be surprised that learning is
improved, augmented and in every way improved by choice, because choice
is at the very heart of what it is to learn. Choice is all about
learning and learning is all about choice. Choice is essential to
autonomy, autonomy is essential to intrinsic motivation, and intrinsic
motivation is essential to learning. Many, many, experiments have now
been done, and studies carried out on people doing various activities,
all of which show that providing people with choice tends to increase
intrinsic motivation while lack of choice is interpreted as control and
causes intrinsic motivation to plummet alarmingly. A lot of these
experiments and studies were performed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan
and many more were reported in Deci and Ryan's book
"Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior".
Lack of choice means being
is sometimes said that people who are
following orders or carrying out other's demands have a choice. It is
said they have a choice as to whether they perform the required actions
or not, and a choice as to how, when and where to perform the actions.
However, even this small amount of choice is often not really
as usually those who control, do so harshly and it may be a matter of
do or die. Be that as it may, control always involves some coercive
consequences. Even when we are being rewarded there is the threat that
the reward will not be forthcoming if we do not comply. Our only choice
in this case is to comply or resist. We can comply with what others
want us to do, or we resist doing what they want.
we do something willingly, when we do something that we want to do, we
do so by choosing from alternatives. This is the way we express our
individuality, our uniqueness, our identity. When we can not choose,
our individuality, our uniqueness, our identity, all feel in jeopardy.
When this happens our feelings of being autonomous individuals
evaporate. Our path is no longer our own, it is determined by something
outside ourselves. When we don't have a choice we feel like sheep going
to slaughter with no way out. Without choice we can not express who we
are, and as a result we feel like nobody. We become like cogs in the
machine, unable to change ourselves, and unable to change our
circumstances. We become powerless, at the mercy of fate, chance, and
anyone who wishes to manipulate us.
choice where there is little.
is not only
uncharacteristic of being controlled, it is the opposite of being
controlled. Choice and the perception that we have choice, is what
supplies our feelings of autonomy and self-determination. Autonomy or
self-determination is a human need and it is one of the strongest needs
we have. In his book
"Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci explains the importance of
choice and how we can and should provide more of it:
choice in the broad sense of the term, is a central feature in
supporting a person's autonomy. It is thus important that people in
positions of authority begin to consider how to provide more choice.
Even in crowded classrooms, fast paced offices, or harried doctors'
offices there are ways, and the more creative one is, the more
possibilities one will find. Why not give students choice about what
field trips to take and what topics to write their papers about, for
example? Why not let the work group participate in the decision of how
to allocate responsibilities? And why not let patients take part in
planning their treatment regime? It is not always easy to provide
choice, but it has become increasingly clear that there will be
advantages if you do."
worry about what their principal will say if they provide more choice.
Indeed there are many watching and waiting to step on those who do not
conform. Other teachers might object. School administration might
intervene. Then there are the ever panicky parents who might want to
crucify teachers. Is it worth it, giving students more choice, when it
is so easy to do nothing? Managers in business have to beware of other
manages, of superiors, etc. Even doctors have to worry about being
sued, and if things are not done by the book, they might find
themselves more libel. None of this is easy, but as one of our
Australian prime ministers (Malcolm Fraser) said, "Life wasn't meant to
be easy". Indeed, life is meant to be challenging, and teachers,
whether they like it or not, are in a position to make changes.
learning through choice.
We are choice making creatures.
creatures make decisions
all the time about what to do. Most creatures, however, do not seem to
be aware that they have more than one option. For them perception and
action are linked, in that for them, to perceive is to act. Humans, on
the other hand, seem to have been aware since our earliest times, and
as our brains become more developed through learning, that there are
often many courses of action open to us in any situation. Indeed, the
whole frontal part of our brains, the part called the prefrontal lobes,
seems to be mainly concerned with stopping us going with the strongest
emotional feeling that is goading us into action. The prefrontal lobes
send out signals that inhibit certain neurons from firing. In this way
the prefrontal lobes become the executive part of the brain, where
decisions occur and which allow us to consider the ramifications of
other options and then make choices. This part of the brain is very
small in other animals. This is the part of the brain that allows us to
temporarily disengage reflex action to make intelligent logical
This does not mean that emotional choices are bad, only that other
possibilities are open to us.
"A human being is a deciding being."
Victor E. Frankl
"You and I are essentially infinite
choice-makers. In every moment of our existence, we are in that field
of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices."
engages and enhances learning.
is always better
when there is choice because:
is the opposite of oppression. If you
have no choice you feel controlled. But if you have choice you
experience the great pleasure and happiness of feeling free. This in
turn motivates us. Of course choice is not always pleasurable,
sometimes when there are too many options, or we have too little
experience to discriminate between options, it can be anxiety producing
or overwhelming. However, to be without any choice is painful and to
have choice is for the most part pleasurable.
we are given a choice as to what we can learn
we will be motivated to learn. In his book
"Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci says:
has confirmed that choice enhances people's intrinsic motivation, so
when people participate in decisions about what to do, they will be
more motivated and committed to the task - to being sure the task gets
done well. The more seriously people take the challenge of figuring out
how to offer choice, the more satisfying they will find their jobs, and
the more more positive will be the responses from their students or
all need to be willing before we can do
anything well. That which is done under external pressure is not done
willingly, and so only the very minimum needed, will be done or
learned. If we wish things to be done well, or learned well, we need
some other way of making people willing to do or to learn. In his book
"Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci continues to explains the
importance of personal choice and its relation intrinsic motivation:
main thing about meaningful choice is that it engenders willingness. It
encourages people to fully endorse what they are doing; it pulls them
into the activity and allows them to feel a greater sense of volition;
it decreases their alienation. When you provide people choice, it
leaves them feeling as if you are responsive to them as individuals.
And providing choice may very well lead to better, or more workable,
solutions than the ones you would have imposed."
enables better decisions.
says in this book:
the people who will carry out a decision participate in making that
decision, it is possible that the decisions will be of higher quality
than when the manager decides alone."
New interests can be
generated by means of simply providing the learner with a selection of
types or items of information from which the learner can make a choice
as to what he/she will learn. In other words, although learners may
have no initial interest in learning particular types or items of
information, the mere fact of being able to choose particular items or
types of information to learn from among a series of options, actually
engenders new and novel interest.
enables better recall.
has been shown elsewhere on this
site interest allows better recall than when there is no interest, and
because choice helps create and support interest, it must then also
enables better understanding.
as interest improves
recall it also improves understanding and so it must follow that choice
also improves understanding.
power of choosing one of three special options.
a succession of choices that can improve our lives, but only if we
decide one big choice the right way. In life there are three big
can decide our life and our environment can be changed by our choices,
and that therefore we should choose and change the world and ourselves
to what we want them to be.
can decide that some other people can change themselves and the world
and that we should help them and do what they want.
we can decide that no one can change themselves or the environment and
there is no point in trying.
speaking, there is every shade in between these options as well,
however, as will become clear further on, more choice is not
necessarily better. For simplicity's sake let us stay with just the
three options. The good thing about this choice is that, how we make
this all important decision, is learned. This being so, we should be
able to construct and environment which will lead to us making the
Indeed this power of choice is
pretty much a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? It
is true on the one hand, that each of us does have the choice to take
one of these paths in life. On the other hand, our circumstances in
life are pushing us toward one of these choices. Our parents, our
friends, our teachers, our environment all conspire to pressure us into
making one of these choices. The question is, who has the power to make
this choice? Do we? Does fate? Or do those who manipulate us have the
power to decide for us? There is no easy answer to this, because all of
these things are true simultaneously. The more those, who have power
over us take away our choices, the less choice we have and the less
autonomous we feel. The more, those with power over us, give us choice,
the more choice we have, the more we feel self-determined.
"The key to your universe is that you can
choose." Frederick (Carl) Frieseke
Learned helplessness, no
might think that nobody would choose the option
of learned helplessness, but strangely people do. How the choice of
this option might be arrived at, is all important.
not to choose has its attractiveness, in that every choice made is a
door closed, a bridge burned. There is a need to keep the doors of
choice open. Choice can not only be viewed as opening new doors but
also it can be seen as simultaneously closing the other doors not
chosen. By making a choice we are effectively ending the other options.
We are burning our bridges. There is no turning back. This can be very
hard. We want to have our cake and eat it too. In his book
Dan Ariely tells how he noticed this
seeming indecisiveness in people around him. He gives an example of a
student avoiding letting go of an old boy friend even though she has a
new better one and her attitude is putting that relationship in
jeopardy. Another example he gives is of a male student not
wanting to choose a major in college as two career paths seemed equally
attractive and many others.
and his fellow researchers constructed an experiment to test this idea.
They presented a group of students with a computer screen with three
doors. By clicking in a door the students could win varying amounts of
money. The students tried all three doors for a few clicks and then
picked the one that seemed to be most consistently giving them the
highest amounts of money on average. So far so good. While all the
doors were still available students did what we would rationally
expect. Then the researchers changed what would happen. If the students
clicked in one door the other two doors would get smaller and disappear
after twelve clicks. Now instead of using the rational strategy of
trying all the doors, then choosing the best and sticking with it, the
students spent their time jumping from door to door trying to keep them
all open. This resulted in them winning far less money but they seemed
unable to overcome the compulsion keep their options open.
we all have this desire not to choose we normally do end up making a
choice. There are some people, however, for whom the ability to
overcome this desire does not exist. We all know that certain people,
people who are depressed, are often unable to make any choices for
themselves, and indeed would not be able to function in the world at
all, if others did not make those decisions for them. These people have
learned to be helpless in the world. Such people feel that there is no
point in making a choice, because whatever choice they make the outcome
with be the same.
people believe that things, themselves, others, the world, all do not
really change. Oh sure there might be an appearance of change, but
underneath things, people, the world, remain the same. Although
rational people believe on some level that they can affect the world,
it seems that if people are deprived of the choices, such as being able
to help themselves out of pain and difficulty, people will learn that
they are helpless in the world. If we are deprived of choices we become
passive and believe the world cannot be changed, and that we ourselves
cannot be changed either.
Learned helplessness was
uncovered by Martin Seligman, and in his book
"Learned Optimism" he tells the story. While he was
a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania it was brought to
Seligman's notice that there was a problem with the dogs being used for
experiments. Researchers had been trying a form of Pavlovian
conditioning where a particular tone was paired for dogs with an
electric shock. The idea was to see if the dogs would react to the
sound as if they had been shocked. After this had gone on for some time
the dogs were placed in a box where they would be shocked. The
researchers wanted the dogs to learn to jump over a small partition to
escape the shocks. But now the dogs simply lay there whimpering,
letting themselves be shocked. Seligman tells the story:
"As I listened to Overmier and then looked at the whimpering dogs, I
realized that something much more significant had already occurred than
any result the transfer experiment might produce: Accidentally, during
the early part of the experiment, the dogs must have been taught to be
helpless. That's why they had given up. ...I was stunned by the
implications. If dogs could learn something as complex as the futility
of their actions, here was an analogy to human helplessness, one that
could be studied in the laboratory."
an animal lover, Seligman decided to test his idea with the following
called it the 'triadic' experiment, because it involved three groups [of
dogs] yoked together.
would give the first group escapable shock: By pushing a panel with
it's nose a dog in that group could turn off the shock. The dog would
have control because one of its responses mattered.
shock-giving device for the second group would be 'yoked' to that of
the first dogs: they would get exactly the same shocks as the first,
but no response they made would have any effect. The shock a dog in the
second group experienced would cease when the 'yoked' dog in the first
group pushed its panel.
third group would get no shocks at all.
the dogs went through the experience, each according to its category,
all three would be taken to the shuttle box. They should easily learn
to jump over the barrier to escape from shock.
early January of 1965 we exposed the first dog to shocks from which it
could escape and the second dog to shocks from which it could not
escape. The third dog was left alone. The next day we took the dogs to
the shuttle box and gave all three shocks they could easily escape by
hopping over the low barrier dividing one side of the box from the
seconds the dog that had been taught to control shocks discovered that
he could jump over the barrier and escape. The dog that earlier had
received no shocks discovered the same thing, also in a matter of
seconds. But the dog that had found that nothing it did mattered made
no effort to escape..."
repeated the experiment 8 times with other dogs. Six dogs made no
effort to escape, all from the group that had learned that nothing they
did made any difference. Clearly, if our life circumstances place us in
situations where we have no choice to avoid pain or discomfort we are
likely to learn that we are helpless. Not only that, but this belief in
our impotence will follow us into situations where there is choice of
that tend to ensure we make the choice to be helpless.
do humans learn to be helpless? Seligman had his own ideas about which
elements in the environment led to helplessness. The elements, most
apparent in the environments that produced helplessness, were early
experiences with adversity over which the person had no control.
too many adverse things happened in a child's
early life over which the child had no choice the child would tend to
become helpless. Deaths of parents, divorces, inescapable violence and
pain (abuse) could all cause feelings of helplessness and eventual
also noticed that explanatory styles of
expression and thinking seemed to be important in environments that
produced helplessness. This was something that could in fact be
controlled. If temporary explanations of adversity and failure could be
used instead of permanent ones there would be less likelihood of
helplessness. If specific explanations of adversity and failure could
be used instead of universal ones there would be less overall
people talk about human
qualities and qualities of the universe as if they are permanent they
are implying that they cannot be changed. If something cannot be
changed there is little point in trying to change it, so we do not try.
When you say, "I'm all washed up." this is not only negative but also
implies a permanent state that is not changeable. When someone tells
you that, "You always nag", this is not only harsh criticism of you,
but also implies that this quality of nagging is unchangeable and is a
permanent part of you, regardless of whether others or yourself might
wish it not to be. If someone tells you "The boss is a bastard", you do
not understand that the boss sometimes acts to make life harsh for the
employees, you understand that the boss always makes life harsh for the
employees. Adversity and failure are therefore explained in terms of
permanence and thus cannot be affected or changed. We see no point in
making a choice to do something, because it won't change
explanations of failure and adversity that are specific
while others make explanations of failure and adversity that are
universal. People who make universal explanations for their failures or
for adversity, give up on everything when adversity or failure strikes
in only one area. If people were to use specific explanations they
would still be rendered helpless, but only in that specific area.
say, "I'm repulsive", this is not only negative but also implies that
you are repulsive to everybody, not just some specific person. When
someone tells you that, "Books are useless", this not only indicates
that a particular book is useless, but also implies that all books have
no use. If someone tells you "All teachers are unfair", you do not
understand that a particular teacher is unfair, but rather that there
are no teachers that are fair. Adversity and failure are therefore
explained in terms of all pervasiveness and thus cannot be confined to
specific areas. We can find no areas in which we can help ourselves,
because all areas seem to fall into the category where nothing can be
done to affect them. We see no point in making a choice to do
something, because we won't be able to affect anything.
Seligman explained these ideas mostly in terms of criticism and self
blame or regret, others have shown since, that the ideas apply equally
to praise or even idle comments.
is not really the right word, as a
search for the word on Google will produce material on perverse
masochism. The concept to be conveyed here is rather the
irresponsibility, laziness, security seeking and dependence that comes
from giving up one's autonomy to others. This concept can feel
comfortable and is not far from most people's desires. However, other
similar words like servility have their own problems, so let us stick
with submissiveness. For many of us the idea of letting others make
choices for us may seem like a good thing. Making choices means taking
responsibility for those choices and some choices, such as those
concerning life and death matters for loved ones, can be very painful
to be responsible for. But even with small choices the responsibility
can mount up as the number of choices mounts up. Also letting others
choose can restore the time we can waste on trying to choose the best
when good enough will suffice, especially on unimportant choices.
is here, another reason for making the choice to submit to the choice
of others, an aberration that strikes at the very heart of learning. We
learn by being wrong or failing, and wrongness and failure have become
associated with very strong negative emotions of regret. In his book
"The Paradox of Choice" Barry Schwartz calls this process
counterfactual thinking, but it is, when undistorted by this submissive
orientation, simply learning. Schwartz explains it like this:
what makes the problem of regret much worse is that such thinking is
not restricted to objective reality. The power of human imagination
enables people to think about states of affairs that don't exist.
...Thinking of the world as it isn't, but might be or might have been,
is called counterfactual thinking. The limo to the airport went on Elm
Street. If only it had gone on Main Street. That's contrary to fact.
'If only it had gone on main Street, I would have made my plane.'"
was a mistake made. He missed his plane. He should be learning from his
experience, and he is. He is thinking of all the things he could have
done differently. He could have gone down main Street. He could have
got up earlier. He could have scheduled a later flight. He is imagining
how he could have avoided the mistake. This is information he needs to
know, so he won't make the same mistake again, and will be able to do
some thing differently, as he has imagined. This is learning in its
most useful form. But thinking of these things is summoning up painful
feelings of regret. This is also associating these painful feelings
with the act of choosing. It is making choosing seem very unattractive.
These new imagined alternatives for next time are what has been learned
and they are kept sharp in the mind by the painful feelings of regret.
But this can also make it attractive to let somebody else make the
In his book
"Man for Himself" Erich Fromm tells us about the use of power
to control: "The paralyzing effect of
power does not rely only upon the fear it arouses, but equally on an
implicit promise - the promise that those in possession of power can
protect and take care of the 'weak' who submit to it, that they can
free man from the burden of uncertainty and of responsibility for
himself by guaranteeing order and assigning the individual a place in
this order which makes him feel secure." The
point is that letting others choose for us has its attractions.
that tend to ensure we make the choice to be submissive.
teachers and society at large have to socialize us so that we can be
good and constructive members of society. The methods used to do this
in the past have been to threaten or punish, and to reward or
manipulate. These are all extrinsic motivators and they violate our
autonomy by depriving us of choice. They also are some of the very
things that cause people to learn to be helpless.
are all familiar with the fact that
punishment or the threat of punishment can lead to several things, none
of them good. If it is inescapable it can lead to helplessness. It can
also lead to rebellion, resistance or reactance. This can manifest
against the punisher where the punished fights to maintain his
autonomy. But this almost always ends badly for the punished.
usually it manifests downward as a pecking order. Someone punishes or
threatens you, but instead of fighting back the built up aggression
causes you in turn, to threaten or punish someone below you in the
pecking order, and they in turn punish or threaten someone below them,
reinforcing the whole structure of threat and punishment. You could
argue that such people have not learned to be totally submissive and
this is true. But they have given up autonomy and have no choice in
what they do. The more they are threatened or punished the more they
threaten or punish others. This is not what they really want. They do
not want to be feared by others. They want what everybody wants, to be
loved and admired. But they have no choice. They are compelled by the
anger and aggression welling up.
the threat or punishment is severe, it may result in helplessness or
complete compliance with the punisher's wishes. When the latter
happens, the anger and aggression are suppressed, and the punished
becomes entirely passive and compliant. Such people are unable to do
anything other than what others tell them. Such people have lost their
some people who seem to be passive and compliant are actually not. They
secretly hang on to some shards of autonomy by performing what is asked
for, and not what is intended. This is the resistance of slaves. These
people retain a little autonomy against all odds.
an environment of threat and punishment is not a good way to go if we
wish people to retain their autonomy but it is a good way of making
are less familiar with the conclusion that reward is also most often
seen as an attempt to manipulate and that this too can lead to
submissiveness. Resistance and reactance occur as before in reaction to
the perceived attempt to manipulate. A master is perhaps kinder if he
rewards rather than punishes, but he is still depriving you of making
your own choice. He is depriving you of your autonomy.
all rewards manipulate or control and it is important to distinguish
those that do manipulate from those that do not. The main type of
rewards that manipulate are conditional rewards. This is where, if you
do something you will be rewarded. Although this kind of reward causes
loss of autonomy and thus loss of intrinsic motivation, it is
addictive. The more you are controlled by conditional reward and are
extrinsically motivated, the more you want to be rewarded that way and
the less you want to be intrinsically motivated.
conditional reward is not the only kind of reward that enables a
submissive or dominated mindset. In her book "Mindset"
Carol Dweck shows how certain kinds of praise enable the learning and
forming of a fixed mindset. This mindset incorporates both the
formation of helplessness, and the formation of dependence on others
for guidance and approval which is just a way of being dominated.
kinds of praise are reinforcing the view that things are a particular
way that cannot, does not change. When people around us, especially
significant people such as teachers, parents and adults in general, say
"you are" they are telling you that there is something about you that
does not change, something that is permanently you. If people say,
"You're a genius", "You're really talented", "You're a
natural", etc. this all implies that you did not have to do
anything to be that way, that you were born that way. All these
statements, are writing on your mental map of reality, that there is
something about you that is fixed. This is not only out of your
control, but whether you are understood to be these things is not
dependent on some universal external measure, but is entirely dependent
on what certain others think.
kind of praise can have an even more damaging effect in that it seems
to create the notion, that not only is no effort required, but that the
application of effort would indicate that you do not have these
attributes. If you need to try and be a genius, you are clearly
demonstrating that you are not one. If you have to make an effort to
grow a talent, then clearly you are not talented. You end up in a catch
22 where if you appear to try or make an effort, you appear to diminish
the the attribute you are trying to have others see in you. Strictly
speaking such attributes as intelligence or talent should only be able
to get worse as trying and effort are in this case denied to you. You
can end up coasting through life without improvement. This can work
fine for a long time, but life is such that eventually you will be in a
situation where your talent is not enough and you will fail. You will
not expect this praise when you fail, but without it you will be lost.
Learned self-determination, my choice.
also know that certain people are like forces of nature. They are
passionate about anything they undertake, and have an unshakable
certainty that they can accomplish whatever might please them given
sufficient time and effort. Such people persist in their
effort long beyond what most people would call reasonable. They try to
change the world in large and wonderful ways, and for the most part
they succeed. When they do fail, they do not see it as failure, but
rather as feedback that is guiding them in their accomplishments. These
people believe that their actions shape themselves and the world around
them, and they do. Some change themselves or the world in small ways,
and some in very large ways indeed. These people are truly
self-determined and they delight in choices as a way of expressing
their volition. These people have learned to be masters of themselves
and their environment. These people are our heroes. They are as we
would like to be. They try and fail and try again and fail again and
still keep on trying. Sometimes they are on top, and sometimes they are
is an experiment which shows as clearly how such self-determination
comes into being as Seligman's experiment explains learned
helplessness. In her book "The
Art of Choosing" Sheena Iyengar tells of this rather shocking
1957 Curt Richter...researcher at John Hopkins School of Medicine
conducted an experiment... To study the effects of water temperature on
endurance, Richter and his colleagues placed dozens of rats into glass
jars - one rodent per jar - and then filled the jars with water.
Because the walls of these jars were too high and slick to climb, the
rats were left in a literal sink-or-swim situation. Richter even had
water jets blasting from above to force the rats below the surface if
they tried to float idly instead of swimming for their lives. He then
measured how long the rats swam - without food, rest or chance of
escape - before they drowned.
researchers were surprised to find that even when the water
temperatures were identical, rats of equal fitness swam for markedly
different lengths of time. Some continued for an average of 60 hours
before succumbing to exhaustion, while others sank almost immediately.
It was as though, after struggling for 15 minutes, some rats simply
gave up, while others were determined to push themselves to the utmost
physical limit. The perplexed researchers wondered whether some rats
were more convinced than others that if they continued to swim, they
would eventually escape. Were rats capable of different 'convictions'?
But what else could account for such a significant disparity in
performance, especially when the survival instinct of all the rats must
have kicked in? Perhaps the rats that showed more resilience had
somehow been given reason to expect escape from their terrible
in the next round of the experiment, rather than throwing them into the
water straightaway, researchers first picked up the rats several times,
each time allowing them to wriggle free. After they had become
accustomed to such handling, the rats were placed in the jars, blasted
with water for several minutes, then removed and returned to their
cages. This process was repeated multiple times. Finally the rats were
put into the jars for the sink or swim test. This time none of the rats
showed signs of giving up. They swam for an average of more than 60
hours before becoming exhausted and drowning."
though all these rats died, they chose to live. They chose to fight to
live as long as their muscles still worked. This gives us an idea of
what might enable humans to make this sort of choice just as the rats
did. It's not just about self preservation, its about a belief that
what you do matters and that if you give it your best shot, you
will have either succeeded or at least will have survived. Is
it possible then to understand how an environment could be constructed
to nudge people toward this choice? Many scientist think it is
possible. Most notable in uncovering how to create these circumstances
is the work by Carrol Dweck and that by Deci and Ryan.
and Ryan show that the most essential
thing for choosing to change both yourself and the world around you is
to have a choice in what you do. How can you be expected to make this
important choice if you have no experience in making choices? Deci and
Ryan also show that the belief that you have a choice is more important
to learned self-determination than is actual choice. Even more
important than that, is the belief that the choices that you make are
of your own choosing and have not been chosen for you by others who are
somehow manipulating your choice. For instance, there is a big
difference between telling someone to do something and asking if
someone could be so kind as to do something. By telling someone to do
something, choice is eliminated and resistance or reactance is almost
assured. It is likely we will choose not to do what we are told to do,
even if we were originally going to do it. Indeed, this can be seen as
another form of manipulation where someone gets you to do something by
telling you not to do it (reverse psychology). The importance of
autonomy in feeling that one can change one's circumstance for the
better, is to believe you have had previous experience in making
decisions that have led to better circumstances. To do this people need
to feel that the choices they made were their own and that they were
not at the mercy of manipulation by others.
and Ryan were more concerned about how people could retain
self-determination while in the process of internalizing social
conventions, without building up resistance or reactance. They
concluded that as the belief that we have choice is far more important
to self-determination than any objective choice. Our manner and the way
others present choice is what is most significant.
One way of promoting self-determination is to acknowledge that the
person may desire to venture outside the limits that are being set.
People are more willing to choose to behave, within the limits being
set, if it is acknowledged the that they might not wish to comply.
your language. Perhaps the simplest idea in promoting
self-determination within limits is to refrain from using controlling
language. Words like should, must and have to and be good are not
helpful in supporting self-determination and thus it is best not to use
them in trying to impart cultural limits for choice.
information. Information as to why there is need for the
limitations, you are trying to convey, is also useful in supporting
self-determination. People need to know why such limitations are
necessary. Once they understand why, they are much more likely to
accept limitations without feeling controlled. It can become thus,
meaningful to them to stay within the limits requested when choosing.
choice within the limits. Although it is not always possible,
or wise, to let people have very wide freedom of choice, it may be
set fairly wide limits within which the other person feels they still
have wide possible choice. This helps to enable people to feel
self-determined while remaining within the limits.
Incremental Self-theories and a growth mindset.
self-determination requires that people believe that the world
and themselves can be changed. Carol Dweck has shown in her research
that the criticism and praise given as part of the environment in which
people grow up and exist in, is highly significant in promoting just
this belief. She recommends that people be neither praised or
criticized to this end. But if you can't praise or criticize the person
just what do you praise or criticize? The answer is you praise or
criticize the process. The process to be criticized or praised can be
of how much effort put in, the amount of work done, how tenaciously
people persevere in trying to accomplish, or of the amount or quality
of strategies tried. If you want to change yourself and the world
around you, you must first believe you can, through effort, work,
perseverance and the right strategies. If you fail, only strong belief,
derived from this kind of praise or criticism, will enable you to
redouble your efforts, work harder and try again or try a different
or criticism of effort focuses the person on what can be done to change
things, and will help create a belief that things can change if
sufficient effort is applied.
Suppose we praise saying something like: "I really admire
how much effort you have put into this project. If you keep putting
this much effort into your work, you will eventually succeed."
In this way we can be helping build a belief that anything can be
changed with time and effort.
Amount of work.
Similarly, praise or criticism of the amount of work done also focuses
a person on what can be done to change things and will help create a
belief that things can change if sufficient work is done. Suppose we
praise and criticize saying something like: "Previously
you weren't making full use of your brain, but now you are really
challenging yourself and working your butt off. You'll do great this
year." In this case we further build a belief that things
can be changed if only you are willing to put in the work.
Also, praise or criticism of perseverance focuses a person on what can
be done to change things, and will help create a belief that things can
change if we just keep working at it. Suppose we praise saying
something like: "I really admire the way you focused on the
problem and stuck at it till you eventually understood and mastered
it." Again we are encouraging the belief that things can
change if we just keep persevering.
Finally praise or criticism, of the strategies used, also focuses a
person on what can be done to change things and will help create a
belief that things can change if we are willing to try a variety of
strategies. Suppose we praise saying something like: "I
really like the way you kept trying all kinds of strategies for that
physics problem until you finally found a way that worked."
Thus we are making sure the person does not give up just because one
strategy does not work, and we are again enabling the belief that
things can change if only we can find the right strategy to change it.
Cognitive dissonance and the activation of new
dissonance can explain why
making a choice from a group of alternatives activates burgeoning
intrinsic motivation to learn what is chosen. It works as follows.
Cognitive dissonance, among other things, is the social process whereby
people rationalize the choices they make into the belief that those
choices were the best choices. This is so because when a choice is made
it creates an attribution that is dissonant with what the leaner
believed before. He/she was not interested but he/she made the choice
to learn. Why would he/she choose to do this if he/she wasn't
motivated? This attribute is dissonant both with any other choices the
learner might have made and also with the possibility of making no
choice. In order to reduce this unpleasant feeling of dissonance a
learner has to change one of these conditions. The learner cannot
reduce the dissonance by not making the choice. It is already made. So
instead, the learner changes what he or she believes. Instead of
continuing to believe he/she is not intrinsically motivated to learn
the information he/she changes his/her mind and instead believes that
he/she is intrinsically motivated to learn in that area of information.
They chose to learn about that area of information because they were
intrinsically motivated to learn it, so they must still be
intrinsically motivated to learn in it. They made the choice because it
was the right choice.
enables us to find out what we like to learn and do.
What we call choice is in
fact two related but very different activities. Lets call them Known
Choice and Unknown Choice.
choice they can either already know what they want or they can have no
idea what they want or might like. If they have no idea what they like
or are interested in they can pick at random which gives a third type
of choice Random Choice.
or unprepared choice.
people have no idea what they want (lack expertise) they are forced to
experimental test to try to discover which option they prefer before
they make the choice. This can take the form of sampling products and
services or checking out people and facilities. This obviously does
require considerable effort.
In this case the more options there are the more difficult this test is
to perform and the less accurate and less reliable the results of that
test will become. People performing this kind of choice can become
burdened by having to perform all these tests and in doing so become
prone to make even more mistakes about their own likes and dislikes
which can culminate in choosing options they do not like at
there a number of ways they can make this testing both
easier and more accurate. People can avoid the difficulty of performing
these tests in two ways. Firstly they can simply try a number of
options and stop when they find one they like. Secondly they can simply
rely on tests made by others and follow their choices. Facilitators should keep in
mind, that when people are not aware of what they could be interested
in, too many areas of information to
choose from, is counter productive. A great deal of research especially
by Sheena Iyengar has shown conclusively that too many choices make
choosing difficult and unpleasant. Thus the pleasure of developing new intrinsic
interest depends on
the learner's ability to make an informed choice. Given too many
items to choose from and or too little knowledge of how to discriminate
between those items leads to, not only difficulty in choosing, but less
actual commitment to the choice and thus less intrinsic interest and
its resulting intrinsic motivation. Although initially unknown, the options can become
informed choice, where the learner is rapidly able to commit him or
the new belief, increasing the attractiveness of the new area of
opposite of making an informed
choice, or of properly discriminating between options, is simply to
pick based on some random selective process. Although one might expect
that picking at random should have the same attractiveness, as far as
cognitive dissonance is concerned, this is not the case. The knowledge
that one has picked at random is not dissonant with what the learner
believed before he/she made the choice. He/she was not interested
before and still seems not to be interested.
or prepared choice.
people know what they want making a choice requires no effort. Also the
number of choices is very little impediment to choice if they know what
they are looking for. The choice is determined by the availability of
the option that they want. If it is available they choose it and if its
not they can't choose it because its not available. Making this kind of
choice is a bit like not choosing at all, and yet it is the most
important type of choice as far as personal autonomy is
one has a great deal of experience (expertise) with different domains
knowledge or familiarity with many products making a choice when
presented with choices becomes easy. The person has in effect made the
choice before he/she makes the choice. He or she already knows what
he/she is interested in. When presented with a choice it is a forgone
conclusion. Making a choice from known options is also an
informed choice which allows the learner to further commit him or
the old belief increasing the attractiveness of the old area of
Expertise in choosing.
Being expert in choosing
means being familiar with the options that you have to choose between.
The more familiar you are with the options the less choosing you
actually have to do because the choice in a sense is already
To understand how this works
consider the idea of interests and domain subjects that are taught in
schools. If you are interested in a particular domain subject matter
there is no problem in choosing. When presented with options to choose
from you simply choose the subject matter you are interested in if it
is available. If you are interested in a number of the options you
choose the options (subject domains) that are the most
interesting to you.
if you are
unfamiliar with any of the subject domains presented as options you
have to somehow become familiar with those subject domains before
making a choice. You have to sample the subjects, and get sufficiently
familiar with them as to be able to discriminate between them. Not only
that but you also have become familiar with
them under time pressure. The only alternative is to choose at random
without any familiarity of the domain subjects at all. If you do this
the likelihood of choosing badly is very great indeed.
This is a problem as it is
clear we cannot become expert in everything. Still it is also clear
that some things are more important than others when it comes to
choosing. For instance choosing the best brand of toothpaste is far
less important than choosing the best school to go to or the best
subjects to learn. There are many considerations in choosing the best
subjects to learn but one of the most vital is whether you are
interested in the subjects or not.
This site holds that being
interested in subject domains is all important in choosing subject
domains to learn. The more interested you are in a particular subject
the easier it will be to learn because the more intrinsically
in it you will be to learn it. It follows then that it is vital to find
out as early as possible where your interests lie and to expand your
familiarity with as many subject domains as possible so that
when subject domains are presented to you as options to learn you will
have a good number to choose from.
The more areas of
information or subject matter domains each learner is familiar with,
better those learners grade them into a continuum of most preferred to
least preferred or from most interesting to least interesting. Thus
without any pressure they are arranged or sorted into a
progression from first choice to last choice before any choice has to
It is imperative then that
teachers or facilitators in schools spend a lot of their time exposing
students the vast numbers of areas of information and subject domains
that it is is possible to learn in. Only with this kind of exposure
will they become familiar with those domains and only then can they
become interested in some of those domains. Ideally this exposure
be presented in such a way as to lure students to be interested in
those subject domains or in other words to make each of those subject
domains contagious as explained on the page
devoted to contagion here.
Learners choosing what
knowledge to know.
We are in every way the
choices we have made. Our selves, our identity, everything we are, is
constructed out of the choices we have made. We are our memories and
our knowledge and both of these things come to be because of our
choices. Our memories are those things that we do in the circumstances
in which we find ourselves. The things we do we choose to do. Even the
circumstances where we find ourselves are mostly due to choices we have
made. Of course our knowledge is all we have to help us make those
choices. But knowledge is the result of learning and what we learn is
also the result of choices we have made. The major part of what we have
learned is our academic learning so our choices in this regard are very
important in regard to what we become.
desire to learn many particular domains of interest.
teacher has been allocated many functions since the time when schools
and teaching was invented. Is a teacher's job to impart information,
prepare students for a life of work, or enable students to choose and
find their way in the world? All these and many other possible
functions have some merit But this site herein suggests that
main function of a teacher should be to maximize in each student the
acquiring of knowledge. This can only be done if teachers facilitate
students to appreciate or enjoy learning a broad range of academic
subject domains or information categories. This site holds that it is
more important for students to learn to love learning than it is for
them to learn specific things. In other words the desire to learn is
more important that the actual knowledge. What this means in effect is
that teachers should enable (facilitate) students to enjoy learning in
as many different domains as is possible for them. For only if students
enjoy learning will learning become easy, only then will students
desire to learn, only then will they learn well only then will society
truly benefit from their learning.
Common knowledge and unique
way it works at the moment, up till the end of high school learners are
fed mostly all the same information or data and are expected to convert
it into the same knowledge. In this way we are expected to all have
accumulated the same common knowledge. This is not only assumed to be a
good thing but actually essential for society to function. This site
wishes to challenge these assumptions. This site holds that the desire
to learn is more important than anything that can be learned and that
the desire to learn a lot of different subjects will be more important
and useful to both individuals and society itself than having learned
some common knowledge. This site holds that the desire of each person
to learn as many diverse subjects as possible and learning subjects
different from those learned by peers is a good thing that will enable
us to make better and easier choices as we progress to college,
university and into the work force. Our choices will be better and
easier because of both our greater familiarity with the many
options and the greater practice we will have had in making choices.
These advantages to individuals and to society completely out weigh any
advantage that may come from having a common knowledge base.
we have always been told that this common knowledge base is important,
and has seemingly always been there, it may be difficult to even see
what other subjects there are and that could be taught in the earlier
stages of school life. There are some subjects that are never taught in
school even thought they are essential life skills like food what to
eat and why, human health the need for exercise and other lifestyle
improvements. Then there are many subjects that are subdivisions of the
subjects we are taught that are buried and ignored. The so called
fundamental subjects taught before the end of high school are often so
broad in their coverage as to be useless, and colleges and universities
for the most part teach them again, as they do not trust that enough
was learned or understood previously. The point is that we cannot
to let college and university be the point where learners first make
choices nor where we first begin to diverge in our knowledge and
How might this be
learner's desire, to learn a particular type or item of information, is
what is understood as a learner's interest. These interests are
expanded and generated by the joy the leaner experiences when learning
those particular items or types of information. The pleasure, that is
obtained in this way, is said to be intrinsic to that information and
thus promotes intrinsic motivation in the learner.
Evoking new intrinsic
Teachers (facilitators) have
the very difficult job of somehow increasing the number
of knowledge domains each learner (student) is interested in and in
turn evoke new intrinsic motivation in each learner to learn in
each of those new domains, to want to learn in those new domains.
A possible answer to how this might be accomplished comes from the
world of food.
Exposure and sensory expansion.
all fairly aware of the type of food we should eat if we want to be
healthy, but the problem for most of us is that we do not like it and
the food we do like is really bad for us. We need to learn to like
food and as it turns out it is possible to do this. In
her book "First Bite" Bee
Wilson tells the
story Sapere: "From
2009 to 2014, the Finnish government took
the ambitious step of funding Sapere food education in all
kindergartens in the country."
The experiment worked with
an immediate drop in the obesity rates of young children in Finland.
program itself did not force children to try new food but instead
encouraged them to experiment and play with different foods, explore
their senses especially their senses of smell and taste, and of course
watch each other eat. Thus they were exposes to a whole new range of
healthy foods in small amounts, they were not forced to indulge in them
encouraged to do so, their sensory perception was expanded, and they
egged each other on. The result was that the children developed a taste
for many new foods and incidentally enjoyed eating more. This site
that this is a formula that can
be used to expand any group of interests including academic interests.
Expanding intrinsic academic
interests have many of the same problems as our taste in food. We know
we should be interested in more subjects but we tend to dislike many of
the ones we know about. However, what worked for food can easily be
adapted to work for academic subjects. The main key to increasing
interest used by Sapere was exposure in small amounts of different
foods without pressure to consume. It is not difficult to imagine
students being exposed to small amounts of many academic subjects, and
without pressure, being encouraged to become involved with any that
strike a student's fancy. Another feature was the focus on sensory
involvement. This is important for memory as well as enjoyment. Things
that seem dull in some information modes like reading and hearing may
become exciting and enjoyable when presented in different sensory modes
like visual presentation, video, touch, feel, experimentation, with
taste and smell involvement. Exposure without pressure should lead to
student enjoyment unless the student has already built up an aversion
to a subject. After all learning academic subjects is enjoyable by its
very nature unless the learner is already tuned off.
opposite is true when subject learning is coupled with stress and
coercion. In this case, instead of subject matter becoming enjoyable,
it becomes painful and unpleasant. When learning with coercion and
stress we tend to build up unpleasant associations with the particular
subjects, thus constructing an aversion to them. Students are likely to
acquire these preferences while they are young. We build up our food
preferences while we are young and the few academic subject preferences
we accumulate we also manage to accumulate while we are quite young.
Once we have imprinted these preferences they are difficult to change.
While our food preferences do change a little it is hard to overcome
this initial imprinting. Likewise our interest in academic subjects
also only changes a little as the initial aversions are hard to shake
and new interests are often blocked by a general aversion to new
things. It becomes imperative then, that we are exposed to as many
subject domains (without pressure) as is possible as early as possible,
so that we never build up such aversions.
Making the choice.
we succeed in providing students with this plethora of interests in
subject domains all of which they would like to learn about. This
other problems. Even though, in our initial school
learning, we are for the most part supposed to all learn the same
things, the fact is that with the ever increasing amount of information
in the world, the idea of learning everything is completely impossible.
This leads us to question the idea that we need to learn anything that
have learned. Do we really need to have some common knowledge and if so
how much? This site holds that the amount of common knowledge needed is
very small indeed within particular domains. This site also holds that
this common knowledge would be better distributed evenly over all
subject domains rather than restricted to a few so called fundamental
Piaget first showed that all knowledge is constructed building on
earlier learned more fundamental knowledge. He showed that most
knowledge cannot be learned at all until more fundamental knowledge has
been learned first. A good analogy that is given is the building of a
house. First you put in the foundations then you put up the walls and
finally you put on the ceiling and the roof. This idea is very good and
helps understand how knowledge is created in our minds. However, some
psychologists and educators most notably David Ausubel in his book
"Educational Psychology" have taken this idea of constructing knowledge
and tuned it on its head and into a regimented way of learning which
they believe is
the way we should learn.
first glance, this
idea of being fed information in the correct order for constructing it
into knowledge does seem like the way we should learn,
as it would be efficient. First you would be fed foundation
information which you would enable you to put down the foundations of
knowledge. Then you would gradually be fed bricks of wall information
you build up brick by brick into knowledge walls. Lastly you would be
ceiling and roof information which you convert into ceiling knowledge
and roof knowledge. Unfortunately this is not the natural way we learn,
because it does not take into account our desire to learn or not to
learn. It does not take into account our interests. More than that, it
is not like we hear or read something and convert it into knowledge.
The fact is, we convert less than half of what we hear and read into
knowledge, even when we are very interested in it. Learning is a series
of steps and missteps building sometimes but often not being able to
build without first going back to acquire more fundamental information
first. Without the desire to learn very little happens. But with
intrinsic interest we are driven to search for information to scan
material or read it and often read it again to mark passages and hunt
for more passages to mark.
we learn is how we should learn. Our knowledge house is not going to
fall down despite the lack of some foundations. Learning is
experiencing information in
complex form, not understanding it, but wanting to understand it
because it seems interesting, and in consequence going back to learn
more fundamental information in the same subject domain. The point is
cannot simply be fed the right information in the right sequence. The
teacher can facilitate but cannot guide learning without first engaging
a learner's interest in the subject domain. Indeed trying to force feed
information in a particular subject domain is a very likely way
creating an aversion to the very subject matter that we are presenting.
The smorgasbord of information
and subject domains.
we succeed in providing students with diverse
group of unique interests in
subject domains those domains will be familiar and become ranked in
This of course means that students are able to make choices easily and
automatically. What teachers ultimately present to students to choose
from is a smorgasbord of options. From this smorgasbord students can
pick and choose from those familiar options that they already have an
interest in or sample other options to get some idea if they too would
important thing about choosing which items of information to learn is
that if the learning is interesting and therefor enjoyable. The area of
learning (the domain) becomes intrinsically something we are motivated
When this is
the case, there is no problem of choosing from a very many item list of
options. A problem occurs with too many choices when the chooser is not
sure if he/she will enjoy learning in some of the knowledge domains or
not. If the chooser is sure that all the options will be enjoyable to
learn this problem does not occur as familiar options are already
point of view of the teacher providing students with familiar
options that are already
interests in the student's minds enables students to have expertise in
choosing and intrinsic motivation to learn in those domains.
Unfortunately this simple idea does
not work well in practice as learners will still be exposed to many new
unfamiliar options. Students can be overwhelmed if presented
too many unfamiliar items to choose from where they have too little
they can use to discriminate between those items.
introduction of learners to increasing numbers of domains, in a way
makes them interesting to each learner and does not overwhelm those
learners with too many options, becomes the tricky tightrope path
teachers have to walk. To do this effectively teachers should
aware that in presenting new knowledge domains those domains need to be
presented in sufficient detail to enable learners to become aware of
whether they are likely to find it interesting and have some basis for
discrimination. Teachers also should present the new domain
material in a way that the learners will be sucked in to becoming
interested in those domains. Other ways teachers might go about this is
covered on this site under key 3
(fragile interest), key 8
(starting place), key
7 (intellectual contagion). Key 3 is concerned
with preventing fragile naturally occurring interests from being lost.
Key 8 is
concerned with how interests grow out of what learners already know and
connect with. Key 7 is concerned with techniques facilitators might use
to evoke the formation of new interests in learners. Facilitators who
wish to inspire
students to be intrinsically motivated, to learn more and different
areas of information than they are currently motivated to learn, can
provide such inspiration by presenting the new information as part of a
series of alternatives only after inspiring those learners to be
interested. Only thus can they continuously evoke new intrinsic
motivation in their students.
Too much choice.
The body of human knowledge
is already far greater than any single person could ever learn.
Therefore the need to know, what is available to know, is thus becoming
more and more important. More choices mean we can no longer afford the
time to look for what is available to learn, or to look for the
information itself, when we decide what we want to learn. Part of the
job of a good facilitator (teacher) is to let us know what is out there
in the way of information to be known and expose learners to it. If we
do not know what is
available to be known, we cannot begin to choose effectively. We need
to be bombarded by what is available as often and persistently as we
are bombarded by advertising. Remember as we become familiar with the
options the choice becomes easy and a forgone conclusion.
no mater how familiar we become with the options, there is still so
information our there that we will still be confronted with options for
which we have no knowledge or familiarity. Fortunately
the very tool that is largely responsible for the information glut has
also produced tools to help us deal with it. That tool is of course the
Internet and the search
engines we use to to pull down information from it. Any child who has
grown up with the Internet knows how to go on line, type a few words
into a search engine and bring up information on any conceivable
subject. The problem is that the information brought up is of variable
quality, accuracy and authority. What we want to know is right there,
but we are not sure which is accurate and authoritative. We are not
correct and which is nonsense. We can and do use common sense to sort
this out but as pointed out elsewhere in this site common sense cannot
be relied on. This is undoubtedly the most important problem for the
coming generations to fix.
Schwartz in his book "The
Paradox of Choice"
suggests that there are already too many options and too much
choice, and that it is not just confusing but down right oppressive.
From his point of view increasing the choice in what people can learn
would be just pouring petroleum on the fire. There is some truth in
this. Although the perception of choice is essential to autonomy and a
string of other benefits such as health and happiness, it is, as
already discussed, possible to have too much choice. The conscious mind
can only handle a small amount of information. When unfamiliar with the
options and they are small in number people are usually able
make a satisfactory
choices based on their own needs interests and desires. However, when
it comes to large amounts of information to be considered in a choice
and large amounts of options to choose from, we are at the mercy of our
unconscious minds and our own level of expertise.
conscious minds rely on our unconscious minds to filter out most of the
options before it can begin to make a choice. Or it may simply accept a
choice provided by the unconscious mind. However, if the unconscious
mind is unable to call on vast experience or expertise to eliminate or
ignore most of the options, the conscious mind is simply flooded with
options. Thus exposed to too many choices people tend to become
overwhelmed and start making unsatisfactory choices. They may, as
suggested above, no longer
seem able to discern what they really like or enjoy. The whole business
of choosing may go from being pleasurable to being unpleasant.
Help in choosing.
and Ryan and
others have pointed out, true learning (that which is understood and
not merely remembered), is dependent on intrinsic motivation which
itself is dependent on the feelings of autonomy, and personal autonomy
is dependent on the perception of un-constricted choice. Columbia
professor Sheena Iyengar and her colleagues have scientifically
investigated the importance of having choice have concluded the
"Despite the detriments
associated with choice overload, consumers want choice and they want a
lot of it. The benefits that stem from choice, however, come
not from the options themselves, but rather from the process of
choosing. By allowing choosers to perceive themselves as volitional
agents having successfully constructed their preference and ultimate
selection outcomes during the choosing task, the importance of choice
is reinstated. Consider the request in Forbes' recent 'I'm Pro-Choice'
article: Offer customers abundant choices, but also help them search."
We now know how."
The long tail.
Long Tail" by Chris Anderson we discover that the Internet
provides an unthinkably vast amounts of choice. There are good results
and bad results that follow from this.
best outcome that follows from this is that if you know exactly what
you want it is likely you will find it. The big retail players on the
net like Amazon, EBay etc. can afford to have and do have an almost
limitless inventory. While they still sell best sellers they can stock,
at almost no cost, books and recordings and any items at all, that have
very low runs and sales potential. They can do this for two reasons.
Firstly the inventory takes up no shelf space and can be reached with
just a few clicks. Secondly the numbers of people browsing at EBay and
Amazon number in the billions. It's not like a store in a big city
where a few thousand wander through.
The bad outcome is of course
the fact that, if you do not know what you are looking for, and you
have to make a choice, there are increasingly so many options that the
conscious mind is quite incapable of making anything like a good
decision and is likely to be overwhelmed.
What tools are
available to aid us in choosing wisely.
However, in "The
Long Tail" by Chris Anderson we discover that the internet
provides, not only escalating enormous choice, but also offers the help
customers need to make such choices. Non Internet retailers would be
wise to follow as best they can with this sort of help. This can also
conceivably be used to help learners decide what they want to learn and
what they eventually might want to do as far as work and play are
concerned. In his book Anderson had this to say:
"Online...the consumer has a
lot more help. There are a nearly infinite number of techniques to tap
the latest information in a market place and make that selection
process easier. You can sort by price, by ratings, by date, and by
genre. You can read customer reviews. You can compare prices across
products and, if you wish head off to Google to find out as much about
the product as you can imagine. Recommendations suggest products that
'people like you' have been buying, and surprisingly enough, they're
often on target. Even if you know nothing about the category ranking
best-sellers will reveal the most popular choice, which both
makes the selection easier and also tends to minimize post-sale regret.
After all, if everyone else picked a given product, it can't be that
The failure of
choice at schools.
Although schools are still
important social institution for transmitting knowledge to the youth of
society, they fail in addressing this glut of knowledge. They are
particularly unsuited for dealing with this ever increasing and ever
changing mass of information. Schools (not colleges or universities)
still try to teach the same
information to every student even though the information is growing at
an exponential rate.
This results in students,
trying to learn types of knowledge for which they have no interest in
learning, and perhaps no desire to learn. The knowledge is not
chosen by the student but is rather force fed to him/her by a teacher.
This is like trying to sweep water up hill. To be truly interesting to
a student and consonant with his desires, information needs to be
packaged especially for that particular student. Students need
information to be tailored to their interests and desires, so that
the information will be both well learned, and made the best use of.
his book "Future
Shock" Alvin Tofler has this to say:
complaint of the student is that he is not treated as an individual,
that he is served up an undifferentiated gruel, rather than a
personalized product." Like the mustang buyer the student wants to
design his own. The difference is that while industry is highly
responsive to consumer demand, education typically has been indifferent
to student wants. (In one case we say, 'the customer knows best'; in
the other, we insist that 'Papa - or his educational surrogate - knows
best.') Thus the student-consumer is forced to fight to make the
education industry responsive to his demand for diversity."
thought that the students would win their fight and the need for
diversity would overwhelm the schools by the year 2000. Such has not
come to pass. The colleges and schools struggle on with their degrees
and majors still out of step with what is happening in industry.
Tofler's own concept of future shock, is I suspect, not the dizzying
disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future, but
rather that, what we have been taught in schools, in no way prepares us
future that is arriving exactly on time, just as it should.
Learning for the
sheer pleasure of it or not.
learn what we choose to learn but that in turn is governed by we want
to learn. We tend to think of learning as learning for a purpose. We
think we have to learn so we can make money, so we can get a good job,
so we can live comfortably, but is that the only reason to learn? This
site holds that there is a better reason for learning, and that is
learning for the
sheer joy of it. This could be learning for something specific such as
part of a hobby or in a less specific general interest where choice is
almost automatic, as in what ever attracts your attention or fancy is
automatically chosen. Of course you may wonder why such choices might
be considered choices at all.
guided by interest.
site holds that people
are better off being guided in their choices and thus their learning by
what they find to be
enjoyable, because it is only with interest developed out of enjoyment
that meaningful learning can take place. Not only that, but material
learned through the influence of interest, requires less effort full
attention and is far more easily recalled and connected to life on a
concrete level. This kind of learning grows in a natural and
unstructured way unhindered by limits and considerations of necessity.
Interest, choice of
information or choice of interest.
Learning in the view of
this site should be preferably done for its own sake, because a learner
is interested in knowing about that particular information. But of
course, if a learner is interested in some information he/she knows
already what it is that he/she wishes to know. When one knows what one
wishes to know there is no choice in that the choice is already made.
what to learn then
is about two rather separate things:
an interest from a buffet of options. On the one hand, it is
about learning what is available to be learned and accessing which
domains and items one might possibly find interesting. This is rather
like choosing what to be interested in. Ideally a learner should be
able to choose what subjects to learn. He/she should be able to choose
not just what domains he/she is or might become interested in but also
which bits of those domains and how much of each bit they are to learn.
Learning options in schools should not be an undifferentiated gruel but
rather a smorgasbord of tasty viands from which a learner may choose or
learner should be able to choose not just those subjects being taught
by the school but also be able to study independently through the use
of learning packages, Internet available information, and schools on
the world wide web. If real choice is involved
it is a kind of simple choice where one chooses the more interesting,
over the less interesting.
in order to accomplish a goal.
On the other hand choosing
what to learn is about learning in order to accomplish something, where
the learning is not as important as the goal that can be accomplished
if one learns it. For instance, a learner might wish to learn some
specific skills in order to create something. Then again a learner
might wish to learn in order to solve some problem that needs solving.
One of the main reasons a learner might wish to learn is in order to
procure a particular type of employment. Finally a learner might wish
learn certain things that would ensure a place at a particular
university or college. An early
choice of vocation may have
a far reaching influence on what one learns at school or university.
what to learn as preparation for a
Choosing what to
learn as preparation for a vocation is
very much confined by limits and consideration of necessary elements.
Choosing a vocation first then limits what should be learned to a very
large extent. Anything that is unnecessary to the particular vocation
is automatically excluded. Such a way of learning, can not only go out
of date quickly, but it can become creatively restricted also. That's
because a lot of new creative material tends to come out of the
interface where two or more fields of study overlap. This is not to say
that people should not choose a vocation early and let the direction of
their learning be guided by it. It just seems more conducive to
learning to be guided by both the pleasure that comes from being
interested, as well taking some guidance from the commitment of having
chosen, at least tentatively, a vocation.
Do we choose a college or
does a college choose us?
We talk about students
college, but in reality colleges choose students. If students had a
real choice they would just choose the college they want and pay their
money. Instead they have to apply and the college chooses if they are
worthy or not.
This site has portrayed, how
to make these choices as if they were simple, but
they are not not. There are many factors weighing on students making
these choices. Such forces can lead them far from these idealized
concepts. Most parents seem to wish to push their children to study
certain subjects, go to certain colleges, or prepare for a certain
vocation. There is a big difference between a student choosing to
emulate a parent because the parent is their role model, and the parent
pushing a student into something he or she does not want to do.
Things can really become
warped if learning is somehow twisted into being about status. In this
case students in high school or college may decide to take certain
subjects, not because they are pleasurable to learn, or because they
are important in preparing for a vocation, but rather because those
subjects will help them get into a high prestige college like Harvard
or fit in at a college like Harvard. When they get into the college
they may choose to study those subjects that are necessary to hold a
position of high status in the college. Choosing to study these kinds
of subjects can mean people end up trying to learn information that
they find, neither pleasurable nor useful for any particular chosen
In making a choice of
vocation people often make bad choices by following what is currently
popular or in vogue. However, vocations usually become fashionable at a
point where it is no longer healthy for the society in which they
occur. This can end up with the society being flooded with people
qualified for certain jobs that are not available, because the job
market has already been flooded with applicants that have taken the
Over supply and
under demand in vocational choice.
is this kind of
imbalance of vocational bottlenecks in society that cause societies to
run inefficiently and there are ways in which society can make
adjustments to correct the situations. They can offset over and under
demand for certain types of employment, not by coercively restricting
choice of vocation, but by giving choice a nudge in the right
direction. Using Richard Thaler's idea of choice architecture this can
be countered by schools and colleges promoting those vocations that are
currently unpopular and downplaying those that are currently popular.
This is assuming that schools and colleges are willing to act in the
interest of society and not just in their own interest.
choice in college.
days colleges have begun to provide
students with much more choice and control over what they can learn.
Despite the fact that Tofler's dream is still unrealized, people like
Barry Schwartz have begun to see choice in college as distressing
students with options which overloads the conscious brain and cause bad
and self destructive decisions to be made. In his book "The
Paradox of Choice" Schwartz had this to say:
"Today, the modern
institution of higher learning offers a wide array of different 'goods'
and allows, even encourages students - the customers - to shop around
until they find what they like. Individual customers are free to
'purchase' whatever bundles of knowledge they want, and the university
provides whatever its customers demand. In some rather prestigious
institutions this shopping-mall view has been carried to an extreme. In
the first few weeks of classes student sample merchandise. They go to a
class, stay ten minutes to see what the professor is like, then walk
out, often in the middle of the professor's sentence, to try another
class. Students come and go in and out of classes just as browsers go
in and out of stores in a mall. 'You've got ten minutes,' the students
seem to be saying, 'to show me what you've got. So give it your best
it is clear that this student determined learning has many problems and
probably leads to some very bad choices, the advent of such choice is
encouraging in enabling interest and intrinsic motivation. Trying to
judge after ten minutes, is of course, not only rude, but very
ineffective. In order to make a more constructive choice where there
may be too many options, we need help. If we have expertise in making
this kind of choice we are better off letting our unconscious mind make
the decision. When we try to do this without sufficient experience and
expertise we have to use our conscious minds which tend to concentrate
on the wrong things, and so make bad choices. However, all this can be
avoided and worked around by providing people with help in making
choices as suggested above.
The curation of learning options
in schools, colleges and universities.
exist in every field you can think of and most recently experts in
choosing among various options have become in high demand. There are
various reasons for this. The number one reason being, the ever
increasing amount of information amounting in the western world and
thus the ever increasing numbers of options that become available to
choose among. The second main reason is the poor preparation
of people in western societies to be able to make such choices
deal with the overload of options. These experts in choosing are now in
great demand because these are the new curators of information. Despite
the algorithms on the Internet that can guide our choices as to
what we are most likely to be interested in, despite the reviews of
products that can also guide us in our choice of what interests us we
are still likely to be overwhelmed by unfamiliar options. We are in
great need of people with taste who can further limit our options to a
manageable level. Such people are everywhere on the net and are thick
all forms of media.
though, in the world of schools, collages and universities such
of information are most notable for their absence. Of course to
student counselors have always been there to guide students in what
might be best for them to learn but this is a poor effort in a new
world awash with highly specialized curators of information. These days
an old word 'curation' has
become a new buzz word. The new curators of information are experts who
can eliminate the extraneous options for us so lowering, the numbers of
options we have to choose from, to a manageable level. Although such
experts have popped up in many areas of information they are noticeably
missing from schools colleges and universities where they are most
needed. Student counselors are a pale shadow of what they could
line help when choosing
what to learn at school and university.
information that is available for help on line, namely, popularity,
comparative prices, and reviews, could be applied to the choosing of
fields, for learning for the pleasure of learning, and learning as
preparation for a vocation etc. At present the Internet does
not have a great deal of help to give with these kinds of choices, but
that may change in the future if there is demand for it.
as customers are finding ways to help each
other make choices on the world wide web, there is much students could
do to inform each other about the various courses that are available to
them. A college newspaper where students could run reviews of teachers
and courses is a place to start. A better idea might be a website where
students could conveniently review professors and courses at their
sorts of help could come from independent reviews
of courses by the equivalent of expert investigation at a consumer
website set up to survey courses in colleges. On top of that there
could be teacher reviews of each other's work and discussion by
teachers about what they are trying to accomplish in their courses.
These could be presented in magazines or on websites set up for the
kinds of websites etc. could be helpful in matching students with
courses. Students could write in what they are interested in learning
and the site would then match the student with available courses that
seemed to match in some way. Alternatively professors could try to
match themselves to students by pointing out to students how their
particular course could satisfy their needs. Professors could also be
required to present an extensive outline of their course to anyone
interested. These could also be put on a website, and in a search able
database, so that various courses could easily compared and evaluated
against each other. Perhaps a special person could be employed at
colleges who's job it would be to guide students through the various
learning options and to make recommendations as to which courses might
contain areas of learning that are associated with the areas each of
the students are currently interested in.
in choosing a vocation so one can choose what to learn.
Schools and Colleges can, and to some extent do, try to provide
students with help in both choosing a vocation and then making course
recommendations based on that vocational choice. How can students be
provided with a smorgasbord of vocations to choose from? There is a
great under used resource in the world today that we call the elderly.
Here we have large numbers of people who have just left the work force
and who feel useless with nothing to occupy their days. Schools and
colleges could make use of such a resource by inviting these people,
who have a wealth of knowledge about the various vocations they just
vacated, into the schools to impart such knowledge to the students.
Other ways to know what is available to learn are to bring people
together in the homes the work place and the schools. It would be
possible to mix the young and the old. Young people have the new ideas
to teach the old, and the old have experience to pass on to the young.
The young must have greater and greater access to the work place
without disturbing that work. If young people can not go to a workplace
in reality, perhaps they can go there virtually. Instead of simulation
games perhaps we could have simulation work. Also perhaps, people could
be required to give a little of there time, say for a couple of weeks a
year, to go into the schools and teach whatever they knew and enjoyed.
learn, when to learn, how to learn and who to learn from.
Ideally students should make
these choices themselves, but for the most
part in western society, this is given lip service at most. Just as
students need choice in what to learn to be intrinsically motivated to
learn, choosing where to learn, when to learn, how to learn and who to
learn from, all will make learning more pleasurable and thus more
Choosing when, where or how
to learn, and who to learn from, are really part of choosing what to
learn. What we learn depends on where we learn, when we learn, how we
learn, and from whom we learn. When we make these choices we are still
deciding what we will learn.
Howard Gardner has made a
case for students being able to choose how they learn based on the idea
of people having different types of intelligence. While neuroscience
tells us that our brains are structured to learn in different ways,
Howard Gardner identified eight different ways in which people could be
considered to be intelligent. He suggested that people would
potentially be better able to learn, if information was presented in a
form conducive to the type of intelligence they most typically
how to be tested.
One cannot address
the importance of choice in learning without briefly touching on the
idea that is mostly associated with choice in education, that being
multiple choice in exams. Multiple choice is the worst way students can
be tested, as it reduces knowledge to a guessing game where the student
can give a correct answer and not have a clue. The only advantage of
this kind of test is in the ease with which any moron can check it.
three types of choice in learning.
involves three important types of choice. There is choosing what to
believe about one's ability to learn, there is choosing what domains
and bits of information to learn, and there is choosing what strategies
to use when learning.
strategies and their choice.
great deal of learning is or
should be trial and error learning. This kind of learning is called
learning by doing, or discovery learning. When learning this way we act
like scientists. We form theories, reframe them as hypotheses and test
them. When we do this we are making choices as to which strategies are
most likely to be useful in accomplishing a correct action. These sorts
of choices are involved in learning how to solve problems, learning how
to find information we do not have, and in understanding how the world
in most of today's societies, teachers tend to try and circumvent this
kind of learning by providing ready made strategies for solving
problems, for finding information, and understanding how the world
works. This is understandable, in that, all these strategies have been
discovered by very clever people over time, and it seems natural that
they should be able to be just passed on by telling without any need
for rediscovery. However, this has the unfortunate effect of students
having only a very tenuous grasp of how these strategies function, and
so can only use them in highly defined situations. Without
understanding why we do things a particular way and not a different
way, a student finds him/herself unable to modify such strategies, for
similar, though slightly different circumstances. The strategies become
inflexible and the students lose their ability to adapt them creatively
to other circumstances. When this happens learning becomes like a
parlor trick or like a performing animal. The student can solve a
problem, but has no idea how he/she has done it, and is completely
incapable of generalizing the strategy to other problems.
in mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, geometry etc. can all be
strategies for learning. But being able to gage these formulas against
other strategies that do not work is actually essential for
understanding them and learning. When we are deprived of making choices
between these various strategies, we are being deprive of knowing why
they work and why other strategies do not, thus we are deprived of
course the strategies involved in learning do not stop with the kinds
of strategies mentioned above. There are many other strategy choices we
must learn to make and do so by making our own choices. Elsewhere, we
have considered the many environmental conditions others can use to
make leaning be perceived by us as being attractive, to make learning
contagious for us. All of those conditions are also choices we can make
for our selves. Many of them such as choosing to make ourselves attend
and directing ourselves to become interested in particular information
we have already touched on. However, we can also make choices about
what strategies to use to encode information to be understood and
remembered. Likewise we can also choose strategies to enable ourselves
to recall particular bits of knowledge. Like many other strategies, the
use and choice of these ones depends on knowing the existence of them.
More about all of this is to be found in the pages dealing with
contagion and memory.
The neuroscience of
There are many parts of the
brain that are
continually providing the brain with information, much of which is only
conveyed to the conscious part of the brain via the emotions. These
emotional unconscious parts of the brain, are in fact, the most
important areas where the brain makes choices. That is to say, the most
important choices we make are made by our emotions in our unconscious
minds. These choices are made without much of it ever coming into
consciousness, in the same manner as decisions are made by other
animals. For a long while it was thought that logical decision making
was the best kind of decision making. However, it is now recognized
that it is the ability to know when to listen to the logical part of
the brain, or go with the emotion, that makes us truly superior as
Ways of choosing
When considering what
learners should choose to
learn, other than what interests them, they can use a conscious logical
method of choosing, or they can use the emotional intuitive method of
choosing. They can also spend vast amounts of time making decisions
comparing every aspect of options or they can decide almost
instantly the way people do in in high pressure 'life and death'
situations. How people make life and death decisions in real situations
was investigated by Gary Klein and outlined in his book "Sources
of Power". Klein and his team decided to observe people in
situations where decisions and prompt action were indeed a matter of
life and death and where there was little time to make them. What Klein
and his team discovered was that most of these vital decisions were not
performed by careful logical analysis, but were rather made by means of
what felt right.
It turns out that experience
expertise are not as integrated into the logical part of the brain as
they are into the more primitive part of the brain that communicates to
us mostly by means of emotion or feelings. We call this part of the
mind the unconscious or sometimes the subconscious. Elsewhere in this
site, most notably in the section called thin
slicing, this type of decision making or choice has been
elaborated on extensively. So here it will be dealt with only briefly.
The easiest way to
understand how the unconscious works is to consider the learning of a
skill. When you begin to learn a skill you have to use the conscious
and logical part of the brain. In playing tennis for instance you have
to think about how to hold the racket where you are going to hit etc.
You have to think about all the things you have to do. If you do
something badly you have to think of how to do it better. Gradually
though, through trial and error you get good at doing these things.
Many of these actions simply disappear from the conscious mind. They
sink into the unconscious and become automatic or seemingly automatic.
Thus you only have to think about how to weave these independent
actions together into fluid motion of continuous action. But soon that
too becomes automatic. At this point the conscious mind can mainly
concern itself with strategies like looking for weaknesses in the other
persons game or trying to upset the other player's concentration. This
is of course a bit simplistic as all these processes are continuing all
the time. The point, however, is that as we become expert at something
we no longer have to give it conscious attention; it sinks to an
unconscious level and becomes automatic. At the same time, the
conscious mind tends to deal with the things we are doing badly, and
tries to improve them. In his book "How
We Decide" Jonah Lehrer talks about how these two systems
"One of the enduring
paradoxes of the human mind is that it doesn't know itself very well.
The conscious brain is ignorant of its own underpinnings, blind to all
the neural activity taking place outside the prefrontal cortex. This is
why people have emotions: they are windows into the unconscious,
visceral representations of all the information we process but don't
perceive. ...the brain always learns the same way, accumulating wisdom
through error. There are no short cuts to this painstaking process;
becoming an expert just takes time and practice."
Choosing how to
The important thing in
making decisions or making
choices is knowing which part of the mind to listen to when deciding or
choosing. Do you listen to the conscious rational part or do you listen
to the unconscious part and be guided by what feels right? The first
rule in knowing this is that if you are an expert at something you
should listen to the unconscious part of your mind and if you are a
novice you should use the conscious and logical part of your mind. In
his book "How
We Decide" Jonah Lehrer puts it like this:
"But once you've developed
expertise in a particular area - once you've made the requisite
mistakes - it's important to trust your emotions when making decisions
in that domain. It is feelings, after all, and not the prefrontal
cortex, that capture the wisdom of experience."
Learning how to
The unconscious and the
conscious parts of the brain
both have serious flaws and the only way to compensate for these flaws
is to somehow learn to choose wisely which part of the brain to listen
to. In his book "How
We Decide" Jonah Lehrer continues:
"And yet, this doesn't mean
the emotional brain should always be trusted. Some times it can be
impulsive and short sighted. Sometimes it can be a little too sensitive
to patterns, which is why people lose so much money playing slot
machines. However, the one thing you should always be doing is
considering your emotions, thinking about why you are feeling what you
are feeling. In other words, act like the television executive
carefully analyzing the reactions of the focus group. Even when you
choose to ignore your emotions, they are still a valuable source of
When to trust
unconscious metal processing.
Kahneman who is well known as a person who discovered many of
the flaws in unconscious mental processing surprisingly worked together with Gary
Klein to try to discover when rapid cognition could be trusted and when
it could not. They concluded that the only way to make
efficient use of rapid cognition, was to build a large
well integrated database of knowledge in some domain or
domains thus becoming highly skilled in that or those domain
areas. Such people would thus develop a large database of various
skills, especially the skill of recognition. Such skills they decided
required two basic conditions. Such conditions could be used
to identify whether the person had developed real
skills and thus whether his/her rapid cognitions could be trusted.
"An environment that is sufficiently
regular to be predictable."
"An opportunity to learn these
regularities through prolonged practice."
predictable environment is an environment where certain features repeat
the same way each time. These are the normal aspects of the
environment. The unconscious processor in the brain deals with some of
these normal features automatically and suppresses the rest so that it
can focus on those features that are abnormal. The unconscious part of
the brain filters out a great deal
of information so it is able to focus on information
that is not normal, and alert the conscious part of the brain
to help deal with it.
Prolonged practice means
situations where learners can perform and get quick
feedback. The slower a person gets feedback on his/her
actions the more difficult it is to learn the skill. Also
learning a skill is hampered by the number of variables involved which
also increase with the time interval involved.
Experts are truly
highly skilled and can usually rely on their unconscious brain to
provide highly accurate intuitive judgments in the area of
expertise. This means a large mental inventory of what is
normal in a domain and skills honed under ideal
feedback conditions. Such experts are, for the most
part, people who have learned in situations where normal
features exist that can be ignored and where feedback is
instantaneous. However, there are a few other conditions that should be
kept in mind when deciding whether to use unconscious rapid cognition
or conscious comparison and evaluation.
When to use
The unconscious mind
requires real expertise. If you do not have expertise your unconscious
mind will tend to make poor choices and produce poor decisions.
The unconscious mind
is much better at processing
large numbers of options. It does this by eliminating most of the
options. In other words our unconscious minds determine what is not
relevant and abandons or ignores it.
The unconscious mind
at choosing among the common sort of options we have
encountered before. In other words the unconscious mind can only deal
with situations that repeat. It builds up a vast selection of mental
representations of what to expect and what not to expect that it can
The unconscious mind is better
at producing new or novel solutions. Real creativity only
takes place in the unconscious mind.
When to use
The conscious mind can operate without
real expertise. Of course it operates better with expertise.
The conscious mind is good at
processing small numbers of options. The fact is our conscious
mind can only deal with small numbers of options.
The conscious mind is
good at choosing
among unprecedented options, ones we have not encountered before. No
experience exists for such options so logic is the only recourse in
discriminating between them.
The conscious mind is better
at producing or copying solutions that have been used before.
can access a goodly number of previous solutions given time.
Barry Schwartz says there
are two sorts of people maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers always
have to have the best. They have to make the best choice, find the best
solution. This can be a big problem in choosing what to learn. As
Schwartz says in his book, we all know people who do their choosing
quickly and decisively and people for whom almost every decisions a
major project. Maximizers are always struggling to compare every
item they have to choose from against every other option in
that range of choice. It takes them forever, they never feel they have
chosen well, they usually regret their decision, and are much more
likely to be unhappy. Satisficers on the other hand tend to be happy
with good enough. They tend to check out a few options until they find
one they like. They end up with a choice that is not the best but is
good enough at that moment. There is no way of choosing the ideal
subjects or the ideal items of information to learn. To be
able do so would require perfect knowledge of the future. You would
have to know in advance what you would want to be doing not now but at
that time in the future. The fact is what we want to be doing in the
future changes all the time especially while we are learning and
preparing as students.
Satisficers despite in some
sense making poorer choices tend to be happier with their choices and
feel less regret about their choices. Not only that, but they are much
less likely to be overwhelmed by the many options in the world. It's a
case of good enough being better for you than the best. Satisficers it
seems are happier and healthier in every way compared to maximizers who
tend to be miserable and overwhelmed. There are three possibilities you
can choose something to learn that is good enough. You can pick the
absolute best item for you to learn at that point. Or you can choose
not to learn anything. Choosing to learn anything is better that
choosing to learn nothing. Choosing the optimum thing to learn every
time is time wasting and a drudge. Although making a choice that is
good enough may seem to be eliminating those not chosen or considered,
the fact is, we we can always change our minds later and choose some
other option then.
Choosing to learn using one
of the methods described above is actually choosing to attend or focus
on some type of knowledge. The fact is we cannot learn anything unless
we focus on it or concentrate out attention on it. For most of the time
in our lives, what we attend to, happens automatically. Sudden, violent
and novel changes in the environment cause us to focus attention. This
mechanism is part of our evolutionary survival function. However there
is another way that activates this automatic focusing of attention, and
that is our individual interests. If we are interested in something we
automatically attend to it. In fact our sensory apparatus is sort of
scanning the environment for information of particular interest to us
just as it does for possible dangers. We do not have to choose to
attend to these things we automatically attend to them.
On the other hand it is
possible to intentionally choose to focus our attention on something
and consciously force our attention on particular information in order
to learn it. There are many reasons why we might do this. Parents
teachers and other authority figures may be pushing us toward making a
decision they want. If they provide us with a series of options to
choose from, this has a greater chance of influencing us to become
interested and intrinsically motivated, as explained previously. Other
reasons why we might intentionally focus our attention on learning some
type of information, that we are not yet interested in, is in order to
solve a problem we wish to solve, or in order to accomplish something
we wish to accomplish. We may choose to focus our attention on learning
information in order to achieve some goal. Also as mentioned previously
we may be required to choose from a collection of knowledge domains for
which we have no previous experience and for which, as yet, no previous
interest has developed.
While we can and do focus
our attention in this way easily enough for short periods of time, this
is difficult to do for long periods of time. This is why people fall
asleep during lectures. They are trying to force their attention, but
the mind simply disengages after a short time (about ten minutes) and
without other stimuli to focus attention, the learner can find
him/herself lapsing into sleep. Choosing to intentionally focus
attention in this way does not automatically activate interest, but it
does provide a chance for it to occur. It all depends on a learner
becoming interested as the focused ten minute period proceeds. As
explained earlier cognitive dissonance caused by making the choice
assists in this endeavor.
choices when error is intolerable.
there are no
situations, while students are at school, where lives depend in the
choices students make while learning, there certainly are such choices
in life. Doctors, policemen, firemen, pilots etc. are continually
making choices that cause people to live or die and they use their
experience to make them. One would hope they gained this experience by
in some way that did not initially involve people living or dying such
as by simulating the situations safely as pilots do using a flight
simulator. Such people are of course experts and the choices they make
are mostly made by their unconscious brains. Where they use conscious
deliberation it concerns very few options as speed in making a choice
We do not need to
experience this level of anxiety at
school. While choices we make at school do have consequences none of
these consequences are irrevocable. We can always change what we are
learning to suit where we want to go and what we want to do in life.
Parents and teachers who impress on students the exaggerated importance
of their decisions about learning are not doing them any favors. By
making them feel their decisions are life and death they are simply
making them feel guilty, anxious and miserable for no reason.
of life is choices, and the rest is pure dumb luck." Marian
Learning how to choose what
So when should we choose
consciously what to learn and when should we
let our choice of what to learn be guided by our unconscious minds? So there are many things
that have to be taken into consideration when choosing what to learn.
Choosing for pleasure.
The best kind of choice
about what to learn is to learn what we are
currently interested in because this will give us pleasure and insure
real learning. In making this choice we should go with what feels right
and use our unconscious intuitive abilities to guide us through the
many options. However, this has a down side, in that what interests us
changes all the time and if we change our choice often as our interests
change this could lead to many starts with no continuing
integrated understanding because of interest abandonment. This
does happen somewhat with young children and a few unfortunate adults.
Fortunately, for the most part, interests tend to grow stronger the
more we learn and have pleasure associated with the interest. Also
cognitive dissonance also contrives to improve our interest in
subjects simply because we have made a choice to learn it.
achieve the goal of our ideal vocation.
The best kind of goal we can
have in learning is the goal of enabling
us to get the kind of job we want after we graduate. This, unlike
learning for pleasure, is not easy to judge and we would be foolish
indeed if we relied on unconscious intuition in making such
choices. Unfortunately there are many options and we are not experts at
choosing between them. We can use people who are experts to help us but
only up to a point. Also, we have the same problem here with changing
learning (horses in mid stream) too often, as our ideal vocation will
usually change over time. The students that decide what they want to do
early, and stick with it, have a distinct advantage. There are
many choices involved with this option and because we mostly
have to use conscious logical comparison we would well advised to try
and keep the number of options we are considering each time to a
minimum, make the decisions separately, and not try to decide every
thing at once. "Which colleges do I need to get into in order
to qualify for this vocation?" "What subjects do I need
to pass or do well in, to get into one of those
colleges?" "Do I really want to work in that vocation or is it just
what my parents want for me?" If you lump all that into one big choice
your brain will not be able to handle it, but as individual choices
develop life long learning.
The most important thing
about choices is that they actively create and embellish intrinsic
motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated this is constant as it
derives from the action of learning. The pleasure and thus the
motivation is intrinsic to whatever is being learned. It does not fade
as extrinsic motivation does when external rewards and contingencies
disappear. In his book "Why
We Do What We Do" Edward Deci explains about watching seals
can get a
glimpse of the problem even with the seals. Just as soon as the feeders
disappear, so too do the entertaining behaviors. The seals no
longer have interest in clapping their flippers together or waving to
the crowd. Rewards may increase the likelihood of behaviors, but only
so long as the rewards keep coming.
With our children, students
and employees we typically hope that the desired behaviors will
continue even if we are not there to toss them a fish."
Choices and their intrinsic motivation do just
that, they keep us learning because the fish (pleasures) are intrinsic
(always there) and so we remain motivated. If we get enough choices
in our lives this intrinsic motivation will become attached to
everything that we do and especially to all our learning. Our desire to
learn new and interesting things far from fading will stay with us all
our lives. We will become and remain life long learners.