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Why child survival rates will determine population growth

Understanding where stuff comes from

Engagement is a moving target

Vinay Ganti
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In need of a common language

Those of you that have taken the time to read my first few posts have probably gathered that one of the books I am knee deep in right now is Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen. As a fan of his previous work and also the work that his consulting company Innosight does, I was excited to see how Christensen would apply his theory on disruptive innovation to the field of education.

You say tomato; I say virtual learning

One of the key points Christensen raises in the book is in order to create movement or change within an organization or industry, there must be the development of a “common language and a common way to frame the problem.” Christensen argues that although the creation of a common language will not solve the problems, it is a prerequisite to discovering solutions. In his opinion, education currently suffers from a lack of standard frameworks to communicate across parties the challenges facing education today, and that part of the book’s goal is to help bridge that divide.

Moreover, I believe that identifying and building a common language is a necessary step for the professionalization of any industry. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. have all developed entire lexicons specific to their own professions, and as annoying as these terminologies may seem to outsiders the vocabulary actually increases the opportunity for efficient and effective communication within each community. This in turn results in a stronger, healthier community dynamic amongst the language’s users.

This pursuit for establishing a common language can be seen beyond the conventional. For example, one paper I discovered discussed the need to develop a common framework in the field of dance therapy. The paper’s second paragraph states:

Dance  therapy  lacks a common understanding  of words  that describe and interpret movement. Effective communication depends  upon  the comprehension of words for achieving patient-treatment goals. Effective teamwork emerges as members understand each other’s roles and functions, as well as their different language systems.

While education has been regarded as an integral part of society for that past century, the field’s lexicon is relatively undeveloped. Much of this disconnect can be attributed to the number of stakeholders invested in defining eduction and its components, each of whom have differing and often times conflicting priorities. Education also suffers from its ubiquity, especially with regard to the fact that anything can effectively be described as learning or an educational lesson. Despite these hurdles, attempts to develop shared frameworks emerge constantly. One example is New Jersey’s Professional Development Standards for Educators, which focuses on developing a common language for professional learning communities. This framework identifies issues like,

  • What is essential for students to know?
  • How will we know when they have learned it?
  • What interventions will we put in place when they don’t learn it?
  • What do teachers need to know and be able to do to support the student learning?
  • What professional learning must the team engage in for student learning?

and also attempts to define the criteria for what a professional learning community would look like. More informal communities are also springing up everywhere. A few weeks ago I attended the NY EdTech Meetup and met a number of people trying to understand the intersection of education and technology, the effective business strategies to meld them.

Two steps forward, few steps back

Professional learning communities while important still result in a piecemeal approach to identifying answers to these critical questions. Conversations across the social graph, including Twitter, blogs and other sources are also contributing to this dialogue in a decentralized way. For education to reach its next stage of reform and innovation, we must continue to germinate these homegrown discussions into a national and eventually global discussion. In doing so, we must also be willing to accept at the core that education itself is a multi-faceted concept that serves multiple roles in society and thus the language used needs to be sensitive to that.

On to Relevance

My last post discussed motivation, in depth. As some may remember, motivation is one part of my formula that I use to analyze education. The other is relevance, and that will be the focus for today. As a quick refresher, here is the formula.

Relevancy is an exceptionally challenging aspect of achieving engagement, because it is something that can change very quickly and also has a number of different aspects to it. However, like motivation, there are two overarching types of relevance we can focus on to conceptually understand it. The curriculum must be relevant to the student and also it must be useful to the world.

Why doesn’t anyone get my television references?

In order for education to be truly relevant, we must develop curriculum that incorporates the experiences and interests of students’ and uses them as springboards for learning. Recent studies in the journals  NatureScience; and Mind, Brain, and Education all have shown that

[s]tudents need a personal connection to the material, whether that’s through engaging them emotionally or connecting the new information with previously acquired knowledge (often one and the same). Without that, students may not only disengage and quickly forget, but they may also lose the motivation to try. [edutopia.org]

Doing this well can often be a challenge. In my own class, I often struggle to find popular culture references that I relate to which overlap with my students’ experiences. For example, I often am tempted to reference the West Wing, which in my opinion is an amazing show to use as an educational tool. However, when polled, I quickly discovered that none of my students had ever seen let alone heard of the show — a finding even more shocking when you learn that they are juniors and seniors in college.

Often times I joke in class that unless I couch everything in references from the Jersey Shore, anything I teach will be lost on them. While I enjoy the challenge of using videos of Snooki being punched in the face as a starting point for intentional torts; the universe of gym, tan, laundry does limit what I am able to teach. But, effective teaching requires that we do identify and utilize those metaphors and experiences which our students can relate to.

Some teachers have identified innovative ways to capitalize on students’ own interests to cultivate learning. Pat Yongpradit, a teacher in Maryland, uses computer science education as a vehicle to engage female students in the STEM subjects.  Similarly at the MIT Media Lab, the High-Low Tech group encourages students to combine their interest in fashion and design with technology. I spoke about the power of games in my last post, and some innovators are pushing to incorporate games into every part of education to stimulate learning of complex and challenging topics. A great Prezi that outlines the potential of using games has been made by Maria Andersen.

What is the point of learning this?

In addition to being relevant on a personal level to the recipient, the curriculum or lesson must also be relevant with regard to be useful in the world. Students are able to quickly realize when a specific kernel of knowledge will or will not be useful to them in the near-term, long-term or never.

One of the classic tensions with regard to this is in the field of mathematics. Students today have been raised in a world inundated by calculators and computers — a world where the abundance of computational power cannot be questioned. In this world, the notion of learning how to do rote computations by hand would naturally seem silly, as most students realize that the minute they enter the real world they will simply use computers to solve these problems. Conrad Wolfram, the founder of Wolfram Alpha, discusses this issue at a recent TED talk.

As Wolfram states, the field of math could not be more critical for the global economy, but yet the current approach to teaching it by and large ignores the reality of how the next generation will actually interact with numbers and data. Another example can be found in the continuous decrease in enrollment in computer science courses, despite the fact that the economy is being driven more and more by the Internet and other high-technology industries. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has highlighted the dearth of computer science education offerings at the elementary and secondary school levels across America. Innovative schools and organizations are tackling this problem head on. One in particular is Computers for Youth, a non-profit that works with schools and also in the students’ homes to promote computer literacy in some of the biggest cities throughout the country. Yet, even these programs may not go far enough, as the gap between basic computer proficiency and a true understanding of how software works is large.

What is our goal?

At the core, we must ask the question what is our actual objective when teaching. Is it to accomplish a discrete set of lessons? Or is it to cultivate a longstanding desire to learn in a student? I firmly believe it is the latter, and if so that means we must look at education differently, using subjects as a vehicle to maintain and increase one’s innate curiosity (and accordingly his or her intrinsic motivation). Doing so requires that we are more responsive to the interests and expectations of our customers (i.e. students), and the most effective way to accomplish this goal is via technology. Social technologies in particular provide means for an ongoing dialogue between educators and students and also between students and the world. George Couros, an elementary school prinicipal, articulates this concept well.

Here is something that hasn’t changed though: the best teaching is always built upon relationships.  Think back to your own favourite teachers.  They were probably people who knew quite a bit about you and made you feel that you were a unique and special individual.  The fact of the matter is that they did this probably for most students they encountered.  They were people who you felt believed in you and inspired you to do great things, maybe even to become a teacher.  They always seemed to go the extra mile to ensure that you knew your strengths and cared deeply about your passions.  No matter what technology comes into our classrooms, nothing will ever replace a good teacher.  Nothing.

Now, take that good teaching and equip it with the advancing technology we now have at our fingertips.  This is the game changer for educators.  Preparing our students not only to be digitally savvy, but leveraging these technologies to help them create, communicate, connect and collaborate will prepare them to be contributing citizens to their future.  When we were in school, bringing the “TV” to the classroom was one of the best days ever.  Now we have the opportunity to bring the world to the classroom every day.  I would be excited to have this opportunity as a learner, but I am even more excited as an educator.  We have the means to create this revolution in learning where our students not only learn, but connect with people around the globe.

I hope that Couros is right.

Understanding Motivation

Yesterday, I outlined my philosophy on education and summarized it through the formula of motivation + relevance = engagement, which results in improved outcomes. Doing so provides me with a framework upon which I can analyze a variety of topics, including emerging educational technologies, teaching styles and so forth.

First, it is critical to understand each of the variables in the formula in greater depth. In today’s post I will dig deeper into motivation.

We begin with a synopsis

On Monday night, I went and saw Black Swan, the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Natalie Portman. The story focuses on an ambitious ballerina (played by Portman) in the New York City Ballet company who has been awarded the lead in the upc0ming production of Swan Lake.

For Portman’s character, ballet is the only thing that matters in her life. Her drive to be the best consumes her psyche throughout the entirety of the film and her obsession with perfection manifests in self-destructive ways, which she must deal with throughout the film.

Aronofsky is no stranger to the darker side of the human condition — one only needs to see Pi or Requiem for a Dream to appreciate his willingness to reach humanity’s edges. Black Swan gives us a window into a life where one’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are pushed to the brink. Portman’s obsession with being the best on stage comes from deep inside her core, an insatiable need to achieve perfection. The movie compounds this drive through the introduction of a rival ballerina, played by Mila Kunis, who Portman believes is a threat to her status as Swan Queen. The introduction of competition here only drives Portman’s character even further towards the brink.

Can we call that a good problem?

Ironically, the degree of motivation that Black Swan depicts is the opposite of what concerns most educators. Our challenge is to figure out how to motivate those students that exude minimal effort and fail to respond to the various incentives we put forth to try to stimulate motivation. But to make it more challenging, we try to do so without losing the momentum of the other motivated students.

Nevertheless, the movie does address one issue that is critical: one needs to understand the relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives, to avoid unwanted outcomes. Extrinsic incentives like grades seem to be falling out of favor. Many have argued that while easier to enforce and monitor, extrinsic factors may not result in desired outcomes. Over at TechIntersect, Bill Genereux writes about the need to focus intrinsic incentives in order to achieve “authentic learning.”

One school in San Diego is building a culture of college-going at a very young age. In doing so, the school is engaging the intrinsic motivations of students early on and hope they “will aspire to a lifelong path toward higher education and deeper learning that ends with a degree.” The same article in EdWeek provides additional examples of schools trying to generate intrinsic motivation by having students set their eyes on college at a young age.

Science has also begun to question the role of extrinsic incentives, in particular the book Drive by Daniel Pink, for any task that is not rudimentary. In an excellent animation by the British RSA, Pink explains the most recent findings regarding economic incentives in the workplace:

So it would seem then that the role of extrinsic factors are limited and could be counterproductive when combined with strong intrinsic incentives.

Not so fast, lets compete on this

But this conclusion would be too extreme. Extrinsic incentives can still play a substantially positive role in encouraging desired outcomes. First, there are many aspects of education that still fall under the rudimentary category, as described by Pink. One that immediately comes to mind is attendance. Here incorporating competition could encourage students to show up more often than they otherwise would. Granted once present, there is no guarantee that they will pay attention, but the extrinsic incentive still serves a purpose.

Competition is nothing new, but recently in the technology world it has been re-purposed by the buzzword game dynamics, or the concept of building point systems or other features traditionally virtual features to operate in the real world. Companies like Foursquare with their badge system have capitalized on this concept. At the heart of these offerings is the truism that human beings are inherently competitive animals. The beauty of such competitive structures is that when applied to learning they can encourage learning surreptitiously, as students will compete to win and learn along the way. While inside of the game, no additional incentives are needed, as the rules of game reinforce the motivation autonomously. Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR, is trying to create a platform which would  allow game dynamics to be applied anywhere. Moreover, all of these new technologies also play into the social desires of humans, allowing them to ‘show off’ their accomplishments to others.

Yet extrinsic incentives also suffer from a major shortcoming, especially when applied to education — once the game is over, the incentives vanish. It is unclear whether there are long-term changes in behavior or outcomes when relying solely on extrinsic incentives. The ongoing debate over “cash for grades” is an example of this.

There is a time and place

But intrinsic incentives also have challenges, in particular they take a very long-time to work, and require a constant monitoring and reinforcement to take hold permanently. Reminding a child once that learning is the path to college is not enough, this belief must be cultivated with care and attention day in and day out. For this reason there must be a healthy marriage between both intrinsic and extrinsic incentives in education. Maybe one way to envision this is to view it as a relay, where extrinsic incentives can take the first leg for a given topic and once certain habits or beliefs have been formed they will hand the student off to a more intrinsic approach to learning. The path is unclear for now, but one thing that is certain is that effective learning will require that both play a role together.

My philosophy on education

While visiting the MoMA here in New York City, I came across Jackson Pollock’s Echo: Number 25, 1951 that particularly caught my attention. At first glance, the piece appeared to be overwhelmingly complex, one without any decipherable pattern. The numerous lines, shapes and other effects defied organization. However, upon staring at the painting further, I began to observe patterns amidst its chaos — systematic building blocks which when combined created this immensely complex work.

The field of education is similar, with numerous stakeholders interacting across a field that affects every corner of the economy. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of it all. In fact, it would seem that education’s new charge is to enable its constituents to appreciate complexity in the world. To realize transformational change in an industry, one must be able to systematically decipher those factors which are most critical, and then identify the relationships among them.

I believe that the majority of education’s challenges can be analyzed using the following formula:

Successfully cultivating engagement, is the most important factor in education. Sir Ken Robinson’s now famous talk “Changing Education Paradigms” refers to this as an aesthetic experience, one where all of the senses are alive. It is at this moment, where learning can occur at its best. Engagement is fleeting, however, occurs in short bursts, and can occur anywhere. It can occur over coffee with a mentor, during a game, when re-reading a favorite novel, and so on. Achieving these moments are never easy, and often prove to be unpredictable. However, the purpose of education is to maximize the frequency that such moments of engagement actually occur. To increase the frequency, we must look to two key factors: motivation and relevancy.

  • Motivation: Clayton Christensen explains in the book Disrupting Class that two types of motivation exist — extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic factors and intrinsic factors can be used together or separately to elicit desired behaviors. Competition is a perfect example of how extrinsic factors can help stimulate engagement. Likewise, clearly showing how a specific lesson or tool can help in one’s career search would be an excellent use of intrinsic motivation.
  • Relevancy: The more apparent the value of the knowledge or skills the more easily it will be embraced. Relevancy also operates at two basic levels — what the receiver believes is relevant and what the giver believes should be relevant. Ideally, these two priorities will be aligned, but more often than not there will be a discrepancy between what the receiver and giver consider relevant.

Both motivation and relevancy interact with each other, and depending on how well they combine in a specific case will determine the level of engagement that someone will have on that subject. Depending on the type of engagement that is desired, different aspects of the two will need to be employed. For example, in situations where the recipient may not find the material relevant, the use of extrinsic motivators may be needed to accomplish the goal.

In the end, this approach to education can be applied to any of the stakeholders, not just traditional students. Everyone involved must experience some level of engagement in order for true innovation to occur, and each stakeholder has their own motivations and relevant interests in the game. I intend to refer back to this formula going forward and improve on it over time. This blog is an effort to better understand the field of education, and it like anything else is a continuous work in progress.

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