Tag Archives: extrinsic motivation

Chris Jernstedt on Learning

12 Jul

Chris Jernstedt, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, spoke Monday at the Learning Organization Academy. My summary of key points:

Learning Organizations Should Map to the Brain

If we really want to build learning organizations, they should of course take into account how the brain works; fortunately, we might already be heading in the right direction: chris notes that the literature on organizational growth and change is remarkably consistent with how the brain operates.

Learning Should Include Thinking, Feeling, and Interacting

The brain’s major regions focus on three key areas: social (watching what other people do, emulating it), executive (making decisions, plans, interpretations), and emotional processing (feeling and dealing with how we feel about things). All three are integral to how the brain works; all three should be a recognized part of a learning organization (consider to what extent cognitive / executive thought is privileged now in most organizations and higher education).

Memory and Learning are Active

“Memory and learning are something you do,” said Chris. Rather than files retrieved from an efficient archive, the process of remembering is more similar, for Chris, to an archeological dig (!). Each memory is a product of reconstruction and re-interpretation (!) of a bunch of scattered bits. And the same for learning: rather than receiving knowledge as a jukebox might receive coins, we’re actually building the things we know association by association.

The Brain is Not Neat

“The brain is built to be sloppy,” Chris said. There’s a trade-off between the kinds of mental structures and processes that make for efficient memory and the kind that allow for creativity; the brain allows some sloppiness and inefficiency so we can make new connections, associate unlikely things, invent our way out of a tight corner. But in exchange we’re imperfect warehouses.

Engage or Forget

The most important thing in remembering or learning something new is to use the information actively. Engagement is even more important than overall time spent. Talk about it, write about, do something with it. Otherwise it’s gone in 24 hours, says Chris; 60 to 80% of your learning should require you to be engaged, he said; and he therefore suggested we use symbols to capture the key points of his talk (writing or images). He also stopped every few minutes to challenge us in groups with a provocative question or two. “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning,” he said.


The brain uses prompts and incentives to help it learn. Prompts relate to its powerful predictive ability: to survive we need to know what effects follow from what causes; we’re so good at associating effects with causes that after even one highly-charged cause-effect sequence, the brain will subsequently predict the outcome of any similar cause and feel and act as if the effect had happened, even if it hadn’t. Every time you see a certain person, they frown at you? After a while you start to feel frowned-at just by thinking of that person. Good learning understands this strong promptability and tries to unpack and discharge prompt-associations that impede learning, and kindle positive ones that encourage it.

The Three Rules of Feedback

Incentives work on the other end of the cause and effect sequence–a positive outcome makes the brain feel good, and it remembers what it did to get that; then it’s more likely to do that thing later. This process is what makes feedback work so well; as long as feedback is useful, consistent, and rapid, you can effectively learn just about anything. Including to control anything the body does–even lowering high blood pressure certain degrees at your will, slowing down or speeding up your digestive tract, or keeping sperm (if you have them) from swimming. These body-related learnings require a biofeedback monitor of some kind and are done in the lab, but still: if you can control the speed at which food passes through your intestines, you can make all sorts of changes in any of your behaviors.

Transfer Requirements

For learning in one situation to be called upon in another, thus achieving the famous holy grail of “transfer,” Chris notes that the first situation needs to be as simliar as possible to the second. And practicing it three times before the transfer helps, too.

Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work; Neither Does “Espoused Theory”

No change will come of telling people what they should do, says Chris. Rather, you have to “give them what they want when they do it.” A useful and speedy reward or some kind of feedback that tells their brain that what they just did was good. A second problem with extrinsic motivation is that the brain isn’t fooled by rhetorical positions, claims, values statements, plans, that are different than the real behavior of the individual who promotes them (see Chris Argyris’ famed “espoused theory”). People’s brains will “see” that a given leader isn’t listening to them, even if he or she espouses an open-door policy (and maybe even if they consciously believe that policy).

Stories are Important 

According to Chris, the story you create is more powerful than truth. If you’re given some pictures and told to tell “false” stories about them (that is, stories that don’t truthfully reflect the contents of the pictures), you’ll remember the stories and not the pictures themselves. Which suggests how important it is that we include stories and narratives in our understanding of the workplace environment.

The Unconscious is Powerful

“Most of what you do,” says Chris, “is unconscious.” As much as 98% (!).  Chris referred to research that shows our brain can solve math problems well before we actually know it. The conscious mind, driving to a speedy conclusion, or incapable of processing all the data, can even impair the whole brain from working: Chris noted a study that showed people who were given some minor task to occupy their conscious mind actually solved complex problems faster than people who were consciously thinking about the problem, showing that the brain has a way of drawing on problem-solving capacities we don’t know about. “The brain knows,” said Chris. The way you tap into this power is to give yourself time. Add periods of unscheduled time into the routine; places for reflection, etc.

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (Part B)

16 Mar

This post is the second part of an excerpt from a talk Colleen Wheeler, Gina Siesing, and I gave at NERCOMP 2012.  (See Part A for lots of context and links to professional development events, surveys, and road shows).

Top Ten Lessons of Learning Organization Research (continued)

5. Space and safety matter

Space plays a big role in learning. On the one hand, you need what Amy Edmondson calls “psychologically safe” places to learn: places you can be vulnerable, where it’s ok to be wrong as you work your way through challenging information, where the feedback is appropriate and not threatening. Only in such a space will you feel comfortable surfacing and retooling your guiding assumptions and processing all the wonderful points of tension between yourself and your environment.

But space can also as it were train you in how to interact with the world; in one influential school of thought, the Reggio Emilia model, space is known as the “Third Teacher.” On a simple level, clearly you will do better in an office with good lighting, no ear-splitting machinery whirling nearby, and a comfortable chair than you would do in a kind of smoke-filled, physically dangerous Dickensian sublime. We can go beyond that and point to the kind of activities an atelier-like, art studio might inspire as compared to the classic 1980s-era cubicle farm. In short, if the person designing the space expects you to basically write emails all day, you’ll get a chair and a fixed computer and not much else. If the designer isn’t sure what you’ll be doing, but is inspired by your potential, you’ll get freedom to mix and match various possible components of your work, and work in different phases, in different ways, with different tools, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes alone. The first, proscriptive design boxes you in to a way of thinking and being. The second one is a space that teaches you to be the author of your surroundings and reinforces your engagement in what you’ll do and how you do it.

4. Classroom learning theory and design apply to work, too

Many of us spend a lot of time (rightfully) understanding how people learn best in formal settings; what we seem to sometimes forget is that all the lessons about learning in classrooms can also apply to the workplace. Probably because basic laws of human learning are behind both. That is to say, if intrinsic motivation, active learning, experiential learning, and so forth, are important for adults in one setting, they probably are in other settings, too.

The supervisory relationship is a great example of one aspect of the workplace that is ripe for revision–just as the sage-on-the-sage has lately come under the scrutinizing eye of the progressive pedagogue. If extrinsic motivation, as Alfie Kohn has convincingly argued, effectively kills learning, what does it mean that in the workplace bosses generally tell their reports what to do, even unto the tiniest minutiae? If rewards and punishments don’t work (as Kohn also argues), what is left for the supervisor to actually do in those individual meetings required by the HR department? The same line of questioning may in part explain the surprising results of Google’s internal study on successful management, which found that staff wanted managers who were not subject experts (!), and who didn’t tell them what to do (!), but basically talked to them about themselves as people (!), and asked helpful questions (!), without the ever-present proscription (!).

3. Collaboration helps you learn more than cooperation

In a previous post I discuss at a little more length the distinction in the educational literature between collaborative and cooperative learning and what that means to the workplace.  In short, we think this distinction is crucially relevant.

To summarize, collaboration is how people work together when they have to figure out during the work what the goals and roles are. Communication, feedback, adjustments, and learning are intense. It can only happen for relatively short periods, but it is nonetheless the necessary style of working together used during times of change or when new work teams come together; during collaboration you are building and rebuilding your assumptions about the world. It’s transformational.

Cooperation, on the other hand, is when everyone knows the goals and their roles, and interactions are less intense and more predictable. It’s used during periods of stability, when the nature of the work is relatively static; it reinforces existing assumptions about how the world works and so doesn’t tax the mind or the social dynamic. It reinforces and comforts. It’s transactional.

We think the workplace will need to increasingly encourage open collaboration if it is to constantly rethink itself. But we recognize much of work will remain cooperative, even in a learning organization; so what we expect is an increased sophistication in the workplace in thoughtfully adopting and supporting the right approach in the particular context.

2. Individual and team learning are linked

Have you ever experienced that common phenomenon where you go to a great external learning event of some kind, you feel yourself evolve new skills and a new outlook, you return to work ready and excited to be a different and better person, it all fizzles, and you’re dragged back down by the culture into the way things always were, just like Al Pacino in Godfather III?  Or the reverse phenomenon, also common, where the team decides it wants to do something wonderful, but the individuals resist, effectively continuing in their moment-to-moment actions their routine behaviors, and nothing happens?

If, as we suggest above, individuals and teams operate according to hidden programs that are formed and exert control on a subconscious level, and if these programs essentially interlock when we’re at work, then this makes sense. You can try to change your program, but your colleagues and your team are invested in doing things the same old way, and part of that investment is in you being the same.

For this reason, we think the most effective learning organizations will find ways for teams and individuals to change simultaneously: for the team to serve as the safe place for all its members to work on their improvements, while at the same time, the improving individual members of the team work collectively on improving how they interact and perform as a unit. Easier for me to let you explore a different way of being if you’re letting me do the same, etc.

1. We need to invest in learning.  And view learning as an ecosystem.

If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, you’ve probably sensed our main idea: that we should increasingly cultivate the learning in our organizations—individual and team—as we might a beautiful garden, the growth of weird worms on deep-sea sulfurous vents, or other complex ecosystems.  As if it were a system as complex as our computer networks or library circulation systems.  The Kellogg Foundation developed a famous “Logic Model:” a way to visually represent your organization as a kind of machine of production—we think we’ll soon be developing logical learning models or other similar attempts to represent visually the sophisticated learning and development in our organizations, looking for ways to connect the various little dots and dashes of learning here and there into a coordinated and healthy whole. The learning dashboard, if you will.

This will require us to think differently—to put the system of our learning up on the boardroom wall along with the other systems we manage. To dedicate people to the development and management of the learning, to set new kinds of metrics, to design and implement changes and assess their effect, and so forth, just as we currently use a variety of systems engineers and wiring staff and supervisors and external auditors to maintain and grow and improve our digital connections to each other.

Which means we need to be ready to invest. Schein notes that a learning culture requires that part of the culture look at the culture, which is to say that there needs to be at a macro-level a new kind of feedback loop that we currently do not have. Google is famous for allowing its staff one day a week to explore their own interests: such a 20% investment of the resources of the organization, we think, might just be about right.

If that seems like too much, compare the resources we give to the development of a student in formal education. Take one semester in college and add up the dedicated teachers, the carefully constructed curriculum that connects modularly with all sorts of other curricular pieces, the support staff working to help the teachers be more efficient, the carefully maintained physical spaces, the psychologically-safe learning group, the supporting course materials, the variety of advisory staff ready to help the individual learner, the multitudinous levels of feedback available to the student, the surrounding culture and expectations of learning, and so on. By comparison the average staff member might get say .01% of that–a 2-day conference per year and a book.

Which is not to say that we should retool work to be just like formal education. But we should expect the investment of our resources in work-based learning to begin to come closer to what society invests in formal learning. For the things we will need people to learn on the job in a continuously-adapting organization that is proactively engaged in an environment of constant and complex change will perhaps be even more difficult to learn than the things students generally learn in the classroom.

About Grades

3 Jan

Someone asked me recently why I tend to frown when grades are mentioned. My attempt to answer.

I don’t think a simple, one-dimensional linear scale (grades) is the best possible way to represent (or honor) the rich cognitive development that occurs in complex patterns across a variety of domains in the growth of an individual.

For instance, grades provide no information on the learning context—no considerations of the course design; social group dynamics; style of teaching; particular assigned, tacit or implied, learning outcomes; opportunities for formative assessment; what was on the syllabus; humidity in the classroom; and so on. And yet the environment is so crucial to understanding how people develop, ignoring it would seem to make your data almost meaningless. If Vygotsky is right, and the most important thing in the study of our development is understanding the potential growth of the individual-in-society, grades aren’t helpful.

For another instance, grades don’t show you what sorts of cognitive development are happening.  Or even what skills are being used. Of the various Howard Gardner intelligences, say, which did the student effectively draw on to get that B in Russian History? That might be interesting to know. A grade won’t help you know that.

You might say that we could supplement the grades with a variety of other things, like the syllabus; an essay on the course by the teacher or a trained observer; a discursive evaluation of the student; a narrative self-evaluation by the student; some pre-and-post testing to learning outcomes; a collected portfolio of produced work with reflective analysis by the student; etc. Yes. Basically, I think that’s what we should organize ourselves to do. Ken Bain describes a kind of “synthetic” (in the sense of creating a synthesis of diverse kinds of data) course evaluation that he thinks would be more helpful than the traditional student survey. I’d like to see along with that a synthetic development report replace the letter grade.

So grades don’t show you everything they possibly could.  What’s worse is I suspect grades might even undermine learning. When people focus on grades rather than learning, which it’s hard not to do, what should be a positive and productive relationship between the learner and the learning environment, leading toward a virtuous circle of robust growth, tends instead to become a cynical negotiation, sadly tending toward a vicious circle of minimal growth. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn on the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, rewards, and punishments.

The usual relationship that arises between learner and school–a sort of reluctant, dogged cooperation; a work-to-rule; and a general defensiveness or mutual suspicion–might be the best way to prepare us for the same kind of negative relationship we’re likely to have with our work environments.  But it is a far cry from what you need (in my opinion) to learn, and what you would get in the sorts of safe spaces you see in, say, a Reggio Emilia or Atelier model, where can be developed the kind of wonderful, risky, vulnerable, collaborative learning Lee Shulman calls a “marriage of insufficiencies.”

Fortunately, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we develop more sophisticated ways to represent the breadth of student and group learning in context, or (what is perhaps also as important) before we learn to show the potential for growth that is present in a culture or an environment. And I think it’s also only a matter of time before we grow school and work environments that are humane.

As a parable, I offer a recent parent-teacher conference experience, with the identities of participants obscured.  In this conference, the parent found his child’s first grade teachers to be amazingly gifted interpersonal perceptors (if you will)–wonderfully attuned to his child’s social development, personality, learning styles, perspective, strengths, loves, fears, challenges, successes.  The teacher’s evocation of the child-as-person-in-context was the bulk of the conversation, and the parent reported that it felt wonderful and appropriate and life-affirming.  Then there was a change. The teacher almost reluctantly drew out from a folder a sheet upon which she’d been forced to register linguistic and math “grades” (only in those two domains, I note!), and the atmosphere of the conference changed immediately from one that was generative, productive, alive, adaptive, full of hope–in short, everything good about education–to the opposite: one that hinted at a lifetime of compliance, fear, bureaucracy, guilt, and worry.

If we could have deleted the grades from that conference, it would have been thoroughly great. And that’s what I’m after. Thoroughly great stuff.