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Conundrums of Motivation

March 31, 2015 1 comment

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. The idiom is classic and its accuracy profound. By what method can one make another do an action? For what purpose does one choose to activate the mind? As an instructor, this challenge of motivation remains the ever-impossible problem to solve. Can the motivational riddle be solved?

Many have tried: incentives such as food and cash have been attempted with diminishing returns. Are external motivators more powerful? The avoidance of the threat certainly works for students whose parents directly influence their performance in school. But are these techniques effective in developing life long learners?

Unfortunately the problem of motivation (seemingly its deficiency and not its excess) has existed forever. For what purpose should I do this thing? The “I” remains the factor. Only when it matters does the individual act. Is it culture that determines the value of an action? Fear might play a part and likewise motivations and the avoidance of punishment. And yet for educators around the world what legitimate action can be taken to inspire another to act. One can only do so much and ultimately the student and his or her cognition remain the single driving force between inaction and the action.

Immoral Mission Creep

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

First expressed in 1953, “mission creep” is the “expansion of a mission beyond its initial goals, even after its initial success”. Though often used to refer to military campaigns, it also provides an agile perspective to assess all social movements. Sensing success and popular acceptance, a group proceeds onward with another set of goals. In business the endless “pushing forward” is the name of the game: new products are the life line of a company and successful companies are known for multiple types of products.

Unlike businesses, where a concrete “product” is created, groups dedicated to the promotion of abstract concepts also suffer mission creep. Advocates can never solve a problem: there will always be persistent crumbs of the initial target problem. For a group determined to eliminate discrimination success can only breed new missions: “We are successful, so let’s move this campaign forward.”

Unfortunately the attributes of these movements is not always associated with goals that benefit society. For every group determined to eliminate discrimination another stands determined to continue or expand the status quo abuse. Progress is an endless battle, a constant give and take between perspectives of the greater good. For the individuals working to achieve a goal there remains only constant, infinite levels of challenge.

Certainly Uncertain

January 1, 2015 Leave a comment

In the chaos of existence comes a desperate search for certainty. From vast unknowns we find discomfort and anxiety. We fear to be mistaken and the pain of our confusion births a desperate need to know.

In The Wisdom of Uncertainty, Alan Watts suggests a comfort in confusing times. “The future is not here”, he writes and urges us to pause and think. To exist within the moment is our only saving grace. Reflection is an act of creation: remembering our memories and drawing our conclusions.

Watts reminds us that existence is a tricky thing: we are gifted with extraordinary senses that sponge the world around us. From sights and sounds to smells and thoughts the composition of our minds are overflowing streams of data. And yet, despite such profound gifts we cannot draw conclusions from this information. In reality there is o certainty in what we experience: the random is the norm.

Watts recalls an event in his childhood where he desired to send his friend a package of water. Desiring to mail it so that his recipient would open it and sense the deluge, he ultimately realizes the impossibility of the process. “The trouble is to get the water into any manageable shape”, he writes. For Watts this moment provided a pivotal insight into what he terms the “attempted solutions” of human enterprise. To simplify complicated things in neatly organized packages is impossible.

Watts reminds us of the greatest human folly: suggesting a simplicity to the endless state of chaos. We are not in control, we cannot create sense because it is not there. To exist is to be a witness to the wonderment of nature. We are better served in simplicity: recognize our limitations in drawing conclusions and simply be within ourselves. To recognize the world is not to find some over-arching rule or divinity in control. We cannot know and some “supposed secret knowledge” is hidden or non-existent. The better way to live? Present and aware, sponging with our tools and living for the moment. “It is only through silence that one can find something new to talk about”.

“TV bad”, TV says.

December 29, 2014 1 comment

When we watch “Beavis and Butthead” we mirror the characters. We sit in front of a screen and watch two young men staring at a screen. This mirroring is unique: many books feature characters reading and songs will often reference music and its power to influence. The “ars poetica” is a form of poetry specifically focused on the art of poetry writing. Meta-thinking is reflective on the act of thinking.

In some forms of this “meta-art”, the art comments on itself. A dystopian television show like the UK’S “Black Mirror” warns us of technology’s development despite being the product of a complicated network of technology devices. Film and television often feature dystopian narratives that warn us of our interactions with film and television. Such “finger wagging” warnings urge we caution further development by casting narratives that suggest the dangers of “what could be”.

Are such critiques limited to film and TV? Do books exist that warn the reader of reading? Have songs been heard that warn the user of listening to music? One struggles to find examples. Film and TV are unique in their use of the medium to criticize the medium.

Devices: Self Control

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

In a September 15 article in Pacific Standard, David Destino writes on the powers of accountability and how a sense of being grateful leads to greater self control. Have a nasty habit? Crave the candy bar(s)? Destino says the best defense is thinking about the many positive features of your life.

Included in the article is the now infamous “marshmallow test” conducted by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. As part of the test, a group of children were told that by delaying gratification they would be rewarded by a doubling of the treat. A child who loved candy bars would be presented with a single bar, told he could eat it now or wait a bit and receive another, and then left alone in the room. Mischel and his coleagues watched from a distance and observed the techniques used to deny the temptation to indulge. The children used a variety of techniques: some sang songs, looked away or found some other stimulation to distract themselves from the treat. Mischel went further and continued to gather data on his participants and found that those who were capable of delaying instant gratification then went on to lead more successful adult lives: they had less debt, more stable families and a slew of other features that suggested the long term power of self control. From Mischel’s work came a sense of the importance of cultivating self control in people. Is it possible to teach self control?

Destino notes the popular belief that because self-control is so important the process of cultivating techniques to assist in self control are important to teach children. He notes movements like Alcohol Anonymous which focus less on the personal factors that lead individuals to dangerous behaviors and more on techniques to avoid the dangerous item of desire. If the item can be avoided then perhaps the individual can resist the temptation. But what can be said of the success of techniques? Are there less alcoholics in society? Is obesity now a problem we read only of in textbooks?

Far from it.

Instead we live in a world rattled by addictive temptations. From food to technology it seems our every human feature has some item designed to stimulate our pleasure. We exist in a world of plethora filled with countless ways to find just what we want.

Destino offers a second way to defend ourselves from temptation. Choose instead the path of gratitude. Consider what you have to be thankful for and focus on cultivating these benefits. He notes of programs that force an individual to do a good deed if some undesireable action occurs. Termed “pre-commitment” some common actions are an automatic donation to a charity if an expensive item is purchased. Would less people buy the latest IPhone if in purchasing it a equally priced donation was sent to a charity? Might the dreaded candy bar consumed require an hour of service at a soup kitchen? While such actions can seem cruel they do create a greater sense or accountability. We might think we know what’s best for us but faced with the myriad of temptations we are weaklings in the struggle. Studies now show that our self control is like a muscle: use it frequently and it gets sore. Destino writes of a study where subjects were more likely to commit an undesirable act after fighting the temptation for a plate of chocolate chip cookies. We get worn out, it seems, and need something outside of our brains to keep us on the course.

 

No Photos, Please

August 17, 2014 Leave a comment

The cameras are everywhere. From pockets to street corners, to concerts and games, the world is full of image and video capturing devices. One can venture into the eyes of these devices without willingly participating. Walk the dog on the trail, take a friend to a concert and one might just be photographed.

Given that one might not desire such “captures” to take place, modern technology should include an option to protect the identity of those involved. If one does not want to be captured, he or she should have the right to be blurred or distorted in some form that renders the captured image free of identifying marks.

As Native Americans were suspicious of the photograph, contemporary citizens might find similar concerns with technology of today. For whatever reason one feels uncomfortable it is to the benefit of all involved that technology work to embrace the rights of privacy and establish means to remove the unintended subjects of photography.

Symbol Drain

July 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Just as Nixon drained the symbolic power of the two-finger peace salute, figures who embrace the symbols crafted to criticize them quickly drain symbolic power. Symbols are, by definition, an object that represents something else. They are stand-ins for bigger ideas. The peace salute, the red ribbon or the complicated matrix of patriotic emblems all work to represent a larger idea or cause. Groups utilize symbols to simplify a message and create a stamp from which to mark their work. Need to make a statement quickly or refute some absurd state? The symbol is the best bet.

And while symbols hold great meaning, their power is easily drained and erased by imitation. Embraced by one who misrepresents the cause creates a static of understanding. Dilute the message and the message is defeated. For groups who seek to eliminate their opposition the keenest tactic is to not parody the other sides imagery but instead embrace it and redefine it for their own.

Herein lies the danger of the symbol’s simplicity. While powerful and direct, the symbol’s power comes only from its lack of complicated detail. By removing detail and nuance the audience does not fully receive the ideas behind the idea. It is far easier to simply stick the decal on the car or wave the random banner. Strength in numbers, yes, but once a symbol becomes common fare its power is depleted. View the countless decals of the numbers 13.1 and one begins to be less impressed by one’s bragging of athletic prowess. One must be careful when using symbols: powerful when limited but easily depleted, our symbols are less our greatest bullets and more a sharpened jab to the brain. We may strike with solid fervor but with every continued strike the punch becomes better known and the opposition’s ability to counterattack or even disregard becomes all the more easy.

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