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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

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.

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”.

Of “Nostalgic Spasms”

May 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In Taming Lust, a brief study of the prosecution of bestiality in early America, Doron S. Ben-Atar uses the phrase “nostalgic spasm” to refer to a sudden shift in social norms that looks back in light of changes. Such “spasms” come in times of social change, he suggests, and demonstrates with his book how in moments of social change an older generation can grasp its power in a last-ditch attempt to stop oncoming change. It is a process we see repeated throughout history: moments of social shift occurring but only after actions of incredible bigotry and cruelty. With each change in social perspective an old view is tossed away.

Critical to these shifts are the individuals involved in making new ideas reality. Too often we look only at the actors involved with the winning side. History is, they say, written by the victors and such limited consideration is evidence of its truth. Who creates the change? Both the actors whose new ideas become enacted and the losers whose old, out-dated ideas are discarded.

In changing our social norms we look away from old ideas. In transitioning to new ideas we discard old views and shift power from those who held these views to those with new ideas. Abstraction may lead us to only view these changes from the perspective of the idea: the women’s right to vote became enacted or civil rights were extended to African-Americans. Changes, yes, but abstract ideas that only become reality when people work (and often die) to make them reality. Human beings move ideas from abstract ideas to actual policy.

Often people claim an “evolution” of thought with new ideas. The right for same-sex couples to marry is a contemporary issue where people often cite an “evolution of perspective” in explaining their delay in drawing conclusions. President Obama is one individual who has cited such evolutions. Herein is the older generation gradually coming to terms with new ideas. For some this evolution is difficult, but for others its simply too much. For those whose perspectives cannot accommodate a change in norms the “nostalgic spasm” might seem critical. Rapid action to block a social change often occur in areas where values are deeply embedded in the community. Severe punishments for crimes typically treated less severely or the creation of new, more strict rules and punishments reveal the spasm in action. Moral panic might explain their actions, but in their works we see both reaction and change. Though their fight to keep things the same hurts many, time cannot control the change. Unfortunately our greatest social changes come with painful baggage. Before we have great change we have the panic of the powerful whose last grasp for power provides them with the ability to instill a brief, painful period of suffering. Such actions are dual symbols: the older power fading and the dawning of the new ideas to come.

 

 

Locks and Maturation

March 24, 2014 Leave a comment

One model of maturation is the lock system for boat travel. Via the system, a boat moves through a series of water chambers that allow it to move directly over land despite a lack of level surface. No longer dependent on a flowing current, the boat can move quickly by flowing through the system of locks.

slowly, the boat moves further in its journey by progressing through each channel. In each chamber the boat starts near the bottom but the rises higher and makes its way forward.

Applying this model to maturation, consider the young person working through stages of experience. A child learning to drive will begin with basic steps of adjusting mirrors and the interior of the vehicle. Gradually more advanced skills are explored and conquered so that in time the individual who begins without any experience becomes capable of moving the vehicle at an incredibly rapid rate of speed.

As the boat moves through each channel its progress is individually tied to status. Likewise the child’s development is tied to personal progress. Difficulty at a certain level means the student does not progress.

This model of maturation is helpful in understanding the ideal progress of education. Learning is inherently an individual process and any system that presumes progress disregards reality. No reason exists for a student to be considered below or above grade level.

On the boat it is the sailor who is in charge of moving the boat towards its destination. For the student this guiding force begins as the parent but gradually becomes the individual. With maturation comes both the capability and responsibility to direct one’s progress.

Learning Leaders Learning

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

At its very least, effective leadership is a clarity of communication. Great leaders simply express their ideas clearly. It’s a matter of presenting distinct possibilities when they exist. Rare are the situations that possess such distinct choices; though, and it is also the role of the leader to both perceive and take advantage of them. Take, for example, the statement often linked to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Whether he actually said this or was capable of such poor use of grammatical parallelism is debatable, but my issue here is this application of distinct choice. Though the situation was complicated, Franklin curated the moment to possess these two choices. “It’s either privacy or security, people. So which one do you want?”

One such moment now arrives in contemporary society. Recent revelations of privacy violations by government agencies has led many to question whether “too much” spying is taking place. What was once thought (and claimed) as an action focused on terrorists and criminals has now been revealed to include trusted allies, celebrities and even the Pope. John Q. Public’s records have also been revealed as material worth saving, but with this collection further excuses regarding the anonymity of supposed metadata work to quash some concerns.

Would you rather trade your personal security for your right to privacy? Are you more comfortable facing the possibility of a terrorist attack than having the data of your private life collected and saved? Ultimately this is the question of our time. As shocking as it may seem, some people would rather have their data kept private and take the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack. We’ve reached this point in a post 9/11 world where our initial actions were inspired in part by our emotional reaction to the attacks. We’re older now, more removed from the initial shock, and capable of re-assessing just how much protection we want.

A great leader will recognize this critical question and pose it to the public. Though posed, we’ll also need extensive time to consider a response. Great leadership plays a role here as well: facilitating communication and creating a community of thinkers will be essential in reaching a response. Perhaps our sense of “great leadership” has changed in our contemporary society. Has technology altered what we need from leaders? Tech has certainly changed our day-to-day existence so why might its effects also extend to those we choose to lead? Perhaps our future is one where our leadership is less a figurehead and more a conduit of thinking. Maybe leadership is less the “out in front” and more the “learning side by side”.

Speaker Smarts

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

In his essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction personifies a collective population sitting at home alone watching television. His essay is a novel consideration of mass viewing which, among its many points, works to suggest that television viewing is a paradoxical experience where advertising wishes to draw the viewer out from an existence of passive viewing to one of consumerism. Wallace’s presented paradox lies here, tucked snugly with these figures locked at home, as the marketer’s work to attract customers, perhaps literally birth them from their ignorance, occurs while they remain alone at home. Ads exist in the private sphere to draw us outward and yet depend on us to be at home to take them in.

Wallace coins a term for this collected mass. He refers to them as “Joe Briefcase” and carries the character through consumerist experiences. He explicitly uses Pepsi to demonstrate the means of television advertising and presents a situation now well-considered in media studies. Beyond an exposure to branding which suggests the perks of drinking Pepsi: fun lifestyles, social populaity, etc…, Wallace also suggests that Joe’s interpretation of the advertisement is also well-crafted. For Wallace the best ad and one most reflective of our contemporary zeitgeist (mid-1990’s for Wallace), is one most richly bathed in irony. The ideal ad is one whose vapidity and stupidity make Joe question its validity. Joe feels good because he is capable of critically evaluating the ad. He breaks down the ad, he tears apart its rhetorical attempt by identifying its failures. Joe Briefcase enjoys this experience; it gives him a sense of intellectual pleasure as his critical skills give him the ability to not only recognize but tear apart its aims and goals. In essence, the ad is so dumb that Joe can break it down. He feels good because he does this and Pepsi accomplishes it’s intended goal: grab the viewer’s attention, plant the seeds of brand awareness and wait for him to shop. Wallace ends the example with a sense of personal awareness that it works- suggesting his own purchase patterns to be influenced by a daft use of irony.

Much can be taken from this observation. One might simplify the observation as nothing too profound: after all we all know that complimenting a listener is the fastest way to win them over. The best conversationalists are those who do the least amount of talking; instead, they are the one who asks the questions and sits back as the listener starts to speak. Irony rules again: our  greatest speakers, like our ads, are never those that speak the most; instead we listen most those who let us ramble on.

(Please Don’t) Live Forever

October 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Might one indicator of adulthood be the loss of interest in living forever? For the young and optimistic, life is rich with opportunity: fame and  fortune are but a day away and paradise awaits. For others, a career and responsibility have transformed one’s days to a series of chores and tasks. Weeks become less collections of opportunities and more extensive lists of needs and chores to do. When life becomes a gigantic list of tasks these is little to look forward to.

For the workers, desire shifts to rest and, if one is capable of imagining a life beyond the flesh, a world of unlimited pleasure while still desired exists beyond the human life. When this becomes the accepted state, a life that does not end is nightmare.

No matter how one sees paradise, it is the future that holds the happiness. To the young this place remains reachable in a human life. “I’ll be famous when they know” or “one day I’ll be rich” are legitimate possibilities. To the rest a life becomes a burden before death. Gifted with the possibility of heaven, some think” In heaven, I’ll be happy” and toil day-to-day with a sense of future pleasure as the goal. Potential shifts to punishment and paradise lifts higher and higher.

No matter what the age a world of bliss and endless pleasure is the goal. For some this state is within reach while for others a more ethereal destination holds the key. We all want the endless candy bars and fields of vegetation. The only grand distinction lies in how: is it here within my reach or just beyond my life. If its death that gifts desire than an endless life is just delay and one that does not end a confounding source of terror.

When In Abscence

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

A daily norm of behavior brings one into a routine of appearance and performance. You arrive at your job, do your work and leave for home. This cycle of function works to justify one’s existence. Don’t appear and the cycle is broken.  Suddenly one’s absence provides an opportunity to think again. Don’t appear and a new paradigm opens in your absence. “If he’s never here then do we need him?”

Adjustments take hold and suddenly the adjustments made to accommodate one’s absence become routine. A great hazard comes in simply not showing up. It’s often claimed that “showing up is half the battle” and indeed we can learn quite a bit from this simple phrase. People put a lot of value in the physical appearance of another. While one might be completely useless or even damaging to a situation, the sheer fact that one appears has a power to it. The act of “making an appearance” is one of the most useless, but viable evaluation on our society.

We might consider the very construction of this “making an appearance” phrase. Unpack it to see this verb of “making”. What are we creating when we appear? It is merely a physical existence in an organization? Is it merely a presence or actor playing a role that is developed.

Don’t appear and we learn to question your value. If you go away for a day we learn to work without you. Time’s progression creates a snowball of conundrum when one is not around. Oddly one’s best defense against dismissal is to simply show up. Even if one’s work is completely trivial the mere physical presence allows one to appear to be important. One may be an unused gear or even a detrimental part the machine but simply being part of the engine provides a basis to exist.

Incentivized to Action

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Maybe understanding the reasons why people do things isn’t all that difficult. Maybe we’re not as complicated as we claim to be? Do our motivations say less about who we are and more about what we stand to gain? Can we ever act without that simple question, “What’s in it for me” being at the heart of all we do? In the end, all things boil down to this simple state of affairs: what do we stand to gain in doing what we do?

To consider the incentives for action is to seek answers to this question. We do not act without incentives; though, in some cases, hidden or delayed incentives may mask our true intentions. Does one donate blood only for the good of other people? At some level that blood donor senses an incentive to give: maybe pride or maybe just a free cookie- no matter what its a personal perk that drives intention.

Of course these incentives are far from simple. Great sacrifices often accompany our actions and a simplified observation that incentives run all decisions paints a very dire, cynical image of the world. Do we limit our perspectives of society by thinking in such terms? Perhaps a better model recognizes incentives as powerful triggers and mirrors. Incentives both drive future action and mirror what makes us work.

The binary of “carrot versus stick” is often used to consider programs to drive action. Prod with the stick in the form of taxes, punishment or denied pleasure. On the other hand, the carrot here is a reward or gift for action. One who wants a group of people to stop smoking might make insurance more expensive or provide free counseling. The choice remains with leadership and depends on a philosophy of motivation. What makes people change? Is it fear of punishment or desire for reward?

Vapid Language Void of Meaning

May 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Stock phrases like “Oh my God” exist as paradoxes of communication: simultaneously functioning as communication void of meaning and divorced from the concepts contained within their form. Considered at the pure textual level, “Oh, my God” functions as a query to an almighty figure whose authority and power are on display. The speaker is stunned at some sight or event and is testifying to some unseen, all powerful force that has culled forth some unexpected reaction. Or is it?

Cliches are often defined as over-used expressions now void of meaning. Stripped of emotional power due to overuse, these phrases enter a state of unemotional stasis in a language. We use these phrases but do so without the raw emotional power suggested by their components. The majority of speakers who scream “Oh my God” are not speaking to an almighty power. For the majority of deployments this phrase is equivalent to “Wow” or “No Way!”

The force that makes a phrase popular ultimately leads to its overuse. Once commonly utilized and witnessed the phrase loses its power. We all hear it and yet we don’t. We say it but without the true power its components suggest. Overuse leads to dilution and once completed the reduction of a phrase rapidly converts a once powerful phrase to nothing more than mere sounds.

When we hear “Oh my God” do we actually comprehend what it suggests? Do we recognize its intended meaning or do we automatically dilute our consideration to match diluted status? When heard do we process under the assumption of “he doesn’t mean to appeal to God.” Does anyone hear the phrase and comprehend some sort of blasphemy or actual appeal to supernatural power? Few do because culture has stripped the phrase of meaning. It is void of power and functions less as a vehicle of what its textual ingredients suggest and more the vapid commentary we so often deploy for the mundane and the banal.

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