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25 January: Motivation and Meta-learning

26 January 2011

I’ll try to keep this post a little more manageable than the last one! (Later note: sorry, only 200 words fewer!)

Sorry that Alex wasn’t with us; I was in two minds as to whether to refer to our discussion in his absence, but since it didn’t criticise his work, but arose out of it, I judged it fair, and no doubt he will follow up next week if he disagrees. The main point emerging was the significance of relevance to students’ experience at (a) below.

Not in chronological order;

Pink Post-its:

Almost unanimity on the pink post-its; you didn’t understand Bateson! Frankly, don’t bother about it/him; I find his ideas helpful, but if they don’t ring bells for you, then don’t spend time on them. That’s a good principle for the course in general and all the stuff you will be exposed to–different people make use of different frameworks and models to make sense of experience and practice. It’s not exactly free choice–some ideas are rubbish and can hinder practice, and some really pay off well for most people/disciplines/areas of practice–but the fact that something is mentioned does not mean that you are obliged to “learn” it and make use of it.

Even so, if you do want a bit more explanation, see

While the particular features of Bateson’s model do not matter much, what does make a difference is his understanding of different kinds of learned behaviour–superficial, trivial and ephemeral at one end of the scale, and “changing everything” at the other. We were concentrating more yesterday on the latter; deeply ingrained features such as the way you think of yourself and your capabilities…

If you’ll put up with another model, there is an analogy (it’s no more than that) with the sociological idea of “role”, as described here: Some learning is like the “independent” or “incidental” roles which you adopt and drop from minute to minute; but at the other end of the scale there are basic roles which have profound implications for large areas of your life, and changing them is difficult if not impossible. Learning at that level is of the “if I believe that then…” nature…

…which brings us on to the “creating change” theme. The pink notes also requested more on learning curves; there’s a little here:

But what I was going on about in the final few minutes was about the impact of supplantive learning and the challenge of maintaining motivation, and that is discussed fairly fully here:, and if that is too much, rather more briefly here: You may recognise some of the diagrams in those papers.

(Full disclosure: the references are dated and the argument may be difficult to find elsewhere in the literature, but this is based on my PhD research, so I may be making more of it than it is worth. But it was prompted by my own teaching experience.)

We shall return to learning curves later, in any event.

From the Reading Groups:

You recognised that motivation is critically important: it can overcome all kinds of obstacles and make up for poor facilities and even poor teaching. It’s a simple point but in practical terms it matters; when you see it leeching away, drop everything and try to get it back.

And you emphasised that relevance is the key; connect with experience as much as possible. We didn’t discuss it in these terms, but see: (a)

A theme both groups latched on to was Carol Dweck’s “self-theories” (see below for citation, and here and here [by Petty] for web introductions. And here for her home page at Stanford.) We discussed a couple of emergent points;

  • These are the kinds of beliefs which may be difficult to change, but have profound implications if they do.
  • They only really become influential under conditions of adversity, difficulty, and failure.
  • The labels Dweck uses are variable, which can be confusing.

We’ll deal with IQ separately later.


(Emily’s point) Here: I haven’t actually followed up on all the leads, but it includes a reference to Rep. Giffords’ prospects for recovery after the Tucson shooting.  That is also discussed here.

I’ve been searching for appropriate links concerning her point about synaptic transmissions and long-term potentiation, and to date I haven’t found anything pitched quite right which does not have an axe to grind. No doubt we’ll come back to this when we think about memory next week.

We didn’t talk about:

“Motivational Hygiene”: Frederick Herzberg’s idea that net motivation stems from the balance between active motivators and “demotivators” or “hygiene factors”–for a little more detail see:

The point this raises is the importance of identifying what factors–in the experience of your students–serve quietly to sap and undermine their motivation and enthusiasm. Diminishing the potency of those factors may well count for more than trying to whip up their positive motivation.

Blue post-its (points you can apply to teaching):

  • “My students are very often ‘unlearning’ material before they learn a new approach. I’ll be more aware of the ‘dip/trough’ and step in to motivate them.”
  • “Be aware of levels of learning–motivate!”
  • “The different levels of learning; make it relevant!”   “Making learning relevant by putting outcomes into context at start of lesson.”  “…the necessity to give students the reason for learning in order to motivate them.”
  • “Tell students that they have worked hard when giving feedback, rather than ‘you are really good at that!'” “Praise for putting effort in, not for being naturally good at something.”
  • “Watching students learn to see them hitting the ‘wall’, to help them through it.!

I thought of commenting, “Good stuff!” (because it is). But then I thought it might be patronising for adult learners… And then I thought I might just share the thought and see what you made of it.

For next week:

Sorry about the mix-up on the earlier handouts. I thought I had got it right, but as ever it is not until you try it out that you find where it can go wrong…

  • If you only have a minute or two, go to which summarises the points for next week.
  • Zull ch. 5 if you can get hold of it, and/or…
  • The main section of the chapter on memory in any A level or undergrad psychology textbook. Gross is a good one—any edition this century, and/or…
  • Curzon (2003; 6th edn) ch. 16 or similar chapter in similar book (Reece and Walker barely mention it), and/or…
  • If you are serious, Rose S (1993) The Making of Memory London; Bantam Books (dated though it is)

Books referred to:

Carr N (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember London; Atlantic Books (and the issue about gypsies and their suspicions of literacy can be listened to here.)

Dweck C S (2000) Self-theories; their role in motivation, personality and development Hove; Taylor and Francis (shelved at 155.2 DWE in the library. Read the first three chapters and the first few paragraphs of the others.)

Ehrenreich B (2009) Smile or Die; how positive thinking fooled America and the World London; Granta Books

Seligman M E P (1975) Helplessness: depression, development and death New York: W H Freeman (also discussed here:

See you Tuesday, but I may post again before then if I am sufficiently motivated 🙂

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