Storytelling – The cave

telling stories

There is a lot written today about the power of storytelling and how it can help persuade, influence and of course educate. Stories come in many shapes and sizes, sometimes they are true, but might be embellished, sometimes they are not true but include powerful messages hidden in the form of metaphor or allegory.

The simplest definition of a story is that “one thing happens in consequence of another,” and it can engage, motivate and inspire. But cognitively the brain is working very hard forming connections, asking questions, creating images and helping offer up opinion.

“If you want your children to be smart, tell them stories. If you want them to be brilliant, tell them more stories.” Albert Einstein.

Below is an allegory, arguably one of the most important in the whole of western philosophy, but its message for educators and students is sometimes lost. It’s called Plato’s cave, read it carefully, thinking about what it might mean.

Plato’s cave
Plato caveAlthough Plato is the author, it is Socrates who is the narrator talking to Plato’s elder brother Glaucon.
The story told is of a group of people who from birth have been chained up in a cave with their heads fixed in one direction so they can only look forward. They face a cave wall on which they can see moving images, shadows that they believe to be reality. Socrates’s explains that when the prisoners, because that is what they are, talk to each other they discuss the shadows as if they were real. But they are an illusion, created by shadows of objects and figures played out in front of a fire, manipulated by the puppeteers.

Socrates goes on to say that one of the prisoners breaks free of his chains and is forced to turn around and look at the fire, the light hurts the prisoner’s eyes but as they adjust, he can see the fire and the puppets he had believed to be real. He doesn’t want to go any further fearing what it might bring but once more is forced to go towards the mouth of the cave and into the blazing sunlight.

At first, he can only look at the reflections because as with the firelight the sun is too bright but as his eyes adjust once more, he finally looks at the sun, only then “is he able to reason about it” and think what it could mean. His thoughts are interrupted by the sorrow he feels for his fellow prisoners who have not seen what he has, have not learned the truth. So, he goes back into the cave to tell them everything. But when the prisoners look at him, they see a man stumbling, strained, no longer able to see in the dark cave. But worse when he begins to explain they think him dangerous because what he tells them is so different to what they know.

The prisoners do not want to be free, the effort is too great, the pain and apparent disability sufficient to stop them trying. They are content in their own world of ignorance and will fight anyone who wants to change that.

But what does that mean?
The answer of which should be, well what do you think it means? But sometimes you just don’t have time for that answer so here is one interpretation, it’s worth pointing out there are many.

  • The puppeteers are those in power or authority. They prefer it if people don’t ask questions, remain content and are not causing trouble.
  • The fire is knowledge and wisdom.
  • The prisoners are society.
  • The escaped prisoner is the student. The student who through education escapes and finds answers.
  • The person that frees the student and drags him towards the light is the teacher.

If we put this all together, it gives us an insight into learning that has remained unchanged since Plato wrote the Republic in which this story sits in 514a–520a.

Learning is not easy, it can be difficult and hard work. Some people are happy to remain as they are, ignorant, after all it’s not pleasant having your beliefs challenged and finding out that what you thought was true in fact isn’t. Teachers can help take you towards knowledge and learning but you need to want it for yourself, and once you have knowledge you can’t go back to what you were before, education will have changed you forever.

To find out more about the power of stories watch this video – The rules to telling a story by the Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story,” “WALL-E”)

Plato’s cave at the movies

The Matrix and Plato’s Cave – Neo meets Morpheus and explains he is a slave

The Truman Show – Truman shows bravery by going towards the light

 

Engaged

There are a number of terms that crop up continually in learning, motivation, attention, inspiration, concentration, curiosity etc. But one that is becoming increasingly important especially for those students studying online, is engagement.

Many of the above terms are closely related and often used in the same sentence, but by taking some of them we can make an attempt at defining engagement – the degree of attention, curiosity, interest and passion demonstrated when learning.

Types of engagement

However when you look into any subject in detail it’s never as easy as you first thought. Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris identified three types or as they called them dimensions of engagement:

1. Behavioural engagement e.g. attendance, involvement and absence of disruptive or negative behaviour.

2. Emotional engagement e.g. interest, enjoyment, or a sense of belonging.

3. Cognitive engagement e.g. invested in learning, seek to go beyond the requirements and relish a challenge. A cognitively engaged student can become unaware of time and will be capable of taking the subject matter outside its context, form new connections and begin asking questions in order to ensure they have fully understood.

In simple terms an engaged student is physically, emotionally and mentally present.

Why is it important?

There is a large body of evidence that shows correlation between high levels of engagement and a number of desirable learning based outcomes, for example improved critical thinking, cognitive development, skills transfer, self-esteem, deeper understanding and better *exam results. It’s also worth adding that an engaged student is more likely to complete the course.

If you are not engaged, then what are you doing?

Engagement clearly helps students learn more effectively but it is also closely linked to motivation. In fact the expression motivated and engaged are sometimes used as if they were the same, but there is a subtle difference. I have written about motivation many times and unlike engagement tends to be more long term, possibly internal and certainly goal orientated. You can of course be engaged but not motivated, for example engaged in an activity, perhaps concentrating and interested but it’s not a topic or subject that you feel is important and have no long term need or desire to find out more. Engagement is the response to an external and immediate satisfaction, entertainment, curiosity, or recognition.

How to engage – for the teacher

As with motivation, it’s better to be engaged than not, so before we answer the question, what can teachers do to engage their students, it’s worth noting the role of the student, if you sit with your arms folded thinking of something else, you won’t engage.

  • Make it relevant – outline before you start why this topic is important for your audience. How is this online session going to help the students achieve their objectives, try to be specific.
  • Use real world examples – related to the above, a real world example can help the student appreciate the importance of what they are learning, i.e. if it’s used in the real world it must work. This may result in the student asking questions internally as to how it might work in their organisation or concluding that it will not.
  • Positive reinforcement – praise may sometimes feel artificial and of course should not be given all of the time, but recognising the difficulty of a task and congratulating everyone for doing well is both motivational and engaging.
  • Build rapport – use student names to help personalise the process. Break down barriers by saying what you personally find difficult, and perhaps why. If you can empathise with the student it helps build rapport, which makes it more likely they will listen and follow your advise.
  • Inspire – not everyone will think of themselves as inspirational but in some ways it takes very little, a simple story that means something to you can do the trick. Simon Sinek suggests that inspirational leaders know their WHY, they know why the are doing something. Ask what’s your why, and it’s not just because it’s your job, it’s because it’s your passion and fits with your personal beliefs.
  • Inclusive activities – plan for a number of activities that will encourage the group to engage with each other, the subject matter and you. These can be as simple as asking questions, setting quizzes, polls, or more involved, such as break out groups. Importantly the activities should not be easy, they need to be challenging, bored students are not engaged.
  • Manage and facilitate, don’t tell, ask – try to get the students thinking, ask them why, do you all agree, is there an alternative answer? It’s also a good idea to encourage students to think and believe in themselves, to become independent and autonomous learners.

And one last tip, make it short and don’t go on too long or labour a point, there is a danger your students will disengage!

Which is probably my queue to bring this to an end and wish you all a Merry Xmas.

*improved grades (Astin 1977, 1993; Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research 2002; Pike, Schroeder & Berry 1997; Tross, Hpersistencearper Osher & Kneidinger 2000)

Boring is interesting

One of the reasons a subject might be difficult to learn is because its just very boring…….but is any subject really boring?

boredom11

Why do we get bored?

Firstly, we should define what boredom is, surprisingly for something that many people have experienced and therefore feel they know, definitions are a little vague, for example, from the dictionary we have, “the feeling of being bored by something tedious”, which is not particularly helpful. If we dig a little deeper we find “the aversive experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity” or put another way, what you are currently doing is not sufficiently stimulating such that your mind will wander looking for a more satisfying alternative task.

The brain is in effect searching for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control your reward and pleasure centres. The implication being that the task you are currently involved with is not delivering enough dopamine for you to continue with it. There is some evidence to show that people with low levels of dopamine production may get bored easily, continually looking for new and more stimulating activities. This so called “trait boredom” has been linked to dropping out of school, higher levels of anxiety, gambling and alcohol/drug abuse.

Boredom is an emotion often brought on by routine, monotonous and repetitive work that has little perceived value.

The opposite of boredom is engagement

On the basis that being bored is not a particularly good emotion when it comes to learning we should look to change it by becoming more engaged. One small but important point before we move on, being bored is not completely without its uses, watch this TED lecture – How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas, presented by Manoush Zomorodi. In this Manoush argues that because the brain is searching for stimulation when bored, it can lead to increased creativity and great ideas.

An interesting way of thinking of engagement is that it’s what you see when someone is motivated.  This is important if you want to pass an exam because there is evidence (Wang & Eccles, 2012a) to show that students who are engaged are more likely to do well in examinations and aspire to higher education.

But what to do?

  • Recognise that you are feeling bored. This is the first step because if you don’t know your bored its easy to build up a deep dislike for the subject, and when you do that the answer becomes easy. It’s not my fault, it’s the subject that’s boring.
  • Your subject needs to be meaningful. Students often say, “I will never use what I have to learn.” This is of course an opinion; the truth is you simply don’t know. I can still remember thinking I would never need to understand the Capital Asset Pricing Model (a formula used in Financial Management to calculate shareholder returns) little did I know one day I would actually teach it.
  • Be curious, keep thinking, “that’s interesting”. Nothing is really boring it’s only the way you are looking at it. Curiosity is a state of mind that fortunately has is no cure.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.    Ellen Parr

  • Make it fun or turn the activity into a game.  There is no doubt that during your studies there will be a need to rote learn information and because this is a repetitive task it can be boring. But if you break up what you have to learn into bite size chunks and turn it into a game with rewards e.g. if I learn these 4 definitions by 6.00 I can finish for the day, you will be amazed how much easier it can become.
  • Find people who are engaged and ask them to explain what they see, why do they find it interesting. This might be necessary if your teacher or lecturer fails to bring the subject to life, fails to engage you in the subject. Interest and engagement are contagious, unfortunately so is boredom.
  • Its too easy – its too hard. Your boredom might come from the fact that what your learning is basic, if so ask for more advanced work, I know that sounds counter intuitive but you will benefit in the long run. And if its too hard, speak to your teacher, they will be able to help. This is an example of taking control, often boredom strikes when you feel there is nothing you can do, sitting waiting for a train that has been delayed. By taking some form of control e.g. checking alternative routes home, the boredom will pass.

And if you want to find out more

Why Do We Get Bored? 

On the Function of Boredom

The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention

What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset

failure-sucess

Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.

Mindset

The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

And the badge goes to …….

la-la-land

And the winner is ……La La land……..you have to feel a little sorry for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at this year’s Oscars, after all they only read out what was on the card, which is kind of what actors do. And I have to share some of the responsibility, it does seem as if my own profession played no small part in the mistake.

But what is it that makes 3,500 of the most well paid, successful people in their industry give up an evening to watch, on the whole other people receive an award. And why does anyone want an Oscar or the Academy Award of Merit to give its correct name, after all it’s only a 13.5-inch badge, and it’s not even gold.

Why do people want badges?

Perhaps we can answer this question by taking a closer look at gamification, the use of game based incentives in education of which I have written before. PBL (Points, badges and leader boards) is the term most often used to describe some of the elements within games that make them so compelling and worthy of further investigation.

Points and leader boards are perhaps self-explanatory but what is it about the badge, why do people like/want them? They are of course not new, teachers have awarded good students with a star for an excellent piece of work for years, the Scouts offer a whole range of badges when certain skills have been demonstrated, and those with qualifications will proudly display letters after their name as if in some way it mattered. The point is of course, it does.

Social psychologist and research scientist Judd Antin together with Elizabeth Churchill, collaborated on a paper called “Badges in Social Media: A Social Psychological Perspective” antin-churchill. There work helps shed some light on the value of badges.

The 5 Primary Functions of badges

Antin and Churchill suggested that badges could serve several individual and social functions depending on the nature of the activities that the badge rewarded and the application of the badge in a particular context.

  1. Goal setting – desire is the first part, you have to want or need something. But then the best way of satisfying that desire is to make it into a goal, planning the smaller steps that will help you get there.  Wanting the badge is motivational.
  2. Instruction – badges are instructive, showing the individual what is available and most valued. This may help direct learning and move students out of their silos as they see what else they might work towards. E.g. giving a badge for the student who attempts more questions might encourage others to do the same.
  3. Reputation – badges are a physical means of storing experience, expertise and interest. In fact, some argue that badges will replace CV’s in the future as they are a more dynamic and current record of what an individual has achieved and a means of measuring their reputation.
  4. Status/affirmation – badges advertise past achievements, and communicate accomplishments without you having to say anything. They are also a form of personal affirmation, confirming to yourself that you are successful. When studying becomes more challenging its possible self-doubt might creep in, maybe when you get to this point you might want to look at your past achievements, and a badge is a great way of storing past success.
  5. Group identification – badges are clear indications that you belong to a certain group or club, you are the same as someone else and so will be accepted by them. Are you a qualified accountant, if so you must be the same as me. A classic example of social ranking.

Antin and Churchill go on to suggest that badges don’t work for everyone and more research should be undertaken in different contexts to explore the circumstances in which badges are the most effective. But on the whole badges offer an incredibly simple and motivational way of changing behaviors, and getting people to take action rather than not.

A unique badge

La La land will of course never get the ultimate badge, the Oscar, but in years to come it may achieve something far more important, a unique badge that is unlikely to be given to anyone else. The badge that everyone will remember who didn’t win the Oscar for best picture in 2017.

True Grit – Passion and persistence

True Grit“They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.” So says Mattie Ross in the 1969 film True Grit staring John Wayne. But what exactly does the young Mattie Ross actually mean, what is grit?

Well maybe Angela Duckworth can answer this, she is the author of a book called, Grit, the power of passion and perseverance.

IQ, EQ and Grit

Many will be familiar with IQ (The Intelligent Quotient). It was developed by Alfred Binet around 1911. Not to measure intelligence so that individuals can demonstrate superiority over others, but to identify under performers so that remedial action could take place. Then in 1995 Daniel Goleman wrote about the Emotional Quotient (EQ) or Emotional Intelligence. The idea that individuals can recognise their own, and other people’s emotions, discriminate between different feelings and use this emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour. This idea has enjoyed some success and helped people shift their focus towards valuing something other than simply being clever.

Grit in a way makes a similar point. If we took at a group of highly successful individuals, what qualities would they have, what would it be that made them so successful? Would it be intelligence, maybe a high EQ or is it something else. Angela Duckworth found that it was grit, which she defines as having a passion and persistence for long term goals.

Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.’

Gritty people work hard, but they are doing this with a long term goal in mind.  They also find their work meaningful, important and interesting.

I’ve never interviewed someone who was truly world class in what they do, who didn’t say in the first five minutes “I love what I do”.

You can become grittier

To learn how to become “more gritty” we need to bring in Carol Dweck. A professor of psychology from Stanford University. Dweck coined the phrase a growth mind set and identified two groups of people. One those who believe their success is based on innate ability, a fixed mindset and two, those who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness a growth mindset.

The logic being that you are more likely to develop grit if you have a growth mindset. This is because if you fail, rather than giving up, you see it as a learning experience and continue to work hard towards your long term goal. Dweck even uses the term doggedness, often described as someone who has an obstinate determination or persistence.

Grit and exam success

I would argue that examination success has far less to do with intelligence and more to do with grit. This is not to say that passing an exam does not require intelligence just that along the way most will face some form of failure and having a growth mindset together with a large dollop of grit is more likely to result in success.

Think about the following:

  • You don’t have to be the cleverest person to pass the exam
  • It is possible to learn most things – if you work hard
  • It’s a marathon not a sprint – failing an exam can be a setback but that’s all, pick yourself up and carry on
  • Be clear what your long term goal is – three years to pass an exam is a long time but your goal is probably much longer. Passing the exam is only part of the journey
  • You may not at first find the work meaningful, but almost everything you learn can be interesting

Find out your grit score

If you would like to find out what your grit score is then click here, it will take less than a minute and you get immediate feedback.

John Wayne also said

Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.

A growth mindset perhaps.

27 Million People per day can’t be wrong – Gamification

League of LegendsThe statistics are astonishing, as of January 2014, over 67 million people play League of Legends per month, 27 million per day, and over 7.5 million concurrently during peak hours. And if your good at it the prize money for winning the world championship might get you to question your chosen profession, it was $2.3m in 2014 and 2015. Playing an on-line game is part of daily life for many people.

This blog is “of course” not about League of Legends. In fact I have to admit I had never heard of it, just shows how far out of touch you can become with popular culture. It’s not even about the gaming industry which is said to be worth £3.9 bn to the UK economy, it’s about a growing and fascinating area of learning called gamification.

Gamification is the use of game mechanics (rules, design and tools) in a non game context to better engage and motivate learners to achieve a desired objective. There are two types, structured, where you are looking to propel a learner through content and reward them for the desired behaviours and content driven where the game is the content i.e. the learner is a character in the game and is required to undertake tasks that are in turn rewarded.

Gamification techniques – Game mechanics

Games are not of course all the same but they do have similar characteristics, these “techniques” can then be used in a non game context i.e. a learning context. The idea being that if they engage and motivate the gamer, they will do the same for the student.  Games need some form of measurement to assess performance and a reward to act as an incentive.  Below is a note of some of the measurements and rewards used in gaming but could be adapted for learning.

  • Points – Used to keep score
  • Badges – visual stamps that are awarded to users on certain achievements and are normally displayed in their header and profile page
  • Levels – shows ranking and progress
  • Leader boards – a high score that is displayed for all to see
  • Rewards – not a badge but something tangible e.g. money….

Personal gamification

You don’t need to spend millions developing a game to get the benefits from gamification, and its not all about beating others, here are a few tips.

  • Set up a points system – identify the activities that will help you achieve your goal e.g. spend 2 hours each evening studying, 10 points. Answer 2 questions each evening, 20 points. Attempt the mock exam, 40 points. Score 50%, 80 points etc. Keep a running total of your points in a place that you can see when you study
  • Levels – Only move onto the next chapter or session when you have the desired points
  • Leader board – Keep a note of your highest score from the other subjects
  • Rewards – The best part. Set up a series of rewards e.g. a night off, go for a run, have a glass of wine, bar of chocolate etc. Increase the rewards as gaining the points becomes more difficult. If you beat your leader board score, then your rewards can be even greater, maybe a day out shopping/at the football etc. Why not ask others to contribute to the reward, if I get to the top of my leader board how about you buy me dinner. You will be surprised how many people, friends and family will effectively sponsor you.Other brands are available....

And finally tell your friends what you have done, “just eating a massive bar of chocolate which was my reward for scoring 80 points on my study game.”

Of course you might get fat doing this, but don’t worry there is another game that can help – it’s called weight watchers…..

Technology can help

As ever technology can help, check out this app HabitRPG – Click