Monthly Archives: July 2009

Let’s diss incentives: why potential rewards are killing your creativity

Yesterday I got a good start on the day. I was working by about 8:20am, getting right into that early-morning productivity groove.

And then, at pretty much 11:20am on the nose, I fell out of it. Like, gone — and you know it’s not coming back.

Cut to the other day at work. Big meeting. Big meeting. One of those once-a-year, this-is-where-life-changing-decisions-get-made specials. We were discussing productivity, because as a school — as an institution — we need to publish more research. The bottom line is that research funding, not student numbers, is increasingly going to be where we get our money from. And, you know, most of us only have about 15-20% of our time allocated for research (not 50% or higher, as is the case at some other institutions). That’s tricky when we compete against colleagues at those institutions to get our work published; level playing field, it ain’t.

But we are where we are, and we have to make the best of that. So: productivity.

At this übermeeting, the excellent suggestion was made that staff try to ring-fence, for doing research, those times when they are at their most productive. Having tried that myself this year, I now know that my best times are between about 7 and 11am, and then again between 4 and 7pm. Oh, and also between about 10:30pm and midnight. (Not exactly compatible with the traditional working day, is it? You see why it took me so long to figure out how to get anything done.)

So, great: time freed up. Let’s do stuff, already.

Except that it’s 11:20am, and I’ve lost all focus. This is a very vulnerable time of day for me, productivity-wise; I need an incentive. Okay, so focus. Potential rewards of writing this paper include fame and adulation … No, seriously — it beefs up my CV and potentially buys me more research hours next year. Who wouldn’t want to sit down and get that paper published?

But … (you just knew there was a ‘but’)

Matthew Taylor writes about why cash makes you stupid sometimes. In sum, research suggests that giving people a financial incentive to solve complex problems actually makes them perform worse. [Edit: and more evidence just popped up in my inbox. ]When there’s something at stake, even if it’s as simple as losing a thing you didn’t even have in the first place, creativity goes to hell in a handbasket. The sheer potential of what could be is enough to make many of us lose our nerve.

Of course, the reward doesn’t have to be financial — just attractive. So, that paper I’m supposed to be writing? Not so much. Instead, hand-wringing. Fear of failure. Olympic-quality procrastination.

I’ve written before about how constraints allow creativity to flourish. And what is a conditional reward if not a constraint, right? Albeit a time- or outcome-specific one.

That may be true when you’re in flow, but when you’re at a low point in your productivity cycle, incentives are the enemy of creativity. They just sit there looming over you, putting you off. “You must know the answer, surely? Oh, come on!” It’s like having your very own Jeremy Paxman.

In the end, after several hours spent doing everything except the one thing I really needed to, I solved my productivity problem by going back (again) to 43 Folders, and finding what I needed: the dash. Half an hour of ten-minute timers later, my analysis was done. I love 43 Folders*.

Conclusion: when you know you’re not at your best, don’t focus on the reward; just knowing it’s there will eat you alive. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Repeatedly.

(The more driven and confident among you are probably wondering what the big deal is, here: “If you need to do something, just get on with it, right?” Sorry, maybe I should have said at the start: this post isn’t for you — though I think I want to be you when I grow up. But thanks for reading anyway :o)

* Seriously, go there if you get stuck, and Merlin Mann will kick your ass. For free!

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How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

It’s the weekend. Other couples tour Ikea, visit garden centres, wipe chocolate ice-cream off their children’s faces. My husband and I debate whether or not it matters that people don’t understand what a browser is.*

My argument is that if they can’t tell the difference between a browser and search engine technology, that’s just good design. Browsers, search engines … who cares what they’re called, so long as everyone knows how to use them?

His argument is People who don’t understand the simple fundamentals of the technology they use are only ever going to scratch the surface of what they can do with it. The full benefits of technology shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, but of the many, and people need to take responsibility for learning about this stuff.

Of course, we’re both kind of right … so we throw some ideas around, iron out wrinkles in the discussion. He can’t believe that people might not be interested in how their technology actually works; I point out that a lack of understanding of basic physics never stopped anyone from enjoying radio, television, or a movie.

And then he drops the bomb.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the benefits that have accrued from understanding of new technologies. For example …”

By the time he gets to ‘accrued’ in the first sentence, I’ve lost it. “What?

“It’s not that complicated,” he says. (My husband is frequently smarter than I am, and most of the time he knows whether I am genuinely lost or just being an intellectual slob.)

“It is if you don’t know what the idea at the end of the sentence is,” I say, miffed. “If I’d been reading your sentence, I could have gone back and parsed it again. But this … there were like four abstract concepts before it even began meaning anything.”

“Huh,” says my husband.

“You totally overloaded my working memory!” I say.

My husband, who is used to comments like this by now, says nothing.

“It’s the curse of knowledge,” I tell him.

“It’s what?”

The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

“Okay,” says my husband. (Not “What?” or “It was just a sentence,” or “Do you have to bring your work home with you?” Reader, this is why I married him.)

There is a pause.

“I think,” he says, “I think I tend to do that a lot, because I like making people laugh, and the punchline always has to go at the end.”

He considers it for a moment. “The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be overestimated.”

“Perfect.” And we go about our day.

There was a point to this story, beyond confirming your suspicions that my husband and I are perhaps not the sort of people you want at your dinner party. The point is simply this:

Give your audience some context from the outset, or you will lose them immediately. This applies in general, but especially if the information you want to convey is complex or abstract.

And never underestimate the curse of knowledge.

* My favourite bit of the video is the guy at around 1:19 who says he uses Firefox “… because my friend came over to my house and erased all my other browsers and installed it and said ‘you’re using this now.'”

[Edit: My husband wasn’t entirely satisfied with how I had represented his argument, so I’ve reworded that section since this was first posted.]

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The McDonaldization of technology in education – do you want slides with that?

ICICTE is all about people who use technology in education. This is a pretty broad aegis, which I think is great — highly specialist conferences sometimes seem in danger of disappearing up their own abstracts.

So I went along to ICICTE last week to tell people about our work with lecture slides and lecturers’ attitudes to slides, but conferences are all about the exchange of ideas, and I spent most of my visit listening to other people talk about their work.

I’m always fascinated to watch others interact with slideware and their audience, and the breadth of experiences that ensue. Standing up, sitting down, talking around the slides, reading out bits from slides, skipping over the slides. One sentence per slide; 21 lines of dense text (yes, I am sad enough to count). Ten slides, forty slides; both for a 12-minute presentation. Once they know what my research involves, people sometimes get a bit twitchy about their own slides (now I think about it, not unlike the reaction when you tell them you’re a psychologist — apparently I’m building a career on making people nervous), but I try not to be judgemental: variety is the spice of life — and anyway, someone might turn my results upside-down tomorrow.

One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Kevin Burden, who talked about furthering educators’ personal and professional development using ICT. He talked about the need to filter technology by its qualities and suitability for the task at hand: for example, blogging is a great way to promote teacher reflection, but might not be such a great tool for peer interaction. Essentially, he was promoting mindful use of technology.

Mindful use of technology is a real issue in education. Kevin’s approach is much more considered than the kind often taken by institutions, which have the amazing ability to issue blanket edicts (e.g., “Thou Shalt Use Blackboard”) without necessarily considering whether it’s in the best interests of the staff or students involved. I have nothing against Blackboard, and I support wholeheartedly the emergence of VLEs, but I sometimes think their implementation would be better left to relevant teaching staff. (Then again, to get everyone on board, sometimes you just have to legislate, because nature abhors cognitive dissonance)

Kevin’s talk got me thinking — again — about use of visual aids in teaching, and why people started using software like PowerPoint in the first place. Obviously it looked much better, more professional, than scrawled or photocopied overhead transparencies — and, like other new media, it was easily editable, copyable and redistributable. All great reasons for adopting a new technology.

But how many people used the jump from one form of technology to another to pause for a moment and reflect on whether these visual aids were always the right tools for the job?

Not very many; we see that now in the near-ubiquitous use of electronic slides to support lectures. So prevalent is the notion that lectures must have slides that when students miss a lecture, they don’t ask what we covered: they ask for a copy of the slides. To students, the slides are the lecture.

Which does make me wonder what value anyone thinks we’re adding by standing there at the front and clicking now and again to make the slides transition.

Simon Schurville, in his ICICTE keynote,* discussed the massification and McDonaldization of higher education: the idea that to deliver the same experience to so many, a very simple, identical, easily-replicable product is required. He asked, Is this really what we want higher education to be like?

I thought about the McDonaldization of lecture slides. Do we honestly want students’ experience of university, the world over, to consist of staring at yet another mindless set of bullet-points? Do we really want to foster the expectation that a lecture is not a lecture unless every point is clearly laid out in 24-point Times New Roman, up there on the screen and right there in front of you in all its dead-tree reproduced glory?

In short, do you really want slides with that?

* Sadly, Simon was taken ill a couple of days before the conference; the keynote was delivered in his absence by Greg Anderson and Raymond Welch.

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Harvey: why every educator needs a pet pain in the ass

My friend Harvey is in the enviable position of being an instructor and having a job in the real world. (He insists he’s not an academic, but among his many other talents, he’s a damn fine educator.)

Harvey is routinely upset by the extent to which ostensibly prosaic ideas about education are treated as revolutionary. For example, I was tweeting about George Papandreou‘s speech at ICICTE, and how he was evangelising the need to empower people to understand and use technology, and the need to educate them about how to evaluate information and judge its authenticity. It was basic reportage; this guy might be Greece’s next Prime Minister — his father served as PM, by the way, so there’s precedent — and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the intersection of education and technology. Asher Rospigliosi summarises the key points here.

I thought Papandreou talked a good game; nothing very new, to a conference of people already sold on the adoption of technology in education, but he expressed himself very clearly and seemed to have genuine commitment to change. He gave a brief nod to Barack Obama when he said that it was important to educate people about the coming changes and the responsibilities those would bring (he did explicitly mention Obama, though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering whether Greece’s leader of the opposition is also a secret Spider-man fan).

So I tweeted some of the key points of George Papandreou’s address, and Harvey was all, like, “Yeah, and? This ain’t rocket-science.” (I paraphrase; I think his original tweet used the phrase “bleedin’ obvious”.)

This comes on the back of conversations with Harvey in which he was dismayed to learn that educators do not routinely make deliberate use of narrative in structuring their lessons; that they are not all aware of the complex attentional demands created by having to read dense text off slides during a lecture; that they are not, in short, necessarily all that educated about attention and learning, outside their own subject areas.

So by now you’re probably thinking that Harvey is a royal smart-ass and world-class know-it-all, right?

Well, yeah.

But the thing with Harvey is that he’s way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting narrative in his teaching, encouraging student interaction, making appropriate and minimalist use of visual aids, etc. Much of this is surely down to his non-traditional background and subject specialism, but a substantial chunk of it is absolutely down to his being a professional pain in the ass.

And I love it.

Because, when Harvey points out that this stuff is, to use his terminology, bleedin’ obvious, it encourages me to test the things he take for granted, to be able to demonstrate empirically that they work. I work in science, and we’re all about evidence; pretty soon now I hope to publish a paper on why minimalist slides are so important for learning, and then I can approach my colleagues and say “Look: here are the numbers. This really works.”

Critically, I know the concepts I’m championing are not in widespread use right now, else educational conferences wouldn’t keep inviting me to present my work. (Okay, so really, there’s nothing new under the sun; but maybe these ideas need to be recycled once in a while — we’re certainly in need of them right now as we struggle to avoid being derailed by the very technology we seek to promote.)

What I’m trying to say is this: having my ass kicked on a regular basis about the fundamentals of teaching, by someone with a bit of objectivity, galvanises me to educate my colleagues — because if I’m learning anything from my travels in educational research, it’s that there are many educators out there to whom this stuff is often far from obvious.

Thank you, Harvey; education needs more pains in the ass like you.

[This article has been edited since its original posting; this is what happens when your posting deadline is the lifespan of your laptop battery.]

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Lessons from Trainersville

Yesterday I ran my first ever day-long training workshop.

I’ve done plenty of workshops before, and written my own material, but this was the first time I’d ever planned, written and delivered an entire day on my own, start to finish: a big brain-dump of (nearly) everything I know and think about information presentation.

It didn’t start well. The venue, the British Psychological Society‘s offices in Leicester, was about 120 miles from where I live; all the advice you ever read about training events is “know your venue”, but I’d never been there before. I arrived with an hour to spare and found that the room we’d been allocated, for 21 workshop participants and me, was about 18′ x 12’ — maybe enough room for people to sit in tight rows, if they didn’t move much, or mind getting to know each other rather well, and god knew where the projector was going to go. And no tables. How were we going to do small group work?

Lesson 1: Unless you have nine lives, or live right across the planet, visit the venue first.

Simon, who worked the front desk, but also whose job it was to set up rooms, was fantastic. He talked to some people and got us moved to the big boardroom next door, the one in which only 10 people were scheduled to meet that day. We hulked tables around and marched chairs up and down the corridor. By the time the first participants arrived, everything was in place: tables, chairs, workshop packs. I think it drove Simon’s blood-pressure all the way up to 11, but he was ace, a real superstar. His colleague Rob likewise: they just took it all in stride.

Lesson 2: Great support staff are worth their weight in gold.

And then the workshop started. The morning was all about understanding teaching and learning; from there, we spent a bit of time before lunch creating visual aids. People started out very serious, but when I gave them explicit permission to be childlike and enjoy themselves with the pens and coloured paper, everything changed, and we got some great drawings and some really imaginative visual storytelling. One of the main points I wanted to get across was that you can’t start planning your information delivery from inside the slide software, or you — and your audience — are doomed to endless bullet-points and text-heavy visuals. Creativity should be fun; having fun with stationery isn’t something we get to do much anymore as adults, and a lot of people seemed to really engage with it.

Lesson 3: Getting in touch with your inner child is a fantastic spur to creativity.

In the afternoon, we talked about structuring your narrative and use of body-language. I played them the two clips that Nancy Duarte so generously posted on her blog, showing her body language before and after her training at Decker Communications. The participants were great: straight away they picked up on all the things Nancy herself said about her appearance — that before the training, she looked nervous, fidgety, bored-looking, insecure. Then I showed them the ‘after’ clip, and they ate it up: the bold gestures, the confidence, the presence. Go Nancy! I think we all wanted to go get trained at Decker after that :o)

Lesson 4: Show, don’t tell. I had originally planned to talk a bit about body-language, but I’m so glad I just showed the clips: everyone got it, instantly.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly. The projector decided, part-way through the afternoon, that lemon yellow was really the only colour worth projecting; we had a rather spectacular coffee-machine flood; the room was ridiculously hot; I quietly cut two exercises from the schedule when it became clear that we were running out of time because — the best reason in the world, this — people were engaged and wanted to talk about stuff. We dealt with all of these, and the world didn’t end. In fact, during the coffee flood, people pitched right in and helped clean up.

Lesson 5: Be flexible, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

The whole workshop went really well, and participant feedback was great. Crucially, people seemed to get the relevance of what I was telling them, and see how they could put the material into practice themselves. The most useful facet of the day, the one most people said they would implement in their own work, seems to have been cognitive load: the idea that if you throw too much sensory information at someone, most of it won’t stick (like this post about TMI in education). Lots of people talked, in their feedback, about paring down their visuals, and reducing the information load on their audience. Job done!

I absolutely loved the whole experience, and learned loads. If my participants got even half as much as I did out of it, then I’m happy.

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