The night before his wedding, a man walks into a convenience store with three of his friends. About to start the bachelor party, they are fueling up for the night. The best-man and the groom go up to the counter where they see a display for “Your Lucky Day” – a new lottery game. The best-man eyes the groom and says, “Well, tomorrow is your lucky day, right?” They purchase a ticket and head back to the car with their group in tow, actually forgetting about the ticket by the time they reach the automobile…
If the story were to continue, discussing almost anything – the party, the conversation of the group, etc., the receiver of the story would have a gnawing question sitting at the back of their mind. Was that lottery ticket a winner? Why did the author tell us about a lottery ticket? Is this a true story? Did the newlyweds come into money on their wedding day?
That feeling is disequilibrium. Notice it is not bad (which is why disequilibrium is likely a better word than ‘conflict’ when describing the make-up of a story), but it is compelling. You practically need to know the answer.
At its core, disequilibrium is what differentiates a story from a list or a report. A report, like a story, might have an introduction. Both likely also have a conclusion, and sometimes include characters, a setting, transitions, etc. But a report is often just a (re)telling of elements in sequential order. X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened, etc. But a (legitimate) story creates turmoil in the receiver’s mind. What will happen? How will they get out of this? Won’t that come back to harm them? I don’t get why that happened! And in a good story that struggle is on-going, but more importantly, it is also compelling.
A quick asterisk to individuality and compulsion. It is easy to write the overly-simple statement that different people are compelled by different things. Most readers will easily nod their head in agreement, but it is important to say that the point is not trivial. Sticking with a story example for a moment longer, while disequilibrium is a story factor, not all disequilibrium is equally compelling to all viewers or listeners. Horror stories like The Purge or SAW might be extremely compelling to some whereas others will not care at all about the premise, nor the conflict. To others, the disequilibrium created by a story of lovers or a story about lost animals might be emotionally compelling to the point of tears, while others yawn at the thought, not worrying about whether the dogs will make it home.
Likewise, students have quite individual affinities, concerns, and are motivated by a wide spectrum of things. Yes, because scalability matters, we should always strive to create as few motivators as possible so as to reach our entire audience. However, rare is the exception that teachers might create only a single compelling question, idea, or initiative by which to capture and keep the attention of all students. Variety matters.
So how do we create challenges, hurdles, quests, and questions that are compelling? How do we ensure the tasks we leverage and the concepts we study are not so difficult they see regular rage quit by our students? How do we leverage issues that are not solely interesting to us, but to our learners, circumventing a propensity for boredom by a group who can have difficulty seeing the importance of most anything? These Goldilocks (not too hot, not too cold) concepts are out there, but they take thought and effort. They take consideration, strategy, reflection, failure, trying again, and more to succeed. But these cognitive load tasks of “just right” learning assets should be complimented with other desirable difficulties too. For example:
Spaced Repetition / Retrieval – As we noted in the last blog, while it is uncomfortable for students (and some instructors) to move onto a new topic before completely exhausting the first topic, it is crucial for long-term learning. Perhaps technology can help. Technologies now exist to help us with a concept originally identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus – the Forgetting Curve. Software (getting better every day) can identify an individual’s personal rate of decay regarding information. Because researchers and neuroscientists already know that if we can ask for retrieval of a learned concept JUST prior to forgetting, the amount of time needed before the next retrieval is greater. This is difficult in a classroom setting for obvious reasons, as we have no idea what an individual forget curve looks like, so we must perform this retrieval practice in a more varied fashion. This is why student-teacher recaps, practice tests, flash cards, and gamed (curricular) trivia are quite helpful. But whether we leverage technology or not, it is a crucial desirable difficulty to include in our teaching.
Pattern finding, sometimes referred to as puzzling, notes that there is a moment of fantastic synapse connectedness as a person uncovers a pattern for the first time. In an fMRI machine, the learner’s brain lights up like the 4th of July night sky. Medina (Brain Rules, 2014) covers the power of pattern recognition and finding in his book, but the key is allowing students to assemble the pieces of a framework (the mechanics) by themselves, so as to create that framework. Ensuring we do not spoon-feed students with frameworks, but also ensuring that they have uncovered them (seemingly by themselves) is a powerful desirable difficulty.
Generative Learning – Learning is stronger when students invest more energy and effort looking for a solution. This solution may even be completely foreign to students. A professor might present a problem at the start of class, letting the students try to figure it out. Ideally, students should struggle, although not to the point of rage-quit. But those moments of struggle help motivate them later, illustrating that they truly must learn X if they are to know X.
To practically exemplify this important concept, one needs look no further than Dan Meyer. A former junior/senior high math and science teacher, Dan Meyer went on to get a Doctorate in Mathematics from Stanford and he now serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Desmos. However, he also speaks and provides professional development around the globe regarding how to create learning within the context you have just read about.
One (of many) examples demonstrated via social video, Meyer records a large glass container being filled with water via a hose. He plays the video recording for his class. He asks the class of complete novices, “How long until the container is full?” His students have no idea. His students have very little understanding of how the mechanics they know might be cobbled together to answer such a frame-based question. But it does not stop them from guessing. In fact, if Mr. Meyer were to sweeten the pot with a “best guess” prize, now even more students are willing to take a chance. After the guesses have been recorded, he asks them to talk it out. Eventually, someone says they need to know the speed at which the water is coming out of the hose. Another student asks how many gallons the container will hold. Some especially clever students want to use time and a ruler against the video screen, rather than doing the scientific equation creation. But the conversation leads to multiple teachable moments by a master teacher.
Desirable difficulties lead to better learning. It may not feel as comfortable as we are used to, but the research is undeniable. At the same time, this strategy for learning may be entirely foreign to an instructor. But, like any skill, it should be nurtured, practiced, but not abandoned over time. Modeling grit, tenacity, and resiliency, professors should master this new paradigm. Taking a page from change management books, that new paradigm may evolve like this: Resistance --> Mockery --> Usefulness --> Habitual --> Finding Efficiencies
It is not until something is mastered that it can be tinkered with, pulled apart, and made better for an individual context. One might argue that learning to master desirable difficulties is…difficult.
In the next blog from this series, we will examine some chemical "cocktails" - neurotransmitters instructors should avoid and others they should attempt to leverage in order to create an optimal learning context.
Good luck and good learning.