Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Becoming an expert, gift exchange, and reflections on the course

I'm going to give brief summaries of each paper, list some puzzles that seem to emerge from their reading, and then try to apply those ideas to my reflections about the class.

Becoming an Expert

There is a tendency to attribute perceived differences in ability to genetic differences between the individuals. One person is "smarter" or "a more natural athlete" or "a born musician." In other words, talent is thought to be innate. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Expertise is acquired through vast amounts of the right sort of practice. In this paper it is referred to as deliberate practice; elsewhere I've seen the alternative expression, "effortful study." To become an expert in a field one must engage in deliberate practice for an extended period of time, often thought to be about 10 years.

Early learning might happen via play and self-discovery. But at some point learning that way reaches its limit and further learning requires practice that is not play. Individuals wouldn't do the practice willingly on their own if they didn't want to improve their own skills. Learning thereafter requires coaching to do the appropriate tasks, to provide prompt and relevant feedback, and to assist with motivation. It also requires high concentration/effort from the participant. So there are time limits on how long individuals can practice each day and individuals who are on the path to becoming an expert require diversions and time to recuperate between practice sessions.

Becoming an Expert Puzzles

1. Many people do not become expert in any field. Might it be that genetic disposition is expressed simply by the the willingness to go down the path of deliberate practice to become an expert?

2. Some advocates suggest the best learning environments are immersive. For example to learn a foreign language some suggest to go to a place where nothing but that language is spoken. Immersive learning environments seemingly violate the need for diversion and recuperation time. Do both ways work?

3. Is there a way to extend the period of play, so more of the learning happens in that first stage? For example, many have observed that video games have an immersive aspect. To the extent that video games are designed to go from one level to the next and with play you become more proficient, that looks like deliberate practice. Can learning be designed like a video game so it is both immersive and fun?

4. Other advocates argue that learning should be inquiry based and driven by intrinsic motivation (curiosity). This might not be play. It might be more like investigative journalism. But it doesn't sound like deliberate practice that has no reward in itself. Can one develop expertise mainly via intrinsic motivation and inquiry?

5. This one is not so much a puzzle but really a matter of definition. Who is an expert? One way to think of expertise is to contrast with a novice. (See chapter 2 of How People Learn.) A different way is to to identify the individual with an elite group. The question then is how elite is elite?

6. For people who do learn but without any intention of becoming an expert, is that type of learning qualitatively different or the same thing as learning to become an expert but with practice over shorter duration?

7. Are there meta-skills (skills that would work in more than one domain of study) one can develop to make one more willing to do the deliberate practice? If so, what do they look like? (Without answering this one here, do note that many people talk about learning to learn. So that suggests there are such meta-skills. Learning to learn is supposed to be an important consequence of an undergraduate education.)

Gift Exchange

Early in the semester we talked about eliciting cooperation in repeated prisoner's dilemma and so you might think of cooperation as gift exchange relative to the default equilibrium where both parties cheat. However, in the labor market there is more to it than just that. First it means that the actual wage exceeds the opportunity wage of the worker. (This gives the worker a surplus from the job.) Second it means that the firm acts fairly with respect to the worker's co-workers. Fairness of treatment is a big component of the deal. Third it means that the worker shows a high degree of initiative and intensity of effort on the job. That is the gift the worker gives to the firm. It is more than the firm has a right to expect. (Much more than the threshold at which the worker would be disciplined or even fired.)

In contrast to gift exchange you might consider direct payment for service rendered. Yesterday, for example, we had a guy and his crew deliver mulch for our yard. They integrated that in with the existing mulch and did some work to assure that went well and that the rest of the yard and our sidewalk wasn't messy with mulch. After the crew was done I gave them a check for the work they had done. And that was that, service for a fee without any gifts.

As Akerlof makes clear in his paper, much ongoing employment has considerable elements of gift exchange to it. The direct payment for service approach makes more sense under a limited service, limited time contract.

Gift Exchange Puzzles

1. This one is really about economists and the models they select. Why do economists have a preference in envisioning the employer-employee relationship as direct payment for service instead of as gift exchange?

2. Organizations can have different structures. Some are flat, others are hierarchical, and still others have a matrix structure where similar skills sets work together. Does the gift exchange idea work irrespective of the organization structure or does it favor a particular structure (mainly flat)? If there is a job ladder in the organization, for example, how do incentives provided by promotion compare those with gift exchange?

3. Models of gift exchange provide an explanation for scarcity of good jobs (involuntary unemployment). Models of direct payment of service couple with competitive supply of that service suggest the payment should equal the opportunity cost of the supplier and consequently that labor markets should clear (supply of labor equals demand) unless there is monopolization (unions) or artificial restraints (minimum wage) or the service rendered is highly idiosyncratic (then the payment is determined by bargaining between the parties). Are there "good jobs" out there? How does one find such a good job? Is it a matter of luck? Which model better fits how new grads think about the labor market they soon will be joining?

Maintained Hypothesis

One aspect of a good job, from the point of view of a college grad is that it provides a lot of opportunities to learn on the job and develop expertise in that area of employment. Such jobs will treat the employment relationship as gift exchange. (We will not try to prove this. It is simply a way of framing what soon to be grads should be looking for in the labor market.)

Reflections About The Class

Initial Thoughts Going In

In my previous career as a learning technology administrator, I learned about a variety of issues that seem to be plaguing Higher Education nowadays. One of those is called the Disengagement Compact, an idea developed by George Kuh, now emeritus Professor of Education at Indiana University. Kuh was the founder of something called the National Survey of Student Engagement. The disengagement compact, according to Kuh, goes something like this. On the side of the Professor/instructor - a promise is made to the students to not demand too much effort from them or make things too difficult intellectually and to give the students relatively high grades nonetheless. In return on the side of the student - a promise is made to give the instructor reasonably high teaching evaluations.

A little bit after learning about this idea, a documentary came out called Declining by Degrees that talked about this issue, rising tuition rates, and wasteful inter-campus competition in facilities and sports and possibly other areas that don't directly impact learning. (Certainly it wasn't an uplifting story, but was it realistic?) I wasn't in a position to address all the issues in my job but I thought it reasonable that we might make some efforts to address the Disengagement Compact and in my blog (which then had a pretty good readership and was syndicated elsewhere) I wrote a few different posts about it - first, this one on a pure inquiry based blog meant for students who had already taken the formal course so weren't in it for the grade, then this one about whether improving undergrad ed was a goal worthy of getting campus attention and my own attention as well, and this last one on tying these ideas into the then Campus Strategic Plan.

A book was later done to accompany the Declining by Degrees video. (Each chapter was a separate essay by a different author.) I read a good chunk of that book. A particular essay by Murray Sperber - How Undergraduate Education Became College Lite - And A Personal Apology made a strong impression on me. I had been carrying similar ideas with me for some time, but as an Econ Prof I mostly taught undergrad courses with problem sets and exams. The world was different in a writing intensive course, or what used to be writing intensive courses.

As an administrator, my teaching was done as an overload rather than as a service to the department, so I taught what I wanted - all small seminar classes. I did a Discovery class once - that went so-so. The next time I tried a CHP class and that went really well. So I continued to teach CHP classes when I did teach. The last time, it wasn't an Econ class but rather a class called Designing for Effective Change. In some ways it went extremely well. In other ways it was a bust. So it is with experiments when you teach. It was the first time I tried to have students blog. That part seemed to go well.

So I was intrigued by the idea of whether any of the good parts of that course could be carried over to a regular size class of students in an upper level Econ course. On the mode of instruction in the class, it was driven by that thinking. Could the seminar style approach used in CHP be tweaked and then used in the regular class and could it be done to address the Disengagement Compact issues?

On the content of the course, I didn't have a particular agenda in mind other than that as an administrator my formal economics background served me less well than having a very strong ethic of collegiality and wanting to freely discuss ideas with both staff who worked for me and faculty we helped with the teaching. So I somehow wanted to have this class benefit from that administrator experience and much of the readings were selected based on seeing some cross pollination of these ideas. Then a few of the readings were selected simply because they seemed necessary to prepare for Nudge.

The Nudge book itself was selected by somewhat different criteria. Truthfully, I didn't like it that much myself when I read it. But I had some good success in that CHP seminar by having the students read books that were recent best sellers so I thought that approach might work here too. It is very hard for me in advance to know what will resonate with students and what won't. The other thought is that one book from the previous class called The Fifth Discipline had as a core idea a notion the author, Peter Senge, called Leverage - coming up with small changes that have big impact. The core idea of Nudge, though not identical, seemed quite similar. The Fifth Discipline was a success in that prior class. With Nudge I had a similar idea and it was about Behavioral Econ. That's how I based the choice.

Early Unanticipated Stress

Sometimes I can be a princess with the pea and let even trifles disturb me. Other times I can be pretty hearty and shrug off rather serious challenges and simply make do as best as I can. At the beginning of the semester it was mainly the former. There were three issues that cropped up almost immediately. The first was the turnover in the class. This is a course intended for majors and in some way was meant to function as a capstone class (though it was open to anybody). I did expect turnover in my other class, Econ 302, where there are multiple sections of the course. I didn't expect it here. It interfered with getting the groups to function early on and it served to distract me from setting a good tone.

The next was the auditorium seating and that while all of you could see me and I could see all of you, you couldn't see each other. So when I did Q&A at the beginning of the semester, everyone seemed like the were answering me and ignoring entirely what any student said previously. We had no flow at all and thus this didn't work like a seminar in that respect.

The third was the construction noise. I ragged about that with a friend who said I should request another classroom. But I had gotten my way on when the class was held. Schedule-wise the Econ Department was good to me. So I didn't try to move rooms. I do understand that with the Lincoln Hall construction classrooms the size of ours have become scarcer at prime times of the day. But still, I was asking myself about the Campus Commitment to learning that they could allow classes to be held in a building with ongoing construction. When I was in College of Business and BIF was open for teaching but still not completed, the rule was that work on BIF had to be after 5PM.

The Blogging

I was surprised by the very first set of posts based on the reading on Procrastination. The frankness before we had gotten to know each other was knew to me. Many of the CHP students were quite shy online, especially initially. But further, the way students depicted the schoolwork was so different from how I thought about. To bring some connection to the above, I viewed (and still view) the blogging as a kind of deliberate practice. I also view doing term papers and in class presentations that way. There is growth in the doing if done with care and concentration. The deliberate practice is the main aspect of what's going on, in my view. Many of the students, however, seemed to regard all of this as hurdles to get over and disregard the personal growth aspect of the activities entirely.

Put a different way, an engaged student would see these things as promoting growth. A disengaged student would view them as hurdles. The engaged student might then think of the classroom as a kind of gift exchange (my comments on the blog posts being the gift that flows in the other direction). A disengaged student views this as a service rendered for payment - an acceptable grade in the course in this case.

There is then the issue of whether I gave sufficient direction/coaching on how to do the blogging well. The answer is to produce connection in posts between the current readings and your experience (we did not that bad in this dimension though the same examples seemed to crop up repeatedly) other connections between the current reading and things you've read elsewhere (a handful of people gamely tried to do this but most did not) and for later topics trying to build connections between the current reading and previous readings in this class (I don't recall anyone doing this). Further, this should be done in a coherent narrative. That much was explained at the outset. Perhaps constant reminders were necessary - nudges if you will. On that I was lax.

There is then the issue of what if you don't have those outside readings to connect to at your fingertips? My response (you may be thinking - you've got to be kidding me, this is too much to ask) is to do the outside readings then and there. Use the class readings as a launch point and read other stuff that seems related that you discover. For the type of learning we're after in this class, developing a habit of doing that as a matter of course is one of the meta-skills I mentioned above.

I will say that commenting on team blogs is much different than commenting on the individual blogs I did in the CHP class, because there I had a sense of an ongoing dialog with the student from post to post. Not until the team had a done its class presentation did I even match the writer with the person in a way that could give me that sense of ongoing dialog.

Class Attendance

I don't know when this happened exactly but after two or three weeks class attendance started to drift down. Let me go through the list of possible causes.

One is senioritis. I understand that. Students in this category have their attention elsewhere. If I do a class in the future even remotely like ours, I will try to teach it in the fall.

Another is disengagement, students who truly are disengaged in most of the courses they take on campus though they aren't yet seniors.

A third is discouragement I created (through inexperience with the subject or my reaction to the environment) through the early class sessions or the reading selections. I have a sense I disappointed a good number of students with the approach. I regret creating such disappointment. In you own posting you might comment on this a bit. (Please be gentle. I do have feelings.)

Not having taught a regular size undergraduate class in quite a while, I believe I made several young instructor mistakes. Among them was appearing defensive from time to time. I was.

A fourth possible explanation, and something that really hasn't happened to me before in teaching, is that a gulf in political views may have created a sense that the class was cover to articulate a paternalistic agenda. Some of the underlying issues came up today during the Objections presentation. The particular example makes the point about as strongly as it can be made. I believe that in the presence of obvious negative externalities there should be strong regulation that proscribes the behavior. No nudges. Strong regulation instead. The externality with drunk driving is obvious. It should be against the law and violations should be severely punished. Paternalism which is intended to be good for the person but where there is no apparent externality is a much harder case. When it is the one and not the other is not always as transparent as it is with drunk driving. Perhaps it would have been better for the class if we did the Objections chapter first, instead of last. It would have put the issue front and center and then, perhaps, we could have put it to rest. Some of you might not agree with my position, but that shouldn't block you from learning in the class.

I did, like any new instructor, initially take the drop in attendance as a personal rebuke. It certainly seemed to limit the possibility of achieving my initial goals. After spring break, however, a funny thing happened. I began to find it liberating. Those who did come (not always the same but there was a solid core of students) constituted numbers where it was more like a seminar. Further, the last several class sessions seemed much more enjoyable to me. We did have reasonably good discussion and progressed through the ideas.

Wrap Up

It is good to get preconceptions as I had going into the class to confront real experience even if there are some ego bruises in the process of doing that. I've written this post (too long but I hope otherwise informative) as a way to try to encourage your own serious reflection on the readings and tying them into the way the class unfolded for you.


  1. Is our last blog post to respond to this? Thank you for being honest. I know acknowledging weaknesses or mistakes is not easy. Thank you.

  2. This plus the readings on Gift Exchange by Akerlof and Becoming an Expert by Ericsson, et. al.