Positive feedback on successful actions can encourage the pursuit of goal-congruent actions when it signals an increase in commitment to the goal but decrease motivation when it signals sufficient progress was made. For example, a math student who receives a high test score and infers that she likes math will work harder as a result, whereas a classmate who receives similar positive feedback and infers sufficient progress will relax his efforts and focus on spending time with her friends.

Negative feedback on unsuccessful actions can encourage the pursuit of goal congruent actions if it signals insufficient progress has been made but decrease motivation when it signals a decrease in commitment to the goal. For example, a math student who receives a bad test score and infers lack of commitment will subsequently reduce her efforts, whereas her classmate, who infers insufficient progress from the negative feedback, will subsequently work harder.

Fishbach, Ayal, & Finkelstein, 2010. How positive and negative feedback motivate goal pursuit.


Working memory: consider the limits

Working memory is very limited but highly flexible. A good approaching using it is to identify a small number of key elements to “work” with. For example, we need to know the subject, object, and verb for a sentence (three things), or the cause and the effect for an explanation (two things). Success depends on defining small numbers of central elements in any experience, rather than extensive and complex explanations. Brevity and clarity are the virtues.

In school, this suggests that we should arrange students’ experiences in direct and simple ways. This may be the most difficult part for the educator, since that individual must put himself or herself in the place of the learner. With complex situations, the first step would be to identify a small number of very basic elements. That might even be enough for a whole class period (If we even had classes). Taking working memory as our gauge, we might have shorter classes, or they might be a variable length rather than a set time. Deciding when to end a class would not be a matter of watching the clock, but on watching the ideas. The point would be not to have a lot of ideas, but exactly the opposite. I might judge success not by how much information was “covered,” but by the significance and utility of the ideas, and by how much impact the ideas had on students.

We might have an “idea clock” rather than the time clock.

Zull, J.E. (2011). From brain to mind: using neuroscience to guide change in education.



Jim Stigler is a psychologist who studies the differences in how Eastern and Western cultures approach learning. After watching a Japanese student try and fail and try again, for a whole period, to draw a geometric shape in front of the entire class, and then enjoy the experience … he knew something was different about the philosophy of struggle in Eastern classrooms. A key bit from the NPR story (emphasis mine):

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

“They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing,” Stigler says. “I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them.”

Not all Eastern cultures are identical, of course, but I think it could serve American students nicely to realize that yes, this stuff is hard, struggle is part of learning, and not learning something at the same pace as others doesn’t mean you are stupid … it means you are learning the way that you learn.

That idea should be encouraged. Success in learning and in life comes from the desire to work hard to master the problems before you. Intelligence is not bestowed upon us like magical powers from above. 

Very good read over at NPR, check it out.

If you went up to a poet who was busy writing his poem and asked what he was doing, you would be very surprised if he said, “I am using a pencil.” Of course he is using a pencil, but the pencil has become invisible. It’s not a separate thing; it’s part of his life. It’s part of his world. And so, too, the computer. We have only succeeded when it becomes invisible. That doesn’t mean you don’t think about it. You think about it when you need to, when you want to do something with it. But you’re thinking about what you want to do with it; you’re thinking about that subject matter. This is part of appropriation, making it yours. It’s like yourself.
Seymour Papert, 1987

Attention and awareness are trainable skills

Probably what teachers most want is to have their students’ sustained attention.

But this itself is hard to get unless the teacher is able to make the subject matter of the moment, whatever it is, come alive, to make it compelling and relevent within a classroom atmosphere of safety, inclusion, and belonging, along with a sense of learning as an adventure. It doesn’t help to yell at a class to pay attention when the children are being unruly. But it can help a lot – in fact it can be a precious gift – to teach students the how of paying attention themselves and turning the process itself into something of an adventure.

Paying attention is a trainable skill, capable of ongoing refinement. As no less a luminary than William James, the father of American psychology, well knew, attention and the awareness that arises from it are the doorway to true education and learning – life-long gifts that keep deepening with use. It may very well be that the capacity to rest in awareness without distraction, in addition to simply balancing the power of thought and bringing a wiser perspective to it, may give rise to an entirely different kind of thinking.

It may be that future research will show that mindfulness training actually enhances creativity, freeing the mind to produce less routinized kinds of thoughts and freer and more imaginative associations.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners


Lectures aren’t bad…..bad lectures are bad. Take time to make your lectures interactive, to put the focus on those listening and give them the power to interact with the content and with each other and you change the dynamics in a classroom really quickly. You put the focus on the learner not the content and that is never a bad thing.

No, no, no! For one simple reason: Nearly all lecture, no matter how interactive, is simply content delivery. We need to get teachers out of the content-delivery business and have them spend their time on what really matters, facilitating student engagement through project-based activities, authentic assessment, and mastery learning.

Where are the “responsive learning systems”?

With all of the new learning management systems popping up in the last few months like mushrooms after a spring rain, I keep wondering why none of them have yet announced a core platform built on responsive web design principles.

There is an opportunity here to open up a big shift toward mobile learning on tablets and smart phones, not by building an add-on app to manage the mobile experience, but building a true “mobile first” platform that scales to any size device.

Think of the increased engagement when students and teachers can do everything they need to do in a course as easily on a tablet or smart phone as they can on a laptop or a desktop. A student standing in line at the supermarket checkout and a question about an assignment pops into her head. She whips out her smart phone, logs into the course, and posts a question. 

You’re out of town at a conference. You get an email that contains her question, but you don’t just reply to the email. You log in to Twitter and send a tweet to everyone in the class, attaching a photo or short screencast you just made on your ipad. Smart phones start buzzing all over your hometown and beyond, and everyone in the course is instantly updated. 

It seems highly unlikely that any legacy system will be an innovator in this market, creating an opportunity for a sharp newcomer to finally spark a shift to mobile learning built on a responsive web platform.

The Internet – that strange place where sound moves faster than light

I was giving a live web presentation today to demonstrate some software. I was using Blackboard Collaborate, the offspring of the mating of Elluminate and Wimba, a very nice platform for this purpose.

As sometimes happens when using web conferencing software like this, the video part of the live demostration was taking longer to arrive in the participants’ broswers than the audio part. The amount of data that is needed to support live streaming video is much greater than the amount of data that is needed to support live streaming audio, and therefore sometimes the pictures follow the words.

It struck me that this creates a strange illusion on the web, an illusion that sound is faster than light. In the physical world, of course, light is faster than sound. Go to any fireworks display and witness the phenomena for yourself.

Learning is not enhanced when our virtual world does not match what we expect to see in our physical world. Audio and images out of sync creates a cognitive dilemma for the brain that has to work harder to try to match up content that is out of sequence, and reconstruct it in the correct sequence. This uses up scarce resources in working memory that would otherwise be used to process the content of the activity, not the modalities of the media.



1) Trust me. I know how to use at least two different learning management systems, including the one at our school. I can train you to use at least a dozen different technologies to help you create interesting multimedia or content for your online course. I’m familiar with all the things that do…

All five … wow, do I relate!