Monday, June 4, 2012

Why B+ is Better than A

In my last post, I talked about the power of the number three in understanding human frustration. This time, I'd like to talk about the power of the value three quarters in human learning.

This whole ad-hoc sequence of posts kicked off with the statement that great comedy sketches tended to have a specific structure because they closely reflected how the human brain acquires new rules about the world. We went on to talk about how understanding this pattern could help people do any number of wonderful things, from writing better software to avoiding nuclear war.

For reference, the structure looks like this:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Subversion of pattern

What I didn't mention is that the same pattern also crops up in education research, and for the same reason. Recent psychology research has shown that kids who get the right answer about seventy-five percent of the time learn fastest. This result was first noticed, I think, by the amazing George Polya, author of How to Solve It, who saw that scores of around seven out of ten corresponded to healthy progress in math education. (When I find decent links to more books or papers on this, I'll add them. Good links are proving elusive.)

I'd believe that the reason for this is simple. When you're learning and you get the right answer three times in a row, your brain gets to imprint a successful new rule. Your brain sends out a little hormonal pulse of 'I win!' into your system and your confidence goes up. This puts you in the right frame of mind for wanting to demolish the next problem that you receive. Furthermore, the sense of steadily attained mastery of a problem, coupled with cues that suggest that mastery isn't yet complete, spur the learner onward. This is why the most successful computer games feature a sequence of steadily increasing obstacles.

Go too high above the seventy-five percent success ate and your brain starts tuning out. You become confident of your ability to solve the problems you're being set, and this is actually likely to make you more defensive when you get one wrong. Hence, your rate of learning goes down. Similarly, go too far below seventy-five percent and your brain isn't seeing frequent enough instances of success to be able to identify new rules. Learning feels like too much of a struggle.

It's not hard to see how using this effect can help teachers and trainers maximize their impact. By making sure your students are sitting in that sweet spot, you can get them to absorb content at their maximum possible rate. However, when you're training a large number of people together, you usually don't have the luxury of pacing the content differently for each participant. This is where you have to get clever.

One of the tools you can use springs from using using this cognitive effect in another guise: storytelling. As I've alluded to the, four-step pattern for comedy sketches applies equally well to Greek legends or the structure of most Hollywood blockbuster movies. Screenwriters have been playing around with cognition-based story patterns for years, thanks to Joseph Campbell and those who've expanded on his work.

However, in the case of your average novel, movie, or awesome fireside tale, the structure is slightly different. Now it goes like this:
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern
4: Successful application of pattern.

These are the four core steps of Campbell's monomyth (which also forms the basis of good Vanilla Six-Hander plays, by the way.)  Though the steps are a little buried in the structure Campbell describes, they're not too hard to see.

A careful trainer can use this. One way is to create parables that have learning content. You deliver them up until the point at which the protagonist figures out what step he needs to take to win the day, but you don't tell your particpants what that step is. At that point you throw a question open to your students and let them figure out the hero's solution together.

This helps because a good story will create audience empathy. Your students will be sharing the experience, and will hopefully share in the feeling of success that comes with solving the problem. Thus, even if everyone isn't learning at quite the same rate, they all get the benefit of feeling about seventy-five percent correct, and share a sense of ownership of the solution. If you're really being clever, you put a sting in the tail of the story that reveals that the participants don't know everything yet.

There's lot's more to say on this subject, of course. In the next post in this sequence, I'll try to show you how you can use the four-step story pattern to plot out that novel you've been meaning to write.

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