The Degeneration Effect

“Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism,” writes co-founder of Singularity University Peter Diamandis. “It can make the once scarce the now abundant.” This abundance, he argues, will allow every person on the planet the ability to live a life of possibility.

Diamandis’s ideas are the same theme on an ancient line of thought, or perhaps a fundamental human drive. The thought/drive is that innovation – from the discovery of fire to the creation of computers – can make our lives easier, better, and more expansive.

Of course, the extent to which today’s world is driven by technology is striking; we could scarcely even imagine our lives without it. Whether or not said technology makes our lives better, however, is somewhat up for debate. “If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger,” Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have pointed out. “Men have become the tools of their tools,” wrote famous philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his seminal work Walden, and in many ways he may have been correct.

Modern neuroscience is looking into the brain’s enormous capacity to change itself – also known as neuroplasticity – and showing that our brains are not only cable of ‘re-wiring’ themselves, but have already rewired themselves to function differently in an age of iPhones and unlimited internet capacity. “One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet,” writes technology journalist Nicholas Carr. The combination of stimuli that the internet provides – visual, interactive, audible, rapid, rewarding – causes it to be highly addictive and thus effective at eliciting human responses. Think about the last time you got a text message – did you immediately reach to your pocket to check your phone? “The computer is never a neutral tool,” writes Carr, “It influences, for better or worse, the way a person works and thinks.” This alteration includes the ability to concentrate deeply, generate novel ideas, and achieve ‘flow’. “The imbalance between the development of the external environment and man’s inner spiritual development” Montessori wrote “is quite striking.”

So the question ‘for better or worse’ seems to be our main concern with technology and the cause of what I will call ‘The Great Technology Debate.’ As educators, it is important to understand as much as possible about the upsides and the downsides of technology in order to make educated decisions on its use; however, it is also important to keep the true nature of the Debate in perspective. Fire, which we could consider to be the oldest known technology, can either cook your food or cook you… depending on how it’s used. Shoes are a technology that has provided enormous benefits to human locomotion, yet they fundamentally alter the way humans interact with the world, for better or for worse. The internet and automation technologies do the same, and just like our ability to selectively use fire or shoes to provide the maximal benefits to the human condition, we can teach how to use modern technology in the smartest possible way based on the information currently available to us.

Of course, in the realm of education, many of the upsides of technology are already well-known. Why? Well, we all (teachers, administrators, and students) use it everyday and receive benefits. We look up answers to vexing problems or available resources for lessons, we enter data into spreadsheets and quickly automate a grade-calculation response, and of course we send messages home that we’ll be arriving late today. In my own school, where a no-cell phone policy is the norm, students have argued vehemently for allowing phones to be accessed and used at all times, preparing far more extensive and thought-out arguments than they had prepared for any project presentations. “If one of our family members was sick or had died, our parents would be trying to contact us and they need to get ahold of us somehow,” a particular student, Sam, argued. When he was reminded that they could simply call the front office, he responded that his parents didn’t even know the front office number and – anticipating our next response – that they wouldn’t even think to look it up.

In The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Nicholas Carr expresses concern that people in the creative trades “will eventually take for granted that the automated way is the best way. They’ll agree to the trade-offs that software imposes without considering them.” The same is true for our students, I fear. So given that we know the generalized benefits of technology in the classroom, let’s examine one of the major educational downsides today, since the downsides tend to be much more hidden from view than the benefits (whether because they are actually less apparent or because we wish them to not exist).

The Degeneration Effect

Carr reviews scientific literature examining differing learning methods in The Glass Cage. For example, a common experiment is that two groups are given a particular computer programming-based task (or game); one of the groups is given an automated ‘coaching’ resource for figuring out how to complete the task or win the game, and the other group (the control) is on their own.

As expected, the group with the automated coaching makes far more progress than the control group early on in the task. However, as the trials stack up, the control group begins to formulate their own strategies for how to complete the task or win the game – they are generating the strategies on their own. Finally, as the task or game begins to become more complex (beyond the realms of the automated help system), researchers find that the control group excels far beyond the capacity of the group with a now-unhelpful automated coaching system. The members of the latter group never needed to generate the strategies to the game on their own as they could rely on the help of the computer; thus, they never internalized the learning they needed to problem-solve the more complex tasks.

In teaching, we see this ‘Degeneration Effect’ – the loss of ability to generate problem-solving strategies when presented with hints and scaffolds – daily. We all teach those kids who have learned how to ask questions in the perfect way, so that they get us and our well-intentioned minds to do the work for them. State standards contribute to the phenomenon – sometimes it’s just plain easier for us to teach on a shallow level than to spend the grueling hours having students construct their own understanding of how to derive the quadratic formula through completing the square. Why not just tell them to memorize the formula!? However, the classroom is not a controlled laboratory with clearly defined groups, which makes the teacher/guide’s job of recognizing the Degeneration Effect more complex. So how can this knowledge be useful from the perspective of an adolescent guide?

First, let me tell you a less-clear-cut story from the classroom. My students had been working on a semester-long independent math/science project, and to support their abilities to create graphs with real-world data, I had been providing them with Excel problem sets along the way. In order to scaffold their learning I gave helpful ‘instructional videos’ that I made along with early, simpler problem sets that helped them to figure out the technologies involved. I wanted them to see that they did not have to rely on the automated (and usually sub-optimal) graph that the computer program generates based on their spreadsheet data when they first hit the ‘create chart’ function; I hoped they would come up with an idea for what type of a graph they wanted and generate ways to tell the computer what they wanted rather than the other way around.

Well, after scaffolding three problem sets in such a way, I gave a problem set with an intentional hiccup in the data (it needed to be flipped in order to be in the correct format for a graph that makes sense) and a somewhat nebulous ‘final answer’ (I accepted all graphs that made sense and had an explanation as to why it displayed the data more effectively than other graphs). There were many wrong graphs, but also several correct sorts of graphs, each with nuances that could enhance the reader’s understanding. I warned students to get started early and come to early help sessions – this problem set would take 3 or more hours.

After a week in which six of out of eighty-six students came to one out of six offered help sessions, I began to see students working on the problem set the day before it was due. In order to figure out how to create the appropriate graphs, they had to figure out (through self-generation from trial and error) what was wrong with the data’s format to begin with. Then, they had to perform internet searches (or search the ‘Help’ materials associated with the program) to determine how to flip a spreadsheet. Then, they had to decide whether to display each item’s individual data or to only display averages for each group involved in the dataset. Essentially, this assignment required lots of self-generated knowledge. I ended up with many students crying after not being able to finish the problem set in one sitting of one hour. I didn’t help the problem by specifically not giving out my knowledge and instead telling them to ‘Google it!’
“I KNOW HOW TO GOOGLE!” one student yelled at me through teary eyes, “I JUST DON’T WANT TO!”

The ‘Generation Effect’ – where content is mastered through a self-generated understanding of the system – isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s usually pretty darn messy and challenging. It takes a long time, it often involves trial-and-error (which then inevitably involves the sting of failure), frustration, and more than one sitting. However, the end result, while taking longer to achieve, is better understanding, more capability, and higher quality – perhaps even in Pirsig’s sense of the word.

In my case, the ‘Degeneration Effect’ didn’t show up as lower quality in response to more complex work. Instead, my entire student body had become accustomed to an automated helper (which was at least partially my fault, although the greater culture they are exposed to played some part, I suspect) and the effect showed up in their work habits rather than the work itself.

I suspect that in the classroom, the ‘Degeneration Effect’ will manifest itself as apathy towards the work, a lack of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset,’ learned helplessness (in which the student perceives an absence of their own control from the completion of the task), and an inability to separate the self from others while completing the task (the student has others complete his/her tasks by asking for help and/or becomes too frustrated to continue when he/she doesn’t complete the task on the same time scale as others).

The great conundrum for teachers and guides, then, goes back to our warning about keeping The Great Technology Debate in perspective. Fire can either cook our food or cook us, depending on how it is used. How can we make sure we are using automation to enhance our efforts and capacities (cook our food) rather than to make us the tools of our tools – dumb operators of smart machines?

Montessori education presents an interesting thought pattern here, as the pedagogy is well established through the Elementary years, but not beyond. Go to any Montessori Elementary classroom, and you will find youngsters deeply engaging in the ‘Generation Effect’ – struggling and failing with mathematics problems and materials until they deeply engrain and understand the system at play.

From my own observations of one of the few Montessori Secondary schools in existence, where the pedagogy is not nearly as firmly established, this deep engagement with the ‘Generation Effect’ seems to be lost as the emphasis is transferred from so-called ‘concrete,’ material-based learning in the elementary to ‘abstract’ learning in the secondary (although at the particular school in which I have observed, mathematics has begun to incorporate more developmentally-appropriate materials for the secondary). What I mean by this statement is that students in the secondary – who are allowed the use of calculators – will still complete complex mathematical operations that they learned in the Elementary environments using only the deep understanding of the system that they developed at that level (e.g. using long division rather than a calculator to solve step 3 of 8 in an algebra problem). However, for operations they are not as comfortable with because they never went through the material-based generation effect with that concept (graphing, for example), they will use a calculator. Given their now deep understanding of long division and their lack of deep understanding about graphing, it would make most sense for them to use the calculator to divide quickly so as to solve the greater problem at hand (the algebraic solution) and to graph by hand so as to gain a deeper understanding of the process of graphing, though at a slower pace.

Similar techniques may be used in the humanities in order to create a sense of intentionality in work – for example, I know a Montessori middle school guide in Colorado who has her students write about half of the essays for the class on typewriters. Our modern minds typically resort to thinking “that’s completely ridiculous! Why would we waste so much time on antiquated technology when there’s so much to cover as is!?” The answer is that writing on typewriters, she has found, changes the entire structure of student papers: the sentence structure, word choice, and even the ideas themselves were different. That’s not to say necessarily that the papers were better; instead, the point is that a typewriter forces students to think more deeply about what they want to say and how they want to say it before writing it. Student’s word choice, for example, tended to be less varied (they couldn’t just use the old trick of searching an online thesaurus to come up with distinctive words). On the other hand, the ideas seemed to sometimes be more developed – on a computer, it’s easy to write down whatever comes to mind, knowing that you can simply delete that section if it’s not good enough or you want to revise it. Often times, though, once it’s written we don’t go back to revise it anyway! So students who typically didn’t revise computer-based papers seemed to be learning to slow down and think before writing.

Materials-based learning, then, may be one solution to this ‘when/how to use fire safely’ question. We just may need to think outside-the-box as to what constitutes a ‘material’ at the secondary level – perhaps it’s a typewriter or another seemingly antiquated tool that students can still learn from. However, one must also question the extent to which materials-based learning attracts the adolescent’s attention – I have seen many a teen manipulate the mathematics materials in lesson, but never pick them up again while completing homework problems. This is certainly a question for future research and empirical evidence coming from all of our classroom experiments that innovative teachers run every day.

Another solution to the great technology concerns is to make meta-learning a more apparent component of the curriculum. Information about the actual process of how we go about learning, including techniques we use and why we use them, is rarely heard as more than passing comments from a teacher while in lesson: ‘why should you do all 30 problems for homework? Because you don’t engrain the process in your brain until undergoing 30 repetitions!’ By including occasional seminars of the most recent understandings of human cognition and learning (such as the papers that Carr reviewed as described above), some students will benefit with increases in motivation to take a slower, more challenging path to receive the long-term benefits.

Of course, not everyone will benefit simply by being armed with knowledge of the way they learn best. and for that reason the ‘Generation Effect’ should also be supported throughout differing developmental levels by the careful and thoughtful implementation of technology in the classroom by teachers. Simply by consciously asking the question ‘am I cooking with fire, or doing damage?’ teachers may stand to be the most powerful force of all for ensuring that our future generations aren’t propelled into a mind-state of degeneration.

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