No Comments on reality, part 2

One of the interesting things about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that I discussed with the last part of this comic is its implications for how we see the universe. The Supersymmetry video that I linked last post discussed the idea that since time is simply a dimension of the universe (i.e. spacetime), the history of the universe – the entirety of time – must exist ‘simultaneously’. That is to say, we can think of spacetime as a DVD (Or is the standard video format Blu-rays these days?) containing all of space and all of time, which some higher-dimensional being could theoretically peruse at will, the same way we can move around in three dimensions.

Combining this idea and the many-worlds interpretation, we see that reality must encompass not only the chronology of events and states that we experience but all possible states of the universe. Our consciousness, however and for whatever reason, is attached to a single ‘thread’ or chronology within this incredibly complex collection.

An incredibly strange and interesting side effect of this idea is something called quantum suicide or, more optimistically, quantum immortality. The concept is illustrated, like Schrödinger’s cat, with a thought experiment and a somewhat similar setup: a device that measures, once a second, some state of a particle (such as the spin of a proton, which randomly changes between ‘up’ and ‘down’). If the device measures ‘up’ it will make an audible click. If it measures ‘down’ it will escalate things and fire a gun. So our experimenter, standing safely to the side of the device, turns it on. As expected, he hears clicks and gunshots occurring randomly at approximately a 50/50 ratio.

Our brave (or, perhaps, stupid) experimenter now steps in front of the device with the gun at head level, such that if the gun fires it will kill him. What does he hear?

According to the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the experimenter – an observer – has a 50% chance of survival every time the measurement occurs. One would therefore expect the experimenter to perhaps hear a click or two before the odds began to stack against him and he ceases to hear things altogether.

Many-worlds, however, asserts that because every possible state is ‘real’, there must be a thread where the device measures ‘up’ and clicks for every measurement during the time that the experimenter stands in the way of the gun. If we assert that consciousness is necessarily tied to being alive (that is to say, that the experimenter cannot experience death as, say, a ghost) then, from the experimenter’s perspective, the only possible outcome is that he will hear “click-click-click-click-click” for as long as he stands in the way of the gun. The fact that this is all from the experimenter’s perspective is important. A second experimenter observing the first would observe the exact same outcome as in the Copenhagen interpretation, because their consciousness is not tied to the survival of the first experimenter.

Consciousness, incidentally, is what the remainder of this comic and my posts will largely discuss, because the many-worlds idea that every possible outcome must exist raises some very compelling questions about the idea of choice.

Education (Part 2: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation)

No Comments on Education (Part 2: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation)

Part one

In working on this next part of my thoughts on education and learning I found myself trying to go in too many directions at once, developing ideas from the first part while also bringing up new things. As such I decided to limit myself to one topic at once. This part will be dedicated to the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

The topic of why we learn new things, which I brought up in the first few paragraphs of part one, is very much a discussion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Should we learn because we’re curious and find new topics exciting, as I argued strongly for? Or should we do so in pursuit of good grades, goals, rewards? The various reasons that we learn – or, more broadly, that we do anything – can be categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic motivations.

Extrinsic motivation is essentially operant conditioning: An action is motivated by the promise of reinforcement or punishment. In the context of learning and education this would be a parent promising to pay their child $20 for good grades, or threatening to ground them for bad ones. This is the style of learning that I associated with the stereotypical premed student, working hard in school so that you get good grades and the things associated with them: Acceptance to prestigious schools, scholarships, so on and so forth.

Intrinsic motivation is a little more elusive. It’s the desire to do something not because of external reinforcement or punishment, but because one wants to do that thing. The reward isn’t tangible because it’s internal: Curiosity, passion for a subject, that sort of thing. Intrinsic motivation is the time I was sitting outside in winter and wondered how much snow has fallen in the history of the Earth (My estimate was about 3×1026 kg of it, or roughly 50 Earth-masses of snow. I have that saved in a file somewhere, though I’ll need to look up the work I did to reach that number).

How do we apply these ideas? As it turns out, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation tend to be most effective in their own particular domains.

A 1987 study by Malone & Lepper suggests that intrinsic motivation is most common for activities involving challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition (Although I personally would characterize competition and recognition as extrinsic rewards – the desire to be superior to others and to be recognized as so seem more like external things to me). Challenge and curiosity, to me, can be characterized as tasks involving what I’ll refer to as higher order mental processes: Analysis, investigation, planning, invention, that sort of thing. Control and cooperation encompass tasks that offer a sense of meaning or purpose. So, simplistically, intrinsic motivation is best for tasks that make you think or feel.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is generally going to work best for simple, repetitive tasks that require little higher-order thinking. Memorizing the multiplication tables or learning the basic rules of English grammar are boring tasks that are unlikely to ever inspire any sort of internal passion. An interesting caveat here is the overjustification effect, which says that offering extrinsic rewards can actually reduce one’s intrinsic motivation for activities. Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) found that children offered rewards for an activity that they could be expected to enjoy, drawing, showed less interest when the offer of reward was retracted than children who either received a reward without being notified before the activity or those who were neither offered nor given a reward. For this “expected reward” group, interest in the activity was only maintained through continued offer of reward. Although this seems strange at first blush, it actually makes a lot of sense. The offer of extrinsic reward for something you already enjoy doing essentially “cheapens” the experience, and when the reward is removed the activity simply seems less appealing. Put another way, we can imagine that there’s only a certain amount of motivation you can have to do something – we’ll call it 100% motivation. If you’re already at 100% motivation intrinsically, the addition of an extrinsic reward doesn’t push you to 150% motivation, but instead it makes you 50% intrinsically and 50% extrinsically motivated, for a total of 100%. Removal of that extrinsic reward now leaves you at only 50% motivation. On a more amusing, though less applicable note (and confirming the behavior of teenagers everywhere), the threat of extrinsic punishment can actually increase one’s intrinsic interest in something.

So what do we do with all this? It seems like intrinsic motivation should be the clear winner. After all, curiosity and critical thinking are the buzzwords of the day (or year, or whatever) in education. We need to teach kids to be active learners, foster curiosity, bla bla bla. But most elementary school children have no intrinsic interest whatsoever in math or science, challenge and curiosity be damned. Malone and Lepper suggest designing classroom instruction so it promotes their big themes: challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition. For the most part I agree here: we need to teach in a way that challenges students, that provides new experiences and promotes curiosity about the world, that makes students feel like they are in control and accomplishing something.

The problem is that we’ve either completely forgotten about extrinsic motivation or are angling to get rid of it altogether. Sure, it’s true that throwing gold stars and participation ribbons all over the place is terrible if we want kids to be self-directed and self-motivated. But remember those things I said extrinsic motivation is good for? Repetitive and simple tasks, like memorizing the multiplication tables or learning basic spelling and grammar? Yeah, it turns out that these things are the foundations for all our activities that are best motivated intrinsically. It doesn’t matter how curious a kid is if he doesn’t know basic arithmetic or the alphabet. These are things that you have to know to be able to do all that other stuff, and it turns out that in the vast majority of cases there is simply no way to get a kid excited about addition and multiplication – it’s something that just needs to be drilled in, and extrinsic motivation is going to be the best way to do that. It’s also going to be the best way to motivate kids to do things until they begin to develop intrinsic interest. Note that this doesn’t contradict the overjustification effect: Here we aren’t trying to exceed the 100% motivation cap. Instead we’re starting at 0% motivation and bringing it up a bit with extrinsic motivation until the student recognizes the intrinsic value of the task.

So both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have a place in education. Rewards and punishments are necessary to motivate students to learn foundational knowledge that simply cannot be motivated intrinsically, and to create some “buffer motivation” while intrinsic interest develops. Once a student has recognized the value of a subject, however, extrinsic motivation needs to be scaled back so that they can properly reap the rewards of curiosity, challenge, bla bla etcetera. Something I touched on in part one and that will be developed later is grades: They can be categorized as extrinsic motivators, so based on what we’ve said here, should they be removed? For now, though, I think that’s plenty for one post.

Some ideas I want to develop in future parts: Testing and accountability, group vs. individual work. As always let me know if you’ve got other things you want me to consider.