08 December 2010

On the "uncanny valley" effect in learning...

Just occasionally one of those paradoxical situations occurs in teaching where a frankly poor situation pays off in spades in terms of learning.

The other evening was such a situation. We were on the last session of micro-teaching (that is where students teach something to the rest of the group for twenty minutes and the group and the tutor then provide feedback on it). In our set-up the students choose their own topics. Someone has to go last, and on this occasion it was G. It so happened that most of the topics he would have chosen had been taken, so he took commendably took a chance with something he was not sufficiently familiar with to be comfortable. And despite his best efforts he fell into a heffalump trap...

He chose to teach the principles of "positive reinforcement" as promulgated by Aubrey Daniels, a proponent of  "performance management". The minor problem was that he could not address the issue properly in twenty minutes.

The major one was that he did not check out levels of prior knowledge in advance. Had he done so, he would have found that at least five of the other ten members of the class thought that they knew quite a lot about positive reinforcement, because their education in other disciplines had involved at least some exposure to the principles of behavioural theories in psychology.

The problem is that despite using very similar terminology and there being a substantial overlap of ideas, Daniels' branded and corporate-focused angle on reinforcement is not quite the same as the classic behaviourist tradition (making no judgements--I'm not a behaviourist and this was the first time I'd ever heard of Daniels).

Trying to provide a framework for the subsequent review, I was reminded of the "uncanny valley" phenomenon:
  • See here for the general principle, and
  • here if you have hours to waste for examples (although I think they expand/dilute the idea too much)
(This has cropped up previously on this blog under a different guise.)

Expressed simplistically, it comes out as "Tiny differences are more difficult to handle than gross ones".

We have no problem processing obvious differences between objects, categories, ideas. But it gets more difficult when the differences are subtle and may not even be real. That requires serious attention and concentration... "I'd like to take these colour samples outside to compare them in daylight..." "I need to hear that again..." "Does Daniels mean the same thing as Skinner when he refers to 'reinforcement'? I'm not sure..."

If the problem is up-front, then at least we can argue about it, bitter though such arguments may be (in inverse proportion to their importance in the real world, of course, as here).

But if it is not acknowledged, for whatever reason, there is a real problem. Such was the case in the session the other night, when those in the role of "student" were confused, asking themselves; "Am I just being stupid? Have I been misunderstanding this all along?" or "This guy has got it all wrong. But he is supposed to be the teacher and I want to be constructive--how do I confront the point without undermining him?" And that is without going into the possibility of any personal investment in prior beliefs...

I'm doing my DIY carpentry. I've drilled a 4mm hole, but it is out of alignment by 2mm. Much more difficult to correct that than one which is 10mm out.

I'm driving down a rutted road; I need to steer a fraction to the right. I could do a right-angle turn, but I can't make that fine adjustment. The circumstances conspire against it...

I'm going beyond my exemplar here, but perhaps I'm discovering what many people --particularly perhaps in the coaching field-- have known (and probably written about) for centuries. 

And a great deal of teaching at advanced levels is about precisely this level of detailed adjustment. It calls for great open-ness on the part of the learner, and deep conviction on the part of the teacher that this "trivial" point is worth getting right (which may well lead to the traditional accusation of "arrogance", of course).

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