Sunday, October 21, 2012

 

Mad Scientists and Marshmallows

Last week I had the chance to talk to a group of new full-time faculty.  Someone in the group asked me what I considered my goal as an administrator, especially regarding faculty.

It was a nifty question, and I probably should have expected it.  But since the question came out of the blue, my answer did, too.  

I’d love to see a culture in which faculty use their academic freedom to experiment.  In my ideal setting, they’d be working together -- and separately, as appropriate -- to keep trying different approaches to helping students succeed.  That could mean different teaching techniques, different scheduling ideas, different course content, novel uses of technology, or whatever; the one thing it absolutely would not mean is doing the exact same thing year after year.  I would love to see faculty as a group of mad scientists, innovating gleefully.

This story about the marshmallow experiment came out at about the same time, and I think it offers a useful nuance.  Most of us know the classic marshmallow study in which young children were left alone for several minutes in a room with a marshmallow.  They were told that they could eat the marshmallow, or, if they managed not to until the adult returned, they could have two.  The kids who exhibited enough self-discipline to hold out for the second marshmallow wound up having better lives by a host of measures.

Apparently, researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the study, but with a twist.  They had some adults come through with the second marshmallow, and others seemingly forget.  Then they ran the experiment again with the same kids.  Unsurprisingly, kids whose trust had been violated the first time were much less likely to defer gratification the second time.  It’s one thing to wait for a payoff; it’s quite another to wait for a broken promise.  The study suggested that kids whose home lives are chaotic will have a harder time in school, since they will have a harder time believing that delaying gratification will result in a payoff.  At home, the promised marshmallow never comes.  Why would school be different?

It occurred to me that, in a sense, I’m hoping that faculty will wait for the second marshmallow.  I’m hoping that they’ll use their autonomy and academic freedom to experiment, rather than to coast (or fulminate).  Which requires a certain faith on their part that there will be some sort of payoff, and that they won’t be punished if an experiment fails.

With people who are relatively new to the college, it’s easier to set a certain expectation.  But with those who’ve been here longer, through various administrations, it can be hard to get past old, forgotten marshmallows.  Habits learned early are hard to shake.  That’s why the marshmallow study matters.  

In the meantime, here’s hoping that enough security will lead to gleeful experimentation, rather than just digging in.  The marshmallow parallel works in two directions, after all.

Comments:
Depressingly for parents (and likely administrators), my understanding is that they actually ran the first bit of the experiment with art supplies, before the marshmallows... so it's not just consistency-within-context that matters, but general reliability of authority. In other words, you ALWAYS have to give the marshmallows you promise.

That said, it's hard to tease out the simple effect of "disappointment depletes willpower reserves" from "fool me twice shame on me" in their model.
 
Interesting application of the marshmallow experiment. It struck me recently that sometimes even the positive changes that administrators propose ("positive" in the immediate context) can have negative effects, since near-constant change is so stressful (and I say this while serving under Provost #7 and Dean #5 in the past 17 years). Your post gives more substance to my intuition.
 
I just have to say that it's nearly impossible for adjuncts to experiment when they have to teach 6 sections at two or three campuses in order to pay the bills. With no job security, health care, or even a living wage, adjuncts often just don't have the time or freedom to be innovative.
 
And adjuncts probably don't dare to experiment in the classroom. The most dangerous thing an adjunct can do is to make waves, which could upset the higher-ups at the school and get the adjunct quickly fired. Best to keep your head low, your nose clean, make sure you don't upset any of your students, stick to non-controversial matters, and avoid attracting any negative attention. You really don't have any academic freedom when you are an adjunct.
 
You don't have a lot of freedom if you don't have tenure, either. If the result of a failed experiment (and experiments fail) is being fired or put on notice, don't expect a lot of people to take chances trying something new.

There's also the ethical issue of experimenting on students. How to you get informed consent, and yet still conduct proper experiments (with controls and other proper experimental protocols*)?


*And I'll note that most 'educational experiments' published in the literature don't have sufficient controls to be considered valid, at least to any science that understands basic statistics.
 
"I’d love to see a culture in which faculty use their academic freedom to experiment. In my ideal setting, they’d be working together -- and separately, as appropriate -- to keep trying different approaches to helping students succeed."

I guess you'd like to visit some parts of my college. (Notice that I said "some". Other parts are not perceived as being supportive of the risk of innovation.) Our biggest weakness is that failures are not discussed as openly as success, yet any scientist will tell you that you learn as much or more from failed experiments than from successful ones.

Most of those developments have been undertaken by tenured faculty with the support of long-term Deans, for all of the reasons alluded to in the comments and the
marshmallow experiment.

Anonymous observes:
"I'll note that most 'educational experiments' published in the literature don't have sufficient controls to be considered valid, at least to any science that understands basic statistics."

That would be why basic statistics are rarely enough when human beings, with all of their variability, are part of the equation. Experimental physics is easy by comparison, yet even there you will find some highly sophisticated statistical techniques in use.
 
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