Robert Zajonc, and what he revealed to teachers, politicians, and propagandists

December 23, 2008

The Situationist brings the sad news:  Psychologist Robert Zajonc died on December 3. (It’s a repost of a story by Adam Gorlick from Stanford News Service.)

Zajonc wasn’t a household name (I didn’t even know it rhymes with “science”), but his research was.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Plus, he led a stunning, dramatic and sometimes wonderful life, surviving horrors in the Holocaust and contributing great things to science.

Gorlick’ s memorial may be best read there, and I encourage you to click over there to read it.

Several of  Zajonc’s articles are listed as “Classics” at Science Magazine, including his 1981 defense of research spending, in the first year of the Reagan administration.

I also urge you to consider what teachers might do with some of Zajonc’s findings, things that propagandists and dastardly politicians (and a few nice politicians) have already used:

  • People like images they see over and over, the “mere exposure” effect  (It’s important what pictures you post in your classroom, yes?)
  • Parental contact with older children can raise their IQs — well, parental contact does raise the IQs of older children, but having less time for younger children tends to keep the younger kids’ IQs from developing as much.  (Did you read to your youngest kid last night?)
  • Challenging kids to tell why things work the way they claim makes them smarter. (This was the same research:  The younger kids’ challenging the older kids made the older kids smarter.  Heck, their challenging of the parents probably make the parents smarter, too.  Do we make students defend their views to other students?)
  • Facial expression affects emotions (“Emotions and Facial Expression,” Zajonc, Science 8 November 1985: 608-687; DOI: 10.1126/science.230.4726.608-b)
  • People who perform tasks well, perform them even better in front of an audience.
  • People who perform an unknown task before an audience tend to make more mistakes than they would if they practiced it in private.

Some of Professor Zajonc’s most influential work concerned “social facilitation” — the effect of the presence of others on a person’s performance of a specific task. Previous research on the subject appeared contradictory, suggesting that spectators helped performers in some cases but not in others. But in which cases?

What Professor Zajonc found was that when performers have mastered a skill at a high level, they are helped by the presence of an audience. (Think of professional musicians or athletes.) But he also found that when a performer has mastered a skill only imperfectly, the existence of onlookers is a hindrance. (Think of Sunday duffers in any arena.)

Elsewhere in his work, Professor Zajonc explored the nexus between psychology and physiology. In one widely reported study, he found that smiling or frowning can alter blood flow to the brain as facial muscles relax or contract. This in turn affects the parts of the brain that regulate feelings, helping induce happy or sad emotional states.

And do you ever wonder about why old couples tend to resemble each other so much?  Zajonc worked that out, too.

Why didn’t he get a Presidential Medal of Freedom?


Testing boosts memory, study doesn’t

March 7, 2008

This is why football players remember the games better than they remember the practices.

Is this really news? It was a jarring reminder to me. Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science (just before his blog was swallowed up by the many-tentacled Seed Magazine empire) noted a study that shows testing improves performance more than study.

But a new study reveals that the tests themselves do more good for our ability to learn that the many hours before them spent relentlessly poring over notes and textbook. The act of repeatedly retrieving and using learned information drives memories into long-term storage, while repetitive revision produced almost no benefits.

More quizzes instead of warm-up studies? More tests? Longer tests? What do you think? Certainly this questions the wisdom of high-stakes, end of education testing; it also calls into question the practice of evaluating teachers solely on the basis of test scores.  Much grist for the discussion mill.

Here’s the citation to the study: Karpicke, J.D., Roediger, H.L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152408

Karpicke is at Purdue; Roediger is at Washington University in St. Louis.

12 year-old blogger educates . . .

January 29, 2008

How young is too young to blog about education?

Our reader, Dr. Pamela Bumsted wrote about a 12 year-old kid in Southern California who blogs to reach underprivileged kids, at The Edublogs Magazine.

Michael Guggenheim is twelve years old, a full-time 6th grade student in southern California. He’s recently won the Volunteer Service Award from Secretary Spelling of the U.S. Department of Education and another award from the Inland Empire Branch of the International Dyslexia/Dysgraphia Association. He’s been interviewed by Good Morning America, the LA Times, and CNN. And he’s a blogger.

Michael Guggenheim uses his blog for education – as a teacher to document his nonprofit organization and his extracurricular activities teaching even younger students how to use a computer.

S.P.L.A.T. Inc. (Showing People Learning And Technology) was set up by Guggenheim to help him tutor youngsters at homeless shelters, low income housing projects, and community centers. Whatever funds he raises goes to the distribution of used computers, monitors, printers, and donated software. He himself teaches basic computer skills and also shows the younger children how to use computer learning games.

Got a classroom blog yet? This kid is ahead of a lot of teachers in blogging.

Quote of the moment: How to succeed in business

November 4, 2007

Several years ago I found a quote attributed to business consulting guru Tom Peters, that ascribed success to hard work — if a lot of other things didn’t get in the way. I lost the quote, and the citation, and have sorely wanted to have it a hundred times since then when I found executives and administrators admonishing people for their failure to soar when the bosses themselves had anchored their employees to the ground.

Ah, the Glories of Google! I have found it again. Turns out it’s not Tom Peters after all; he quotes a passage from novelist Ann Beattie’s novel, Picturing Will.

It’s still worthy of noting; here is an excerpt from a Tom Peters column in 1990 featuring the passage:

Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, his order of birth, his first encounter with evil, the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs he may try once or too many times, the friends he makes, how he scores on tests, how well he endures kidding about his shortcomings, how ambitious he becomes, how far he falls behind, circumstantial evidence, ironic perspective, danger when it is least expected, difficulty in triumphing over circumstance, people with hidden agendas, and animals with rabies.”

The quote is from Ann Beattie’s latest novel, Picturing Will. It speaks directly to an increasingly important corporate issue — the peril of overestimating our ability to influence outcomes. In short, the way we recruit, organize, plan and act very much depends on how much we feel that we are in control. The problem is ageless, though as the world becomes less predictable the consequences of personal or corporate hubris are increasingly severe.

Systematically review a stack of annual reports. Without fail, a good year is explained as “the fruits of the strategic planning process your management put in place five (three, seven) years ago.” A bad year, however, is invariably the result of “the unanticipated rise in interest rates (unexpected foreign competition, etc.) which upset our planning assumptions.” But our corporate chiefs are hardly alone. A sizable branch of psychology, called attribution theory, examines the way human beings explain events to themselves. In short, we attribute good outcomes to skill and hard work; bad ones to bad luck.

For centuries, Cartesian cause and effect thinking has dominated our science — and management — paradigms. The causeless, effectless, probabilistic world of quantum mechanics that informs today’s scientific thought has still not permeated our psyches — or our approach to making corporate strategy.

Beattie’s novel is listed as an academic selection now, by Random House.  Do you, or does anyone at your school, use this book?

Too much communication: e-mail

October 12, 2007

What’s one big difference between education and business? Communication, especially electronic communication. Businesses have too much of it, many if not most educational organizations are a decade behind that curve, not yet having enough.

e-mail gif from South Alabama University

Free content at the Wall Street Journal includes this column by Sue Shellenbarger in Work and Family, “A day without e-mail is like . . .” She tells the story of U.S. Cellular’s chief operating officer banning e-mail on Fridays to improve work. He was striving for more face-to-face communication among employees, and he got it.

My first experience with e-mail was at the U.S. Department of Education — good heavens! — two decades ago. We were experimenting with electronic communication with the old, slow systems that linked dumb terminals through telephone connections (1200 BAUD, anyone?). Our formerly technophobic boss, Checker Finn, was at home recuperating from some physical ailment, and we made the delightful mistake of showing him he could send and receive messages by computer. Within a few weeks it took at least an hour a day to keep up with the messages. But our operations were split, with administration across town at the main ED building, and most of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) closer to the Capitol, at New Jersey Avenue, NE. Basic communications that had taken three days by inside mail, courier, and the limousine between the two buildings, were shortened to exchanges over 15 or 20 minutes. Computer messaging was a huge boost to productivity on most things. E-mail, such as it was, had to be printed out to be read. Saving it was a manual filing process.

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