What happens if we don’t…?

The Value Function

I’ve been reading about cognitive psychology and design thinking with great interest lately, and some ideas have been swirling around in my head. In particular, I (finally!) finished Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow on Prospect Theory (reading notes here) and the decision-making processes that are at work in our minds (cf. a previous post on some of its ideas). Design Thinking (DT) has also caught my attention (cf. another previous post), and while sitting on a plane last week, I had the chance to reflect on how prospect theory and DT work with each other.

In particular, I’ve been very interested in Carol Dweck’s idea of the growth mindset, with its emphasis on resilience and the reframing of failure as an opportunity, which is a pillar of DT. But I haven’t see much concrete thinking on how we actually develop this in people. More and more of us are telling our students that they shouldn’t fear failure but rather embrace it; though, it’s been my experience that simply telling them that failure isn’t a bad thing isn’t very effective, especially if this thinking isn’t reinforced elsewhere. As one of my students recently put it, after all, “School wouldn’t be fun without grades!” So, how do we help students to be more “growth” focused and innovative? How do we actually teach them to take risks and feel rewarded for doing so?

Kahneman’s Prospect Theory, which was developed as an economic theory of decision making, has direct application to education, I think, and it has helped me think through this problem. In his book, Kahneman discusses risk aversion as a feature that’s deeply embedded into our cognitive thinking, in that “[t]he aversion to the failure of not reaching a goal is much stronger than the desire to reach it” (303), and that “[a]nimals, including people, fight harder to prevent losses than to achieve gains.” (305) Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs, in their paper “The Bad Is Stronger Than Good” (323), sum it up nicely:

“Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

The Fourfold Pattern
The Fourfold Pattern (316ff.) in Prospect Theory states that, despite the probabilities, when people stand to gain something, we avoid risk; but when we stand to loose something, we embrace risk. For instance, consider which option in the following two scenarios is preferable to you:
  • Get $900 for sure or a 90% chance to get $1000
  • Lose $900 for sure or a 90% chance to lose $1000
The overwhelming majority of people, according to Kahneman (279-280), find the first option of the first scenario preferable (i.e. getting $900) vis–à–vis taking the risk in the second option and not getting any money. Conversely, we’d rather take the risk of not losing anything, even if the risk is large, than give up a sure $900. The observed behavioral patterns are nicely summed up in the “Fourfold Pattern” chart.
I think that the current educational system can be placed in the upper-left box, where students and teachers believe that we stand to gain, provided we play it “safe” and do what we’re supposed to do. According to tradition, “sure things” are the cognitive skills that are reflected by grades, AP scores, etc. But tradition too frequently prevents us from taking risks by innovating and developing the essential non-cognitive skills (or “soft skills”) like resilience, empathy, and creativity, since we’re resistant to missing out on the measurable rewards, and this is where our fears of failure are forged.
Interestingly, Kahneman found discrepancies to the predicted behaviors, though, when the commodities in question were “for use” (intrinsic) in comparison to “for exchange” (extrinsic) goods like money. “Selling goods that one would normally use activates regions of the brain that are associated with disgust and pain” (296) by changing the reference point for which we make decisions, he argues, and we therefore treat “for use” goods differently, allowing for more mobility within the Fourfold Pattern. This so-called endowment effect (293) is an important discovery that may have potential ramifications for how we think about learning.
With this framework in mind, I’ve been considering some applications of Prospect Theory to DT, mindsets, and education. When we treat education and content as a commodity to be traded (i.e. lecturing, mechanically testing on content, emphasizing grades, etc.) and when we have deep beliefs that we will gain something valuable from doing these things, it makes sense, thanks to Kahneman’s work, that we will be “risk averse” and “fixed” with respect to our mindsets. We’re afraid to miss out because that’s how our brains are wired to react, and we thus protect ourselves be being risk averse (i.e. taking the sure $900).
But if we treat education and the learning process as something with “utility” and ideas that we actually use, focusing on innovation and creativity, rather than content to be simply traded with others, we can learn to be risk-seeking, even when the probability of traditional “success” is low. In other words, we can move from the upper left to the lower left of the Fourfold Pattern above, which means, surprisingly, that we may need to start believing that we stand to lose something for certain if we don’t take the risk. Taking risks doesn’t necessarily lead to embracing failure within DT framework, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
In order to produce growth mindsets in students, we need to ask them to use their education (“for use” commodities), rather than simply repeat it back to us (“for exchange” commodities). This is what DT is all about: ideation, iteration, and innovation. In Prospect Theory, the possibility effect is the observed pattern whereby highly unlikely outcomes are given disproportionately more weight (311), but in education I see it as the hope that students have when they think big, believe in themselves, and take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t take. What we all lose when we don’t take risks, then, is personalization of learning, creativity, and the opportunity to innovate and do something new. That’s to say, we lose the chance to escape from tradition.
Now this conclusion is likely not too surprising to educators who have been investing themselves in to project-based learning philosophies like “20% time” or “genius hour” projects, but it reinforces these ideas and gives us (or at least me!) a concrete framework to stand on, as we rework our curricula and begin to transform our schools from the traditional “factory” model. Putting some of this theory to practice and playing around with using loss to motivate risk taking, I want to try asking more “What happens if we don’t…?” and “What do we lose by not doing…?” questions that frame our work in terms of losses of intrinsic goals, rather than focusing on the grade-based extrinsic “gains.”
As I keep thinking through these ideas, I’m going to make heavy use of Kahneman’s term theory-inducing blindness, which means that “once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws.” (277) We’ve been induced to blindness by our allegiance to the AP curriculum, GPAs and “Honors” courses, advanced degrees, and our teacher-centric lecture models. We won’t take risks, as long as we see consider these our goals. And we can’t innovate, if we don’t take risks. To get our students to take them and learn to reframe failure, we have change our own mindsets first and take those risks ourselves.