Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Minor Musings about Feedback Loops

Writing in Wired Magazine, Thomas Goetz explains that road signs that display a radar reading of drivers' speeds are effective because the signs "leverage what’s called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior."  Goetz explains that feedback loops consist of four stages.
A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals. [emphasis in original]
This morning Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) tweets the following: "Interesting Wired piece on feedback loops & operant conditioning: — are there pedagogical implications? ..."  In a second tweet, Jacobs asks, "... That is, how could I apply this understanding of human behavior to the classroom? Less monitoring, less 'punishment,' better results?"

Like Jacobs, I wonder how to apply loops in the classroom, especially if they are as effective as Goetz's article claims.  The data and relay stages should not be that difficult.  Classes are designed to collect data/grades all of the time.  The classroom also provides its own context.

The consequence stage becomes a bit more problematic.  The radar signs call out drivers publicly, and according to Dan Candelaria, Garden Grove’s traffic engineer. . . ."encourage people to do the right thing.”  Teenagers may react well to being anonomously called out by a traffic sign, but a classroom is a more public place, and teachers, not flashing lights, will be issuing the behavior reminder.  Further, students fear "doing the right thing" in class if the action is going to get them labeled as some sort of teacher's pet.  Finally, planning a "clear moment" to allow a student to recalibrate may be difficult.

Getting drivers to ease off the accelerator may be simpler than getting students to understand grammar or algebra.  Being seen as a good driver, even if anonymously, may be more personally important than knowing about Thomas Edison.  Still, feedback loops seem to have promise to change some behaviors.  I'd be satisfied if I could figure out how to use them to stop texting during class on the cell phones they hide in their pockets.

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