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Finding Engagement

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What makes some situations more interesting than others? What is it about the the situations and the way i react to them that contributes to my receptivity?

this is a hodepodge of notes that are working their way into more organized writings around on the site. they are concerned with this question:

What makes some situations more interesting than others? What is it about the situations and the way i react to them that makes me more or less receptive?
  • i've wondered, particularly when troubled and decidedly not receptive, what it is about the things that manage to engage me even when most else fails (and satisfied my real needs, ie weren't just addictive).
  • similarly, why is some work more tolerable than other work, some play more compelling than other play? need work tend to be less engaging than play?
  • i found one clue (from which i have drawn some personal interpretations, below) in a theory that describes the way that infants' attention is or isn't held - the Optimal Discrepancy Hypothesis of Attention in Infants [kagan1978]. put simply (perhaps simplistically), the attention of an infant increases as an item varies from the familiar, and at some point in increasing variation the infant's attention levels out at and then decreases, back to baseline.

    the variables affecting the attention of adults along this dimension are too hard to isolate, so experiments rarely try to measure it. it sure is tempting, though, to extrapolate to simple adult terms - that which is too familiar is uninteresting, and that which too unfamiliar is so outside our frame of reference that it's either too much work to perceive it, or the uncertainty is threatening. and the stuff somewhere between is, as goldilocks would say, just right...

  • a "frontier hypothesis"; my (casual) extrapolation of the optimal discrepancy hypothesis: we like to be at the frontiers of our developed skills - too far below and we're not using what we like to use, too far beyond and we're beyond what we feel confident to handle (maybe or not justifiably - see clenching, below...)

    i need to unravel a significant chicken-or-egg aspect - our skills are those things we chose to concentrate on because we like them, or are they those things we continue to choose to work on because of our accumulated investment? what relative contributions do successfulness and purely aesthetic personal preferences contribute to those choices? are these two things causes, ultimately, distinguishable? i think so, but am uncertain.

  • : the tendency to clench in response to risk - to recoil and be rigid - often increases the risk: reflexive recoiling can limit the range and wisdom of choices in the moment and (physical or mental) rigidity increases brittleness.

    the thing i'm calling "clenching" is, fundamentally, an unwillingness to handle surprise. the unchecked tendency to clench in response to risk can fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of low ability to cope with risk.

    hmm. not only is clenching an often counterproductive response to the unfamiliar, it is also a demonstrably counterproductive response to that which one is familiar with having failed to handle well. it occurs to me that these two things are not necessarily distinct:

    failure due to clenching means that one doesn't get to follow through to a full experience of something new, so that the territory remains unfamiliar, no matter how many times it's encountered.

    thus, clenching may best be described as a way to avoid having an experience.

    of course, many experiences are best avoided. putting your hand on a hot stove doesn't get better with practice. too much unwillingness to explore and expand your frontiers, though - to much tendency to clench - can preclude growth and development.

    in this wise, preparation for surprise can be crucial to the ability to grow.

  • In Finite and Infinite Games, james carse observes this distinction between training and education:

    To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.

    i consider clenching to be an unwillingness to handle surprise. education, as preparation for surprise, reduces the need to clench. ideally, informed experience is the best educator.

    (carse makes many other useful distinctions, including a characterization of a difference between "society" and "culture". society is recognized as a collection of rules by which what has gone before is codified, for the sake of perpetuation. culture is recognized as the ongoing, emerging behavior of the constituents. culture is horizonal (as in "horizon", the always distant, ever shifting edge of your view of your landscape) - the emerging edge of our collective experience, the living frontier embodied by people living and creating.)


some perspectives on this kind of thing, cited by Tim Healy in his Work in Progress: Curiosity in the Education of the Engineer[healy2004]

  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [kuhn1961]

    "Kuhn introduced the theory of paradigm development to explain how science works. His argument is that at any time science agrees on a paradigm that describes the scientific world. This paradigm includes all of the theories, practices, terminology, measurement techniques, accepted by the scientific community. Most scientists carry out what Kuhn called "ordinary" science in which the paradigm is the basis for their work, and most of the work is done within the confines of the paradigm. All goes well until the existing paradigm is unable to explain some newly observed phenomena. Then some scientists may attempt to find and offer a new explanation. If the explanation is accepted by the community, we have what Kuhn called a paradigm shift, and a new paradigm is in place."

  • Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning & Development [kolb]

    The learning cycle due to Kolb, later adapted by Zull, presents a four-part model of learning.

    • Concrete experience (experiencing)
    • Reflective observation (reflecting)
    • Abstract conceptualization (thinking)
    • Active experimentation (doing)

    The first step in the learning process is an experience of some kind. The next step is to compare the input from that experience with some existing knowledge or standard. Next the brain forms an abstract concept. Finally the brain acts, which might mean direct physical action, or perhaps commitment of some new idea, relationship, construct to memory. Then the cycle repeats.

  • Learning and Teaching: Assimilation and Accommodation [atherton2005]

    Learners respond to cognitive dissonance in one of two ways. In the words of Piaget, learners either assimilate or accommodate. Assimilation occurs when the learner incorporates new information into the existing paradigm, without changing the paradigm, that is, makes the new information fit even if that fit is very tight Accomodation occurs when the learner adjusts the paradigm to accommodate to the new information. The student has learned something new. Of course, it doesn't always happen when we teach. All of us who teach have experience with students who hear new information but do not change their paradigm. Who of us has not said, "I showed them four times how to solve that problem. They just don't get it.


references:

[kagan1978] Kagan, Kearsley, Zelazo (1978, 1980) Infancy; Harvard Press
[kuhn1961] T.S. Kuhn (1961) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; U. Chicago Press
[kolb] D.A. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning & Development
[atherton2005]

Atherton, J.S. (2005) Learning and Teaching: Assimilation and Accommodation

Available online: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/assimacc.htm

[healy2004]

http://fie.engrng.pitt.edu/fie2004/papers/1586.pdf

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