Know when to nudge to ensure learning!

A few days back, I was reading about The Nudge Theory. It is very interesting and important just that we often fail to get the idea described in the theory. So, I thought I would write about my personal experiences with it. I have been a big follower of it for quite some time.

Imagine that there is a blind man trying to find the deepest point in the mountains. Should we help him? The answer is “It depends”. My answer is that instead of guiding him all the way down, you observe and find the points which could lead to the unrecoverable situation. For example, if there is gutter somewhere. A blind man can understand the slope and would walk by himself to the lowest point but if there is a gutter somewhere he would not be able to recover from it and might die (discontinuity). So, you nudge him near the gutter or inform him about the position of the gutter.

Those who are mathematically inclined or know about the machine learning algorithms such as gradient descent would be able to quickly observe that it is similar to a non-linearity in the dataset or model.

Let me take another example. My seven years old and I wanted to learn to play the piano. I realized that instead of me over-training him, let me buy a simple keyboard and let him try by himself. So, one little thing I did was to keep it open in the living room instead of keeping it covered in the bag. That made a huge difference. Whenever he or I were in the living room, we would invariably play it. The outcome is that he can play the music by ear without much of a training. We did hire a piano teacher but the outcome was fatal. He was over-teaching him the maths of music because of which my kid lost the interest in piano completely. It took me a while to undo the damages done by the over-training. So, I realized that not all teachings are helpful.

I did three basic nudges, in this case, getting a keyboard, keeping it open and avoiding the over-training.

Long back my wife and I wanted to learn driving. Though I knew a bit of driving tractor she was completely new to driving. I bought a second-hand car because due to the fear of denting the new car, we avoid driving. So, that was the first nudge. Second, instead of overtraining on how to drive, I only helped her building the subconscious response to apply driving breaks. And told only basic what-is-what. She learnt driving really well. Here, I realized that the main reason for accidents is to press accelerator instead of applying breaks that could lead to fatal accidents and hence that is the only nudge I did.

For many, learning to swim is a daunting task. It seems that it would require a lot of training and people give up really quickly. When someone asked me to teach swimming, I was tempted to teach him everything. But I only explained to him that the human body has the same density as water so practically we can’t drown. The reason why we drown is that when we get tensed our body shrinks which increases its density. So, if you don’t get stressed you will never drown. Rest of the swimming he figured out by himself by seeing others. Also, when you are stressed or afraid, the brain consumes more oxygen. So, the fear has a very non-linear relationship with swimming. The more you are afraid the more is the chance of drowning or not getting into the swimming pool at all. The nudge here is a very tiny simple knowledge that you can’t drown if you are not afraid.

I see a lot of parents teaching kids each and everything. The result of such training is that kids only learn how to follow the instructions. Such kids become very dependent on teaching and they need teaching for each and everything.

So, the role of a teacher or parent is to figure out the points which might lead to discontinuity and prevent or cure those instead of teaching everything.

So, to figure out when to nudge and in which direction to nudge, you need to observe the discontinuity. When there is continuity human mind can figure out what is the best way by hit-and-trial or by analytical thinking but if there is a discontinuity there is a need for nudging.

Tinkering around the AI, Robotics and teaching.