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This is the 15th of a
series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current
cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester
(Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two
introductory articles. Newsletter # 77 and subsequent newsletters are
written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to
contribute to this emerging collection.
For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive
neuroscience. Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication
Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers
are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions
near the end of this newsletter.
We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free
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Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
Hard copy books and periodicals are expensive to produce and
distribute. Publishers typically go to a lot of trouble to make sure
that readers have a sense of the credibility of what they read.
Non-fiction works have notes and citations, and students can develop a
term project with a reasonable certainty that the sources are correct.
The recent development of computers changed everything. Anyone can now
post anything on the Internet and value-oriented radio and cable
channels. It’s thus now becoming the responsibility of the
viewer/hearer to determine the credibility of such material. The
presidential election cycle will provide an excellent example of the
kind of misinformation and downright lies that will be sent out by
folks who can be reasonably sure that most print-oriented voters will
not have had the kind of training to assess the credibility of what
they get on TV or in Internet documents.
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast And Slow
(2011) is a simply superb book on thought and decision-making for a
time like this—clear and precise in writing, humorous and gentle in
manner. It will provide you with a sense of both the genesis and nature
of credibility in human thought. It will also orient you to the major
task that schools must now include—how best to teach students about the
nature of thinking and credibility in a post-credible world.
Systems 1 and 2
: Two forms of
narrative flow through us. One very ancient form consists of the
20,000 or so human genes that are constructed from combinations of only
20 amino acids. These provide the genetic instructions on how to build
and protect a body. Since many body parts are biologically conserved
from earlier life forms, we do share parts and functions with other
life forms. Egg and sperm split the basic instructional task on such
things as body placement and skin color. To put it simply, a gene
transmits and supports hereditary characteristics. When the environment
creates circumstances that most examples of a species can't overcome,
only the outlying variants will survive, and they can pass on their
enhanced genetic capabilities to the next generation. The concept of learning
for such species is thus an evolutionary process in which generations gradually adapt to environmental change.
This cognitive system incorporates rapid reflexive systems (such as
emotion and attention) that become what Kahneman calls System 1. This
automatic system, which we share with many animals, operates with
little or no voluntary control. It focuses rather on imminent
individual (other than categorical) dangers and opportunities. Malcolm
Gladwell devoted his widely read book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
(2005) to this central approaching/aversion system in humans.
: Providing genetic
instructions is only part of the human parenting charge. Our upright
stance and consequent narrow birth canal results in a child whose brain
is only one-third its adult size. Most human cognitive brain
development thus occurs during the 20+ years after birth, as compared
to other mammals whose female birth canal is slightly larger than the
almost fully developed brain that passes through it at birth.
In The Selfish Gene
(1976) Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of memes to explain the
analogous important transmission of cultural information. Susan
Blackmore wrote an extended non-technical exploration of the concept in
The Meme Machine
meme is a bit of useful cultural information that often evolves from
one person to another. Think of the changes that can occur over time in
acquiring and preparing food/shelter or even in the elements of a joke.
Genes thus transmit biological information between generations, and
memes transmit useful cultural information within a generation.
Permanent records (such as books and films) increase our life span in
effect, because they represent useful information that’s passed on by
those who had mastered environmental challenges, and then lived to
Language in its various forms is the common memetic transmission
device, and it functions much like genes. Combinations of 20 amino
acids can construct multiple gene combinations, and 20 or so alphabetic
letters construct language in a form of brain-to-brain coupling,
something children easily master. Motherese and mirror neurons play
initially important roles, but parents, siblings, and schools
significantly enhance the further mastery of language skills. Nowadays
these language skills include memory, writing, mathematics, and
texting as key elements of this complex system. (For information about
mirror neurons, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron
Consciousness exists for most animals within the immediate here and
now. The human frontal lobes allow us move well beyond the here and
now. Our curiosity and logic allow us to create tools and extract food
and minerals, to build homes, to construct ships and trains. These
activities also involve subjective negotiations about how much
something is worth. Much of Kahneman’s book is thus focused on the
complex task that our human working mind has in determining the value
It’s one thing to identify value when comparing a product that someone
wants to sell and another wants to buy, but it’s something else to
choose from among two presidential candidates who are vying for the
position. It’s no surprise that Kahneman devotes much of his text to
the issue of gambling
select a future value (as we do in elections). Subjective predictive
acts, such as these, are the most complex challenges humans face.
Kahneman’s book is at its most charming when he takes us through many
fascinating issues that economists confront as they try to
differentiate between the System 1 stress-driven automatic choices that
early humans made and the much more difficult, non-automatic, slower
System 2 conscious choices that our extended brain now allows us to
Think of 2 + 2 = 4 as basically a System 1 decision, and 67 + 24 = 91
as a System 2 decision. The processing time slows when we need more
computational skills, so we often just estimate the solution (System
1). This is often OK, but it’s generally better to think in terms of a
computational (or statistical) rather than causal solution to many more
complex or risky problems. System 2 thus overcomes the rapid and often
incorrect impulses of System 1.
The reality is that we often make decisions that are not in our best
interest, because System 1’s innate nature is so deeply ingrained
within us. That’s probably why it takes 20+ years to go from being not
much more than a reflexive wet noisy pet to arrive at the position of
being a reflective adult. And then we still make foolish errors. It
probably comes down to blink
if you really truly understand a rapid-feedback problem, but think
in all other cases.
Kahneman tells a story about an Israeli experience he had that
occurred when the new math/science programs were being developed in the
US. He and others were asked to develop a high school curriculum on how
to teach judgment and decision-making skills.
After almost a year, the team had developed a basic syllabus, written a
couple of chapters, and field-tested several lessons. It was a good
time to estimate the project completion, and the most knowledgeable
person on the team predicted that it might take seven years. Although
discouraged, the team decided to continue, and finally completed the
task eight years later. The initial enthusiasm for the project had
waned in the Ministry by then, and the curriculum was never used.
Many of us recall the earlier excitement about the new math/science
programs, and how we believed that they would transform K-12 education.
They didn’t, but the reality is that some of their best elements are
still being used by teachers who were students then, and by subsequent
curricular teams. I further see elements in manuscripts I review for
publishers—ideas that I can remember being tossed out
but are now tightly and effectively written. Good curriculum doesn’t
emerge easily. My advice if this concept seems important in your career:
- Get and read Daniel Kahneman’s superb book, and think about how
to translate his psychological/economic advice into curriculum. The
book is full of wonderful ideas that an imaginative educator can mine.
- Read the next issue of this newsletter. It will focus on Esther Fusco’s Effective Questioning Strategies That Build Thinking and Learning. Solutions begin with questions, and Esther’s book focuses on that initial perspective.
Blackmore, S. (2000). The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company. Reviewed in Brain Connection: http://brainconnection.positscience.com/content/215_1
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter. His
most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture
(2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy
(2007, Corwin Press). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. See http://brainconnection.
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