Information Age Education
   Issue Number 118
July, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the fourth in a series on complexity. Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.

This also is the first newsletter in a set of three that focus on specific kinds of development that occur as we come to understand and master complex phenomena. The process can sometimes begin with a Eureka moment, as the article below suggests. The subsequent article suggests that some developments begin with a basic natural capability (such as speech) that then expands into something far more abstract and complex (reading). This is followed by a discussion in the third article on major cognitive neuroscience developments that gradually expanded our naïve understanding of brain processes, and how the education profession then began to incorporate these discoveries into instructional policy and practice.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
Spontaneously Clarifying Complexity

Michael A. Rousell
Assistant Professor
Southern Oregon University


A Sudden Realization

As a young teacher, I wondered if many of my students were unwittingly acting out suggestions given to them by authority figures during natural moments of high suggestibility. Eureka! It's just like hypnosis. This sudden realization led me through a Ph.D. dissertation (Rousell, 1991) and to a university position. Now it's leading me further into the cognitive complexities of personal development and life-changing moments.

The actual story below illustrates a common event that parallels the hypnotic process. Cathy, a graduate student and veteran teacher, recalled a profound moment that I would later call a Spontaneous Influence Event (Rousell, 2007).

Cathy's faith in her capability had plunged considerably by the time she reached the fourth grade. She felt like the dumb kid in class. Efforts to excel only reminded her that she was a failure. She discounted occasional successes by attributing them to luck, not ability. She felt hopeless, avoiding any effort, afraid that attempts on her part would only confirm her feelings of inadequacy.

A life-changing event occurred while playing Monopoly with her favorite uncle. He casually asked Cathy how she was doing in school. She burst into tears. She described how she felt dumb and frustrated with school. She wondered if she would ever add up to anything worthwhile. Her uncle then told her something that she would remember vividly for the rest of her life. He said, “Someone who struggles so hard with school will make a great teacher. Discouraged students need a teacher like you.” This simple statement stunned Cathy, instantly changing her mind-set.

It doesn't necessarily follow that those who struggle at school will become good teachers, but the comment did spur Cathy on, and that's the central issue.

Cathy retrospectively noted that she, her parents, teachers, and friends hadn't noticed a conspicuous change in her behavior, but her inside world profoundly transformed. Before that event, school aroused feelings of weakness and incompetence; it now awakened a sense of challenge. Schoolwork changed from an unattainable task to an ordained rocky pathway on her journey to become a teacher.

Something triggered a moment of high susceptibility to suggestion whereby Cathy automatically and unconsciously accepted her uncle’s assertion that she’d be a great teacher. This became a self-affirming mindset that colored her view of herself and her experiences. She began acting as if her new mindset was authentic. What was it about this ordinary event that created such a profound effect?


To Find Enlightening Answers, Formulate Instructive Questions

My graduate program led me to hypnotic susceptibility as a major factor. My studies concluded that the conditions for hypnosis are regularly and substantially present in events such as those experienced by Cathy. I thus needed to generate a thorough cognitive and neurological model to explain how and why these spontaneous transformative events take place. As indicated above, hypnosis was my initial explanatory model but it proved unsatisfactory because teachers don’t really hypnotize their students in the traditional sense. Importantly though, I discovered that all of us experience natural spikes in susceptibility to suggestion that are similar to the heightened suggestibility induced in hypnosis. During these moments, we may profoundly change a mindset that in turn generates a dramatic shift in a belief. This is what happened to Cathy. Current models better explain how and why these events occur.

Thinking Fast and Slow

The cognitive processing of strong emotional events typically occurs outside our conscious awareness and rational processing. In his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2011) dichotomizes our cognitive mechanisms into two systems he names System One (quick and automatic) and System Two (slow and effortful). Regarding surprise he states, “Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event.” He describes how impressions made by System One during surprising events often turn into your beliefs that in turn become the source of the impulses for the voluntary actions made by System Two. In Cathy’s case, her uncle’s comment stunned her; she accepted the literal message without rationally disputing it. If she hadn’t been stunned, her I’m-not-good-at-school mindset would probably have dismissed her uncle’s comment as sweet, but empty, praise from a loving uncle.

Surprise Activates Revision Impulses

Our brain evolved to adapt to expected regularities, and to focus on events that surprise us (Itti & Baldi, 2009). Surprise suggests that something significant has happened. Our heart rate increases, attention becomes riveted, and adrenaline encodes subsequent interpretations with a neurological highlighter. Surprise is perhaps the most important causal precursor of belief change (Lorini & Castelranchi, 2007). The main effect of surprise is revision. We must either revise our knowledge of the environment or our beliefs about ourselves. In Cathy’s case, her uncle’s surprising statement generated a revision impulse. His statement provided a positive frame for the instant accommodation of a new mindset. This new mindset triggered the activation of underground emotional machinery.

Underground Machinery: Emotions and Tags

The emotional contribution to mindsets displays itself quite demonstrably in the framing effect (Goldberg, 2009). Think “glass half full” or “glass half empty.” If Cathy feels weak at school, academic struggles are cognitively framed as “glass half empty.” Once Cathy reflexively accepts the comment, “Your struggles with learning will make you a great teacher,” academic struggles are now cognitively framed as “glass half full.” It creates a positive emotional tag. Damasio (2003, 2010) refers to this as a “somatic marker.” Cathy then feels that working hard to overcome deficits is the tell-tale sign of a successful teacher. This half-full perspective or yes-I-can mindset triggers an optimistic outlook that in turn allocates more cognitive resources. A cascade of subsequent behavior thus generates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cathy subsequently responds to learning struggles as engaging challenges.

Attention and Perception Mechanisms

Cathy’s new mindset trains and restructures the cognitive networks. The predictive mechanisms of the brain play a huge role in determining what we attend to and thus, what we perceive. In other words, Cathy used to attend to signals that affirmed her hopelessness. After her uncle’s comment, her cognitive mechanisms now prime her to attend to signals that affirm accomplishments through hard work.

An Interesting Speculation About the Role of Brain Lateralization

Goldberg (2009) illustrates how our brains’ hemispheres evolved to specialize in particular tasks. Our cerebral hemispheres have complementary processes. The hemisphere that specializes in a task (such as handedness) may vary from person to person. For most humans, the right hemisphere is organized to effectively interpret and creatively respond to unfamiliar challenges. The left hemisphere is organized to identify familiar challenges and then to activate effective responses. The right hemisphere’s neuronal systems are thus broadly connected to permit the consideration of many alternatives. The left hemisphere’s primary task is to activate established routines. During an unfamiliar event, the left hemisphere has no routines to activate. The right hemisphere thus generates a response. If the response works, it eventually becomes adopted by the left hemisphere and is automatically applied in similar situations. It thus becomes routinized.

During her uncle’s remark, “Someone who struggles so hard with school will make a great teacher,” Cathy's left hemisphere (that specializes in routine) had nothing to activate. It didn’t have a “Cathy-will-make-a-great-teacher” story. Her uncle’s remark triggered the right hemisphere to generate a new response. The new response from Cathy, “I-will-become-a-great-teacher,” strengthened through self-affirming evidence generated by her new attentional and perceptual shift. This new response triggers underground mechanisms to instinctively scan for evidence that confirms this new perspective. This new perspective then routinized to the left hemisphere as the new mindset.

Codify What You Learned and Make it Operational

Over the years, I've examined hundreds of life-changing anecdotes. Clear patterns appeared. Positively framed comments that surprised the recipient turn up regularly in these stories. Cathy was surprised by her uncle’s comment. The structure of his statement is also a critical factor in her mindset transformation. He named some skill, disposition, or quality that was already present and then linked it into a forecast. Cathy’s uncle connected her current experience, “Students who struggle with learning,” to a desired result, “will make a great teacher.” This communication pattern also appears regularly in my research.

I teach this simple structure to my pre-service teachers. The structure has two elements:
  1. Create an element of surprise with the content or the timing of the comment.

  2. Name a skill or disposition and express the result it will create.
The following example from a pre-service teacher illustrates both elements.

Nevil is a very creative student. He plays music, acts, and draws pictures on all his assignments. He sometimes questions why we are doing a particular assignment, especially when there is a lot of writing involved. One day when he complained about a particular writing assignment, I told him, “Your ability to put creativity into everything you do should make this one a breeze!” The piece he turned in was very creative and by far the best writing I had seen from him.


My own sudden developing awareness of the complexity of a “life-changing-moment” generated a 30-year search for the mechanisms at play. I’m encouraged to see a new generation of pre-service teachers who are now aware of the fragile emotional state of their students and cognizant of a productive communication pattern. I’m also excited to teach a simple, yet powerful, mechanism for the intentional production of positive and resilient mindsets in our youth.


References

Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. San Diego: Harcourt.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Random House.

Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain: Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.

Itti, L., & Baldi, P. F. (2009). Bayesian surprise attracts human attention. Vision Research, 49:12, June 2, 1295-1306.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lorini, E., & Castelranchi, C. (2007, February 23). The cognitive structure of surprise: Looking for basic principles. Springer Science and Business Media. Retrieved 7/23/2013 from http://www.springerlink.com/content/e43w22t681450280/.

Rousell, M.A. (1991). Hypnotic conditions: Are they present in the elementary classroom? (Doctoral dissertation).
Eugene, OR: University of Oregon.

Rousell, M.A. (2007). Sudden influence: How spontaneous events shape our lives. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Michael A. Rousell

Michael A. Rousell is a certified psychologist and Assistant Professor of Education at Southern Oregon University. His two-decade study of life-changing moments culminated in his award winning book, Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives (Praeger, 2007).

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