Information Age Education
   Issue Number 89
May, 2012   

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. See and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at

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 IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are available at

Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Thinking, Fast and Slow

Robert Sylwester
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

Genes: 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.

Memes: 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 (2000). A 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 report it.

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

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 of something.

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, to 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 make.

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.

Educational Challenges

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:

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

Robert Sylwester

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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