Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Some Thinking about Thinking

     During the recent break I started to read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book had come highly recommended, and I used to teach a course on ways of knowing. Started, but didn't finish. The book was disappointing mainly because of how it was presented: each chapter followed the same basic pattern with a slightly different focus. However, the book's primary thesis holds some important implications for education.
     Kahneman contends that our thought patterns operate in two ways--System 1 and System 2. System 1 consists of our automatic, almost instinctual reactions to things. They are often based on prior knowledge, assumptions, things we take for granted. System 2 involves deeper thinking; it is more reflective and analytical. Not surprisingly, Kahneman contends that we operate mainly per System 1. He says that this occurs in large part because we are intellectually lazy. But there are other reasons. Heuristics cause us to see things in certain ways. For example, the way information is presented can "anchor" us and influence how we respond. Other heuristics include availability, emotion, risk, sample size. We also have a poor grasp of statistics. I would add that we are simply busy, we want quick answers, and we haven't really been trained to think deeply.
     Therein lies the challenge for schools. Too many of our current systems do not foster System 2 thinking. We race kids through curricula, through multiple classes each day, through plenty of extras both inside and outside of school. Assessment practices don't lend themselves neatly to System 2 thinking. It's simply much messier; it’s essentially non-measurable. Surely you can expand on the brief generalizations in this paragraph. I suspect you could draw upon much of your own experience in schools.
     The ultimate conundrum is that much of our educational practice is, in itself, based on System 1 thinking. Besides human nature when it comes to change, our practices are based on many long-standing notions that function as heuristics. The ways we organize schools, how content drives curricula, the motivational devices, grading practices, the role of the teacher--the list could go on and on, capturing traditional notions of education which seem inherently true. After all, it's the way we've always done it. And it worked well enough for us, didn't it? That question is rhetorical. If you answered yes, Kahneman could make you rethink that. The answer might be still be well enough...but not as well as it could have.
     In what serves as an interesting parallel, I came across this piece on the training methods of the Standard Liege Football [Soccer] Club from Belgium. Their coach uses the latest research from neuroscience as part of the players' individual and group training regimens. His goal: to help the players become better thinkers on the field. He wants them to be able to think as quickly as they can perform physically. To accomplish this, he has had to reconsider the entire way practices are organized, with a greater focus on the geometry of the game, among other points. The method also places greater emphasis on small-sided games rather than drill work and full scrimmages. This allows the players to practices their skills in more realistic context and to see the relevance more immediately. Throughout the article are ideas that resonate with any forward-thinking educator.
     There is another key, unstated point. As much as I support such changes in pedagogy, if we want to think deeply and help kids to learn to do the same, we have to make time and space for it. It's vital--in the most literal, life-sustaining sense--for young people. And don't just take my word for it. Read this article from salon.com: "Why Kids Need Solitude." I think the points hold for everyone, not just kids.
     Now, take some time and think about all this, fast and slow.

No comments: