1.08.2007

What are you optimistic about and why?

I like this: What are you optimistic about and why?


And I think this is interesting; may have to check out his book.

GARY MARCUS
Psychologist, New York University; Author, The Birth of the Mind
Metacognition For Kids

We can use the discoveries of cognitive science to improve the quality of education in the US and abroad. To do this, however, we need to radically rethink how our schools work. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, the main emphasis as been on memorization, force-feeding our children with bite-sized morsels that are easily memorize—and quickly forgotten. (Recall the words of Dickens' stern schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind, "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts... Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.") I am not sure it ever served a purpose for children to memorize the capitals of all 50 states (as I failed to do in junior high school), but in the age of Google, continued emphasis on memorization is surely largely a waste of time.

Five decades of cognitive science have taught us that humans are not particularly good memorizers—but also that we as a species have bigger fish to fry. Hamlet famously marveled that humans were "noble in reason", "infinite in faculty", but experimental psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky have shown that humans are actually often poor reasoners, easily fooled. The average person tends to have a shaky grasp on logic, to believe a lot of what he (or she) hears unreflectively, and to be overly confident in his (or her) own beliefs. We tend to be easily fooled by vivid examples, and to notice data that support our theories—whilst forgetting about or ignoring data that go against our theories. Yet I cannot recall a single high school class on informal arguments, how to spot fallacies, or how to interpret statistics; it wasn't until college that anybody explained to me the relation between causation and correlation. In the age of the internet, our problem is not that children can't find information, but that they can't evaluate it.

What children of today need is not so much a large stock of readily Googleable information as a mental toolkit for parsing what they hear and read. As the old saying goes, it is better to teach a man how to fish than to simply give him fish; the current curriculum largely gives children fish, without teaching them a thing about how to fish for themselves.

How to teach children to fish for themselves? I would start with a course in what cognitive scientists call metacognition, knowing about knowing, call it The Human Mind: A User's Guide, aimed at say, seventh-graders.. Instead of emphasizing facts, I'd expose students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and what it doesn't. And most important, how to cope with its limitations, to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to biases in our reasoning, and to make choices in ways that better suit our own long-term goals. Nobody ever taught me about these things in middle school (or even high school), but there's no reason why they couldn't be taught; in time, I expect they will.

6 comments:

Lisa said...

In the cognitive world, I really love Martin Seligman, who has spent his life teaching "positive psychology". I've read all his books, but the ones that stand out are "Learned Optimism" and "What you can Change and What you Can't". He's all about optimism and thinks it is what determines whether a child will be resilient or not throughout his/her life. Fascinating. I'll check this one out for sure.

bloglily said...

What a fine idea LK. Everything I know I learned from reading novels, which is a good place to watch human reasoning go awry. A more systematic approach to teaching about reasoning might be just what's needed.

Carl V. said...

The educational system definitely needs a major overhaul. I am optimistic, though, because so many teachers blog and seem to have the viewpoint that what is taught and how it is taught needs to change. I hope they have the courage to get out there and make changes. Even small ones make a huge difference.

Kate S. said...

Hmmm. I tend to be optimistic and pessimistic about the same things but on different days...

A very interesting excerpt. Thanks for sharing it!

litlove said...

'In the age of the internet, our problem is not that children can't find information, but that they can't evaluate it.'

I think this is pretty much spot on - from what I see in my son's education and in the students I teach. Children get pretty much drummed into them that no one philosophy/way of life/set of beliefs is better than any other, and so they lose the ability to discriminate and the sense of rightness in doing so. Hence their increasing gullibility. The vast resources of the internet only compound the problem.

Very interesting ideas, LK!

LK said...

There is so much that needs to be done about our educational system in the U.S., this hardly is a drop in the bucket. I'm going to try to add more posts on the topic in the future, though.

Thanks, everyone!