These days, in our ever complex society, it's becoming increasingly important to be able to think critically, in particular with young minds that can be easily molded. Understanding cognitive biases, logical fallacies and mental models at an early age may well give them and us the hope of a better and brighter future. The Decision-Making Blueprint by Patrik Edblad lists 45 of these important tools, though I will only focus on several that young learners in particular struggle with.
The status quo bias and the homeostasis model work hand in hand with many students. The status quo bias is the tendency to prefer things stay the same, while homeostasis is the state of a system that wants to maintain internal stability. For example, kids who say they don't like art or PE or math, continue to maintain that viewpoint. This could have come about because of confirmation bias, where people tend to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. So if a student does poorly on a math quiz, that confirms the "fact" that they are poor at math. All of these ways of thinking run counter to the growth mindset, where effort and dedication will lead to success, which is what teachers try to instill in learners. Connected to this idea is that of compounding. Most kids have trouble seeing too far into their future, but modest gains on a daily or weekly basis can achieve dramatic results, according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. If you memorize your times tables 5 minutes, 3 times a week, for one week, the results might be negligible. However, if you maintain that for a whole year, then you will probably memorize them quite easily.
In some cases, students suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the tendency to be more confident the less you know. "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent," says David Dunning. I think the simple graphic organizer, K-W-L, helps visualize the gaps in learning. Also, the W, which represents "want" is critical. What do students want to learn? Curiosity is one of the main bulwarks to remaining ignorant or incompetent.
Young kids also suffer from self-serving bias. For example, if a student gets a good mark, it's because of their effort or intelligence, but if they do poorly, it's because of the tough teacher or unfair tests. This goes hand-in-hand with the fundamental attribution error: when someone else makes a mistake, it's their fault entirely, but when you make an error, it's due to circumstance. A classic example would be if you hit a student in the head with a dodgeball; it was an accident and the ball slipped out of your hand or they ducked at the inopportune time. But if they hit you in the head, it was intentional and mean-spirited. This aptly segways into Hanlon's Razor (a subset of Occam's Razor), which is to never attribute to malice what can be explained by neglect. However, when you listen to countless arguments between kids, this is often the mental model that they base their thinking on. In addition, the availability bias, is a contributing factor--basing our judgments on what easily comes to mind. Kids (along with adults) often keep a mental record of all the wrongs done to them. Instead of a pattern of behavior, Hanlon's Razor would treat each as an isolated occurrence.
The 80/20 Principle, developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in the late 1800s, has proven to be a valuable principle today--essentially that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It would be wise and valuable to figure out what that 20% is in the classroom, which would result in 80% of the learning. It could be the basics of the curriculum--reading, writing and math; or it could be instilling curiosity, hard work, passion, self-directed learning, and the growth mindset. Or maybe which 20% of the students need the most support. Or something entirely different in another classroom.
On a final note, of course there are caveats for all of these biases, logical fallacies and mental models. Sometimes the opposite can be true. They are not 100% accurate all the time, so treat them as principles or guidelines, not laws or commandments.
Source: The Decision-Making Blueprint, Patrik Edblad, 2019
How did such creative and novel ideas such as the iPhone, the Apollo 13 rescue mission, or Picasso's Les Demoiselles come about? Did they merely appear out of thin air, or is there a more logical and replicable explanation? According to Brandt and Eagleman in The Runaway Species, there are three categories (cognitive operations or strategies) that all innovations can fall into: bending, breaking and blending.
Bending takes the original item and then changes one or more aspects of it, such as shape, size, colour, or viewpoint. One basic example is Monet's many views of Rouen Cathedral in the 1890s. A more practical example of bending would be the invention of the polarized windshield. In order to not be blinded by headlights in the past, the idea of glare-resistant windshields were suggested. The problem: a calcite crystal was six inches thick! However, Edwin Land used "orthogonal thinking" and made sheets of glass with thousands of tiny embedded crystals. Miniaturization solved the dilemma. Other examples of bending include umbrellas, cars, jazz, language, architecture and television signals.
Breaking involves taking something whole, taking it apart, and reassembling something new out of the fragments. The first cell phone systems followed in the footsteps of radio and TV broadcasting, a single cell tower transmitting signals everywhere, but only a few people could make calls at one time. Bell Lab engineers then divided the single coverage area into small cells, each with its own tower, thus solving the problem of too many users. Another example of breaking comes from motion pictures. In the early cinemas, scenes in movies were told in real-time. Soon, filmmakers began to cut the beginning and endings of scenes. Then in Citizen Kane, we see time moving rapidly in years, and soon montages of long scenes can be done in seconds. Other examples of breaking include the following: computers, carbon copy, LCD screens, acronyms, and MP3 files.
Blending combines two or more sources in novel fashion. A classic example would be the Egyptian Sphinx, part human, part lion. With advances in genetics, professor Randy Lewis was able to splice the DNA of a spider to a goat to create Freckles the spider-goat; she's a goat but her "superpower" is she can secrete spider silk in her milk. This spider silk will be used to weave ultra-light bulletproof vests in the future. We also have fish and pigs that glow thanks to the jellyfish gene. Creoles are the blending of languages. Children in a remote village in Australia used their parents' baby talk (which combined 3 languages, Warlpiri, Kriol, and English) and then created their own syntax, known as Light Warlpiri. Blending is nearly limitless: a kingfisher + train = Japanese bullet train; soccer + volleyball = futevolei in Brazil; copper + tin = alloy bronze.
Source: The Runaway Species, Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman, 2017
This was an interesting session, although maybe a bit tough early in the morning to solve a potential end-of-the-Earth scenario. It's basically an escape room for the classroom. We did it as a group of about 30 teachers, and it was fun to see how people acted. There were definitely a few serious people/leaders who were working hard. Then there were some of us, just catching up with old colleagues. All in all, it was a good time and we saved the world...with 20 minutes to spare.
The educational benefits are quite clear:
The website has everything set up nicely as well with free resources for the escape rooms.
Creative Drama in the Classroom
This session started with a bang...but ended with a fizzle. I think with her drama/acting/educational background, we expected a lot. Still there were some good ideas to be had:
Artifacts Inspire Inquiry
This session was truly inspiring, engaging from start to finish, and the presenter was extremely professional, prepared and personable.
The start is key. She asked us to talk about our childhood "artifact," something from our past that was memorable, important or endearing. The initial brief moment of anxiety shifted to something quite calming: sharing something personally relevant helped create an invisible bond within that group of strangers.
The key point that was stressed was that an artifact doesn't need to be something ancient; after all, your students probably haven't seen some of the things you grew up with, given the acceleration of technology advancements combined with the nature of our disposable and consumable society.
The main activity involved having poster paper, a group of people, and a photo of an artifact. We had to brainstorm as many ideas about what the item was. It was a fruitful discussion, with plenty of varying ideas. Then we received the actual physical object, and our preconceptions or ideas from that photo changed quite dramatically. So we came up with even more refined ideas about what our item was. We actually guessed correctly: a sewing kit!
These are the habits and attitudes necessary for students to succeed in this new century, according to Angela Maiers (Classroom Habitudes, 2012):
1) IMAGINATION: the ability to create new images out of thought, memories, and sensory information to create new ideals, conceptions and ideas
2) CURIOSITY: a mindset and willingness to explore everything around us and inside us by asking questions and seeking answers, with others and alone
3) SELF-AWARENESS: understand ourselves thoroughly and make intentional decisions and choices about our lives
4) PERSEVERANCE: ability to sustain interest, effort and commitment in any circumstance or task
5) COURAGE: ability to confront challenges, take risks, and overcome fears
6) PASSION: able to pursue actions personally and socially meaningful
7) ADAPTABILITY: ability to cope with change and shift own's actions to address the change
Graham Wallas, cofounder of the London School of Economics and author of The Art of Thought in 1926, came up with a formula, if you will, on how to come up with insights. He called these mental steps "stages of control."
The first step is preparation: you spend hours, if not days, struggling, battling, banging your head against a way, trying to solve or figure out a problem. (Remember: if you give up too early, the second step may not be effective.)
The second step is incubation: you put the problem out of your mind; you literally walk away from it. Wallas figured that during this time, some "internal mental process" was taking place, reorganizing old and new information on a subconscious level.
The third step is called illumination. This is when that lightbulb turns on above your head, and the answer is imminently apparent.
The final step is verification, checking to make sure the answer or results actually work.
Ultimately, it is the second step, incubation, that is the key to solving problems or discovering insights. So anytime you're really stuck on a problem, then it's time for incubation. What do you do for this time?
(Source: How We Learn, Carey)
When a student asks a question or musing, have them infer or guess as many possible ideas as possible. Then they can brainstorm as many solutions to the problem, no matter how crazy or fantastical.
I've been trying this in my classroom as often as possible, and you'd be surprised how many interesting, logical and creative thoughts they come up with.
For example, a student brought up the point that our boys basketball team had lost to a visiting team by a large margin. So I asked them: What could be the possible reasons why this happened? Were we just a terrible team? Or was there more to this story than met our eye?
Soon, they generated a host of great ideas that made a lot of sense. They had better players. They were taller. They practiced more. Our players were short. Maybe we didn't have enough players. And on and on it went.
This notion of critical thinking is so important, especially in this age of persuasion from the billions of websites on the Internet and our 500 channel cable boxes. Instead of our students believing everything they read or hear and jumping to conclusions, they need to think deeply about what's really behind the story. The truth is out there, according to Fox Mulder. They just need to dig a little deeper to find it.
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.