The first two parts of this series were created using Adobe Spark Page. I found while creating this third part that most of what was in it was text, and that a more stable place to host it was probably my blog. Hence, here it is. I’d encourage you to check out Part 1 and Part 2, if only briefly, before reading this part.
We see in the last few chapters of Part I of the book that System 1 is a story teller. This system helps you make a coherent narrative of the world. This, like most things, has positive and negative aspects. I think the shortcomings of this tendency are important to understand.
The first problem with System one is that it’s relatively easy to manipulate it, especially since so much of it happens automatically. Take the following example from the book. Read the two words below.
In the second or two it took you to read those words and immediately following reading them you had a reaction. Some of it was physical, like the hair on your arms probably stood, your sweat glands were activated, your heart rate went up a bit. But you also likely sketched out a story that involved bananas causing the vomit (or in some other way being connected to the vomit). You did this automatically as system one is attempting to fit the input into a coherent story.
This, like most things, has positive and negative repercussions. It means that we are likely to seek out and find information that fits with the story system one is telling us. “Sally is lazy.” “James is smart.” “Maria is a hard worker.” Once we’ve put these narratives in our mind, system one tries to find information that fits the narrative. And while system two should be the hero here, always evaluating the assumptions of system one, it turns out that system two is a bit lazy. It’s much easier for system two to just go with the narrative. It takes cognitive work to constantly be evaluating everything system one is telling you, so often times that work is avoided by system two.
The key here is that we are aware of the narratives and stories we have in our minds. We need to be on the look out for information that both confirms our narrative (to be sure it does in fact confirm the narrative and that we aren’t overlooking something) and negates the narrative (so that we can change the narrative in our minds to better represent reality).
One major theme of the associative machine is this: when there is some sort of external input to your brain you’re not consciously aware of what’s going on in your brain. When you see an object or hear a sound or experience a feeling, you’re flooded with ideas which in turn activates more ideas. Only a few will pop up in consciousness and this flood of ideas is largely out of your control.
What does this mean for teaching?
When we deal with students we have to remember that fact. Much of the time they (and we, whether we care to admit it or not) are at the mercy of system one. Actions that you take or that other students take in the classroom can set off chain reactions in a student’s brain. The result could be positive or negative. You can imagine starting a lesson with some sort of introduction that primes students for learning, giving them some ideas that ignite other ideas (you might call this engaging prior knowledge) or put them in a positive mood. The latter idea is from Eric Jensen and is also described in the book and that is that being in a good mood helps your brain be prepared to understanding new concepts. You could also imagine taking some action that results in an unwanted behavior. The key to dealing with these behaviors is figuring out what the underlying cause of the behavior is. What is triggering their associative machine to result in the behavior?
The last note I want to make here is that we need to help students understand what’s going on in their brain. Just as I encourage anyone reading this to try to keep a check on the automaticity of system one, we should find ways to help students do this as well. I think doing activities that encourage metacognition is a critical step in that direction, but that’s a topic for another day.
Image is “Thinking” by Lee Thatcher. The original work can be found here.