Mental Head Space and Confirmation Bias

I don’t know how you learn. But, as a teacher, I have seen a few papers here and there which attempt to make clear to me some ideas on how we learn. They’re a bit dry; instead I want to tell you how I learn and why understanding how you learn can help you to know more. My particular learning style predisposes me to confirmation bias. But understanding that has helped me to combat when I read your blogs. Here’s how it works.

Most learning is learner-oriented and relies on learner effort. You cannot easily assimilate information passively, by just being in a room with a person saying the right things. I, as a learner, have to do something to engage with and ultimately form a conclusion on an idea. Here is my process.

I create a mental head space where I organise the ideas in a fluent way, like a flow diagram. I then annotate that flow diagram with other related things I know already. Definitions of words (and debate, where debate exists) becomes an annotation. When someone uses a word and it is clear what they mean, but they have used the wrong word, an idea has to replace the word. I’m not doing this on paper, this is all in my mental head space. I then start to test the flow diagram of ideas by its own criteria. This is a way of checking the idea is consistent and sensible. If I conclude the idea is not sensible, I ask the appropriate questions in the hope that clarification is key to understanding.

For example, I was recently told that I must deliver my lessons more slowly, utilising more student-student talking time. The student should talk to each other (on topic). As far as possible, I should deliver only questions and the students should work the answer out for themselves (it’s often called “self discovery”, but that’s nonsense; we’re asking them to conceptually figure out the content on the syllabus).  As an aside, one of my favourite methods is to give my class all the data, or fragments of the data each, and ask them to piece it together. It is amazing how unambiguous evidence is, even in the creative hands of children.

Effective though this method is, its slow. My review also told me to speed up the pace of my lessons. This is a time where my slowly constructed flowchart of ideas starts to fall apart: how can I use an inherently slower process whilst also speeding up? The flowchart starts to collapse under its own weight, before I decide whether the ideas my bosses gave him is even consistent with context.

Organising information in your head is a very time-consuming thing to do. Asking clear questions to clarify points you don’t understand, engaging in the necessary conversation to build on it, and conceptually analysing it in your head merely adds to the challenge. So, for me to sit and consider an idea, I have to like the idea. This is not a conscious decision; it’s just if an idea doesn’t spark my interest I put in less effort, which creates a caricature  of the original idea. As a result, if I remember the idea at all, I carry around an unintended strawman in my head space. If I react emotionally to an idea, I get a similar murkily watered version of the idea. Before you know it, I’m in the People’s Republic of Strawman.

This means that I don’t reject ideas I don’t agree with, but on whatever conscious level I make a clear mental representation of an idea, ideas I react badly to don’t get fair treatment when I’m passively reading.

When I’m passively reading I’m reading on the assumption my brain will treat all ideas equally. Yet some ideas get fair representation and other don’t. I have to actively read. This means I have to concentrate on creating a fair representation of opposing ideas when I read blogs, something I have actively sought to do for a few years now.

To give you an example of what happens when I passively read (and I think a few atheists fall for this), then first time I read the moral argument for God, and the next few times after that, it clearly meant, to me, that atheists cannot be “morally good”. I read the same argument from another perspective, and I was under the illusion I represented the argument when I summarised it as what God does is moral. After a little while, after I focussed, it became clear that what people are saying that the meter stick of morality is God’s nature and that without a god morality is open to redefining.

Now I have to annotate that particular flowchart of ideas with questions like “what is the difference between a Thing’s repeated actions and Its nature?” or “How do you come to know the nature of a thing that is defined as not being explorable by investigation?” Sitting in a room and imagining the answers, something I am asked to do with students a lot often brings forward the wrong answers. None of the students are ever happy with why a thing is not the way they have just imagined it to be, until I give them evidence.

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2 thoughts on “Mental Head Space and Confirmation Bias”

  1. “So, for me to sit and consider an idea, I have to like the idea. This is not a conscious decision; it’s just if an idea doesn’t spark my interest I put in less effort, which creates a caricature of the original idea. As a result, if I remember the idea at all, I carry around an unintended strawman in my head space.”

    I have a huge problem with this.

    This was enjoyable… I’ve never sat down and considered how I learn something new step by step. I’ve always had an idea, but I’ve never given it the attention it probably deserves.

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