Teaching as a risky business

One of the very best things about working in Political Science is that almost everything can have a political angle, which in turn gives me an excuse to indulge my very catholic and eclectic tastes. An example of this turned up in the Guardian yesterday, with an interview with Gerd Gigerenzer on the occasion of his new book on risk.

The thrust of the piece wasn’t about politics or politicians, but about the way people make decisions in an illogical way. I’m always happy to stick the boot into rational choice, but it’s even better when there’s an alternative way to construct such behaviour.Gerd Gigerenzerger: 'We can teach kids to understand risk.'

Gigerenzer argues a lot for the importance of heuristics, short-cuts in understanding that provide ‘good enough’ answers, if not ‘perfect’ ones. Such satisficing is different from the Kahnemann System approach in that it doesn’t assume the rational approach is necessarily more efficient or effective. Thus, experts in a given field often can ‘see’ an answer in an intuitive way, in an extension of fuzzy-trace theory. Basically, Gladwell’s Blink, but with proper scientific underpinning.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways, but let’s confine ourselves to teaching for now. Gigerenzer’s emphasis on intuition is potentially very problematic, for it asks that we defer to expertise (as being likely ‘right’) and that this does not need to be unpacked (instead one becomes an expert), which rather goes against the grain of much education.

Even in an active learning scenario, the capacity to internalise knowledge and practice does not necessarily have to be matched by an ability to explain (which might be an issue come assessment time), while satisficing suggests that we have to be prepared to accept a wider variety of acceptable responses to challenges. Certainly, in many universities the idea that one should not push for maximising behaviour causes difficulties when looking for the best student assessment outcomes.

However, Gigerenzer does offer an important dimension that we need to consider in our teaching.

Firstly, it reminds us that people are not rational. That’s important for our subject area: why do politicians make ‘bad’ decisions? But it’s also important for our students and ourselves: everyone is likely to go for ‘good enough’ behaviour, so how do we make the situation require that such behaviour is of a sufficient standard?

Secondly, it emphasises the vital importance of critical thinking. Without a strong grounding in such basic techniques, students will not be able to depend that ability to intuitively grasp and conceptualise what they are presented with and make an appropriate judgement. Such skills become then not transferable, but universal.

Thirdly, it reminds us that understanding is as important as knowledge. Facts and figure – the old learning-by-rote method – are meaningless without an ability to use them. This goes beyond critical thinking, into the development of a world-view and models of conceptualisation. These can then receive new knowledge and join it to what it already there.

In short, people are sense-making creatures, even if that sense is not quite ‘right’, so it is incumbent upon us to help students develop their sense as far as we can.

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