Heuristics In The Snow

I’m a big fan of heuristics. Heuristics are essentially checklists or other procedures that can efficiently guide one’s thinking when making decisions in environments of stress and uncertainty. The Apgar score is a heuristic that gets applied to many of us before we even know what heuristics are. When I fly, I use an “airport” heuristic to get me to the correct gate in time for my flight.

An important aspect of any heuristic is that it be evaluated regularly in terms of the outcomes it generates and modified if needed. For example, I will soon be digging my car out of wet snow with my hands. One item in my airport heuristic needs to be changed from “when driving my car to the airport for a departing flight, park in the long term lot” to “when driving my car to the airport for a departing flight in the winter, park in a garage.” My wife will remind me of this when she watches me try to clear away the snow.

This recent warning to college professors from a high school teacher made me realize that a huge portion of the students now entering college use a particular heuristic to navigate the testing environment of K-12. When these students hit college, they discover that the heuristic that they have relied upon for many years is no longer effective. They fail the first exam that is not composed entirely of multiple choice questions. Or they hear for the first time that their writing is actually quite bad. The students experience an emotional shock and blame their professors, who in turn blame K-12 educators.

An opportunity is being missed here. If we teach new college students to examine the deeper structure of the problem – not “why did I score three points below passing on this exam?” but “what is guiding my thinking about learning and what might need to be changed about it?” – there might be less interest in playing the blame game.

How Many Ways To Skinner A Cat?

As promised in my last post, it’s time to briefly discuss some changes that are still needed in  teaching. A colleague recently loaned me a copy of B. F. Skinner’s Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978). Skinner makes the following points:

  • The teacher acts upon the behavior of the student, not the student’s mind, character, or personality. Changing the student’s behavior comes from altering the environment in which the student is in (p. 134).
  • Students frequently behave in the ways desired by teachers in order to “avoid the consequences of not doing so” (p. 135). Students instead should be rewarded for doing the things that will increase their learning; in other words, incentives have to align with goals.
  • Instruction that requires large numbers of students to advance at the same pace — i.e., four year degree programs, semester-long courses, classrooms containing dozens if not hundreds of students — is extremely inefficient if one assumes that learning is the purpose of teaching. If all students are required to move forward at the same speed, that speed will be the wrong one for most of them (p. 136). The most proficient students find their time wasted and the least proficient get left behind. Also, “[w]hen large numbers of students are taught at the same time, few of them will acquire effective verbal behavior, oral or written” (p. 139).
  • Learning occurs more efficiently when instruction is designed around small units of increasingly complex knowledge and skills and demonstrating mastery of one unit is necessary for advancement to the next (p. 136).

As Skinner points out, truly individualized instruction would require that our educational institutions adopt a radically different architecture. But our Fordist approach to formal education has predominated for only about a century, and one can see signs that it is losing some ground to lower cost alternatives. At minimum there is some indication that the current system holds back the very talented* while it fails to address the needs of those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

How does all this relate to me and what I do in the classroom? I admit that I don’t really know how to bundle knowledge about politics into discrete chunks and test students for mastery of each chunk, much less let each student go at his or her own speed.  This is something I really need to work on.

*Yes, I know this is a joke.

The Word Problem Problem

Recently I was faced with the question of whether to use some of the same books in two different courses. Isn’t each course supposed to have distinctive content? But what about the unity of knowledge? My internal debate eventually led me to conclude that when it comes to curriculum design, most university faculty — at least at the undergraduate level — are like failed restaurateurs. Everyone who likes cooking in the kitchen thinks they can run a restaurant. Every faculty member thinks designing a curriculum is the same as constructing a syllabus.

We often preach about the importance of critical thinking and claim that our courses and curricula help develop this skill. Yet students are often unable to transfer analytical  reasoning techniques from one context to another. The classic example of this is the word problem from elementary school:

  • A Japanese train with seven cars travels between Osaka and Tokyo at a constant speed of 200 km/hour. How long does the trip take for someone riding in the second car?
  • A Japanese train with four cars travels between Osaka and Tokyo at a constant speed of 200 km/hour and someone accidentally drops a book from the window of the second car. How long does the book take to hit the ground?

Students who have learned how to solve the first problem will frequently fail to solve the second one, even though they are essentially identical.* Why does this happen?

As pointed out by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, the human mind is lazy — it is predisposed to look for familiar patterns, and when it thinks it has found one, its decision-making ability is often negatively influenced. To get around this habit, a person must learn to differentiate between a problem’s superficial aspects and what Willingham calls its deep structure:

When one is very familiar with a problem’s deep-structure, knowledge about how to solve it transfers well. That familiarity can come from long-term, repeated experience with one problem, or with various manifestations of one type of problem (i.e., many problems that have different surface structures, but the same deep structure).

How does this relate to the readings I assign in my courses? If I assign the same text in multiple courses, students get repeated exposure to the same problem, and their ability to solve it is reinforced, or I can use the text to demonstrate how problems with the same deep structure can manifest themselves differently in different environments. Students also get more training in the knowledge that they should look for a problem’s deep structure instead of erroneously focusing on surface aspects (like the number of cars in a train or the train being in Japan).

How does this relate to curriculum design? Many curricula follow a checklist paradigm — students must take one Western civilization history course, two math courses, one religious studies course, ten courses in a major, etc. We like to claim that problem-solving techniques learned in an economics class can be applied to situations presented in an anthropology class, and vice versa, but the checklist sends the opposite message — that knowledge resides in discrete boxes. The way we design our curricula makes it less likely that students will ever learn how to see past surface structure and become effective problem-solvers.

*The solution to both requires knowing distance; in the former, the distance between Osaka and Tokyo, and in the latter between the window and the ground.

Curiouser and curiouser

What do we, university professors who are employed to teach others, know about learning? If your graduate training was like mine, it’s very little. We are a self-selected group of people, good at memorizing and synthesizing information from a very early age, for whom learning has almost always been easy and/or enjoyable. We tend not to think consciously about the mechanics of learning because for us they are routine. In the classroom, we try to model those individuals whom we have the most vivid memories of  — that third grade teacher who taught us multiplication tables or the professor in our doctoral program who could deliver a spell-binding lecture without notes.

The vast majority of our students are actually very different. They still have not adopted (or in some cases, haven’t even been exposed to) the skills that facilitate learning.

There is actually a lot that is scientifically known about learning, and it would be nice if such knowledge was a standard component of doctoral programs, but it’s not. If you are looking for additions to your summer reading list, here are three books on the subject that I’ve found especially enlightening. All three examine the role of narratives, emotion, repetition, and context in learning. They are based on a large body of psychological and cognitive science research, and contain ideas that are quite applicable to the classroom:

Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2010). Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. The book is a compilation of his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columns for American Educator, available for free here

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which I’ve referenced here, here, and here. Kahneman is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on cognitive biases, heuristics, and decision making.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012). Duhigg is a journalist for the New York Times. This book is a straightforward, easy to read explication on the formation and effects of habits in human behavior.

Decisions, Decisions

Here’s another idea from Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman credits economist Thomas Schelling (author of Choice and Consequence) as the original creator; I’ve slightly altered the  version Kahneman presents in his book. The exercise demonstrates how framing, emotion, and moral values affect how people make decisions, and how this effect flies in the face of rational choice. It can easily be modified  for application in a number of contexts. Here it is:

Present students with two fictional developing countries, A and B. The governments of each country need to collect tax revenue to pay for public services. The governments also decide that taxes on family income will vary according to the number of a family’s dependent children.

The government of country A decides that for adult couples with children, the tax exemption for the wealthy should be larger than that for the poor.

Ask students if they agree or disagree with the decision of government A. They will most likely find it to be highly objectionable.

The government of country B takes the opposite approach and imposes a tax surcharge on adult couples that have no children. It decides that childless adult couples who are poor will pay a penalty that is just as large as childless adult couples who are wealthy.

Ask students if they agree or disagree with the decision of government B. They will most likely also find this highly objectionable.

Then explain that students cannot logically reject both proposals because they are economically equivalent. The only difference between the scenarios is that A presents a childless couple as the default and for B the default is couples with children.

Kahneman points out that responses to questions like these are highly dependent upon how the questions are framed. If I were to introduce some additional but functionally irrelevant detail into one of the scenarios — such as “because wealthy citizens in country A typically invest much more money in their children’s educations than poor citizens” — many people would respond differently.

Waffle Shopping and James Franco

Two minor personal takeaways from this year’s Simulations & Role Play II track at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

The James Franco Effect:

When students fail to demonstrate as much learning as expected because the instructor is not James Franco.

Waffle Shopping:

Deliberately engaging in an activity or behavior in which the outcome is unpredictable and the risk of failure exists.

While the James Franco Effect is fairly self-explanatory, Waffle Shopping is not. As readers of this blog know, I believe being able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge is fundamental to learning. I personally find that I am most often able to make connections when I am cognitively prepared to encounter the unexpected. Since I started attending Teaching and Learning Conferences several years ago, I’ve made a point of sampling local restaurants that are often off the beaten track. This entails embracing a certain level of risk — any restaurant might be much worse than expected, and I might fail myself and others by choosing an obscure restaurant that is obscure for a very good reason.

This year I ate breakfast at the Waffle Shop, a nearby diner located by Dr. Amanda Rosen. While walking there, hoping for a plate of tasty waffles but ready to encounter a horrible meal, I noticed a building with an ornate facade containing a retail clothing store. I continued round the corner, and saw a “Woodward & Lothrop” sign on the side of the building. I realized that this was the site of the now-defunct Woodward & Lothrop that my father worked at a half-century ago, on the day that JFK was assassinated. Continuing down the street, I noticed that I was passing Ford’s Theater, made famous by John Wilkes Booth.

This is a simple illustration of the fact that opportunities for creative thinking often involve embracing risk, and that failure — whether as a possibility or an actual outcome — is a useful learning tool.