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A system that's hard-wired for fast thinking won't help teachers or learners improve

A system that's hard-wired for fast thinking won't help teachers or learners improve

2 Oct 2023, 12:00

Every day we come under increasing pressure to do everything that little bit quicker and better than before. Five-minute meals, 20-minute work outs, 30-minute make overs – harder, better, faster, stronger… The same applies in education, particularly in the chronically under-funded further education (FE) sector, which seemingly normalises ‘more for less’. As availability of resources reduce, pressure increases to be better each year in the various metrics that FE is measured against. Teachers and their learners are ultimately the ones that suffer.

Obvious take alert! Doing things quickly is riddled with issues. Not only does it focus attention on the outcome over the process, but it also leads to irrational thinking. In Thinking Fast and Slow, behavioural psychologist, Daniel Kahneman argues for more focus on slow, rational thinking. He shows that when we have to think quickly, we act on emotions, intuition and impulse. We think our thinking is logical, but in fact we make more errors and rely more on chance for our success.

Take this example for Kahneman’s book. Answer this question without thinking:

If a bat and ball cost £1:10 and the bat is £1 more than the ball, how much is the ball?

Given little time to process, most people’s immediate response to this is 10 pence. It’s got to be, hasn’t it? Well, no. Slow down and read the question carefully. Give yourself a moment to think it through and you can see why that answer is wrong. Give yourself another moment or two and you come to the right answer. (If you’re in a hurry, it’s 5 pence).

Kahneman suggests that the average person makes around 35,000 decisions each day. I’d argue that teachers make many more than this, what with responding to learners’ needs, covering the vast curriculum and countless administrative tasks. And that’s before even considering the cognitive load of moving from one classroom to another several times a day while carrying a smorgasbord of resources.

While these decisions differ in difficulty and importance (e.g., when to nip to the loo), if we had to consciously process all these decisions, we would suffer from serious overload. So, our fast-thinking system acts like a shortcut for us to minimise this. However, making almost all of our decisions based on this system clearly has implications.

You can’t rely on your fastest thinking to improve your teaching

For example, let’s take one of the most fundamental assessment tools that teachers use daily: questioning. I’m as guilty as most here when I check for understanding. Without thinking about a carefully crafted question that can elicit understanding, I often find myself asking an open, voluntary response question instead: ‘Who knows what X is?’

This isn’t going to help me very much as a teacher, as it will always be the one confident learner that responds the quickest. It’s also not very useful for the rest of the learners in the group, those who have little time to think about the question being asked and are essentially being forced to think fast themselves. It sets them up to make errors.

Because the vast majority of our thinking happens quickly, Kahneman suggests that one should ‘inform their gut and then trust it’. The way to do this is through deliberate practice to create habits, so that our fast response system makes fewer errors.

K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues pioneered the idea of deliberate practice, which they suggest is a highly structured activity with the explicit goal of improving performance. However, this isn’t just a case of doing more of the same in the classroom; it requires the isolation of a practice which is rehearsed outside of the classroom.

Thinking back to my example of questioning, deliberate practice requires slow and careful crafting of key questions that allow the whole class to think and contribute. Sure, I hear you. You don’t have  time for that. But if you really want to improve an aspect of your teaching, whether that’s behaviour management, explicit instruction, questioning, feedback etc, you can’t rely on your fastest thinking to get it done.

It’s as good an argument as any for leadership that removes extraneous load from teachers and a system that values experience. Failing those, it’s still a great argument for slowing down when we can – and borrowing someone else’s answer when we must.

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