Developing a personal philosophy of life »« The purpose of teaching

What makes us change our minds?

In the previous post, I described the three kinds of challenges teachers face. Today I want to discuss how teachers might deal with each case.

On the surface, it might seem that the first kind of challenge (where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don’t have strong feelings about it either way) is the easiest one. After all, if students have no strong beliefs or prior knowledge about what is being taught, then they should be able to accept the new knowledge more easily.

That is true, but the ease of acceptance also has its downside. The very act of not caring means that the new knowledge goes in easily but is also liable to be forgotten easily once the course is over. In other words, it might have little lasting impact. Since the student has little prior knowledge in that area, there is little in the brain to anchor the new knowledge to. And if the student does not care about it one way or the other, then no effort will be made by the student to really connect to the material. So the student might learn this material by mostly memorizing it, reproduce it on the exams, and forget it a few weeks later.

The research on the brain indicates that lasting learning occurs when students tie new knowledge to things they already know, when they integrate it with existing material. So teachers of even highly technical topics need to find ways to connect it with students’ prior knowledge. They have to know their students, what interests them, what concerns them, what they care about. This is why good teachers tie their material in some way to stories or topics that students know and care about or may be in the news or to controversies. Such strategies tap into the existing knowledge structures in the brain (the neural networks) and connect the new material to them, so that it is more likely to ‘stick.’

The second kind of challenge is where students’ life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. A teacher who does not take these existing beliefs into account when designing teaching strategies is likely to be wasting her time. Because these beliefs are so strongly, but unconsciously held, they are not easily dislodged or modified.

The task for the teacher in this case is to make students aware of their existing knowledge structures and the implications of them for understanding situations. A teacher needs to create situations (say experiments or cases) and encourage students to explore the consequences of the their prior beliefs and see what happens when they are confronted by these new experiences. This has to be done repeatedly in newer and more enriched contexts so that students realize for themselves the existence and inadequacy of their prior knowledge structures and become more accepting of the new knowledge structures and theories.

In the third case, students are consciously rejecting the new ideas because they are aware that it conflicts with views they value more (for whatever reason). In such cases, there is no point trying to force or browbeat them into accepting the new ideas.

Does this mean that such people’s ideas never change? Obviously not. People do change their views on matters that they may have once thought were rock-solid. In my own case, I know that I now believe things that are diametrically opposed to things that I once thought were true, and I am sure that my experience is very common.

But the interesting thing is that although I know that my views have changed, I cannot tell you when they changed or why they changed. It is not as if there was an epiphany where you slap your forehead and exclaim “How could I have been so stupid? Of course I was wrong and the new view is right!� Rather, the process seems more like being on an ocean liner that is turning around. The process is so gentle that you are not aware that it is even happening, but at some point you realize that you are facing in a different direction. There may be a moment of realization that you now believe something that you did not before, but that moment is just an explicit acknowledgment of something that that you had already tacitly accepted.

What causes the change could be many factors – something you read, a news item, a discussion with a friend, some major public event – whose implications you may not be immediately aware of. But over time these little things lodge in your mind, and as your mind tries to integrate them into a coherent framework, your views start to shift. For me personally, I enjoy discussions of deep ideas with people I like and respect. Even if they do not have any expertise in this area, discussions with such people tend to clarify one’s ideas.

I can see that process happening to me right now with the ideas about the brain. I used to think that the brain was quite plastic, that any of us could be anything given the right environment. I am not so sure now. The work of Chomsky on linguistics, the research on how people learn, and other bits and pieces of knowledge I have read have persuaded me that it is not at all clear that the perfectly-plastic-brain idea can be sustained.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that the socio-biological views of E. O. Wilson, and more recently Steven Pinker, who seem to argues that much of our brains, attitudes, and values are biologically determined by evolutionary adaptation, are correct either. That seems to me to be too pat and too much like Kipling’s Just-So Stories, where Kipling’s fictional characters accepted the present state of affairs as ‘normal’ and biologically determined, and concocted fanciful tales to ‘explain’ how they came about. I am always skeptical of theories that try to make the status quo seem ‘natural’ and just. It seems to be very convenient for those who benefit from that status quo.

It seems reasonable that some structures of the brain, especially the basic ones that enable it to interpret the input from the five senses, and perhaps even learn language, must be pre-existing. But I am not convinced that the more sweeping claims, such as that men are better than women at math or that women are more nurturing than men or that our behaviors can be explained by the desire to maximize the spread of our own genes, are biologically determined.

So I am currently in limbo as regards the nature of the brain, mulling things over. At some point I might arrive at some kind of unified and coherent belief structure. And after I do so, I may well wonder if I ever believed anything else. Such are the tricks the brain can play on you, to make you think that what you currently believe is what is correct and what you always believed.

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