Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Why People Don't Learn - What You Don't Know You Know Can Hurt You

It became quickly clear in class as I began teaching graduate students that many had no sense of the tools people use to learn about their subject matter and the world.  Theory, for many of them, was simply the opposite of practice: what academics do, but impractical in the 'real world.'

My first job was to get them to realize that everything they did was guided by some sort of model or low level theory.  They had to understand that we really can't do anything purposeful in the world if we don't have, at the least, simple models of cause and effect relationships.  The models didn't have to be conscious, but somewhere in their brains are explanations of how the world works which guide our actions.  Things like:
  • Saying please and thank you will make it easier to get things.
  • If you turn on your turn indicator, the car next to you will give you space to change lanes.
  • A spanking will teach your child not to do something you disapprove of.
  • Drinking water will quench your thirst.
  • Yelling will cause people to do what you want.  
  • If you work hard, you will succeed
The models are often very simple and incomplete or downright wrong.  But without some sort of models somewhere in your head, all your actions would simply be random.  Think about it.  

I learned that I had to teach my students to pay attention to their own conceptions of what we were studying - power, bureaucracy, human behavior, decision making, ethics, etc. - before they could seriously consider alternatives offered them in the 'literature.'

The students' own theories, however unformed or unarticulated, blocked their ability to engage the theories they were reading in their graduate studies.

One day, I went to a presentation at UAA by a Dr. Tom Angelo who was doing research on assessing learning.  His research team had been interviewing Ivy League science students about basic concepts in science.  They found the students came to college with misconceptions.  The example that stuck with me was asking students why the earth has seasons.  A significant number replied that the earth was further from the sun in the winter. [Think about that a second.] They’d come into college with this misconception and, despite being science students at top schools, left college with their misconceptions intact. (Here's a video - A Private Universe on that study.)

You needed to get the students to engage their preconceptions and make them conscious so they can examine them, Angelo said.  Otherwise they won't learn.  

This was very reassuring to me because I had found the same problem with my students.  They may not be aware of their preconceptions, but if they were in conflict with what we were studying, they couldn't engage the material.

Fast forward.  I'm currently writing a paper arguing, in part, that the graduate schools for students studying administration should start by explicitly focusing on what's inside the students' heads before looking at what's out in the world.  After all, we need to examine the models we are using already (often unconsciously) to make decisions before we tackle what others are writing about the same topics.  And my students - studying public administration - all had preconceptions of most of the subjects we studied.

I wanted to find the research Prof. Angelo had been referring to.  So I googled him and couldn't find an email, but he's on linkedin.  I sent a request to link with him and told him, in the request, what I was looking for.  The next day I got an email back linking me to a video on the Ivy League science study and a suggestion to look for "research on misconceptions in science."

That got me to the library and I found exactly what I need in the National Research Council's 2000 report How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.  They had this Key Finding:
"1:  Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works.  If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom." 

As I think about this now, new things become clear.  I've been aware for many years that there were students who showed up in our program who'd been in government or non-profit organizations for a long time and had, on their own, developed conceptions that were pretty much on the mark.  As they read the course materials all sorts of bells and whistles went off as they recognized their, often unarticulated, concepts with lots of extra details filled in that they hadn't gotten on their own.  These students were enjoying class and doing well.  What they already had figured out to a degree by themselves was being confirmed.  Parts that were still confusing were being explained.

But there were students who really hadn't reflected very much on what was happening around them at work.  Or they had reflected, but inaccurately, and these students with misconceptions were having a much harder time.  What they read didn't make sense to them.  For many it was because their faulty preconceptions blocked their ability to understand the material.  For others, they just didn't have an aptitude for this subject.  And others simply didn't work hard enough. 

I'd added a section to my intro graduate public administration class called "Ways of Knowing" where we explored terms like 'theory' and learned some vocabulary and concepts that would help us discuss students' preconceptions as we went through different topics.  My syllabus said explicitly that I wanted them to examine their own models and compare them to what we were studying.

Some students would simply complain about the reading.  It was wrong.  They knew better than the authors.  I recognize that in some classes students are exposed to incorrect models and their challenges are valid.  Some, but not most.  But, with this in mind, I got to the point where I'd tell complaining students,
"If you know better, write down your model of this and then show why it is a better one than what you read in the literature.  Then we'll send it in to some journals and you'll be famous.  But first you need to articulate your model, verify any claims you make, and then you need to know exactly what this writer is saying so you can critique it."

They would begin to understand how much more work the other person had put into this concept than they had.

This is nothing really new or fringe.  Peter Senge, whose Fifth Discipline was one of the best selling and most influential management books of all times wrote:
"Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.  Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.   .  .  Mental models of what can or cannot be done in different management settings are no less deeply entrenched.  Many insights into new markets or outmoded organizational practices fail to get put into practice because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models.  
“The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inwards:  learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.  It also includes the ability to carry on “learningful” conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.”  (Senge, p. 8) 
People understand this conceptually. Develop "critical thinking skills" and "ability to do analysis and synthesis"  are listed as key competencies for graduate administration degrees, but a lot of faculty don't know exactly how to do this.  It isn't the focus of a particular class.  It's supposed to happen as a side-effect of studying the actual subject.  Or students are supposed to already know this when they arrive.  But they don't.  And most students won't get this unless you make them look inward and find their internal, unconscious models of the world.

'Ways of Knowing' is an underlying theme of this blog and why it's called "What Do I Know?"  What do you know?

I need to point out that I had the luxury of small graduate classes where I could assign a lot of short papers over the semester and grade them in detail. I got feedback on how well the students were doing (and thus how I was doing) and they got lots of feedback from me.  By reading their papers I could begin to discover their unspoken models and help the students start to see them and articulate them.  Then critique them.  Faculty with larger classes simply can't give their students the kind of detailed feedback I could.  So they didn't assign as many written papers.  And students didn't get the kind of education we all need.  


  1. Good on you, Professor Aufrecht. Keep teaching. I'll keep thinking.

  2. As I read this post I thought you were going to end up talking about people whose preconception is that government is bad (i.e. Republicans) and how no amount of evidence or argument will change their minds. And the general lack of critical thinking skills taught in schools only perpetuates this mindset. (Of course, Republicans don't want schools to teach critical thinking skills....)

  3. The current model of 'teaching to the test' which is being used in nearly all early education schools cheats young students in that they don't learn how to learn.

    Learning how to learn, and thus becoming able to continue to learn throughout your lifetime is the most valuable skill set we can impart on children, yet we don't see that as the primary model being employed these days.

    What we have today are privatization schemes masquerading as 'reform' and for too many current education administrators, the purpose of education is strict indoctrination, not actual learning.

    Getting back to teaching children how to learn is what our focus ought to be. We do need 'reform', but we do not need the kind of policies being pushed today. We need to teach children how to learn.

  4. Thanks, Jay. Though I'm more comfortable dropping the titles and discussing this one human being to another.

    Kathy, just to play the devil's advocate here, let's consider your preconception of Republicans. Who all is included in that label for you? All registered Republicans? More than that? Fewer? Are the characteristics you ascribe Republicans (they think that government is bad and they don't want schools to teach critical thinking) true of all in that category? Hey, I'm just playing with you the way I would with students' papers. In part to add the point that having one's conceptions questioned is uncomfortable. For many it feels like an accusation. And if we didn't have categories, how would we be able to think and talk? It's just a question of how good they have to be And that depends on the context we use them. And this is to point out that we all - me included - would intellectually benefit from the discomfort of constantly testing our own preconceptions.

    Joe Blow - Can you give me examples of how schools used to teach kids how to learn? I don't think very many schools ever taught students about learning. Mostly, in my experience, they taught content, not process. Teaching to the test is just pushing that same model harder in the belief that you can measure it. Lots of what we learned in the past - as the linked video above shows - was also just learned for the test.

    Thanks for all your comments. They push the discussion further along and make me think more.


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