I can’t think of any other way of putting this but they are very stupid. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a gritty city centre school or in a top international academy, you students are total thickos.
It’s not their fault, to be fair, in fact you may find that the ones with the highest marks are the thickest of all. There is a load of reasons why you are struggling to teach these laughably doltish half-wits the most obvious things and yet still these ninnys just can’t get it into their thick skulls. I’ve been thinking about some of them recently thanks to the blog http://youarenotsosmart.com.
It’s a classic teaching practise mantra – find out what the students think then try to get them to think what you think. Easy. It turns out that actually, getting people to change their minds is pretty fucking hard. This is kind of obvious when you think about it but we tend to live our lives as though it isn’t true. Why else would I ever get involved in an argument? Why do I ever bother contradicting my wife? Why would I engage in a career where I try to convince children about things that they are unable to see, feel or, in some cases, even imagine?
It’s all about confirmation bias, one of a long list of cognitive biases that we all have; it means that you tend to assign more importance to facts that seem to support your already existing ideas, at the expense of contradictory evidence. One of the best examples of this sort of thing is in conspiracy theories. One of the most beautiful things about the World Wide Web is the ability to get deep into the craziness of conspiracy theories and see them snowball and grow and mutate. A great example of this is http://illuminatiwatcher.com. I particularly like their analysis of The Shining. It turns out that The Shining was more than a Stephen King adaptation, but a confession by Kubrick that he was forced to fake the Moon landings. The main arguments for this are based around the scene where Danny is playing and ends up in room 237: Danny has a jumper with Apollo 11 on it, he stands up from a patterned carpet that looks like a launchpad then goes to ‘Room 237’ (in the book it was 217, and the Moon is 237,000 miles away…) before being roughed up and sent back. Now even more evidence has appeared for this – a picture of a rocket on the fridge, the frequency of the colours red, white and blue, the fact that Jack is reading a copy of Playgirl in one scene.. the list just keeps confirming everything we know.
Apart from the obvious (the Moon landings weren’t faked), there is so much wrong here. I’m not even going to mention the fact that some of these ‘facts’ are wrong (the Earth-Moon distance varies from 225,622 mi to 252,088 mi, averaging 238,900 mi according to NASA) or that some don’t even have anything to do with anything (Playgirl?), the interesting thing for us is how the brain looks for details that confirm what it already ‘knows’. The postcard of a rocket on the fridge in a very early scene is so obscure that most people would never have seen it. Not only has the brain been searching for confirmation, it has also assigned an unfair amount of significance to it. There is a second postcard on the fridge, with what looks like a castle or possible city skyline on it. Only 50% of the fridge postcards have something to do with space on them. Would it even be surprising if they all did? Humans had just landed on the Moon for fucks sake, we should all have been quite impressed.
So what does confirmation bias have to do with my lessons? It would seem that we need to keep an eye out for students seeking to reinforce their misconceptions. A classic issue I have with this is if I ask a group of students to freely investigate what factors affect the time period of a pendulum. I want them to discover that the only factor that has any effect is the length. My experience is blinkered by this knowledge but I have to allow them to make the ‘mistake’ of investigating the mass at the end of the pendulum. I drill into them the importance of accuracy and precision and, sure enough, they will present me with a very clear graph showing that, the bigger the mass added to the end of the pendulum, the shorter the time period. Makes sense; big masses have bigger forces on them, so they pull the pendulum back and forth faster. The first time this happened to me I was a little baffled, ‘Er..no..but…’, my own confirmation bias was struggling and the cognitive dissonance was spazzing my brain out. Then I saw what I needed to see, my brain spotted the confirmation I needed: the differences were tiny! Now I needed to make up a justification; How had adding masses made the length shorter? A higher centre of mass of the slotted masses… boom…dissonance cleared, my confirmation done, the students own confirmation in total mind buggery.
We like to be right. No-one wants to be wrong all the time. That’s why I feel a bit sorry for my stupid students as I’m constantly pointing out that their world-view is flawed and that mine is better. What can I do about this? How can I use confirmation biases to my advantage?
The first way that I try to deal with this is to be honest with my students. At the start of a unit on Electricity that I have just started with my Year 10s, I took them all to one side (I know this makes no sense but I did it anyway…) and told them that everything they knew about electrical circuits was probably wrong. They’re kind of used to this from me so it was fine. I told them that I was going to get them to build circuits and that I would ask them questions. I warned them that I would probably keep asking questions until I could prove that they were stupid. I told them that, by the end of the lesson they would be very confused but that they should just let that happen and to not fight it. If they fought it they would just end up coming up with the most bizarre reasons why they were right all along but still manage to convince themselves. Your brain doesn’t like confusion – all it wants is the quiet life, the neurological equivalent of a pipe, slippers and Everybody Loves Raymond on the TV. Some get this, some don’t. I can normally tell by the end of the first lesson who will ‘get’ circuits and who won’t. The ones who won’t are the ones who nod enthusiastically and say, ‘Oh! I get it!’. It’s like the quote attributed to Feynman, ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’
The second part is a bit trickier and I haven’t quite cracked it yet. The plan is this: After breaking them down in a humiliating way and convincing them that they know bugger all about anything, I somehow convince them that they knew the scientific explanation all along. The holistic, energy based explanation of how circuits work. They should be so broken that they are willing to accept an entirely new version of the world, one that I want them to think, without question, assuming that it is something they thought all along. It’s meant to be something along the lines of Theon Greyjoy being tortured relentlessly, given hopes of escape before being brought brutally back to his world of hell until finally, a destroyed man, he is convinced of a new identity as Reek, a servile beast with no will of his own. That’s kind of what I would like to achieve with my students…
Instead of this I’ve gently introduced situations where they discover their own cognitive dissonances. Situations where they can’t help but have their attention drawn to phenomena that seem to disagree with what they think, because I draw their attention to them. As an example, it is very common for students to have a firm idea about what direction current flows in. Whether they’ve been told it by a less sensitive KS3 teacher or have just had a guess, what’s interesting is how strongly they hold onto their idea. “It flows from positive to negative”, one dimwit said. I asked how sure they were on a scale of 1 to 10. “100% – definitely”, the muttonhead answered. I asked why they thought this. After a long pause she replied, ” I don’t know, but I’m certain of my answer”. Crazy.
So anyway, I show them a circuit now with two bulbs in series. 9 times out of 10 the bulbs will be slightly different so one will be brighter than the other. Depending on their choice of current direction the usual pinhead will declare, “Aha! See this one is first because it is brighter so has taken more energy, leaving the second one with less.”, or, “Aha! See this one is first because it has only taken some of the energy leaving the rest to the second one.”. Then I ask them to swap the bulbs around and they see that the brightness had nothing to do with the perceived order of the bulbs in the circuit. “Explain that…”, I say mysteriously while floating away like a slightly less creepy Derren Brown.
I suppose the trick is to show students that they should be seeking to disprove their ideas, not prove them. Although falsification theory may not be the actual way that determines how science is carried out, it is at least a way and a way that we should be encouraging in our young idiots’ brains. The question now is how to handle the backfire effect, where people’s ideas get strengthened in the face of opposing evidence…
Confirmation Bias, retrieved 14/05/2014 from http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias/
List of Cognitive Biases, retrieved 14/05/2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases
How to Cope with Your Confirmation Bias, retrieved 14/05/2014 from http://www.kiplinger.com/article/investing/T031-C000-S002-how-to-cope-with-your-confirmation-bias.html
IlluminatiWatcher’s ‘The Shining’ Symbolic Analysis – IlluminatiWatcher, retrieved 14/05/2014 from http://illuminatiwatcher.com/illuminatiwatchers-the-shining-symbolic-analysis
Confirmation bias, retireved 14/05/2014 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/c/confirmation_bias.htm
Solar System Exploration: Planets: Earth’s Moon: Facts & Figures, retrieved 14/05/2014 from http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Display=Facts&Object=Moon