• Feb 282013

Whistling for the Mental Butler

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A bat and a ball cost £1.10.
The bat costs £1 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

More about that question in a minute… At the moment we’re reading Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ which, if you like books that provide insights about the way we behave and think, will be right up your alley. In fact, a good measure of its ability to provoke is the fact we’re sitting writing a blog post (some might say a rare Sparky Teaching phenomenon in itself!) after reading only four chapters.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
’Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is not a book about teaching per se, but the impact it could have on your understanding of how your pupils’ brains work is huge, even four chapters in. Its premise is that the brain has two systems of thinking. These aren’t linked to any particular areas of the brain, but are just two ‘characters’ Kahneman uses to portray how we think intuitively and deliberately. What he terms System 1 (the ‘fast’ way of thinking) is used to make automatic responses with very little effort. System 2 (the ‘slow’ way of thinking) is used for more considered thought. Both systems have their uses and value (and both systems are illustrated in a wonderful piece of design on the front cover — see if you can spot them » ).
Fast thinking by your students would be seen in things like:

    - turning to listen to a new speaker in a class discussion,
    - making a disgusted face when you show them a photo of some mouldy bread in a Science lesson,
    - recognising from the tone of your voice that you are not happy,
    - reading large words on a whiteboard.

For those of you who read the question, it was fast thinking (instinct, if you will) that led most of you to think the ball costs 10p in the bat/ball problem at the head of this article. And it was fast thinking that led you to the wrong answer. Now that you consider it again, System 2 thinking can kick in and you’ll realise that if the bat is a pound more than the ball, it would have to be £1.05 and the ball 5p for that statement to be true. In other words, instinctive thinking can let us down, even when it looks so right. Although quick, System 1 can be a lazy way of thinking.
Slower thinking requires attention and as soon as it is drawn away, the thinking stops. Some examples in your classroom would be things like:

    - scanning a text, looking for commas,
    - trying to pick out a friend with blonde hair in the dinner hall,
    - focusing on one voice in a crowded and noisy room,
    - working out the answer to 26 x 42,
    - bracing themselves for the whistle in a race on Sports Day.

Of course, most learning tasks in school need System 2 (slow) thinking which is why we try to provide a learning environment that is free from needless distractions, where attention can be devoted fully on the task in hand. However, even intense focusing on a task can make us blind to the obvious…


And as Daniel Kahneman points out, our unwillingness to believe we’ve been fooled makes us blind to our own blindness too!

Chapter Four considers the idea of priming the mind to behave in certain ways. It describes several studies that show that even though we feel that we are behaving instinctively, we may be more open to priming that we know. For instance, one experiment asked students to unscramble sentences containing words related to the elderly (e.g. forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle). A second group did not have these words. At the end of the activity, all the students were asked to walk along the corridor to another room. Although they thought their work was done, this was the experiment! What they thought was an instinctive stroll along a corridor was actually evidence of priming — the group of students who’d dealt with elderly-related words took longer to make their way to the new room than their peers. Other experiments showed that cues about money and wealth (e.g. dollar signs on a screensaver, monopoly money on the desk) primed people to become more self-oriented and less helpful to others. A particular favourite is the example of the office coffee money jar which received more donations during weeks when a photo of a pair of staring eyes was posted above it than when there was a photo of flowers! (Big Brother is watching you donate your coffee money!) John Bargh, the psychologist behind some of these experiments, called these cues “whistles that only mental butlers can hear”. Our seemingly instinctive behaviour is often our mental butlers responding to the calls we don’t even know are there. In fact, everything within us wants to deny we even have mental butlers. We weren’t influenced by that photo above the coffee money jar. Were we?
All of this got us thinking! Thinking about thinking. These ideas have implications for us as teachers, our classroom environment and the open minds we aim to inspire every day. It’s all very well being interested in how the brain works, but it’s of no worth unless we consider it’s applicability to the job in hand. So, with that in mind, here are some provocative questions to ponder/discuss/mentally chew over…

    - Which thinking could be considered fast in your classroom? Which decisions are instinctive? Is there a chance they could be wrong?
    - How can we teach our pupils to take a second look at instinctive answers? (for example, in a maths word problem like the one above)
    - Is your classroom environment conducive to System 2 thinking? What are the potential attention-diverters?
    - Is a pupil moving off-task something we should be more sympathetic to?
    - How is the moonwalking bear relevant to learning? (put this question to your class here)
    - If we can be primed to think in certain ways, does wearing the same uniform prime our pupils to be less creative?!
    - Be honest — what cues do your pupils get from your classroom? Which whistles are your pupils’ mental butlers responding to?
    - What cues do we have around the classroom to promote creativity and independence of mind?

Four chapters down. Twenty four to go. There may well be more from ‘Thinking, Fast and slow’.
And while we’re on the subject of priming your classroom for creativity…

Click here for more details.

Find Thinking, Fast and Slow on Amazon
Priming Your Creativity by The Creativity Post
A somewhat-related Book Spine Poem by Brain Pickings

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So, what do you think?

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