Enigma of Reason and School Transformation

If you haven’t watched Richard’s video blog review of The Enigma Of Reason, watch it below now! Then enjoy this related blog on school transformation.

It has been interesting to work on three different books on roughly the same topic at the same time: Factfulness, The Enigma of Reason and Thinking Fast and Slow. All three books address a common problem: human reason is systematically flawed but as humans we behave as though that is not the case. The evidence in Factfulness that led to this conclusion is that well educated adults consistently scored below a guessing level on a multiple choice test about well-being in the world today. If their scores were below guessing, then their answers had to reflect some kind of bias or preconceived notion about the world that was incorrect. In fact, it was both.

Enigma of Reason approaches the problem by claiming that reason must have a different purpose than we normally attribute to it or it would not have lasted as a human characteristic. They suggest two different uses of reason. The first is the need for humans to cooperate and the second is the need to persuade when no single person in the group has the credibility to be believed on trust.

In both reason is a social function and the book contends that reasoning done by an individual, absent the social context, is likely to be flawed because it is biased and lazy. But, reasoning is biased because the bias is normally efficient in most ways but not always. For example, we hold an opinion often based on experience. That is a good reason because our experience should, more often than not, be predictive. But, in a world that is rapidly changing and the pace of change is accelerating, our experiences, our learning, may be out of date. This conflict between efficiency, the bias, and the exceptions to bias, form the basis for the other two books. Factulness and Thinking Fast and Slow address the biases or mental traps with their many exceptions in the modern world that cause reasoning to fail.

There is a second undercurrent to the enigma of reason – when needed for persuasion it works only with a segment of the audience. When the audience is polarized, the argument tends to drive further polarization, no matter what the argument is. When the audience holds diverse opinions, again the argument tends to cause the audience to mentally look for reasons to support an already held belief. The only audience receptive to an argument is one that is committed to a common outcome or belief and probably holds certain common, foundational understandings relative to the outcome. But, what about the circumstance with the other two audiences? Are they present in schools and, if so, are they a barrier to transformation? The simple answer is yes.

Let’s take just one hot button issue – testing. The general consensus, with which we agree, is that a single, end of year test, no matter how good, is overemphasized. It carries too much value. In an effort to be brief, this has been translated into a belief that testing is bad. We think of testing as simply asking the students questions and then evaluating the answers – something like inquiry learning. We can present evidence that using a pre-test will lead to better student performance on a post learning activity, whether it is a test or an essay or a project. Like an inquiry, the pre-test creates focus and in addition, it creates a baseline against which the learning can sense progress. We believe that using testing as a learning activity has value but the topic is so divisive that reasoning fails. What works? How do we create improvement or change if persuasion, even with data, will fail?

The trick is to create trust, but that is not a reasoning process, and to believe that the trusted people within the group are changing the social norms based on successful experiences. In other words, teachers need to see other teachers experience the desired change successfully but there are requirements.

First, people will trust opinions held by more than one person as opposed to a single person more quickly. A change process in a school must focus on a group of teachers changing rather than one. Second, to believe in the change, this group of change agents must communicate success (obviously we are hoping that the success is real but unfortunately it is the perception of success, not the real success, that counts) with the proposed change. To experience success the schools needs what we might think of as a group of early innovators. They are willing to try something even if they are uncertain that it will work. Third, the success must be valued. The principal or formal school leadership needs to communicate support but not dictate the change. Fourth, the teachers outside of the early innovators, the catalytic group, need to see the change as growing in popularity. They will want to remain a member of the group, with their peers, and if they perceive that the group is changing, they are likely to change.

In a sense this all sounds so contrived and perhaps negative. It is a kind of “monkey see, monkey do” kind of mentality. That is a far too negative interpretation of what is happening. Cooperation, collaboration and imitation are bred into us as human beings. School transformation requires a social strategy that uses it.

We will try to make this point more effectively in our art video on Imitation, Repetition and Variation: Van Gogh – A Case Study.

Leave a Reply