Understanding ain’t believing and yes there are economic consequences!

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Recently, I came across this academic article differentiating belief and understanding and it triggered an explosion of thoughts.   When I teach, I  often encounter students who fail to grasp the topic and naturally their puzzled looks make me try to explain the idea again, differently.  I  never considered the possibility it wasn’t  my explanation that confused them, but maybe the ideas themselves.

Lost in Space

Our brains are wired to discard irrelevant information and to some degree if the new information doesn’t jive with what we know or believe–the ultimate cognitive dissonance occurs. Or as the Lost in Space robot would say: “That does not compute!”

As a teacher, I found the article unsettling on multiple levels.  First, because I never considered the potential conflict when preparing my lessons.  Second, what I confirmed talking to a High school math teacher in a large public school in Berwyn, IL:  Teaching helps students meet standards not to understand.

Personally, my limited experience as a public school teacher proved deeply challenging. In choosing to help students understand  not merely to pass.  I taught a vastly diverse population of 4th graders in a suburban Chicago classroom.  Student  IQs ranged from 5-95% on the chart, and the socio economic status of their families were equally diverse with many receiving subsidized breakfast and lunch. One student was severely ADHD, had lost his mother and his medication was constantly being adjusted. I had my hands full and could never figure out how to insure that every kid understood.

My own preference for immersive learning as a young student, in which my students allowed us to  play it out and learn by doing made school fun.  An approach, I actively sought to replicate in my teaching.  Returning to study education later in life, I was first dumbfounded to learn that so little was understood about effective teaching methods.  This isn’t really as mysterious a problem as I pose.  One of the oldest professions remains mysterious becasue the  purpose or objectives of education continue to evolve.  Sure there is wide agreement that everyone should have a command of the basics, the three Rs–Reading wRiting and aRithmetic.  How do you measure competency in these subjects?  what methods make it possible for students to gain competency or even mastery? If you have had a child in school, then you are familiar that new methods continue to be introduced.  Similarly, schools are held accountable to new standards and competency measurements.  Yes, the rules for private and charter schools differ from those demanded by the public.
Surprise, understanding information and knowing something are not the same thing. There are somethings you understand but could never articulate and vice versa some things you know but don’t necessarily understand.  For example, we know or learn how to drive without ever understanding how the car we drive actually works.  We may understand what someone else may be feeling without knowing precisely.
The areas where our understanding and knowledge most align come from ideas that involve multi-sensory learning experiences. It’s one thing to watch someone do something or find the results and another to reproduce them.  I can watch Tiger Woods, study his swing, stance and then when I attempt to hit the ball I discover just how much I don’t know.
This post won’t be able to address the issues fully.  I’m wondering where and how we might be able to resolve some of these contradictions and do it to help more people achieve. Sure high scores matter, but don’t we also want higher understanding that makes it possible for more people to solve more problems  when and where ever they encounter them? Teaching for understanding should count, in fact it’s a great book too!  But I’m also making a quick case for multi-sensory learning that allows more of us to connect what we know to things we understand.
Take history.  The recent Steven Spielberg movie on Abraham Lincoln attempted to show us more of the reality of the politics during the Civil War, but it also brought to life the words Americans are frequently taught.  We know about the civil war, we know that it was about slavery and we may know the Gettysburg address too.  But how does knowing that help me understand the world I encounter today?  How does learning history help me?
Imagine  learning history by role play? Being asked to study and recite the lines of Gettysberg address makes it easier for us to recall them and ponder them. Playing out the issues allows us to wire our brain to make our own meaning, personalize the lessons to connect to our pre-existing experiences.  The challenge may be that owning and personalizing the results takes time but it also complicates the  expectation of a singular correct answer or take on history.  Personalized meaning may prove more useful, stickier and authentic but it makes passing a standardized test much more difficult.
In fact, the accumulation of specific representations of  ideas and details are the only measures of learning that society at large respects and values. Today we value a passing grade and top performance measurable on a singular dimension.  Daniel Goleman‘s work on multiple intelligences increased the appreciation of talents beyond traditional accumulation of facts, but don’t celebrate them as equal achievements. High scoring SAT,  ACT and GPA scores open doors to further academic study and elite higher education opportunities.
This little monograph published in 2006 warrants more attention. In part, our system reflects the consequences of  the larger failure by the education system to differentiate student responses based on their belief and understanding versus answering according to the expectation of the testers.  The consequences of teachers teaching students to pass the test  may help some students further their schooling and many of them may gain understanding in the process.  But what about the others , where school material doesn’t match their knowledge of what matters  outside of school?   Teaching without understanding fails them and represents a failure of the investments to realize the returns of a capable society.
But there’s more.  Personally, this piece opened two divergent avenues of thought.  One,  given the growing research into the workings of the human brain how might cognitive processes  guide our behavior in the face of two truths. Two, findings by the economist James Heckmann whose work focuses on the development of human skills, abilities and health capacities for example demonstrate  the different values of those who graduate highschool and those that pass the GRE.

Two truths

T​he concept of holding two truths at once parallels the paradox of knowing what is right and yet believing it wrong​.

The FMRI of psychopaths who suffer from false delusions or paranoia, found their brain processes to differ from the general population. Interestingly, FMRI scans of democrats and republicans show each population to process information differently.  Both research illustrates the power and influence of different beliefs and explain the differences in our thinking and actions.  The reconciliation or rationalization process literally works differently based on early wiring of beliefs.
Carol Dweck, a noted childhood development scholar’s research explores the opportunities that emerge to rewire in adolescence.  Writing a response for the Boston review to research by James Heckmann that emphasized the value of larger emphasis on interventions to foster huma skills ad capacities, she writes:
“The success of the adolescent interventions derives from their laser-like focus on particular non-cognitive factors and the beliefs that underlie them—knowledge stemming from psychological theory.”
I often explain that my life changed when I began graduate work at the University of Chicago​.  I discovered what thinking felt like relative to merely learning.  I experienced integration of knowledge I was accumulating, the adding to and reconciling of my previous understandings with new, deeper understanding  of how things worked.
Many things I believe don’t require me to defend or explain.The best explanation I can muster extends from the recognition by the researchers on the primacy of self-centered meaning making.  My truth, what I know and what I believe begins with discovery.  The child who asks incessantly why seeks to make more sense of what they encounter.  The information they receive forms a foundation that like the sand on the beach slowly gets replaced with each new wave of information.  The emotional issues that cloud our thinking
 I’m sharing this article with the hope that you may have some additional insight into the topic or further my own knowledge surrounding  the significance of reconciling belief and understanding.



One thought on “Understanding ain’t believing and yes there are economic consequences!

  1. Pingback: Big 3I competencies: Why are they so darn hard to acquire? | Adjusting Sensibility

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