Thursday, February 13, 2020

An Experiment in Learning to Think Reflectively

Let me ask you a couple of questions posed by a recent article (illustrating how easily our minds can mislead us). M. Statman, Mental Mistakes, WSJ (Feb 9, 2020).

First, do you consider yourself an above average driver?

Second, do you consider yourself an above average juggler?

Most of us answer the first question: "Yes, of course I'm an above average driver."  In contrast, most of us answer the second question: "No, absolutely not. Why, I can't even juggle so I'm definitely below average."  But context matters in determining whether our answers to these questions are accurate.  Id. 

Let me explain.  

Take driving.  Most of us think that we are at least average drivers (and most likely above average) because we drove today and didn't (hopefully) have an accident. But most drivers are just like us. They didn't have accidents either.  Id. Consequently, at least half of us have to be below average and the other half above average.  And, because we haven't yet explored any factual evidence in order to accurately gauge our driving abilities (such as accident records, traffic tickets, etc), we are often mistaken about our driving abilities. 

Now let's take juggling.  Most of us can't juggle at all, and, because that includes virtually all people, we are probably at least average jugglers (and maybe even better than average jugglers!). Id. You see, evidence matters in judging accurately. Id.

Likewise, with respect to learning, most of us think that we are at least above average with respect to easy tasks (like driving) but below average with respect to the hard tasks of learning (like juggling).  However, without concrete facts to evaluate our learning, we are likely wrong.  And that's a problem because if we don't know what we know and what we need to know we can't improve our all.  Indeed, that's why learning can be so difficult.  We tend to get stuck within our minds, our own framework, seeing what we want to see rather than what is really true about our learning.

So, as you evaluate your own learning, step back.  Ask yourself how do I know what I think I know.  Challenge yourself to see from the perspective of others so that you don't miss out on wonderful opportunities to improve your learning.  Be honest but not harsh.  Focus on identifying ways to improve.  

If you're not sure how to go about self-reflective learning, here's a quick suggestion:

Take for example an essay answer that you've written.  

First, find, identify, and explain one thing that in your writing that is outstanding (and why).  

Second, find, identify, and explain one way to improve your writing (and why that would be beneficial).  

Indeed, towards the end of most meetings with students, rather than telling my students to do "this or that," I ask them to tell me what they've learned about themselves from talking together and what can they do to improve their own learning.  And, I don't stop with just one answer.  I keep on asking until we have at last three concrete action items, all of which sprung out from them rather than me.  That's because the most memorable learning happens in "aha" moments, when we see what we didn't see before.  And, after all, isn't that the essence of learning...seeing anew with free eyes to boot.

(Scott Johns).

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