LEARNING AND THRIVING IN A COMPLEX WORLD

James Paul Gee
Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies
Regents’ Professor, Arizona State University
Arizona, USA

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There is a lot of talk these days about “fake news.” As teachers, we struggle with how to help our students decide what is and is not “fake news.” In the age of social media, this problem has only become more acute. Every day there are new stories and videos that go viral, only to be debunked later. Many of us ask, with some consternation, why? Why do we believe things that seem so obviously wrong later? Why do we ignore obvious falsehoods that contradict our point of view? What’s going on here?

To help us make sense of this problem, we turned to an expert in learning, language, and literacy, James Paul Gee. Jim is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University. We are big fans of Jim’s work. He has a rare talent for explaining complex topics of neuroscience and language and making them accessible to us mere mortals. His latest book, Teaching, Learning, Literacy in Our High-Risk High-Tech World is a terrific summary of the challenges we face teaching today. If you’re not familiar with his work, we highly recommend this quick read before you head back to the classroom.

—BHP Team

Follow BHP teacher responses to this post (including how they’re integrating it in Big History classroom instruction) in the online BHP Teacher Community. 


Learning and Thriving in a Complex World

Why do humans so often seem to care more about mental comfort—that is, believing without really testing their beliefs—than truth and evidence? The answer has to do with how humans learn and under what conditions they thrive—or don’t. Let’s start by talking about how humans learn and then turn to how they thrive.

Humans learn from their experiences in the world and via media. Human learning starts in concrete experiences, not abstractions, generalizations, or texts outside of experience. Humans learn best from an experience in which they have an action to take—a problem to solve—and when they affectively (emotionally) care about the problem’s outcome. Because any experience is too replete with details for “newbies,” learners need help managing their attention; that is, help knowing what to pay attention to, how, and why.

Humans store their experiences in long-term memory, a mental capacity that for all practical purposes is limitless. There is growing evidence that experiences stored in memory are primarily future oriented and not past oriented. Our memories (and their bits and pieces) are used as material for mental simulations (imaginings) that allow us to plan and prepare for future action. But our memories change every time we retrieve them, and are therefore an unreliable record of the past. In many ways, memory is imagination—fodder for planning and action—and not a mere record of the past. The point of human memory is to allow us to make good choices in the future.

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Human knowledge does not start as general. It becomes general slowly, across time. Humans find patterns (general beliefs or knowledge) in their experiences across time only when they are exposed to repeated examples of the pattern (in their experiences in the world, via media, and via simulations in their minds), and can test how well these examples fit the hypothesized pattern. Although pattern recognition is a human superpower, we are prone to run too fast and too far with it. Thus, learners need help to know how to test the pattern hypotheses they form, and how to assess the results of these tests.

The human brain is full of “bugs.” These bugs include things like:

  • confirmation bias: The strong tendency to look for, pay attention to, and favor only evidence that conforms to what we already believe.
  • availability heuristic: Making judgments based on recent events or information that can be easily recalled.
  • gambler’s fallacy: Believing that past random events can affect future events.
  • herd mentality: When the desire to be part of a group outweighs other, better considerations for how to feel or what to decide.

Brain bugs are often thought of as bad, but they can be good. They can be helpful shortcuts that allow us to act quickly. However, this is possible only if we’ve had lots of rich, unbiased experiences to use as the basis for making good, fast decisions and choices. When we face new and complex problems for which we don’t have that basis, we need to be plugged into good tools and a diverse array of other people so we get the sort of thoughtful collective intelligence that is the true power of human beings.

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I have talked about all the help human learners need. That help comes from families, social groups, and teachers. Families and social groups, however, are in danger of forming tribal minds that too quickly discount other groups. This is so because in a complex world, each group has limited, specific experiences that sometimes need to be informed or supplemented by the experiences of other groups. In a pluralistic and civil society, school teachers are the helpers without which we cannot flourish as a society.

Learners need lots of well-designed and well-mentored experiences. They also need lots of collaboration, talk, and texts that help them manage their attention. They need to be able to test and assess choices, and eventually gain fruitful general knowledge and meta-knowledge. Their memories need to be not just repositories of facts, but imaginative powerhouses for making good plans and choices. Teachers are the most important designers and mentors of experience for people who will become citizens of our society.

Having discussed how humans learn, let me move on now to discuss how humans thrive. All humans have a deep need to feel that what they do matters to others, that it makes a difference, that they count in their society. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that when humans feel they do not matter or count, they become sick in mind and body. There is evidence also that all people—well off and poor—are less healthy in highly unequal societies, because in them many people feel what they do and think doesn’t really matter, that they are not true participants in their society. People who feel they do not really count are most in danger of seeking comfort over truth and following leaders who will give them that comfort.

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The human mind is built to care much more about meaning—feeling that things make sense—than about truth. Humans seek stories that make them feel like they matter and they will revel in these stories—even if they are untrue or even if they are dangerous to others—if the stories give them comfort. This is a dangerous situation in a pluralistic society where we then end up with warring ideological tribes. In reality, humans are best served—and down deep know they are best served—by stories that are both meaningful and true. The salvation of a civil society is “storied truth”: deep, true things that make sense of the world in a way that empowers people as agents and participants in their society.

I pointed out earlier that with help from families and social groups, people eventually turn their experiences into more general perspectives on (or theories about) the world. Whether differing perspectives in a society lead to respectful discussions or head-on conflict depends on the state of the society.

Differences can be a source of strength and collective intelligence or a source of conflict, hatred, and even war. It is a key job of teachers to show people how to gain meta-knowledge about differing perspectives and how to engage in reflective discussions across them. The goal of such discussions is not to convert people to our own perspectives, but for each of us to understand our own perspectives better and to understand those of others, as well. The goal is also for people to gradually transform their perspectives, if they choose, and, in some instances, to come to converge with others in the service of peace and collaborative problem solving.

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About the author: James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University. He has a rare talent for explaining complex topics of neuroscience and language and making them accessible to us mere mortals. His latest book, Teaching, Learning, Literacy in Our High-Risk High-Tech World is a terrific summary of the challenges we face teaching today. </em

HOW TO “HOOK” ‘EM FROM DAY 1

Mark Ehlers, BHP Teacher
North Carolina, USA

The first day of class is tough on everyone! The students—especially the new freshmen that I teach—are worried about being in high school for the first time. Teachers, on the other hand, worry about trying to “hook” the students right away. The first day really sets the tone for the whole year. No pressure, right? I teach high school freshmen in classes that range from eight to fifteen students in 50-minute classes. For our first day of class, I wanted to really get the kids excited about the possibilities of Big History, so I chose to use a modified version of the Unit 1 activity History as a Mystery.

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I started by giving my students a five-minute introduction to the cold case: 30 bodies discovered in York, which had once been a Roman outpost against Scottish tribes to the north. I asked them to make a hypothesis to explain this mystery, and we then discussed a few of their hypotheses. I explained that they were making their hypotheses based on Intuition—one of our BHP claim testers. I then told them that, to get a better answer, we would need to talk to a variety of different experts in different disciplines (Authority) and consider their Evidence and Logic. We then viewed the first 19 minutes of the film The Mystery of the Headless Romans. I asked my students to note the type of experts that were interviewed and the evidence that each used to draw their conclusions as they watched the video. We ended the film with the evidence presented by the forensic dentist. To finish off the day, I asked them to write down one additional expert that they would want to talk to about the mystery.

The next day, we started by summarizing the evidence from the previous class, and then I asked them to revise their initial hypotheses using the evidence presented so far. We watched the last 10 minutes of the film to get the final pieces of evidence from the archaeologist, the forensic anthropologist, and the historian. As a class, we listed the experts that we saw and the evidence that they used to come to their conclusions. We discussed whether any of the experts could have put together the whole story on their own, and how new evidence forced them to alter their claims, which easily led to a discussion of the interdisciplinary nature of Big History. For our summarizing activity, we read the essay, “What Will We Leave Behind?” (included at the end of the History as Mystery activity) and students completed their responses in small groups.

It was a great two-day activity that held my ninth graders’ attention in a way that I’ve never seen before—I had one student literally jumping out of her seat to tell me that her father is a forensic dentist and has solved mysteries like this. Even better, it was a great way to introduce my students to some of the big ideas that they will be encountering over the rest of the course. I can’t wait to watch my students dive in even deeper!

About the author: Mark teaches Big History to high school freshmen at Davidson Day School in Davidson, NC. The 2017/18 school year marks his second teaching high school and first teaching BHP. It’s his school’s first year implementing the course as a replacement for the traditional world history survey. Mark teaches four sessions of a year-long Big History course; they meet daily for 50 minutes.

Engaging with Experts in the BHP Teacher Community

Casey Lever, BHP Teacher
Queensland, Australia

Like everyone’s interaction with BHP, mine is evolving. But unlike a lot of the incredibly switched-on people who teach Big History, it takes me time to learn new things. Recently, I’ve begun to pay attention to the BHP Exchanges, reading them and even participating in a couple. In case, like me, you weren’t aware that these events were taking place, I should explain that an Exchange is an official monthly opportunity for Big History teachers to interact with a visiting expert in the online BHP Teacher Community. Guest experts typically provide an article they’ve written about a specific topic relevant to Big History, and then respond to questions posted by teachers over the days that follow.

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Dr. Bryan J. Mendez joins the BHP June Exchange

I’m sure that sounds worthy and educational. But it’s actually a lot more than that. Just consider: One random evening, sitting at my desk here in suburban Queensland, Australia, I got to ask Dr. Bryan J. Mendez, astronomer and public education specialist at Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, a question about the value of space exploration for the human race. Wow. I’m not sure what other people think, but that seems like an amazing thing to be doing with my time.

There was definitely a nerdy kind of thrill in posting a question and getting an answer from a genuine expert, and I encourage you to try it and see what I mean. Since that evening, though, I sense that there are more reasons for why it is something good to be doing.

We are living through sharp times. Right now, it feels like the assumptions of scholarship that underpin Western civilization are under attack from all sides. Objective reality doesn’t seem to be rating as highly as it used to. Those with strong opinions and intuitions, even if based on fallacies or distortions of truth, seem to have become influential. Being skeptical about absolutely everything is all the rage. Indeed, logic and reason and the authority of those with genuine expertise are frequently dismissed, while the politics of rage holds all of us in its fierce and fascinating grip.

It’s a big claim, that posting questions to an expert on Yammer is to fight for the rightful place of experts at the heart of scholarship, but that’s exactly what it feels like to me.

Being able to test my understanding with those who apply all their intellectual rigor to profound questions is a privilege that I really want to take advantage of. After three years of teaching this course, knowledge doesn’t feel like a noun any more. It feels active, not static, and raises all sorts of “doing” words in my mind, like probing and questioning, interrogating and connecting. My awareness of the constructedness of knowledge has been heightened, and I realize that textbooks and other written documents are only the beginning of learning.

But it’s not just about me. I’m also modeling what I want my students to do and how I want them to think. When I inserted my interaction with Dr. Mendez into classroom conversation this week, a small and insignificant moment became a big and powerful moment. Twenty-four fifteen-year-old young women heard that it was standard practice to communicate with a leading astronomer and think of interesting things to ask him. What would you have asked? I wanted to know. They had plenty of ideas. And so, next time I will ask my students what to ask before the Exchange. I’ve seen other teachers do just that, and now I’ve realized why.

Participating in the Exchanges is not just about Big History teachers and our students. Academics are well aware that it’s important for them to engage with the community. A compellingly titled recent article, “How Universities Can Earn Trust and Share Power in the Bitter Post-Truth Era” (Roberts & Becker, 2017), has made this very point, arguing “it has always been incumbent on … experts to engage with the public – to share knowledge and to ensure that the way in which knowledge is being driven forward benefits as many people as possible.” Big History Exchanges offer academics an opportunity to reach out to those of us working with young people and engage and influence what we know and talk about in the classroom.

So next time you are thinking about participating in an Exchange, go ahead. To read, to consider, to comment, to ask: these things might seem small but in fact you are doing big, important work. You are a conduit for providing our students access to a source of cutting-edge disciplinary knowledge; you are modeling to them how our understanding of complexity is deepened; and you have become a vital part of the process of collective learning.


Reference

Roberts, A., & Becker, S. (2017, May 4). “How Universities Can Earn Trust and Share Power in the Bitter Post Truth Era.” Retrieved from The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/how-universities-can-earn-trust-and-share-power-in-the-bitter-post-truth-era-76653.


Note: The next BHP Exchange will span September 6th-8th and feature Learning Scientist Rachel Phillips. Rachel recently wrote us a blog post on the power of Lead Learning. Her Exchange will focus on questions you have related to implementing a “lead learner” stance in your BHP classroom!


About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.