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