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Friday, November 2, 2012

Hard Questions

Daniel Kahneman in his book Think Fast and Slow describes research that shows how easily people generate intuitive opinions for complex matters:  "If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 (our intuitive or fast thinking) will find a related question that is easier and will answer it."  He goes on to say that we often don't even realize that original question was difficult, because we quickly accepted the easy answer that comes to mind.  I think a great example of this type of substitution happens in politics especially when people have to answer in sound bites.

Very often when I made presentations to educators I find that the questions I get often appear to be out of sync with what I presented.  I recently did a webinar on the Peaceful School Bus and even though it was advertised as being a prevention program and not a discipline method or bus driver training, the questions I received demonstrated how hard it is for people to change how they view problems.  For example, a question I received following the webinar was "What should you do if students are fighting on the bus?'.  That is good question but the answer is not related to the Peaceful School Bus program and the points I tried to make in the webinar.  I responded that a bus driver needed to use judgment and determine if a student was at risk of getting hurt.  Sometimes kids will stop fighting if an adult sees the fighting and in a strong voice tells them to knock it off.  Sometimes the driver has to stop the bus and go directly to the two students and break it up.  I don't see how there could be "one universal" solution to that type of problem.

Another question I received after the webinar was if I knew of any specific policies developed specifically for bus bullying.  I had not heard of any-it seems that the general school policies on bullying would cover what happens on the bus.  The question was a legitimate one but one that reflected a need we have to refer to something predetermined that will help us solve the difficult problems we face.  There are no however easy answers when it comes to educating children, but this is hard to accept.  We all have a need for things to run smoothly and when they don't, we need to have a solution that is clear cut and easily applied.   It is not easy to figure out why people do what they do and even harder to get them to change what they do.  It is also not easy to accept not knowing the answer or to find out that one doesn't even exist outside of a particular context.

We would be a lot better off and be more successful in addressing our problems if we were just able to collectively say "we don't know" when faced with a hard or difficult problem.   We could then work together to reflect and learn about the problem.  I often think that educators don't have a lot of faith in education or the power of learning together.  Sometimes living with a problem for a while and struggling with it is a lot more productive than frantically trying to find the "right" solution to make it go away.

Perhaps a better question to struggle with would be "Why doesn't bullying persist in schools the way it does?" rather than "how do we stop bullying?"  If we think about that first question, we have to think about school itself and how it operates and how students perceive it.  We might have to think about our own behavior as adults.    The irony however is that the greatest source of our learning comes from not knowing the answer right away, from struggling a bit, from accepting uncertainty, from thinking things over, from being open to many ideas from other people also confronting similar problems.  

Kahneman in his book often states that our need to have things be easy, familiar and comfortable overrides the slower thinking part of our brain.  He also says that we too often mistake system 1 for rational thinking,  thereby,  eliminating our need to think further and deeper.  He argues that by knowing how easy it is to be fooled and to fool ourselves, we can suspend our fast thinking and allow our slow thinking to accept uncertainty, ambiguity and difficulty-this is a source of wisdom.

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