Have you ever felt like there were two people inside you vying for control?
I’m rereading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist who studies reasoning and decision-making. Kahneman explains that our minds do contain two agents: A System One which makes quick, emotionally-based decisions, and a System Two which reasons slowly and deliberately.
The premise of Thinking Fast and Slow is that we’d all be better off if we learned awareness of these two systems so as to use the right system for the right purpose.
Most of the time, System One works just fine. It makes its decisions by applying heuristics (rules), which are stored in the brain innately or through prior experience. Because its answers are prepackaged, System One’s decisions are quick and feel easy and use little mental energy. System One works well in simple situations and on problems that are similar to ones that have been solved before.
But when situations are complex or novel, System Two ought to be hauled out. Many financial decisions (Should I buy this house?) and academic ones (What is the correct answer to this SAT question?) are properly the province of System Two. They ought to be reasoned out slowly and deliberately, with a vigilant eye out for mistakes and skipped steps and unfounded assumptions.
And yet, we all too often apply a System One-level decision to a System Two-level problem. That’s because “going by our gut” feels so pleasant and satisfying, whereas the application of meticulous mental effort is drudgery.
System Two thinking is physiologically uncomfortable. It burns more glucose (it literally consumes “mental energy,” which is why students should carry energy bar snacks to their standardized tests). Heart rate and blood pressure rise and pupils dilate. System Two work is a lot like running, and most of us would much rather walk:
Many of the questions on standardized tests tempt students into solving a related easy problem instead of the appropriate hard problem. And, yes, the test-makers are purposely trying to be “tricky.” Standardized tests attempt to assess students not just on how much knowledge they’ve acquired, but also on their ability to access that knowledge in the service of Level Two reasoning:
Here are some examples of standardized test traps students fall into:
So what’s the fix?
Adults can help by checking in on a regular basis to see that students are not just practicing, but doing so deliberately. This means that kids are examining their errors and analyzing and learning from them. As one teacher put it, “make sure students are learning and not just answer-seeking.
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Last reviewed: 8 Aug 2014