Are We Putting the (Knowledge) Cart Before the (Emotional) Horse?

What would you say if I told you that all of our current national efforts to improve public education were blind to the actual way people learned and interacted with the world?

Depressing, right? But it’s true. To prove it, watch this short video — just 100 seconds long:

You just watched a film about bullying. The larger triangle was harassing the smaller triangle, until the two smaller shapes banded together and outwitted their aggressor. Right?

Except that’s not really what happened; all you saw were shapes and lines moving around on a piece of paper. And although it’s true the subject is in the air thanks to this month’s release of the new feature film Bully, I can assure you that what you saw had nothing to do with the zeitgeist. In fact, people have been seeing that same story in that video now for more than 60 years.


According to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and the author of the current bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, we all see the same story because our brains seek instant explanations, and the quickest way to do that is by linking what we see to our available cache of memories and emotions. We see the world, in other words, through stories of cause and effect that we instantly (and unconsciously) create, and the stories we create are informed by our constant search for emotional coherence.

As Kahneman and others have shown, our minds are effectively run by two different systems — the “fast” system, which operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and with no conscious sense of control; and the “slow” system, which gets activated for more complex forms of thinking, and which gives us the conscious impression of choice, agency, and concentration.

These insights into how the mind operates are essential for anyone who cares about teaching and learning, because they make us more aware of the mental filters through which we see the world. And when it comes to education reform, we’ve fallen in love with the wrong central character. As Kahneman explains:

When we think of ourselves, we identify with [the slow system], the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although this system believes itself to be where the action is, the [fast system] is the hero of the book  . . . by effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of [the slow system].

We elevate the wrong hero in school reform every day when we overvalue the importance of academic learning and assume that merely focusing on better curricula and clearer standards will carry the day. Yet the research suggests otherwise, affirming what sociologist Pedro Noguera and others have said repeatedly: “unmet social needs become unmet academic needs.”

If this is true — and the evidence from a range of fields overwhelmingly suggests that it is — then what we are doing is the strategic equivalent of putting the knowledge cart before the emotional horse. That doesn’t mean efforts to improve content or clarify standards are useless; merely that they are necessary and insufficient if they are not considered in direct concert with a greater attention to the mind and how our emotions and memories shape — directly, powerfully, and immediately — the way we see the world, and each other, and whatever it is we are trying to learn about.

What if we gathered a different set of data for our decision-making? And what if this data could actually zero in on the part of the brain that is most responsible for ensuring our emotional growth?

As it turns out, we can do this because we now know which neurons in the brain are most responsible for this sort of development in people. They’re called mirror neurons, and they’re what help us interpret, understand, and empathize with the thoughts and feelings of other people. As Dr. Marco Iacoboni explains in the book Mirroring People, “Mirror neurons undoubtedly provide, for the first time in history, a plausible neurophysiological explanation for complex forms of social cognition and interaction. By helping us recognize the actions of other people, mirror neurons also help us to recognize and understand the deepest motives behind those actions, the intentions of other individuals.”

With this knowledge at the forefront, we could spark a national effort to help schools do a better job of cultivating the capacity of young people to become more empathetic — not as a replacement for academic learning, but as a fully integrated companion to the daily learning process. In fact, there’s already a great tool available for assessing the empathy of young people. It’s called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and it’s been used by scientists for years.

I think I just found a great new use for the Gates Foundation’s money.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

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