Over the weekend, I read the New York Times bestselling book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A…: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life,” written by Mark Manson. In it, he points to studies that show the human brain was designed for efficiency, not accuracy. We rarely remember events accurately; we measure new information against values and conclusions we have already drawn. Thus, we end up being wrong about things more often than not. His conclusion is that we should trust ourselves less, be open to the fact that our minds and hearts are often unreliable, and that we need to challenge our beliefs and assumptions. In this way, we free ourselves to learn and to grow.
I am a skeptic, so I searched for evidence of his thesis. I found an article, “Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds,” in the February 27, 2017 edition of the New Yorker Magazine, written by Elizabeth Kolbert. She cites recent studies on brain research that shows the limitation on human reasoning, the perseverance of impressions we’ve already made, and confirmation bias, our tendency to embrace information that supports our beliefs even when there is empirical or analytical evidence to the contrary.
In many circumstances, science corrects our faulty reasoning. As the New Yorker article points out, “In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for my side bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.”
However, even with data, we remain adept at discounting accurate information if it goes against our beliefs or biases, and what we “feel” to be true! In the context of education, this helps to explain why it has been so hard for meaningful change to take place in American schools. Even at Hillel, these challenges play out routinely. For parents who are skeptical of the direction Hillel is traveling, it is fair to argue that our changes are being made based on our own “confirmation bias.” In other words, some may claim we only cite research and opinions that agree with the direction we are taking the school.
That is why we constantly challenge ourselves to look for meta-research to support our objectives. Sometimes it is available, as in the case of our homework policy for K-4, and sometimes we have to go by the collective wisdom of the professional leaders in the field and our own experiences, such as in the case of a more personalized, constructivist learning approach. There is not a lot of research in this realm, and yet through our own observations, and the growing body of international evidence, we are confident it is the right approach.
Too many parents allow their own confirmation biases to get in the way as well. Let’s take the example of homework again. There is available meta-analysis of many studies conducted over decades that empirically prove that there is no real value to homework in the elementary grades. However, for many parents the confirmation bias goes like this – “I had homework growing up in elementary school, I did well in school, went to college and got a good job. Therefore homework is good.” However, the fact remains there is no evidence that correlates homework to success at school. On the contrary, there is evidence of the opposite in the elementary years.
That’s academics. On the social-emotional front, there is also evidence that coming to a child’s rescue when certain situations arise does more harm than good. We need to raise children who are resilient, who can advocate for themselves, and who can fail forward – that’s where real learning begins. Fortunately, we can count on one hand those types of parents at Hillel.
When we do face a parent who is reactionary, concerned with being “right” (or righteous) rather than open to a usually more complex and accurate reality, it is, sadly, the child who loses. One of Manson’s bits of wisdom is that nobody is “entitled” and these negative experiences teach entitlement, not responsibility.
Manson suggests that we need to shed our certainty of seemingly knowing what is right or accurate, in order to open ourselves up to other possibilities, possibilities that may be more accurate, more productive, and more reality-based. It is also the gateway to truly freeing ourselves to act, fail, and ultimately grow as human beings.
This is a humbling, human, and, I might add, Jewish approach to living. I am working at it. Are you?