Monday, February 24, 2014

How to get students to cheat less and hike more

Thinking Chapter 4: The Associative Machine

As I was reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, I realized that it's not just a book about how the brain works and makes decisions. It's about teaching. In every chapter, there is at least one revelation about what goes on in the brains of all those classroom characters. And so, I'll try to make some connections, to ponder recent psychological and neuroscientific findings in order to become a better teacher. Sometimes I'll be wrong. Sometimes I'll miss something important. But hopefully I'll hit on something important or interesting from time to time.

To begin the exploration of priming students to succeed, look at the following words:

homecoming         standardized exam

A lot happened to you during the last second or two. You experienced some unpleasant images and memories. Your face twisted in an expression of disgust, and you may have imperceptibly moved away from the computer. Your heart rate increased, the hair on your arms rose a little, and your sweat glands were activated. In short, you responded to something disgusting with an attenuated version of how you would react to the actual event. All of this was completely automatic, beyond your control.

OK, sorry, I basically copied the opening of Kahneman's chapter, except I changed his words (banana, vomit). This is a blog about teaching after all, and nothing is more disgusting and vomit-worthy than standardized exams.

This is one of the more exciting early chapters with potential implications for the classroom. First, Kahneman explains a little how the association of ideas works. If you come across an unpleasant idea, such as standardized exams, your mind and body react both consciously and in silent, hidden ways. He then explains the marvels of priming: if you were asked to complete the word fragment SO_P, your response would be different depending if you were first primed with WASH or EAT. From here it gets complicated, but also really intriguing.

Kahneman describes one experiment that got college students to walk slower because they had first been primed with words associated with the elderly. Just being exposed to words like Florida, forgetful, and bald got young people to slow down. That got me thinking, can students be primed for some long-term actions? For example, could they become interested in hiking if classroom walls were covered in pictures of beautiful forest trails? Could they be convinced to volunteer with pictures of orphanages or soup kitchens? No words, no messages, just pictures. And then a random announcement: we're planning a hike; sign up in the office. Could it work?

Kahneman continues by explaining that reciprocal priming effects produce a coherent reaction. By thinking about old age, people act old, and acting old reinforces thoughts of old age. The same is true with being amused and smiling: one reciprocates the other. Even nodding your head makes you more likely to agree with a message. These ideas point to the use of humor in the classroom. By laughing, students are more likely to be amused by a lesson, which in turn makes them feel positive about it. This is all common sense, but I wonder if it would be possible to trick students into being more agreeable. What if, for example, throughout the lesson, I tell students to nod if they hear me? Just that. Every ten minutes or so, nod if you hear me. Of course they'll nod (because I speak loudly), but by getting them to do that, can I alter their perception of whatever the lesson is actually about? It's worth a shot; at the very least, all the nodding will keep them from nodding off.

Kahneman presents other examples of priming effects. For example, people who have money on their minds (perhaps they saw a dollar-bill screen saver or a stack of Monopoly money) become more selfish, help less, and want to sit further away from strangers than people who have not been primed with money. This makes me wonder how various primes in a classroom might affect students. If there are posters of various universities, will students connect every task to their goal of getting into a great university? If so, would they be more or less likely to cheat on assignments and tests? Would they be more or less willing to help other students? Obviously I don't know the answers, but I think it's important to be aware that even the most innocent messages might have a profound effect on students, whether or not they are aware of it.

One possible way to reduce cheating is posters of eyes. Kahneman explains an experiment that changed how much people were willing to pitch in for coffee in an office: on alternating weeks, large pictures were hung in the room, either of flowers or eyes. There was a big increase in the amount people left during the weeks with pictures of eyes. Subconsciously, people thought someone was watching. I wonder if this would work in the classroom. Students want to peek at a neighbor's paper, but they sense eyes watching ...

The fact that primes work is not up for debate, according to Kahneman, who says, "You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you" (57). If so, then it seems important that schools are set up in ways that would prime students to succeed, whether that's studying harder or volunteering more or simply getting out into the wilderness for a hike.

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