Are there elements of human nature that could be better harnessed for better educational outcomes?

July 13, 2016 at 7:57 am 2 comments

I don’t often link to Quora, but when it’s Steven Pinker pointing out the relationship between our human nature to educational goals, it’s worth it.

One potential insight is that educators begin not with blank slates but with minds that are adapted to think and reason in ways that may be at cross-purposes with the goals of education in a modern society. The conscious portion of language consists of words and meanings, but the portion that connects most directly to print consists of phonemes, which ordinarily are below the level of consciousness. We intuitively understand living species as having essences, but the theory of evolution requires us to rethink them as populations of variable individuals. We naturally assess probability by dredging up examples from memory, whereas real probability takes into account the number of occurrences and the number of opportunities. We are apt to think that people who disagree with us are stupid and stubborn, while we are overconfident and self-deluded about our own competence and honesty.

Source: (3) Are there elements of human nature that could be better harnessed for better educational outcomes? – Quora

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Howard Johnson (@HowardJ_phd)  |  July 13, 2016 at 11:23 am

    I found the quote confusing without this from the next paragraph:
    “But human nature also gives educators the resources that allows students to overcome these infirmities. We can learn complex ideas so well that they become single cognitive chunks which then may be inserted as units inside increasingly complex assemblies”, as well as the subsequent discussion of turning natural weaknesses into strengths through education.
    Also confusing is the discussion of phonemes, which I consider more of a human analytic construct rather than a natural mental human element. Phonemes are how AI understands language, but not humans; and this points to a major difference between human and machine intelligence. We seldom read more than 30% of words on a page because we speak read and write into what Bakhtin termed genres. This allows for more flexibility and efficiency in interpreting meaning in conversations; both text and speech. We anticipate what a person will say before their first utterance and adjust understanding as we go in a responsive dance of meaning. Here is an explanation of speech genre and “utterance” which Bakhtin takes as the smallest unit of understanding (from U of New Hampshire):

    “Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication of a particular sphere. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another… Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word ‘response’ here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account… Therefore, each kind of utterance is filled with various kinds of responsive reactions to other utterances of the given sphere of speech communication” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.91).

    In other words, an utterance has at least these four basic properties: 1) boundaries; 2) responsivity or dialogicality; 3) finalization; and 4) generic form.

    What is meant by the first two properties 1) and 2) is obvious from the quote. Number three 3) “finalization” is made clear in the following quote:

    “This change [of speaking subjects] can only take place because the speaker has said (or written) everything he wishes to say at a particular moment or under particular circumstances. When hearing or reading, we clearly sense the end of the utterance, as if we hear the speaker’s concluding dixi. This finalization is specific and is determined by specific criteria” (1986, p.76).

    The final property is described further in the next section. The choice of speech genre “is determined by the specific nature of the given sphere of speech communication, semantic (thematic) considerations, the concrete situation of the speech communication, the personal composition of its participants, and so on” (1986, p.78).

  • 2. Raul Miller  |  July 13, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    I am a bit skeptical of how that was phrased, but I do agree with the idea that our actual implementation of word meanings has to do with the aggregation of experiences that we (the individuals) have acquired and associated with that word.

    And, yes, this is necessarily a somewhat sloppy and inexact process… See also, the game of “telephone”, for an illustration of some of the implications.

    That said, perhaps also the concept of “better educational outcomes” should be treated similarly. Whatever idea we have of “better educational outcomes” is going to be informed by our own experiences and also by things other people are telling us (which may grate on our nerves, for any of a variety of reasons).


    Personally, I think that a modest mixing in of “practical experiences” (lab work, show&tell, field trips, etc.) can help with keeping the pace of the class interesting for the students.

    Of course, no one approach solves every problem. But our experiences are an important part of how we learn and I think we do need a good variety of them.


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