June 2012
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Day 19/06/2012

Designing, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is without a doubt the most intriguing book I’ve read this year.  It’s not an education book.  It’s a book about behavioral economics, written by the guy who basically invented the field and won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work–as a psychologist.   Nonetheless, it has some powerful lessons for education, along with a self-help element that’s pretty hard to miss.

The book’s main focus–and the inspiration for its title–is the idea that the human brain has two modes of thinking.  System 1 is intuitive and fast; it moves quickly, often effortlessly.  It watches out for danger, and it can tell you that 4 times 4 equals 16.

System 2 requires far more energy.  It’s our slow, deliberate mode of thinking, the kind of thinking that can tell us that 13 times 29 is…something…wait for it…377.  Because system 2 requires so much more energy, it tires us out, and we don’t use it as much as we use system 1.

The early chapters of the book are full of thinking problems, the most quoted of which is this:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10.  The bat costs $1 more than the ball.  How much does the ball cost?  

Most people say $0.10.  Did you?  I certainly did when I read it, but it turns out that the answer is $0.05, because the bat is then $1.05, and together they cost $1.10.  Most people get it wrong because system 1 sees that “obviously correct” answer $0.10, and system 2 never kicks in.

After reading the book, it’s hard not to have some higher level of awareness about these two systems of thought.  You make a mistake, and you can realize that you really were on auto-pilot system 1.   Having read it, I don’t know that I’m necessarily any better at controlling and employing my system 2, but the book (again, the earlier chapters especially) mentions some research into how to activate system 2.  For example, providing information in an unfamiliar, hard-to-read font can help student retention, because system 2 has to kick in while the student studies.

There are so many of these studies to read out there, many of which are included in Thinking, Fast and Slow.  The question this presents for Design Thinking relates to DT’s emphasis on user-based design.  To what extent should teachers design materials and lessons in ways that might help student learning but cause some frustration for the students as well (e.g., making materials in a hard-to-read font)?  Designing a lesson that’s heavily informed by understanding of meta-cognition (i.e., meta-meta-cognition, I guess) might lead to some issues with the user/student in the short-term.  Balancing the need to appeal to system 1 while also accessing system 2 is an interesting challenge.

And I strongly, strongly recommend the book to all of you, no matter your chosen field.

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