John Gunn, Teacher of Religious Studies at WHS, emphasises the importance of “being careful to think about thinking” as teachers

Have you ever walked into a classroom and made an initial judgment which you can’t see to amend? Perhaps when we make initial observations, we are comparing two things and judging their similarities? If our judgments are distorted by perception, how can we be sure that our decision making is having a positive impact on teaching and learning? This is why it is so important for us to think first about why we think the way we do. Not only will this reflection allow us to consider how we come to make judgments, but also make us factor in the unknown in our decision making.


The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis

On each round of a game, 20 marbles are distributed at random among five children: Alan, Ben, Carl, Dan, and Ed. Consider the following distribution:

Type I   Type II  
Alan 4 Alan 4
Ben 4 Ben 4
Carl 5 Carl 4
Dan 4 Dan 4
Ed 3 Ed 4


In many rounds of the game, will there be more results of type I or type II?[1]

If you have spent a moment looking at the above example, I wonder if you thought why you chose type I or type II. What are we doing when we make judgments? How do we take pieces of information, process them, and come to a decision or judgment?

For one or more answers, I recently read The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis in which he tracks the careers and lives of two of the greatest psychologists, Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

The above table is taken from Lewis’ book, chapter 6, The Mind’s Rules. Questions such as, ‘when/where was human judgment likely to go wrong’, ‘why do people often say that they were doing one thing when they were actually doing another’ ‘what are people doing when they judge probability’ are examples which Kahneman & Tversky try and tackle. In their paper Subjective Probability: A Judgment of Representativeness[2] Kahneman & Tversky attempt to ‘demonstrate people make predictable and systematic errors in the evaluation of uncertain events’. If nothing else this should get you thinking about thinking. Part of their approach comes from the premise that when people make judgments, they compare whatever they are judging to some model in their minds. “Our thesis is that, in many situations, an event A is judged to be more probable than an event B whenever A appears more representative than B.”[3] So, take a look again at the above example. Do you know why you chose type I or type II? If you think that the uneven distribution of type I is more likely than all the children receiving four marbles each, then think again. Just because type II “appears too lawful to be the result of a random process…”[4] it doesn’t mean it is wrong. This is something worth thinking about, “if our minds can be misled by our false stereotype of something as measurable as randomness, how much might they be misled by other, vaguer stereotypes?”[5]

Throughout the book there are questions raised about our understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. Kahneman himself favoured Gestalt psychology which sought to explore the mysteries of the human mind. The central question posed by Gestalt psychologists was, ‘how does the brain create meaning?’ Look at the two parallel lines below.[6] Are you really going to insist that one line is longer than the other?

If perception has the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one?

For those of you of a more medical persuasion you may prefer Chapter 8 which tracks the impact Kahneman & Tversky had on Dr. Don Redelmeier, an internist-researcher. Working at Sunnybrook, Canada’s largest trauma centre he says, “You need to be so careful when there is one simple diagnosis that instantly pops into your mind that beautifully explains everything all at once. That’s when you need to stop and check your thinking.”[7] This is not to say that the first thing that comes into our mind is wrong, but because it was in our mind, we become more certain of it. How costly may this be in school life? This I think is highlighted in an example of a maths problems in which we can check our answers to see if we have erred. In comparison to education it highlights an interesting thought. “…If we are fallible in algebra, where the answers are clear, how much more fallible must we be in a world where the answers are much less clear?”[8] This is certainly a book to read from cover to cover even if it doesn’t give you all the answers why we should be careful to think about thinking.

[1] Lewis, P176

[2] Published 1972

[3] Lewis, P182

[4] Subjective Probability: A Judgment of Representativeness, p5

[5] Lewis, P184

[6] Lewis, P76

[7] Lewis, P214

[8] Lewis, P221