Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Learning That We're Wrong

It's a bit ironic that when scientists need to study how people learn in the fMRI scanner, it's almost the complete opposite to how students are taught in the classroom. For researchers to see brain changes associated with learning, they have to provide regular feedback about errors; whereas in the classroom, the 'learning' process is mostly watching and listening passively.

In the figure below, you can see that test subjects need to activate less brain when they learn a spatial categorization task. They learn by receiving feedback with each trial when they make an incorrect response.

Without knowing what you don't know, you may have woefully unrealistic ideas about your own knowledge. Cornell researcher Dunning and colleagues have several papers (and now a new book) examine the dilemma of inaccurate self-knowledge. There are various factors involved (for instance the "above-average" effect in which most people think they are above average), but an inaccurate knowledge of omissions was significant.

In the figure below, look at the "double curse of incompetence" - in a classroom study, the bottom quartile was the poorest at estimating what they understood. That's why, the authors say, don't trust how confident people feel about what they know or don't know - it's unreliable!

Re: the classroom... Mathematics is one subject where 'right' or 'wrong' are pretty clear, but endpoints of knowledge are more fuzzy for writing, reasoning, or creative work. If you're a parent, try this trick at home - after explaining something or reading something outloud to your child, ask them to explain it back to you. If you don't have a habit of doing this, you may be shock about what seems to go in one ear and out the other, or what they misunderstand.

In the classroom, it's easy to be attacked either for teaching too much "to the test" or not testing enough. Often a delicate balance needs be struck, and the composition of the classroom may put limits on what differentiation and feedback one can provide. The science of learning does suggest, though, we only really learn with regular feedback (positive and negative) about our performance.

As far as writing or factual learnign is concerned, one suggestion is to allow students to revisit unsatisfactory work until it is satisfactory. For some tasks such as writing, students may also need to see alot of examples of well-written and supported essays before they can predict what's expected of them, and write their own.

Overrating Our Abilities
Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence
Common Errors in Reports
Common Errors with Reasoning
Finding Errors in Problem Solving
Spatial Learning From Mistakes and fMRI


  1. I had two thoughts while reading this...

    Roger Schank expounded on a the importance of what he called expectation failure as the key to learning. Basically that we learn when are expectations fail thus causing us to take extra notice of what is going on. A common parental and educational strategy is to demonize failure in all of its forms. Shank attacks this as being immiscible with learning.

    Alternatively Montessori in one of her discussions about teaching young children colors says that one should not correct a child when they are wrong because if they don't understand the concept then they will not understand what they are being corrected on. Simply wait and give another instance at another time until the pattern is learned.

    I dont think there is any way to do this well in a classroom with more that 6 students, and I am betting the average teacher would have a hard time doing it with 4.

  2. The devil's really in the details, isn't it. Kids (and everyone, really) are often very sensitive to criticism, but it's a skillful teacher within a skillful system that can strike a great balance between informing about errors (learning) and validation.

    It reminds me of the study that found that elementary school students quickly became fapidly demoralized on random number generation games because they had to be winning better than 1/2 the time to really enjoy and engage in the game.

    The context of a teacher-student relationship needs to be that the student feels valued and smart in their own particular way - and then finding errors (the teacher confessing along with the student) can be a mutual discovery about critical thinking. Sometimes the Paper Chase model may work in gifted or higher education situations - very intellectually demanding teacher - all students can be shamed - but that's usually not for the younger grades when a lot of basic processing skills are being figured out.

    We like a lot of the ideas of Maria Montessori, but I personally don't know whether I would take an absolute stand on the correcting about color issue.

    Back in Chicago, we knew a school district that refused to correct spelling until children were in the 4th grade, and that was going too far - especially when imposed for all children. At that point, children start learning incorrect spellings, and they would be very disadvantaged hitting the 5th grade compared to kids taught from other districts.

  3. Anonymous3:24 PM

    What is the source for that graph? I am fascinated. I don't understand how people cannot know when they are awful at things--I can make a quite full list of things I am below the 25th %ile in as well as things I'm above the 95th %ile in (measurably)--but that explains SO well why people have unrealistic dreams about becoming an actor, a doctor, a writer, a lawyer, etc.

    I not not mind seeing myself as below average in certain areas because I realize what average means and my ego is not threatened by a failure to be superior to "the average" in everything, so I think Rob Sperry has an excellent point there. (As an example, my drawing ability is on par with an average seven-year-old. I am not exaggerating.) One of the reasons I have excelled in certain areas is that I have taken a very, very hard look at my accomplishments and their value and have pushed myself at every turn to do better. Complacency and perceived competence are the enemies of true excellent and the enablers of mediocrity and worse.

    BTW, totally off topic, the verification graphic that everyone is using these days to prevent spam is agony for a dyslexic, even a very mild one! *g* Going for try #2 now...


  4. Err - sorry about that. I've had trouble with that word verification thing too. The spammers are just so rotten.

    Well, the data suggest that the people who are most likely to underestimate their abilities are those who are most able. The kids we see who are the most denigrating of their abilities, are sometimes the most brilliant. Sternberg would probably argue that the most 'successful' intelligent people are those who have accurate appraisals of what they can and cannot do.

  5. Anonymous7:08 PM

    The link for this "Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence" is giving me a 404 not found error "The requested URL /faculty/ehrlinger.dp.html//DunJohnEhr&Krug.pdf was not found on this server."

    both of these links may go to the intended article?


    Love your blog. Thanks for what you do.

  6. Thanks very much. People are changing their websites all the time, so we appreciate hearing when the papers have moved. You've got'em! We'll update the post.