From a great New Yorker article that ran last month:
In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers?
Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we — or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
When we argue we become dumber, more blind to our own lack of knowledge and logical inconsistencies. When we try to explain or summarize how things work, on the other hand, we suddenly realize that we don’t know as much as we think we do, and we tend to moderate our opinions, and be more open to data that may conflict with our beliefs. Curiosity replaces dogma. (It’s probably not for nothing that the smartest folks in the open education space make a habit of providing others with daily or weekly summaries of articles.)
People wondered why I liked clickers — it seemed very not-very-open-education. Why so multiple choice, Mike?
But I didn’t like clickers. I liked peer instruction. In the peer instruction methodology, students have to explain how things work to other students — and in the process they realize that they have no fricking clue what they are talking about (even though they were dead sure they understood it twenty seconds before).
Have you ever heard a student say “I knew it until I had to explain it on the test?” Illusion of explanatory depth, right there. They didn’t know it. But they never were given any activities that allowed them to realize they didn’t know it.
What happens in peer instruction? You give students daily opportunities to realize they understand a fraction of what they think they do, and you get amazing learning gains.
People wonder why I got obsessed with federated wiki. I got obsessed for a number of reasons, but as I discussed in The Garden and the Stream, one of the primary ones was this: a daily process of trying to explain and connect incoming ideas rather than rating them and arguing them changes your brain in helpful ways. Federated wiki takes us down a path of explanation and connection. Traditional social media takes us down a path of argument and retrenchment.
People wonder why I spent time on Choral Explanations as a future for OER. The reason? It’s likely to be the future that most advances the ability of students to learn. When students have to explain things to others (rather than argue a point) they must address gaps in their own knowledge. They must pierce the “illusion of explanatory depth” and realize wow, they actually have no idea what they are talking about. Only then can they rectify that.
And now my answer to the Post-Truth crisis? It’s to have students explain things. Some things they investigate will be simply wrong, completely false. Hillary killed an FBI agent. Three million people voted illegally. The more interesting ones are subtle: Have thyroid cancers increased near Fukushima? Did the Republican Party of North Carolina brag about voter suppression?
Again, it’s the power explaining things to others rather than arguing points. Can you summarize all sides rather than just present yours? And if you can’t summarize all sides, how in the world would you know that you are right?
It’s this power that I see most intersecting with open pedagogy as well. Explaining things to a teacher becomes just another test. Explaining things to people on the internet — especially where, as is the case with wiki, they can edit you — that’s the sort of stakes that forces some self-examination.
I think we’ve had a lot of open pedagogy that is about expression, and that’s wonderful. It’s certainly more engaging than some of the drier work of explanation. But as I’ve said many times over the past couple years, I think some of the most promising work in the future is having students explore that explanation space, and coming face-to-face with their own ignorance, as we all must do. And then either rectifying that or perhaps just respecting the issue’s complexity. I don’t know how to make that fun — please help me out there, all you talented people reading this! But I do not think it’s hyperbole to say the future of our planet depends on it.