TITLE: Preconception, Priming, and Learning AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 27, 2010 8:09 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Earlier today, @tonybibbs tweeted about this Slate article, which describes how political marketers use the way our minds work to slant how we think about candidates. It reports on some studies from experimental psych that found evidence for a disconcerting assertion:
Reminding people of their partisan loyalties makes them more likely to buy smears about their political opponents. Our willingness to believe in smears is intricately tied to our internal concepts of "us" and "them." It does not matter how the "us" is defined.... The moment you prompt people to see the world in terms of us and them, you instantly make their minds hospitable to slurs about people belonging to the other group.
I wondered out loud on Twitter whether knowing this about how our minds work can help us combat the effects of such manipulation and thus to act more rationally. Given that the cues in these studies were so brief as to bypass conscious thought, I am not especially hopeful. As you might imagine, the findings of these studies concern me, not only with regard to the possibility of an informed and rational electorate but also for what it means about my own personal behavior in the political marketplace. Walking across campus this afternoon, though, it occurred to me that as much as I care for the political implications, these findings might have a more immediate effect on my life as an instructor. Every learner comes to a classroom or to a textbook with preconceptions. As far as I know, the physics education community has done more than other science communities to study the preconceptions novice students bring to their classrooms. However, they have also learned that their intro courses tend to make things worse. We in computer science often make things worse, too, but we don't know much about how or why! The findings about bias and priming in political communication make me wonder what the implications of bias and priming might be for learning, especially computer science. Are students' preconceptions about CS enough like the partisan loyalties people have in politics to make the findings relevant? I doubt students have the same "us versus them" mentality about technical academic subjects as about politics, but research has shown that many non-CS students think that programmers are a different sort of people than themselves. This might lead to something of a "family" effect. If so, then the priming effect exposed in the studies might also apply in some way. My first thought was of inadvertent priming, in which we send signals unintentionally that reinforce biases against learning to program or that strengthen misconceptions about computing. I realized later that inadvertent priming could also have positive effects. That side of the continuum seems inherently less interesting to me, but perhaps it shouldn't. It is good to know what we are doing right as well as what we are doing wrong. My second thought was of how we might intentionally prime the mind to improve learning. Intentional priming is the focus of the Slate article, due to the nefarious ways in which political operatives use it to create misinformation and influence voter behavior. We teachers are in the business of shaping minds, too, but in good ways, affecting both the content and the form of student thinking. Educators should use what scientists learn about how the human mind works to do their job more effectively. This may be an opportunity. Cognitive psychology is the science that underlies learning and teaching. We educators should look for more ways to use it to do our jobs better. ~~~~ (I need to track down citations for some of the claims I reference above, such as studies of naive physics and studies of how non-computing and novice computing students view programmers as a different breed. If you have any at hand, I'd love to hear from you.) -----