Radios in the 1980s pulsed with movie music as listeners cut footloose and danced their way into the danger zone. Some soundtrack albums became huge hits despite box office busts of their motion picture counterparts. Conversely, some tunes became hits because of their placement in a movie. “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” barely cracked the Top 40 before falling off and being placed on the to-be-shelved cart of “lost hit” archives. But then Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey danced on-screen, and the tune became a smash hit. Context influences our thinking.
While this may help a song find the top of the charts, it can be the downfall of sound reasoning. We are judgmental beings. We assess without recognizing we have done so, and frequently without giving what we are judging any serious consideration.
At our best, we recognize and mitigate this flaw in our thinking. We pause, consider the context and examine the reasons for our judgments. We jump backwards and take a more thorough, more nuanced view of our instant verdicts. We ask ourselves questions, such as:
- What is the context in which I am making this judgment? What has contributed to my initial impression?
- Are there any elements of the context, unrelated to the issue, that may be influencing my judgment?
- If so, how do I revise my opinion accordingly?
For example, as a runner, I’m in pursuit of perfect running form (or at least improvement in my own injury-prone gait). Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a form clinic being led by a couple of local experts. I did not want to go. I ignored the email and social media posts about the clinic. I told those who asked that I didn’t think I could find out anything I didn’t already know from previous analyses of my form. I ignorantly questioned the expertise of those leading the clinic. Up to the week of the clinic, I was absolutely not going.
And then I stopped and questioned myself, pulling apart my current context. I was dealing with the recurrence of a nagging injury in the middle race training (frustrating). I had been through a form analysis before and made minimal changes as a result (disappointing). The clinic was being held outside on a muggy Alabama afternoon (uncomfortable). I lacked confidence in my form, which made me not want to expose it to analysis (insecure). I had a plethora of pitiful excuses, none, of which, had any relevance to the quality of what was being offered.
With these contextual influences recognized, my thinking changed. I realized I was about to miss out on a great opportunity, so I pleaded to be included in the clinic (all spots had been filled). I begged my way in, and now I’m targeting specific weaknesses in my form.
Such self-revision of thinking can be developed, improved, learned. With practice, maybe I’ll grow better at changing my thinking before I have to beg to be part of great opportunities.
As Maria Konnikova describes in “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” the goal is to become and remain “constantly active and constantly vigilant” so that we “never forget that an initial impression is only that.” We must develop the habit of reflecting on what influenced an initial impression and of taking steps to minimize the effect of superfluous ideas and conditions. “Our brains will do certain things as a matter of course…We can’t change that. But we can change whether or not we take that initial judgment for granted — or probe it in greater depth.”
The basic sequence is 1) recognize the judgment; 2) examine the context in which the judgment was made; 3) identify the ideas/conditions influencing the judgment; 4) evaluate the ideas/conditions for relevance; and 5) revise or support the judgment based on relevant ideas/conditions. Recognize, examine, identify, evaluate, revise or support.
Group consensus offers a good opportunity to engage in this process. For example, last spring I had the privilege of working with a school reading curriculum team. After identifying the comprehension skills we thought a comprehensive program addresses, we identified the various levels of development each skill represents. With one skill, I raised questions regarding its usefulness. Two teachers tried making a case for the skill, pulling out several books written by “experts” who presented the skill as an absolute necessity. As we examined the evidence these authors offered, we found the skill lacking in its contribution to a reader’s understanding. We rejected the skill as presented by the experts, but we did not immediately eliminate it as having potential value. We kept exploring how the skill could be used, and we recognized its value once we further defined it. None of us, neither skeptics nor supporters, held our initial opinions once we recognized our instant judgments, examined the context, evaluated the contextual ideas/conditions for relevance, and revised our thinking accordingly. We ended up with something new, something neither side imagined at the beginning, and something far better than even the experts had offered.
In the classroom, widely held ideas provide similar opportunities. For example, middle- and high-school students frequently voice opinions about everything from media personalities to major social and political issues. These opinions, often expressed in pre-class dialogue or in-class discussions, provide an opportunity to engage students in jumping backwards, to explore such instant opinions and re-think them. Done enough, this process becomes natural when an opinion is expressed, and eventually becomes a means for students to self-revise their own judgments.
When we recognize the influence context has on our thinking, we can become our own skeptics, actively scrutinizing influences on our thinking and minimizing those that are irrelevant. It may not matter whether we like a song because of its catchy melody and lyrics or because it was the soundtrack to a favored movie scene, but many of our judgments are far more consequential. In those situations, jumping backwards my provide the best path forward for us, for our students, and for the thinkers both of us can become.
We can equip students for better thinking by helping them jump, backwards.
Kevin D. Washburn (@kdwashburn) is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.