In a complex world of free-flowing information and misinformation, where we are often being sold to without realising it, clear thought is more vital than ever. Natasha Robson explains how she is educating people to think about their thinking
The modern world is complicated. It’s a world of convenience. Of freely available information, of communication unhindered by distance, of progress and possibility. But it is also the world of 'surveillance capitalism', where our behaviour is used to manipulate us. It’s now 21 years since Google launched AdWords, allowing our web searches to be harvested and used to direct targeted advertising back at us.
So we start to question whether privacy and personal autonomy still exist in the way we used to understand them. It’s a world in which we have become manipulable commodities as well as ideological targets. And our incredible potential for communication is also leading to a form of regression: our ‘echo chambers’ exacerbate problems of polarisation, divisiveness, intolerance. The complexity and resultant anxiety created by the availability of limitless information, both true and false, about world events feeds this backwards-looking tendency, this desire to simplify, to build barriers between one another.
These negative aspects of our present reality demand that we think deeply about how we prepare ourselves and our children for the future. While it might feel wonderfully convenient – even gratifying – for advertising to target us with things that we desire or need, the cost is the equally easily effected ideological targeting, the mis- and disinformation designed to fit our world view, to chime with our prejudices. It’s increasingly pervasive and it has already affected world events.
The exciting reality of a world in which everyone’s voice can be heard also comes at a cost: the anonymity that an online existence offers has made some of those voices loud, aggressive and damaging – louder, more aggressive, and more damaging than they might otherwise be.
I believe that there are answers, and these are not so difficult to begin enacting. It is this that has brought me to the RSA.
Over the past century, many commentators have expressed the feeling that the education system – in this country and others – must ‘catch up’ with the rate of technological change. In particular, John Dewey advocated an educational methodology that ‘freed intelligence’, that allowed participants to learn to think for themselves and come to informed conclusions. Dewey’s 'reflective thinking' is considered by many to have been the conceptual forerunner of critical thinking – and I believe it offers one answer.
My work focuses on the cognitive, psychological and sociological mechanisms that compromise our ability to think clearly. At present, I am running courses that follow a path from cognition to social conditioning – from internal to external – giving participants a broader understanding of their own thinking, and how it can fail or be manipulated and adjusted by actors external to ourselves.
However, this is only the beginning. Cognitive science and cognitive fallibility awareness need to be integrated into our education system, and this needs to happen as soon as possible. Surveillance capitalism – and every darkness that resides within it – is not going anywhere. Machines understand us and how we think better than we do. The only response to this is to better understand ourselves.
At the heart of this approach is metacognition – the ability to think about our own thinking. In terms of my work, metacognitive awareness is the awareness of the thought processes that lead to our beliefs and cognitions; and metacognitive regulation is taking control of those thought processes and removing, as far as possible, those aspects of our thinking that compromise its effectiveness.
What does this mean? Well, research has shown that metacognitive ability is not fixed: it is a skill that can be taught, learnt, and improved. It is a skill that should be central to everyone’s educational journey. It should not only be available in the form of philosophy and politics to those lucky enough to attend expensive private schools, or as an aspect of higher education for those fortunate enough to attend university. We need every member of every population to learn how to think for themselves, how to check their thinking in order to protect themselves, and in order to more effectively – and enthusiastically – participate in the democratic process.
There is a wealth of readable and thought-provoking literature informing these disciplines. Good places to start would include Post-Truth by Matthew D'Ancona, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, How We Think by John Dewey, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann.
My courses take participants from a cognitive perspective on thinking, through a little neurology, and broadening to more complex influences on our behaviour, such as psychological mechanisms and cultural conditioning. But we must integrate this knowledge into the curriculum, and it wouldn’t be hard to do.
What does this mean in practice? We should be adopting P4C-like conversation with younger children; make Socratic dialogue and debate standard practice in state secondaries; introduce logical fallacy games at primary school; integrate basic neuroscience into secondary-level science; look at Bayesian reasoning in maths; examine perspective change in history; make what we now call PSHE, or ‘citizenship’, more of a priority – and make it more about psychology and sociology and objectivity and empathy.
Above all, always, and in every subject, make metacognitive practice part of the discipline. In essence, don’t just teach children what they have to know to pass their exams but teach them to think about what they learn, to interrogate new ideas, and their own ideas.
If we can do this for our children, metacognitive regulation will become natural. Imagine a society in which self-awareness and careful, unbiased thinking was not an effort but an expectation, in which critical thinking was not the preserve of the sciences but a built-in modus operandi, part of the very fabric of our brains and thinking. Imagine a world in which ‘fake news’ could no longer find a foothold, let alone a stronghold, in which nuances of perspective became a valued and natural aspect of discourse between all people. In which it was not possible to pit people against one another over meaningless or misinterpreted obstacles, because we all were given the opportunity as children to understand our cognitive experience well enough to engage more deeply with it –and, consequently, with the wider world.
I want to help build that society. I want to help create that world.
Natasha Robson is a doctoral researcher at the University of Reading. Her work is concerned with the cognitive mechanisms that compromise our ability to communicate and interact effectively, as well as social and publishing history and literary criticism. She has taught for the past ten years and worked with Holland House Books on its first Novella Project as an editor and project manager
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