First published in Dutch om the 18th of September 2013
Convictions as inferior
“Yes, but that is what you think. That’s just your opinion”. This response came from an audience of parents and teachers after I had unexpectedly made statements about their own learning problems rather than about those of their children and students. The rest of the audience nervously awaited how I would deflect this assault. The only thing I said was, “yes, indeed”. This was no surrender due to some sort of exposure. My concern was precisely this. We think that by labelling statements as individual convictions, we are getting in some good shots. The statements cannot have any overarching value, because everyone has their own convictions and you cannot argue about taste. I claim that convictions are actually the most important thing we should argue about.
We believe that facts are more important and more powerful than convictions because they have been objectively and empirically determined. In the world of science, this is absolutely true. An empirical method is essential and has given us, as method for the acquisition of knowledge, an awful lot. Education is understandably grounded on the same vantage point. Empirically obtained insights after all cover the lion’s share of the subjects that are being taught. From this perspective, the student is conveniently cast as an empiricist. He or she takes the class experience as a starting point and continues through Kolb’s further stages like a true scientist in order to arrive at knowledge.
No true scientists
I have already admitted elsewhere that I embrace Kolb’s cycle, but it is a misconception to think that we only work with facts in our actions and interactions that are directly derived from faithful observations or from scientific findings of others. We think that we are true empiricists, but this is not the case. Our biased conceptions and feelings play a large role in how we advance through Kolb’s cycle. We simply cannot abstract ourselves from this (for countless substantiations of this, see Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow).
The influence of convictions
If tomorrow’s newspapers state that we were all wrong and that the sun does go around the earth, 99,99% of the world’s population would shrug and think, “as long as it’s there in the morning”. We are effortlessly prepared to swap one “fact” for another. Not because in this way we open ourselves to true knowledge, but because, in everyday life, facts are of less importance than we might think. Things change when our conceptions are being compromised. Discussions about the existence of God are not at all about facts. The proving or disproving of His existence would be as uneventful to our factual perception as when it would turn out that the sun does go around the earth. What makes the discussion so much fiercer is that it touches on the conceptions that we have of our world.
Convictions are everywhere
Not only the biggest conceptions on “God’s level” are relevant. Our interpretations are much more extensive and subtler than we think. They appear in all that we consider many/few, hard/easy, good/bad, comprehensible/incomprehensible, frustration/pliancy, creepy/nice, but also fine/rough, heavy/light, sharp/blunt, hard/soft, warm/cold, complex/simple and so on. These are all conceptions rather than facts.
We want to make the world comprehensible and meaningful and in order to do so we use our interpretations which fall outside empiricism. To us, facts are basically interchangeable unless they tally with the conceptions that we have of life around us. However, we keep these conceptions close to heart because they determine our grip on reality (see my essay I think therefore I am… faulty).
In other words, we experience no difficulty with accepting new facts, but neither do we have trouble discarding them when they clash with conceptions that we embrace. A lazy student who thinks that it will work out fine with his or her study would not necessarily be impressed by an enumeration of the credits that he or she has failed to attain. As long as the student’s conception remains intact, the facts will not find their entrance and the behaviour will not change. Conceptions can limit us to come to new insights.
This is not only the case for students! I stress this issue to point out that we are all like this. During my lectures, I often ask the audience for their associations with DRIVING A CAR. I am partly given facts such as, “50 kilometers an hour in urban areas”, and “traffic on your right has right of way”. Some refer to actions such as “steering, accelerating, and switching gears”. There are also those who exclaim their conceptions such as “Freedom! Grazing the pavement!” or “an expensive but necessary evil”.
To the people who like to drive dangerously I propose the following. Evidence shows that people with such conceptions have more car accidents than other traffickers. I present all sorts of statistics on the number of incidents, hospitalizations, and casualties a year. I subsequently ask whether they plan on driving more carefully from now on. The answer is always no. Why not? The most prevalent response is, “that does not apply to me”.
You do not influence learning behaviour with facts
the same perseverance is seen in people with negative conceptions. For example, this is the case with students who say they are bad in statistics, that a schedule does not work for them, or that a fail would be hell on earth. The faulty learning behaviour that stems from this is not easily altered with facts, even though this is often what trainings, courses, and coaching are tapping into. Factual knowledge and skills are often centralized; the steps of a schedule, the purpose of a regression analysis, the possibility of doing a resit. Conceptions are often disregarded. The student is treated as an objective scientist even though he or she isn’t.
This essay is not a plea to show how irrational we are. On the contrary, our conceptions are structured in the same way as all knowledge constructs in our head. This process is solidly and evolutionary tested. It is just not as neutral, objective, and empirical as one would wish to believe. We have proven to be exceptionally successful with it. People who like to drive dangerously in their car have passed their driving exam and have spent many pleasant kilometers on the road. Why would they change?
Counselling is aimed at people who are less successful. In the counselling of these people we must realize that their less successful conceptions are, on the outset, just as robust as those of successful people, because their conceptions are structured in the same way. Just like their successful fellow men, they think their conceptions are not at stake. Only the method is insufficient or the result unsatisfactory.
For this reason, it is very useful to track down what kinds of conceptions students and clients have about the subject at hand. These strongly influence their learnability. I momentarily counsel a student who is very intelligent, but also works very chaotically. He sporadically delivers brilliant performances that immensely impressed his tutors. He is now working on his thesis, for eighteen months without any sign of progress. Working chaotically apparently has its setbacks.
The student is convinced that his creativity will come to its own in this way and has a lot of difficulty (fear even) with working systematically and with incorporating self-management strategies. His conceptions draw my attention. These explain his behaviour and resistance. A faulty working method is never the problem; The conceptions that maintain this working method are the problem. I try to expose the conceptions at hand and challenge the student to defy them. Facts can help me along the way, though. After eighteen months he still does not have an accepted research proposal. His working method (aimed at spontaneous epiphanies at any random moment of the day) has factually not brought him very far. I think this is an important connection in which I am careful not to express a value judgment. His conceptions are not wrong! They just do not provide him with the desired result. In this way, I try to incorporate his conceptions in his learning cycle rather than avoiding them as an unspeakable given.
So now let’s return to the lecture that gave rise to this essay. The person in the audience who reproached me for having personal conceptions is completely right. They are my conceptions. I put them on the table and am willing to question them, because they are what a discussion ought to be about. I am prepared to alter them if necessary. Without that readiness, a discussion is reduced to a debate in which viewpoints are defended and exceptionally little result is produced.
I am a lot less inclined to shift my ideas if someone says that my conceptions are wrong, but if one is able to show me that I thereby cannot realize my desired results (counselling students to positive effects), my readiness strongly increases. This is the type of scientist we ought to be.