Survival of the fittest… ideas in your head

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One component of Cognitive Load Theory that does not draw much attention is the parallel that John Sweller and Susan Sweller draw between biological evolution as an information processing system and the mind as an information processing system. This is unsurprising because this facet of the theory operates more at the level of an explanation than at the level of providing practical guidance for teachers. Nevertheless, as an explanation, or rather an explanatory model, it is still worth teachers knowing about it and that’s why I have written about these ideas before.

I have also previously written about Stellan Ohlsson’s views about conceptual change. Part of his argument is that we are capable of holding contradictory ‘theories’ in long term memory at the same time. The status, utility and eventual fate of these theories is determined by competition. Critically, we don’t change our ideas, we switch from one framework to another. This seems to me to be yet another reason to be doubtful about ‘cognitive conflict‘, a mechanism that some have proposed as a way of challenging and addressing misconceptions.

Ohlsson’s writings are pretty hard to digest, but I wonder whether a simpler heuristic can be drawn from them that has practical utility in the classroom.

Consider, as Sweller and Sweller suggest, that long-term memory is an information store similar to a genome. We have become used to describing biological evolution as something that happens at the scale of individual organisms – the survival of the fittest – but it is perhaps better to understand it as the survival of the fittest genesThis is Richard Dawkins’ approach in The Selfish Gene – organisms are the means by which genes propagate themselves.

I don’t know exactly what would be the long-term memory equivalent of a gene. Would it be a schema? One of Ohlsson’s theories? I’m not sure. However, I don’t think it matters in this context and so I am going to use the everyday term, ‘idea’.

By drawing a parallel with biological evolution, we should expect to see the continued survival of the ‘fittest’ ideas at the same time as the gradual decline of lesser ideas. ‘Survival’, must mean persistence both within an individual and between individuals through social learning. Those familiar with Dawkins might note a similarity with his original use of the term, ‘meme‘.

But the fittest ideas are not necessarily the ones that are objectively the most correct. Sometimes, being right about something may actually be a hindrance to an individual and a fiction may possess far more utility. So this process will not necessarily lead to the truth or even anything approaching it. As we can observe out there in the real world, the popularity of an idea often bears little relationship to its veracity.

Seen in this light, the role of education appears to be twofold. Firstly, we must ensure that students have accurate and powerful sets of ideas that they may draw upon (or ideas that are as accurate and as powerful as is possible, given the provisional nature of knowledge). Secondly, we must create conditions in which these ideas have greater utility than their less accurate competitors. Interestingly, the second point would apply equally to biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge.

Mapping this on to the process of education, we might translate this as the need to teach ideas and then ask students to apply those ideas in a variety of contexts. This model does not offer obvious support for forms of discovery learning for novices because the lack of direction could as easily lead to the emergence and eventual competitive success of inaccurate and flawed ideas as it does correct ideas. As ever, the more direction you add to the discovery process, the more effective it would be in this sense, but it is hard to see the point at which it would provide an advantage.

By manipulating educational conditions, we could also increase the utility of non-academic ideas such as politeness, if that is what we sought to do.

Finally, it seems important to note that we cannot easily erase ideas. We can only hope to provide better ones. And I think that perhaps offers an insight into the human condition.

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7 thoughts on “Survival of the fittest… ideas in your head

  1. Greg,
    One guess at what would reinforce one meme over another is the level of positive feelings associated with it. I suppose this is one of the arguments discovery folks might make – that the more one can attribute knowing something to our own devices the more joy we will feel and the more addicted to this fact we would become.

    I think there are clearly flaws in some approaches based on this idea – there is no right answer just worthwhile effort would obviously not be a good idea. Another is that zero stress is better than some optimal stress level. The switch from worrying about how to get an answer to getting it right would have an optimal worry level above zero for optimal joy at getting the right answer.

    I’ve seen two different approaches that seem to use this idea – John Mighton of Jumpmath.org aims to scaffold the learning so that the maximum number of participants make each small leap and get the satisfaction of a right answer. This looks very different to what discovery or inquiry proponents prescribe. It’s worked example and back and forth between teacher and students.

    The other end of the spectrum is aops.com which targets those looking for a significant challenge. There is the same worked example and back and forth but the leaps asked of the students are much bigger. At the extreme here are challenging problems that may take a student days to figure out a partial answer but generate a palpable buzz at that aha moment.

  2. My favourite example (you’ve probably seen it already) of the ability of the brain to switch between conflicting ‘ideas’ is this backwards bicycle video:

    It is hard to unlearn what you have learnt.
    Under pressure we revert to type (the road most travelled).

  3. Greg, in terms of physics and cognitive conflict, you need to read up on “p-prims” (diSessa originally introduces the idea, but I found the article by D Hammer a nice introduction.

      1. Fair enough!

        Alot of Physics Education Research discusses the “misconceptions”, or “preconceptions” that students bring into the classroom. Hammer discusses the theory of DiSessa that this might not actually be the case. Instead students might be calling on underlying phenomenological primitives, or p-prims.

        The difference in the two is that “misconceptions” are fully formed structures or models in the brain.

        “For example, in one popular demonstration of misconceptions, students were asked to explain why it is hotter in the summer than in the winter (Sadler, Schneps, & Woll, 1989). Many responded that this is because the earth is closer to the sun. To see this response as a misconception is to understand it as part of the students’ knowledge system: The question accessed that stored (and faulty) element of knowledge about why it is hotter in the summer. Another interpretation would be that the students constructed that idea at the moment. This construction would be based on other knowledge, such as the (appropriate) knowledge that moving closer to the sun would make the earth hotter, but it is not necessary to assume that the idea itself existed in some form in the students’ minds prior to the question.

        DiSessa (1988, 1993) developed an alternative account of students’ intuitive physics knowledge, positing the existence of more fundamental, more abstract cognitive structures he called phenomenological primitives or p-prims. By this view, how students respond to a question depends on which p-prims are activated.

        For example, the question of why it is hotter in the summer may activate for them a p-prim connecting proximity and intensity: Closer means stronger. This p-prim is an abstraction by which one may understand a range of phenomena: Candles are hotter and brighter the closer you get to them; music is louder the closer you are to the speaker; the smell of garlic is more intense the closer you bring it to your nose. It may be through the activation of closer means stronger that students generate the idea that the earth is closer to the sun in the summer. That most people would have this primitive in their knowledge system, and that it has a high probability of being cued in the seasons question, is an alternative explanation for why many students give such a response.”

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