2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools
Experimentation

Some scientific concepts have been so ruined by our education system that it is necessary to explain about the ones that everyone thinks they know about when they really don't.

We learn about experimentation in school. What we learn is that scientists conduct experiments and if we copy exactly what they did in our high school labs we will get the results they got. We learn about the experiments that scientists do, usually about about the physical and chemical properties of things and we learn that they report their results in scientific journals. So, in effect we learn that experimentation is boring, is something done by scientists and has nothing to do with our daily lives.

And, this is a problem. Experimentation is something done by everyone all the time. Babies experiment with what might be good to put in their mouths. Toddlers experiment with various behaviors to see what they can get away with. Teenagers experiment with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But because people don't really see these things as experiments nor as ways of collecting evidence in support or refutation of hypotheses, they don't learn to think about experimentation as something they constantly do and thus will need to learn to do better.

Every time we take a prescription drug we are conducting an experiment. But, we don't carefully record the results after each dose, and we don't run controls, and we mix up the variables by not changing only one behavior at a time, so that when we suffer from side effects we can't figure out what might have been the true cause. We do the same thing with personal relationships. When they go wrong, we can't figure out why because the conditions are different in each one.

Now, while it is difficult if not impossible to conduct controlled experiments in most aspects of our own lives, it is possible to come to understand that we are indeed conducting an experiment when we take a new job, or try a new tactic in a game we are playing, or when we pick a school to attend, or when we try and figure out how someone is feeling, or when we wonder why we ourselves feel the way we do.

Every aspect of life is an experiment that can be better understood if it is perceived in that way. But because we don't recognize this we fail to understand that we need to reason logically from evidence we gather, and that we need to carefully consider the conditions under which our experiments have been conducted, and that we need to decide when and how we might run the experiment again with better results.

In other words, the scientific activity that surrounds experimentation is about thinking clearly in the face of evidence obtained as the result of an experiment. But people who don't see their actions as experiments, and those who don't know how to reason carefully from data, will continue to learn less well from their own experiences than those who do.

Since most of us have learned the word "experiment" in the context of a boring ninth grade science class, most people have long since learned to discount science and experimentation as being relevant to their lives.

If school taught basic cognitive concepts such as experimentation in the context of everyday experience, and taught people how to carefully conduct experiments in their own lives instead of concentrating on using algebra as a way of teaching people how to reason, then people would be much more effective at thinking about politics, child raising, personal relationships, business, and every other aspect of daily life.