Thursday, April 3, 2014

An Exercise in Self-Implication: Does the Type of Thinking I Teach Foster the Experience of Awe?

In what was yet another serendipitous moment of the world speaking to me, I returned home from my trek across the Southwest where I tried to see if I could experience awe every day, to find a series of links sent to me by my friend Greg. It appears there is a fair amount of interest in the academic community to try to test for the effects that the experience of awe produces, and particularly in the way it might change people's outlook on the world. My own experience had led me to conclude that it does, indeed, change one's outlook, but I was curious to see how far the claims of researchers were going to go.

Dacher Keltner from the Greater Good Science Center has done studies that have shown "awe to be a potentially powerful emotion that might help students develop empathy" by reorganizing the participants sense of self to feel more connected to the world. The speculation is that awe might make adolescents less narcissistic, and self-absorbed. I am always interested in these kinds of studies, but, I confess, I often wonder about some of the claims. If one group looks at a T-Rex skeleton and another looks down a long hallway, can you really claim that one group "feels part of a larger whole" because of that experience?


In another recent study, researchers Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford University, and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, examined whether awe can expand perceptions of time availability. They found that participants "who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available, were less impatient, were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods." Can you really claim that listening to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" will make people change that much on the spot? Still, I find it interesting that these kinds of studies are being developed.

There have been people, however, since the 1990's who have been promoting the experience of awe as an important "habit of mind." Art Costa is probably the most well known of these thinkers, and he developed a list of habits of mind that "are the characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolution to which are not immediately apparent." This list was his response to Jean Piaget's belief that the "principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generation have done...Intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do." "Responding with wonderment and awe" or "searching for wonderment and awe" has been one of Costa's 16 habits of mind from the very beginning of his work.

These past few months I have been on a subcommittee for "21st Century Learning Skills" as part of a strategic plan to be implemented at the school where I teach. Costa's work on habits of mind seemed to me to be an important and missing addition to the debate over "skills acquisition."  But I think there is a missing precursor before we can even begin to talk about skills or dispositions. The work of Carol Dweck, popularized in her book Mindset, has shown that we must consider how our particular mindset creates a certain culture of learning. In short, this kind of 21st century learning is not done through curriculum design, training regimen or program addition, it is done by creating a culture that supports it. If we do not understand the present culture of learning we have created, we will reduce our chances of making the necessary adaptive changes.

So, I set myself a little thought experiment of trying to describe the foundational beliefs about the nature of thinking that the schools I have been involved in inculcate. Could I describe the kind of thinking that the learning culture of my school embraced most whole-heartedly?  What is the cognitive bias of that culture of learning?

To my aid came the work of Guy Claxton in his wonderfully engaging book Hare Brain/Tortoise Mind which champions the "slow ways of thinking." In the beginning of the book, Claxton describes a certain kind of thinking he calls "d-mode" --- "d" standing for either default or deliberation. Many of the facets of what Claxton describes as the basis for "d-mode" overlap with the following list that I created.


What is the innate bias in the dominant type of thinking that I have been engaged in since I was in school?

The culture of learning that I am part of-

--favors the analytic; is primarily concerned with taking things apart and naming them
--believes in knowledge that is rational and is distrustful of knowledge from other sources
--is much more concerned with answers than with questions (though states the opposite)
--tends to reward thought that converges down toward an answer
--values short-term memory and recall very highly
--gets nervous when there is no answer or multiple answers 
--values proof over exploration
--values structure that is straightforward and easily comprehended
--values explanation (sometimes at the expense of detailed observation)
--rewards ability to explain precisely why a particular action is chosen
--requires rational justification and evidence for any proposal (but is skeptical of hunches)
--rewards the ability to sound like a critic and make judgments
--favors exposition and persuasion over exploration and insight
--judges the value of the thinking by its demonstrated utility
--praises clarity and coherence (shies away from and/or fears confusion)
--values quickness, urgency, time pressure and production
--values production over presence (but has graduation speakers urge people to value presence)
--creates lists as a form of organization so that items can be "ticked off"
--values punctuality and segments time into confined boxes
--values effort and being busy (and gets nervous when people are playful)
--rewards precision and direction (sometimes tolerates the implicit but is skeptical about indirection)
--loves generalizations, rules, principles, universals, traditions and familiar routines
--gravitates towards patterns and is made nervous by anomalies 
--likes to categorize things, label them and put them in order
--values talking and being in control over listening and being messy/undisciplined
--prefers "concrete" precise definition to metaphor or analogy
--is biased towards thinking that is not conscious of itself (devalues meta-cognition)
--sees intelligence as a personal possession and some people have more of it than others
--values knowledge over understanding
--sees all of the above as exhibition of mastery and control

I am not suggesting that this "d-mode" way of thinking is not useful or helpful. Quite the opposite, in fact. In certain situations, they are the cornerstones of good decision-making, well-being and future learning.

However, I am suggesting that this way of thinking was not useful for me at Delicate Arch (though it was vital in getting me to Delicate Arch).

The kind of thinking described above does not put us in the present moment, it does not connect us to others, it does not connect us to our surroundings; it may not even enhance our well-being in terms of how we feel about ourselves.

The kind of thinking described above puts us in control of things, and it may create a particular sense of "self" that the experience of awe actually strips away. Awe challenges us in fierce and wonderful ways to reconfigure what we thought we knew and to create new mental models that we can assimilate into a new way of looking at the world. Awe demands that you put aside the self you have created in order to control the world, and to create a new self that is connected to the world in very different ways.

One of the things that I noticed while I was on the committee for 21st century skills was that all the literature seemed to echo exactly what people on the committee wanted to include in their lists-- creativity, ingenuity, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, originality, vision, design thinking...and so on. What my experiences with awe have led me to wonder is whether or not the type of thinking that we have committed ourselves to in schools is actually not sufficient to foster any of these skills. In some cases, they may even undermine and counteract those skills. 

(And I do confess that I have begun to wonder whether what we are trapped in is like an old "Bert and I" Maine humor routine about how to get to Millinocket--you can't get there from here.)

What, then, would the type of thinking look like that would foster this kind of experience and the nurturing of those skills? That would seem to be worthy of another blog entry. It would also give me some clues as to what I think the strategic plan for my school ought to include.


  1. Hi David, I am working on on slowing down in schools for a workshop I am running in a few weeks. This blog was helpful and the Guy Claxton book looks good. What would you say are the starting points for helping school slow down from a systemic point of view? How do you begin to create a culture that values more than just productivity?

  2. tim.....fabulous...when do you want to talk? i am not sure "slowing down" is the way i would think about least from a behavioral point of is more an expanding of different ways to be really accurate about what "thinking" really is...check the front page of the ny times book review this week on the book HOW TO LEARN...i will write you on facebook