Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Telling better stories

None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story.

Steven Pinker, My Genome, My Self

Stories are one of the most important ways we have of trying to make sense of the world. We look  at all the coincidences, connections, curiosities and contradictions that surround us and weave them into a plausible narrative in which everything makes sense and inconsistencies are explained away. This incredibly useful skill enables us to interpret an otherwise incomprehensible world – without narrative there would be little way for us to make meaning of our experiences. Almost everything we encounter we repackage as a story – scientific discoveries, news events, love affairs, the broad sweep of history – it’s all grist to our mental story mills.

Stories shape how we think. This is the path to expertise: the mental representations we embed in long-term memory allow us to imagine ourselves into new and better situations, to climb to new heights and travel seemingly impossible distance. There’s some compelling truth to the old adage that if you think you can, you can.

But stories can also lead us into error. Most of what we believe we believe because it fits with the stories we know. It can be extraordinarily difficult to think our way out of this kind of circular logic. In a couple of recent posts I discussed a couple of ways our knowledge of stories can lead us astray. In this post I explained how students’ understanding of a new topic can be derailed by their experiences with particular generic ways of understanding the world, and in this post I explained how stories are often post-hoc rationalisations we construct to explain our actions and interpret those of others.

Our stories depend on anchor points; uncontested ideas that everyone ‘just knows’. These can be meta beliefs which govern the paradigms within which we think, or simple ‘facts’ like the earth is flat and the sun rotates around it. Whenever we come up against such a self-evident truth we run the risk of experiencing the illusion of knowledge.

When Barry Marshall accepted the Nobel prize for physiology in 2005 he quoted the historian Daniel Boorstin: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Marshall had suffered the contempt of the medical community for over a decade when he presented proof the stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria and not, as was previously believed, by stress. The idea the bacteria could live in stomach acid was so far outside the story told by doctors that evidence to the contrary seemed risible. Doctors continued to prefer wholly unnecessary stomach operations to a simple course of antibiotics. I wasn’t until Marshall, in desperation, infected then cured himself that anybody was prepared to listen to his story. Sometimes, disrupting assumptions and exposing illusions can lead to new and previously unimaginable stories.

Admittedly, disrupting cherished beliefs is no way to make yourself popular. When I first stated pointing out that learning is invisible, or that AfL was fundamentally flawed some people got upset. Similarly, when I changed my mind about SOLO taxonomy, cast doubt on the efficacy of marking and suggested that teachers should be allowed to talk for as long as is necessary, I’ve been shouted down, ridiculed and, on various occasions blocked by those on Twitter who were simply unable to hear a dissenting ideas without taking it personally. In the interests of fairness, I’ve also always tried to point out where my own dependence of a particular narrative has constrained my ability to think such as my failure to imagine new and better ways to assess students. These are all stories.

The truth, I suspect, is that nothing makes a whole lot of sense and no one has a clear idea about why they do what they do. Unpalatable as it may be, stuff happens. Maybe history is, as Alan Bennett said, just “one fucking thing after another.” Or maybe, that’s just another story?

We are all subject to the illusion of knowledge and the stories we tell will be warped by all kinds of transmission errors, misunderstanding and just plain old ignorance. We can’t help this: to err is human. What we can do is remain open to the inevitability that we have made mistakes and, when they pointed out, cherish them as opportunities to tell new and better stories.

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