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  Reading: The Need for Review



We need to review when we've learned. This is central to the skill of learning  because our brains, well, they're often not that brainy.

When I was a kid, for instance, a picture of the Virgin Mary hung right outside of my bedroom door. The picture was a reproduction of a medieval canvas, an elegant painting of Mary embracing baby Jesus in her hands, a glimmering white shawl hanging over her head. A small, wood frame enclosed the painting, and I probably passed the artwork a half-dozen times each day.

What happened next is a bit of family lore, one of those stories that’s been told so many times that it's a mix of memory, folk talk, and cautionary fable. The narrative starts with my mother rushing into the kitchen one day. She demanded to know who had scrawled a mustache on the Virgin Mary, making the mother of Jesus look Groucho Marx.

Who had done such a thing?, she demanded to know. Who had vandalized the painting of the Virgin Mary? Who had put the black mustache on her?

At first, my mother fingered my brother as the most likely offender. He was a teenager—and undoubtedly mischievous. Did he know anything about this?, she said. Had he taken a marker to the painting? Did he know how serious this was?

My brother denied everything.

Then my sister came under fire. Has she drawn on Mary? Was this some sort of joke?, my mother asked.  

My sister also denied everything. She protested and declared innocence. Defacing the Virgin Mary? She’d never do such a thing.

I was young, maybe six or seven at the time and too young to be the likely culprit. Yet, according to some versions of the story, I also landed an interrogation. Do you know anything about this? Did you put a mustache on the paintings?

At some point, maybe at the time of the accusations—or later that day—my father gave a chuckle. Days earlier, maybe even weeks earlier, he had taken a marker and drawn the mustache on the painting. The image, my father argued, was underappreciated. Quietly elegant, a moment of poetic beauty, the artwork should play a bigger role in our lives, he argued. “The revenge of the mustache” is how my father later called the incident.

There’s a pretty simple explanation for what happened, and it turns out that we all have two different types of thinking, as psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown. There’s our instinctive brain, which is automatic and fast. In contrast, there’s our deliberative brain, which is slow and ponderous. More often than not, we rely on our instinctive brain, and generally, the approach serves us pretty well. It takes less time—and effort—and we’d rather not spend energy to take mental stock.

But this means that we often miss details. We will read a bit of text but not really understand it. We will watch someone performing a skill, but we won’t really learn it. Every day for weeks, we will pass the Virgin Mary with a large mustache and not even notice it.

Studies of the instinctive brain are numerous—and often a little eerie. One study asked people if they knew the location of the closest fire extinguisher. But despite the fact that the individuals had worked in the building for decades, only about 15 percent could indicate the location of the closest fire extinguisher.

In another study, subjects ran past a brawl that had been set up by a group of psychologists. Yet only around 50 percent of the subjects noticed the fight. To repeat, two men pummeled each other amid groans and screams on the side of the street. But only about half of the subjects spotted the incidence. The researchers titled the paper: “You do not talk about Fight Club if you do not notice Fight Club.”

On one side, it might seem that we’re slothful, and cognitively speaking, that’s certainly true. We don’t want to pay attention. It takes energy to really focus. But even when we do pay attention, our instinctive brain also plays a role. Even when we’re trying to be deliberate, our instinctive brain jumps into action. Before we even have had a chance to consider the facts, we often engage in a type of mental “I told you so.”

In my own life, this happens a lot when I’m shopping. I’ll want to buy a gas grill, for instance, and I’ll drum up all sorts of evidence that the new grill will save me time and money. In order to convince myself to buy the item, I’ll gather in my mind a long list of self-serving explanations: I can’t use my charcoal grill in the rain; I’ll eat healthier with a new grill; it’ll be easy to buy canisters of gas than find charcoal; this one’s on sale, and then-- click!--there’s one in the mail, and today it sits unused in my backyard.

No one is immune to these sorts of cognitive biases. Experts fall for them just as much as amateurs. Masters can get snagged as much as apprentices. It doesn’t matter if there’s lots of money on the line—or how much smarts is in the room. Charles Darwin made predictions about genetics that didn't pan out. Thomas Edison thought that alternating current would never work at scale. And frankly if you lived in my house growing up, you also would have missed the black mustache painted on the Virgin Mary.

Rethinking our learning is not just a matter of evaluation, though. We also need to look for a deeper sense of knowledge. We need to reflect on our knowledge and skills. In short, we need to review because we need to reflect. Or as learning expert Paul Rivas once told, “Reflection is probably the most important step in the process of committing to learning things more efficiently."

As a society, we're not inclined towards this sort of rumination. Our world places a lot of emphasis on action. Thinking is often a sign of weakness. People who spend a lot of time thinking seem eccentric or even lazy. Former president George W. Bush called himself the decider in chief, not the deliberator in chief.

For another example, take soccer goalies. During a penalty shot, it typically pays for a goalkeeper to stay in the middle of the goal rather than diving for the posts. By a small but measurable margin, most penalty shots are aimed toward the center, and so the goalies have a better chance at stopping the shots if they stay in the middle of the goal.

But generally soccer goalies dive to the left or right. Why? According to Giadia Di Stefano and her colleagues, “it looks and feels better to have missed the ball” by doing something rather than doing nothing. In other words, the goalie want to look purposeful and engaged and decisive, and so they jump to the left or right, despite the fact that they’re actually less likely to prevent a goal.

For an education related example, take something like changing an answer on a test. Should you switch the answer? Or go with your raw instincts? Talk to a few people, and most believe that the first answer on a test is the best answer. In other words, generally people want to go with their gut. Like the soccer goalie, they don’t want to seem like they’re waffling or broody or overly pensive. But a solid body of evidence suggests otherwise: Fixes to test items usually boost scores. By thinking through an answer one more time, we generally improve our performance.

Why does this happen? Well, deliberation is a crucial part of learning. To understand any sort of skill or knowledge, we have to reflect on that skill or bit of knowledge. This is different than simply checking on the details. It's a matter of dwelling on the experience.   

Experts do this all the time. “It's more important to think about what you’re doing than it is to do it,” was the quote that Car Talk’s Ray Magliozzi had hanging above his desk for years. Same with New England Patriot coach Bill Belichick, who will spend hours mulling over previous games, looking for missed opportunities, figuring out ways for his team to get better, contemplating approaches to improvement.

Another example is self-talk. As the Alliance for Excellence in Education's Winsome Waite argues, people should talk to themselves as a way to reflect. "We need to be realistic with ourselves," she says. We need to "ground ourselves" in what we need to do.

The best example, though, might be guitarist Pat Metheny. In the world of jazz guitar, Metheny is a superstar. He’s landed some 20 different Grammys, playing with everyone from B.B. King to David Bowie. But Metheny continues to reflect what he knows, setting aside time to figure out ways that he can get better, and after each show, he’ll write up a half-dozen pages about the experience. The short essay reflects on how he performed, detailing musical successes and failures, describing what he thought worked—and didn’t work.

It’s no accident that Metheny writes down his reflections. As a medium, writing slows our thoughts. It pushes deliberation, and one way to improve learning is to use a diary. Think of it as a learning journal, in which you write down everything that went well during class or practice.

The thoughts don’t have to be profound, to be clear. “In hockey class today, I discovered that I need to use my hips more.” Or: “My acting instructor told me that I need to project my voice.” Yet even these sorts of mundane scribblings can be enough to spark a richer form of learning.

Talking out loud can help a lot, too. It's another way to slow down the thinking process, and after an experience--or even during an experience--people can improve their learning if they talk to themselves in ways that promote reflection: “So what do I do next?” or “What am I solving for again?” Indeed, studies show that even three-year olds can gain from learning how to better talk to themselves.

To find out more about the role of reflection in learning, I once met up with Susan Ambrose. A cognitive scientist, Ambrose wrote the important book How Learning Works and is now the senior vice provost of Northeastern University in Boston. We met up in Ambrose’s office, which was tucked away among a burrow of well-appointed rooms in the college’s central building.

Ambrose argued that people often simply assume that reflection happens. Put content in front of someone, and they’ll transform that material into learning. “You see this in a lot of college courses,” Ambrose argued. “Faculty love their subject, and so they give students as much material as possible.” That’s not how learn works, though. People need time to think through a skill or bit of knowledge in some sort of focused way. As Ambrose told me, “The more knowledge that you get, the more you need to make those connections. But you need to be intentional about it.”

At Northeastern, Ambrose has rolled out various initiatives to help students engage in more of this sort of reflection. In the school’s internship program, for instance, students now regularly answer questions on what it’s like working for a company or nonprofit. Kara Morgan was one of the students who participated in the college’s revamped internship program, working for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh.

For Morgan, the experience of living in Cambodia was exhilarating. A new country, a new language, a new job, and the writing assignment served a crucial purpose, encourage Morgan to make sense of her experiences, to reflect on what she learned. “It made me consider what else I wanted to accomplish while I was there,” she told me. "The essays forced me to take a step back and think,” and in many ways, that was the point.