Answer to Quora question by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker 

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard

One potential insight is that educators begin not with blank slates but with minds that are adapted to think and reason in ways that may be at cross-purposes with the goals of education in a modern society. The conscious portion of language consists of words and meanings, but the portion that connects most directly to print consists of phonemes, which ordinarily are below the level of consciousness. We intuitively understand living species as having essences, but the theory of evolution requires us to rethink them as populations of variable individuals. We naturally assess probability by dredging up examples from memory, whereas real probability takes into account the number of occurrences and the number of opportunities. We are apt to think that people who disagree with us are stupid and stubborn, while we are overconfident and self-deluded about our own competence and honesty.

But human nature also gives educators the resources that allows students to overcome these infirmities. We can learn complex ideas so well that they become single cognitive chunks which then may be inserted as units inside increasingly complex assemblies. We can use analogies so that a familiar domain may be used as a model for an unfamiliar one. Communities can implement norms so that a willingness to consider opposing viewpoints, to submit one’s ideas to empirical testing, and to change one’s mind when the evidence warrants it, are perceived as virtues rather than weaknesses.

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