Slow thinking, Fast thinking

If I'd known you were coming I'd've baked a cake

John British School Pisa Group

di John Ayers

In Daniel Kahneman’s best selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, fast thinking is exemplified quite simply by the phrase “‘2×2=4”. Slow thinking is represented by “17×24=…?”. Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

In the language used by students of dyslexic problems “fast thinking” is termed “automaticity”. “Slow thinking” is what sufferers from dyslexia experience when reading a fairly normal printed page. They do not have the automaticity which most people have when reading. The words or letters just seem not to stay in the right place.  Other people may have different problems but of a similar nature. A natural sense of balance, for example, makes riding a bicycle or ski-ing a “fast thinking” exercise. Without that sense of balance the exercise is much more difficult and probably less fun. It requires a sort of physiological “slow thinking”. There are degrees of severity for both situations, but, obviously, you can do without bicycles and ski-ing whereas our Western society regards the ability to read easily almost as a passport to success.

In theory neither “fast thinking” nor “automaticity” has much to do with TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language). Only a TEFL teacher might recognise the extraordinary difficulty which the sentence in the title represents for non mother tongue students.

If I’d known you were coming I’d ‘ve baked a cake”.

It’s a line from a song. Any 6 year old can sing it if they are mother tongue English. It’s “fast thinking”. It’s “automaticity”. Yet for students of English as a foreign language this sort of automaticity will probably only come at C1 level or more realistically C2 level; the top, after seven or eight years of language study. (A past perfect being used to form a third conditional sentence which switches into past continuous and then back into the “would have” form of the possible consequence to the third condition. All laced copiously with apostrophes).

Perhaps we can learn something from Daniel Kahneman and from dyslexia.

Kahneman terms the process of fast thinking as “system 1”. When we are using system 1 we experience “cognitive ease”. System 2 is slow thinking, “cognitive strain”. Apparently cognitive strain can be measured by the changing size of the pupils of your eyes. (We should try measuring the pupils of the eyes of our students when faced with complex third conditionals). Our problem as teachers is that we really do want our students to arrive at a state of cognitive ease when using their English as a second language. Not only do we want it, it is fundamental, at least in the areas of speaking and listening. Without cognitive ease real communication is almost impossible. And, of course, cognitive ease can be learnt. 2X2=4, yes, OK. But 12×12=…

For me there is no problem because I went to school when there were 12 pennies in a shilling (Napoleon had not yet won the war) and so we learned the 12 times table. The problem then is clear. It is possible to learn cognitive ease, but what are the qualities of cognitive ease and how do we acquire them?

Kahneman points out 4 simple cause situations which are fundamental to cognitive ease.

1) Repeated experience

2) Clear display

3) Primed idea

4) Good mood.

He then gives 4 results which correspond to these causes.

1) Feels familiar

2) Feels true

3) Feels good

4) Feels effortless.

He is in no way talking about language learning but those four situations should be ringing bells for us.

Slow thinking, Fast thinking bike

“You are not supposed to be teaching English, you are supposed to be creating an environment where learning can take place”. To quote Kahneman: When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar.”

So let’s take situation 4). A good mood in the classroom should be created by the teacher. Where everyone physically is is important. Students need to be relaxed (coats, bags etc. not encumbering), and they should be sitting casually close, able to chat, no-one with their back to anyone else. Lighting, heating, oxygen are all important. Physically the teacher needs to take care not to appear menacing. Music maybe, somewhere, sometimes.

Situation 3), a primed idea. Here we are very close to language teaching. Of course the language has to have been studied, the why’s and the wherefore’s investigated, the similarities or dissimilarities with the students’ mother tongue taken into consideration, but that elusive cognitive ease will only come with constant carefully monitored use.

And so situation 1), repeated use. Repeated use of that aspect of language, yes, but also a sense of comfortable repetition in the dynamics of the classroom. The activities need to have a familiar pattern. Slowly students need to move from a situation of cognitive strain to one of cognitive ease with all aspects of the second language. For example, with the spoken language, automaticity (and therefore cognitive ease) occurs when synaptic pathways have become firmly embedded in the neurological system. Synaptic pathways are formed when the language is spoken aloud. If, therefore, the pairwork question is “What sort of cake would you have baked if you’d known I was coming?” the reply must not be “I don’t know, perhaps a chocolate cake” but the more artificial yet necessary “if I’d known you were coming I’d probably have baked a chocolate cake”. And, almost certainly, these synaptic pathways and cognitive ease in the spoken language are not formed just by writing the reply. The pathway, the automaticity, comes by using the grammatical form in a genuine way in repeated situations but always speaking aloud, always responding using full grammatical constructions, thus allowing the neurological system (not the rational system) to become familiar with the complexity.

Situation 2), clear display, brings us back to the world of dyslexic problems. It seems likely that students of English as a second language face problems very similar to those faced by dyslexic sufferers. “If I’d known you were coming I’d ‘ve baked a cake”. The words just don’t seem to stay on the page. The apostrophes, the gerund, the auxiliaries, the past participles are all there dancing their bewildering dance. How can I arrive at any state of automaticity given this apparent chaos? So as a first step let us teachers recognise that we are causing cognitive strain where we ourselves wallow in cognitive ease.

Why, for example, does our English sense of humour leave students feeling bemused or, heaven forbid, slightly aggressive? Jokes almost always require “fast thinking” to catch the humour. The faster you need to think the funnier the joke. James Joyce’s Ulysses probably pushes this art of fast thinking to its limits, which makes it a pretty difficult book to read without a high level of automaticity, so we need to take care with our jokes (even more so with Ulysses, and I speak from experience). But on a more mundane level, the books we use tend totally to underestimate the problem. Books recommended for dyslexic students have carefully chosen the colour of the paper; light pastel colours for black type otherwise the contrast of black on white is too startling. Type face used for dyslexic readers is chosen for its clarity and lack of ambiguity, (p that isn’t easily confused with d etc.) Layout of normal TEFL textbooks is awful. The layout alone creates cognitive strain. There needs to be less exercises on each page. The sort of exercises that are suggested seem equally designed to create unease. Multi tasking for a person with dyslexic difficulties is like asking a person without a great sense of balance to ride a bike with no hands. Something as simple as asking a person to read aloud is a multi tasking exercise. In a TEFL situation reading aloud simply means normally that the student can in no way manage both to read and also understand. For a dyslexic student it becomes torture. Yet so much of what we ask our students to do is in effect multi tasking, and therefore a likely cause of cognitive strain.

Can we then in no way introduce cognitive strain? Of course we can. Kahneman continues: “With cognitive ease you are also likely to be relatively casual and superficial in your thinking. When you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you are also less creative and less intuitive than usual.” In TEFL terms Kahneman seems here to be describing what we require from our students under exam conditions. Clearly, in the classroom, there are going to be moments of cognitive ease and moments of cognitive strain. Our job is to recognise the difference and choose the balance between the two.

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John Ayers

Socio fondatore British School Pisa
"We are not supposed to be teaching English, we are supposed to be creating an environment where learning can take place."

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