gary_marcus's picture
Professor of Psychology, Director NYU Center for Language and Music; Author, Guitar Zero
Psychologist, New York University; Author, The Birth of the Mind

Metacognition For Kids

We can use the discoveries of cognitive science to improve the quality of education in the US and abroad. To do this, however, we need to radically rethink how our schools work. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, the main emphasis as been on memorization, force-feeding our children with bite-sized morsels that are easily memorize—and quickly forgotten. (Recall the words of Dickens' stern schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind, "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts... Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.") I am not sure it ever served a purpose for children to memorize the capitals of all 50 states (as I failed to do in junior high school), but in the age of Google, continued emphasis on memorization is surely largely a waste of time.

Five decades of cognitive science have taught us that humans are not particularly good memorizers—but also that we as a species have bigger fish to fry. Hamlet famously marveled that humans were "noble in reason", "infinite in faculty", but experimental psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky have shown that humans are actually often poor reasoners, easily fooled. The average person tends to have a shaky grasp on logic, to believe a lot of what he (or she) hears unreflectively, and to be overly confident in his (or her) own beliefs. We tend to be easily fooled by vivid examples, and to notice data that support our theories—whilst forgetting about or ignoring data that go against our theories. Yet I cannot recall a single high school class on informal arguments, how to spot fallacies, or how to interpret statistics; it wasn't until college that anybody explained to me the relation between causation and correlation. In the age of the internet, our problem is not that children can't find information, but that they can't evaluate it.

What children of today need is not so much a large stock of readily Googleable information as a mental toolkit for parsing what they hear and read. As the old saying goes, it is better to teach a man how to fish than to simply give him fish; the current curriculum largely gives children fish, without teaching them a thing about how to fish for themselves.

How to teach children to fish for themselves? I would start with a course in what cognitive scientists call metacognition, knowing about knowing, call it The Human Mind: A User's Guide, aimed at say, seventh-graders.. Instead of emphasizing facts, I'd expose students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and what it doesn't. And most important, how to cope with its limitations, to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to biases in our reasoning, and to make choices in ways that better suit our own long-term goals. Nobody ever taught me about these things in middle school (or even high school), but there's no reason why they couldn't be taught; in time, I expect they will.