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Irrationality – undermining learning for millennia

This past Tuesday was March 14th – or 3/14 – otherwise known as Pi Day. Here in the Northeast US, Pi Day was wretched, bringing 10-30 inches of snow, layered with three inches of sleet. As I write this there is a 3-foot tall, nearly concrete, pile of ice at the end of my driveway and a 8-foot tall mound of  brownish-gray ice at the end of my cul de sac…it has been an unexpected (and unwanted) reminder of harsh realities of winter…and humanity…and vulnerability…

As one does in such circumstances, I used this ‘down’ time to reflect on the science of learning 😉

I have written previously about ‘nudges’ here, here, and here – as well as exploring the idea of ‘learning as a behavior‘…but given the irrationality of Pi Day, I am not sure I set up the foundational reality of these ideas – so let me take a moment to do just that:

“We usually think of ourselves as sitting the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires-with how we want to view ourselves-than with reality” – Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

To ultimately understand why learning is undermined without supporting the Learning Actions Model, one needs to come to grips with the reality that learners (humans) often have a limited control over their decisions (behaviors). We are victims of a myriad of biases that mislead us and result in us being ‘predictably irrational’.

“We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.” ― Dan Ariely, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves

Just like we all know that exercise is a rational behavior (in our best interests), we struggle to exercise regularly. And, just like committing to a good diet is a rational behavior (in our best interests), we struggle to eat healthy. So it is true with the natural learning actions – the universal and necessary actions of learning are clearly ‘in our best interests’ and yet our research demonstrates that learners (humans) often fail to commit effectively to these behaviors. As a result, learning is undermined…over and over and over again.

Importantly, this is NOT a damning statement about failed learners – it is a simple recognition of human irrationality – and more than that, it is an eye-opening opportunity.

This is why the learning architecture that we have engineered is so critical to supporting effective educational experiences – quite simply, the irrationality of learners prevents them from effectively committing to the learning actions that are in their best interests…and understanding this empowers educators to ensure that the structure and nudges for better learning behaviors are always available.


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Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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