Blog Series

One Brain, Two Systems

by Michael Milone on Sep 21, 2016

  • General Education
  • Struggling Students

How do we think? It depends.

As you undoubtedly know, thinking about some things is easier than others. Here’s an example based on two related questions.

Question 1: How many days are in a year?

Question 2: How many days are in 80 years?

To answer Question 1, you engage brain System 1. This is a relatively automatic set of responses that require little effort, at least for most people. Once you learn there are 365 days in a typical year, you can retrieve that information effortlessly.

To answer Question 2, you engage brain System 2. Using this system requires more effort and concentration. You might call it higher-level thinking, and it can get complicated.

Consider Question 2 for a moment. Beyond requiring a bit of multiplication, a thoroughly correct answer also involves identifying the starting point year because of leap years. Oh, and some years divisible by four aren’t counted as leap years because they can be divided evenly by 100, unless they can be evenly divided by 400. (Remember, I said System 2 can get complicated.)

The Dual Process Theory

Another name for the System 1/System 2 dichotomy is the Dual Process Theory. As you might have guessed, some theorists use the names differently, and there are differences of opinion about the processes. If you want to explore this topic more thoroughly, you can read an article by Evans and Stanovich, two Jedi Masters of the field. This is not light reading:

Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition: Advancing the Debate

The two systems are complementary. You can’t do the slow thinking in System 2 without adequate input from System 1. In a recent book, Daniel Kahneman describes the systems this way: “The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.” You can read an excerpt from the book about thinking fast and slow that appeared in Scientific American Mind. You might consider getting the book (and reading it) because Kahneman has done a masterful job of explaining a tricky construct in a way that is enjoyable and informative:

Of 2 Minds: How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice [Excerpt]

Sometimes people get a little carried away by the seeming superiority of System 2. As educators, however, we know they are of comparable importance, and the learning opportunities we provide to students should involve both systems. This is true with technology-based learning as well as more traditional experiences.

The aspect of System 1 that is most critical is automaticity. This can be fully automatic, like recognizing the meaning of a word immediately upon seeing it, or semi-automatic, like reading a paragraph and making the appropriate visual move from the end of one line of text to the beginning of the next line. Kahneman describes these actions as “...susceptible to voluntary control but normally run on automatic pilot.”

(Question to self: Should you mention a bit of controversy here? A lot of people don’t recognize the relationship between practice and automaticity. They like to call practice activities “drill and kill” no matter how much research supports the importance of practice. Certainly, some kinds of practice are more engaging than others, but you know how you cringe when you hear the phrase. Without the right kind of practice, students are not going to develop the automaticity they need to function successfully.

Answer to self: Probably not. Most of the people who are reading this blog already recognize the importance of practice and are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.)

The key element of System 2 is attentiveness. One of Kahnemans examples is near and dear to my heart. The rental staff at UK airports always remind Americans “we drive on the left side of the road over here.” They know how important it is for this bit of information to remain at the top of the Pay Attention List. (On my first trip to London, it took me four turns through the roundabout to get out of the airport.)

Paying attention is absolutely critical if students are going to succeed. Some struggle when they are reading because they lose track of who the characters are or bungle math problems because they confuse the formulas for area and circumference of a circle. (AARRGGHH...this is so frustrating because you know the kids can do it if they would just pay attention.)

The Dual Process Theory is more than a nice way to describe how the brain works. Remembering the complementary nature of System 1 and System 2 can help us develop learning experiences that match the needs of students. Ideally, students would be exposed to a blend of activities that promote automaticity and fast thinking (System 1) as well as deliberate and effortful mental work (System 2).

Thoughtful teachers know their students and can recognize the proper balance of activities that will promote the growth of System 1 and System 2 abilities. 

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