Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Persistent Misconceptions - Another Explanation for Disengagement?

There is a documentary made around the time most of you were born called A Private Universe that shows students who are newly minted grads from Harvard responding to an interviewer about some basic questions from Astronomy - the type you were taught in grade school - with the vast majority getting it wrong, all of them making the same conceptual error. The first question posed was: why is it warmer in the summer than in the winter? Most of those interviewed respond that it's because the earth is closer to the sun in the summer. (That's true if you live in the southern hemisphere, but it's not true for us.) The transcript of the video makes for an interesting read.

The "explanation" for what is going on in the video is that many people (including the Harvard grads) have intuitive conceptual understanding of heat transfer via conduction or convection, but have no intuition whatsoever about heat transfer via radiation. Absent the appropriate conceptual understanding to explain the phenomena, the students rely on what they implicitly do understand, though they apply it inappropriately. Later in the video they discuss the phases of the moon, which the people interviewed also don't understand. This sort of thing can be demo'd effectively with a flashlight (to mimic the sun), a basketball to mimic the moon, and an observer to mimic the earth. Shine the flashlight on the basketball and move the position of whoever is holding the flashlight. Then repeat holding the flashlight fixed but moving the observer. What part of the basketball the observer sees lit by the flashlight depends on the angle formed by observer, basketball, and flashlight. The phases of the moon in a nutshell, voila.

People believe in things if they can produce explanations (constructions) of this sort. Absent that, they have nothing to anchor their beliefs. Learning can then destroy prior held misconceptions. This can be extraordinarily unsettling. If something familiar that you rely on all of a sudden becomes unfamiliar and therefore untrustworthy, it feels like the world has turned upside down. People who have gone through the experience and not thrived as a result may very well wish to avoid having it happen again. Disengagement, then, would be a form of self-protection against this sort of unsettling experience.

Some folks are not so distressed by the need to change their view in light of uncovering misconceptions of their own. They are driven first and foremost to understand what is going on. Peter Senge in the the Fifth Discipline, which we will tackle starting next week, calls this behavior personal mastery. I believe the term is similar if not identical to what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called self-actualization, but Maslow's focus is on the individual while Senge's emphasis is on interaction within an organization.

In any event, the goal in addressing the disengagement pact is not to create a bunch of drones who put in effort but don't think for themselves. The goal is to encourage these people towards a path of personal mastery, which requires them to confront themselves from time to time.

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