The Irrational Learner: doing things just because they feel right.

Driving to the station this morning, i commented to my colleague ‘i don’t like this road‘. What then ensued was a discussion of how we have some ‘favourite‘ roads and some that we just irrationally dislike. Not on any particular functional basis: they all have street lights, tarmac and traffic jams, but rather from some vague sense of ‘right and wrong‘. Maybe it’s the view.

Irrationality is innate to our behaviour. Sometimes learners are unpredictable. The world is unpredictable. Whilst we can generalise, along the lines of ‘all roads are good‘, the reality is that some we prefer to others.

The same is true with books, or films or plays or music. Sometimes something feels ‘right‘. Sometimes it just doesn’t play.

Whilst there may always be an irrational flavour to our decision making, it’s worth reflecting on occasion what factors may influence this. The study of Implicit Association is an area that examines the notion that certain things feel more ‘right‘. It works on the premise that certain associations occur more strongly in memory, and that this effect is measurable through some neatly devised tests. For example, there is generally a stronger association of ‘men‘ with ‘career‘ and ‘women‘ with ‘family‘. Whilst it may feel automatic, intrinsically the case, implicit association helps us to explore how our preferences may be based on value sets and beliefs that we have inherited from society, from our parents, from the media and from friends.

A recent study found that, when presented with similarly aged black and white males, each wearing overalls, the majority of viewers most strongly associated the word ‘manager‘ with the white man. My point here is that something that feels ‘natural‘ or innate, things that drive our snap decisions, may not be as irrational or unbiased as we first think. Whilst we are not computers, even our apparently random actions are driven and informed by our history and logical minds.

Clearly choosing which road to drive down to work is very different from making value judgements or taking decisions based on unconscious bias around skin colour or gender, but there is enough similarity for us to reflect on. We have no logical reason (that we are consciously aware of in the moment) for us to have a favourite mug, a favourite seat in the coffee shop or a stronger belief that a white male would be a manager, but all of these effects can be observed. They all have an element of the irrational about them.

I have no particular thesis or hypothesis here: it’s more an observation that we should reflect on the irrational nature of learners, both ourselves as learners and the people we design learning for. Whilst snap decisions, value judgements and simple, apparently irrational ‘likes‘ and ‘dislikes‘ may feel random, there is an underlying set of drivers and conditioning that influences them.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Diversity, Equality, Gender, Implicit Association, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Irrational Learner: doing things just because they feel right.

  1. Pingback: 4 facets of learning culture: creation, ownership, technology and change | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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