Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

How to reduce crystal meth use in Australia (and elsewhere) in the longer term.

December 8, 2015

Our Noble Leaders have started talking about “Australia’s Ice pandemic”.

I don’t think that word means what they think it means. I believe the internationally accepted definition of a pandemic  is : ‘an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of  people’.  (Last, J. A Dictionary of Epidemiology (4th Edition) Oxford University Press 2001)

Not crossing international boundaries.   I think they could call it an epidemic – but not a very big one.

Then they talk about stopping it by “talking to young people about risks” and by law enforcement action.  Not about changing the education system from “learn this stuff to get a job” to “learn this stuff to find and make fun and beauty you couldn’t understand without it, and so you will never be bored even if locked in an empty room.”  Not about making risky activities like adult-sized versions of adventure playgrounds available in all suburbs.  Not about social support (guaranteed shelter, food, health care, and safety needs in exchange for the dole cheque?)  for the desperate.  Even though these would mean that people would (like the rats in enriched cages) be less inclined to seek escape through crystal meth, alcohol, and other drugs.

I expect that the right-wing parties in Oz won’t  talk that way, not for the next 20 years.  After all, we know the source of their “Scientific” theories on how the world works.  They don’t care about accuracy, and not just in abusing the word “pandemic.”  For example our Federal Government’s Minister for resources and energy pronounces “nuclear” as “newcewlar.”   Rational action to reduce the risk of youth turning to drugs?   5 years after the Republicans give it the OK they’ll consider it.  Sigh.


“That Dress” : Not neuroscience, if you saw brownish and blueish … camera effect, I think.

August 13, 2015

If you remember the chatter about what colour “that dress” was, many talked of “personal perceptions” and “Brightness of environment.” None of the commentators asked the first question that I had:  What are the colours on the image on my screen?  Or the second question: What factors other than the incoming light may affect colour perceptions?  They assumed the screen image was the same as the dress, and that different perceptions were physically based and in some sense equally valid – they didn’t ask “Why do some misperceive?”

Being a bit scientific, however, I used paintshop to sample and make swatches of the colours on the web images in question and the web image of “the original.”


And got these 3 sets of colours.

that dress colours   Can you guess which is the question post and which was the “original dress” image?

Note that the neuroscience effect is noticable – the swatches may seem darker than the perceved colours on the question posts’ dress image.  But it takes talent to see the top left swatch as black.

In different parts of the images, I found different specific shades, but all in the same groupings : for example, for ” black” locations  the web image in question had hue about 30, saturation 50 to 100, and light  about 50 to 90 with  slightly higher R (110 – 140) than G and half to two thirds the B as R ; while the “the original dress” web image on the Slate for  black had saturation and light about 20 to 50 and hue about 160 to 180, with R and G  about 30 to 40 but with B slightly higher.

I think the question posts’ image had been changed by the limited capabilities of a digital camera (probably in a mobile phone.)  I wonder why none of the news reports on academics’ explanations mentioned that?  And why they didn’t mention the confounding problem of social effects on perception, well known since the 1950s (search on Asch and Conformity)  – which  adds to up to “we see what we expect to see, and we expect to see what other people say we can see.”

I think it would be interesting to do a study correlating the responses to such a colour question with personality, including personal response to social pressure.  Do those who want to be different “see” less likely suggestions?  Do conformists “see” what they are told most people see?  Do those who see purple cats (when the cats are purple) resist incorrect suggestions?

In other words, the differences may be more social science than neuroscience.


PS: good commend on fb:

Ceri Vergeltungswaffe I do disagree on one point – it does not take talent to view the top left swatch as black. It takes a poor colour display on a digital device. Or it take growing up with digital devices where “black” is really just super-low saturation and one has become used to adjusting. The subconscious process of “it’s black in context” is the same as the checkerboad “are these two squares the same” illusion.

Marriage Equality: should the elderly and otherwise infertile couples be allowed to marry?

July 2, 2015

I think it is time that anyone who uses the argument that “Children have a right to a father and a mother so same-sex marriage should not be allowed”  should no longer be heard in the discussion unless they answer “Yes” to the  following four questions.

Firstly, the logical extension of this is the forced removal of children from single parents of either gender, including the bereaved partners of ex-servicemen, and their adoption by heterosexual couples.  That would be entertaining.  Do they agree with this forced removal?

Secondly, because the argument ignores the statistics which show that the children raised by same-sex couples tend to be – if different at all – better balanced and happier than those raised by heterosexual couples.  (This may be because they are so much more likely to  be truly wanted children, and the parents therefore usually seek out role models to show both genders at their best.)  Have they  evidence  (not hearsay or anecdote, actual peer-reviewed research) to contradict this?

Thirdly, because this emphasis on children assumes that marriage is solely to produce offspring.  Do they intend to legislate against the marriage of the elderly and otherwise infertile heterosexual couples?

Do they intend to legislate against the adoption of children by single parents and LGBTI couples?


Dismissing Freud – baby and bathwater time.

January 6, 2015

According to university student reports, Psychology students are now taught to dismiss Freud – that is, if they are even introduced to his name.  I see three problems with this,  Firstly, they lose the good bits such as  the concept of “Freudian Slips.”  Secondly, they miss the historical perspective – which can inform a properly sceptical view of current theories.  Thirdly, they miss the anthropological perspective, the link between the theories and the culture in which they were developed (for example, penis envy and castrtion fears in a society where men have social power and freedom of movement and body details are a taboo topic, what a surprise….)

The third point is a sad loss in our increasingly multicultural society:  If a woman seeks mental health support and comes of a very patriarchal and female-restricting society, would current approaches help her fit the social rôle her family expects, and would the health professionals be sufficiently aware of the problem to even consider offering culturally sensitive counselling?  I have the uncomfortable feeling that old-style Freudian would be more fitting for some groups – not just Muslim, consider and assault on non-compliant

– our underlying WEIRD cultural  assumptions will challenge these families should they migrate here.

Should people be offered the option of psychiatric help to fit in with their sub-culture’s expectations for their rôle, rather than to achieve full mental health as our culture defines it?  To what extent would a Freudian approach help?

Spotted: double standards

March 17, 2014

I have seen several posts about this, and thought it interesting that the conversation was about the questions of whether Tony Abbot could be a feminist and whether Michaelia Cash should see herself as a feminist (Being in the Senate House, not the kitchen…)

Seemed to me it is more an acceptance of the perception problem that confronts women in so many places: what is assertive in a man is aggressive in a woman; what is “reasonable use of flextime” for a man  is “making allowances” for the breadwinner woman.  A typical example is at

It is clear that, in the political arena of Australia, a male politician who appreciates clever and confident women and has several in high subordinate positions (wife, daughter, head of staff in his office, cabinet ministers when he is PM) will see himself as a feminist:  he is happy for them to have careers, and he will pitch in and take responsibility for his share of the work.  He just doesn’t notice the double standards and the problem of women’s social invisibility in meetings – after all, he is an alpha male and doesn’t have to experience it.  He is seen as more sensitive and even assertive  if he says that he is a feminist.

The female conservative politician who claims she is not a feminist is not claiming to have been given her job as a favour from some man.  She is cannily avoiding the trap of being seen as an aggressive harridan who wants to subjugate all men.  She is seen as more sensitive and assertive if she “resists the pressure” to say she is a feminist.  For a woman seeking right-wing support, being an avowed feminist is like being “too clever”  or “atheist” :  her male audience immediately expect her to be  unfeminine, possibly lesbian, probably aggressive, and definitely too big for her boots.

Therefore, I do not condemn Senator Cash.   She has no doubt learned from Julia Gillard’s fate.  She knows her place on the ticket, and is doing the right things to keep it.

The Fat Man Is Coming … Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

December 16, 2013

There is a man you have never met –

though he has many “helpers” who dress in his uniform, use his name, and tell him what you do.  I have heard that any one of them could really be him.

He brings presents to the good people –

and we don’t talk about what happens to the bad ones.  I have heard that he has a helper called Black Peter who handles them, but that may just be a rumour.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good –

so be good for goodness’ sake!

He knows when you are sleeping, and will creep into your house when everyone is asleep –

even if you have no chimney and all the doors and windows are locked.  Parents never seem to hear a thing when he visits.

He will come into your room in the dead of night while you are asleep –

have you been really, really good all year?

Sweet dreams ….

Picket fences, Miranda Devine, Federal Cabinet’s one woman, and Team Sports.

September 24, 2013

I was fascinated (as I often am) by the weekend newspaper, which has, to quote Ogden Nash, “all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.

In this case, particularly by  “Sorry Ita, but Bishop’s no token woman.”  From The Sunday Times (Western Australia)  (“Insight” P.63 22.09.2013) – Miranda Devine’s blog, online at the (Australian) Telegraph:

If it were voiced by “First Dog on the Moon”     I would know it was satire.  Unfortunately, it is printed in a Western Australian newspaper and, from the comments permitted to remain on her blog, I think she is serious.  Please read it before continuing (should it disappear, let me know and I will post a jpeg of the newspaper page.)

If you are too busy – in essence, she suggests that there is only one woman “ready” for a Federal Cabinet Ministry because too few of the women in politics have been  involved in team sports, so they are not “Team Players.”

For non-Australian readers, you might need to know that:

1. The generation of men in power here come from a background where “Team Sports” means foot-egg and cricket.  This generation tends to like strong women as long as they are in a subservient position (daughter, deputy, etc.) BUT tends not to hear if they voice some new idea –  however, it will often be said again ten minutes later by a man, and then is greeted as a good idea (Personal observation, echoed by others involved in committees.)

2.  The Prime Minister’s team sports background is rugby – a variety of foot-egg where male players are noted for macho behaviour and objectification of women.

3. The status of female team sports is clearly demonstrated by their usual absence from the nightly TV news  “sport” section.  Most young women here have played some team sport – hockey, netball (the home of “here if you need”), basketball, lacrosse …   giving up part of the weekend for their team.   Generally, not foot-egg or cricket, though.  Why? Well, just ten years ago a girl in a State primary coeducational school was  told that she couldn’t sign on to do cricket in the Sports period.  When her family supported her complaint of unfair access to the sport, she was allowed to sign on – on the same basis as late-signing boys.  So, as she had not done the sport the previous year, she joined the “waiting list.” And took up hockey.  Women’s rugby and cricket are seldom reported, even if the teams are winning internationally.

4.  High – level business mentors find that women often subsume their ambitions to the leader’s claimed needs of their teams (personal communications.)  The social conditioning of female children in Australia strongly encourages the compliant/supportive behaviours over individualistic drives, and discourages challenging dominant males.  For example, I heard one older woman tell a teenager “Don’t show how clever you are – men don’t like women who are more clever than them.”

5.  The reality of politics is closer to Mungo MacCallum’s “How to be a Megalomaniac”  – this book is written by a senior and satirical journalist, and rings true to long-term Canberra watchers.

So: few women fit for Cabinet? Sure, it’s because they aren’t on the Women Pollies’ Hockey Team.

Yeah.  Nothing to do with the tendency of selection panels to choose “People like us” as the most capable, and the selection panel here being really not representative of the national demographic profile (i.e. being mostly older white male politicians.)  The link I give is to Mikki Hebl’s  “Subtle Biases in Job Selection,” from Rice University website, and includes the truths that

…there are other Biases we have:   Job/Gender Congruency.
1) In masculine-stereotyped occupations (i.e, sciences and engineering), men’s performance is evaluated more positively than is women’s, even after controlling for the performance itself. This bias shows up in scores of studies and is consistent (i.e., Glick, Zion, & Nelson, 1988; Top, 1991).
2) When women act in noncommunal ways, they are penalized by evaluators; however, when they act in communal ways, they don’t get the job (Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rudman & Glick, 2001).

And many people read Miranda Devine for a “sensible” view of things.

Lit on a picket fence, indeed.

Psychology: Why I class it as a science.

November 21, 2011

It is sometimes said that Psychology shouldn’t be classed as a science, because psychologists can’t accurately predict what individual people will do:  in a real science, we expect testable predictions.

To be generous, I will allow all  brain-scan linked psychology to be put under neuroscience, and all chemical-linked psychology to be under psychopharmacology.  I will consider only social psychology and the study of individual behaviours.

It is clear that any situation brings out different responses from different human individuals, and that the range of these responses is predictable.

Some situational responses are very common.  In a previous post  I gave some examples of famous response patterns,  but there is a huge range of psychological research into common effects.  (For a quick start, there are many videos and books from Richard Wiseman .)  However, for every standard response there is a sizeable minority who are non-standard.  Does this invalidate the claim to scientific status for psychology?  Consider the reasons for the range of responses:

To begin with, testing of famous effects has made it clear that different cultures prime us to different response sets.  (Laura Spinney’s article on being WEIRD gives a few examples. )

On the individual level, personality and past experience also prime individuals to particular responses.   Research on resilience gives many examples of this.

Finally, for each of us, there is a probability of a particular behaviour in a given situation – even in rats with strongly conditioned responses there is a degree of variability in response.

So, psychologist have found many aspects of variability in response, and are trying to identify causes and measure their effects – alone and in combination – and are testing their predictions.   That sounds like science to me.  However, they still can’t usually predict what an individual will do. So, is that a fatal flaw?

Let us consider Chemistry – that is a science.  Given a set of chemicals, in a given environment, the outputs are predictable – right?  Well, take burning an archetypical carbohydrate:  CH2O (s) + O2 (g)  – >  CO2 (g) + H2O (g).   Can the chemist predict which of the Oxygen gas’s atoms will end in the carbon dioxide?  Consider the history of producing  isocyanides  :  the proportions of different products from a given starting mix was initially hard to predict, and much research was needed before the exact conditions for high yield were found.   With the invention of microwave ovens, chemists found  a new range of conditions for chemical reactions – and again started by finding out the changes in  mixture of products from changes in process.  ( One example is the processing of methane, of interest to the natural gas / syngas industry.)

So, I argue that Psychology can be classed as a science precisely because  (like research Chemists) the researchers accept that there are limits to their knowledge,  that they must measure reality to form ideas of what might be happening (hypotheses),  and that their predictions (from hypotheses) of the results of given processes must be tested against reality before a strong theory can be developed.

When is it time to introduce the colon, semicolon, ellipsis and dash?

June 21, 2011

Many  teachers are happy to see bright students reading authors like Paul Jennings.  I am not entirely comfortable with it, and here will explain why.  Then I get really prescriptive …

Most humans learn from example – this is so basic that I won’t bother to reference it.    Once a child has understood if not mastered the real basics – { . , ? !} – it is time for them to practice reading them, to reinforce the learning from example, and also to practice using them.  Again, I expect this is unexceptionable.

This is my contentious proposition:  If teachers are going to assess  writing using a marking format which includes complexity of sentences and punctuation, they hve a duty to make available the tools the child needs to produce the desired complexity.  If they have students who are capable of complex thought, they have a duty to equip them for self-expression as early as possible… regardless of age.  If the child reads only simple texts, where is the learning by example?

Do the above basic introduction, to be sure.   As soon as possible after this, I bellieve that any child who uses complex sentences should be introduced to the ways of punctuating them.   Any text with frequent short sentences (including newspaper articles and classroom books) should be looked at as a literary piece: are there examples ambiguities that could be resolved, repetitions that could be avoided, or relationships that could be made more clear by the use of “advanced” punctuation?  These can be used to demonstrate editing.  By year / grade 5 the class as a whole should be used to the idea of asking “Why has the simple form been used here?”   

Aside: I get the feeling that many writers underestimate (even patronise) their readers, assuming they cannot hold three related concepts in one sentence.

I have seen a (slightly above average) 10-year-old, two weeks after an  introduction to complex structures (and reading, with support, several examples of complex writing) start to talk about how one of these “simple sentence” stories could be made better by combining sentences and weeding out  a few words.

There is, of course, a downside:  an 11-year-old taught this way got into H.P. Lovecraft (try The music of Erich Zann , if you’ve not read any of his work), while ves agemates were into “Goosebumps”.

Choosing the texts

So, what sort of texts do I recommend?  For younger readers, mostly books from before the 1980s –  I give an exerpt from an  Andrew Davies Marmalade Atkins book below,  to give a feel for the level students age 8 – 11 have enjoyed.  His  books are playful yet challenging, so I use them,  but there are many other fine authors for this age whose works an older librarian could recommend.   For older readers, there is a multitude of works over the past 200 years from which to choose.   If you want some history / S&E, try comparing a translation of  the original Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” with the Disney book.  I like Cherryh at the moment, with examples below,  but there are other excellent authors.

 Do, however, check their pattern of punctuation.  Tom Holt is an entertaining writier (see Alexander at the World’s End) , but uses semicolons where The Penguin Guide to Punctuation would recommend a colon.  Indeed, such a style is preferred by some publishers now, to the extent that some teachers consider the older form incorrect.   Therefore, when an opportunity arises, I like to point out the existence of the two schools of thought, and allow the students to choose – and use only – the approach they prefer.   I also (as here) remind teachers of the existence of the two approaches.   (But I give out mainly examples of my preferred style, naturally.)

Examples of texts

In the first piece,  I begin with an Introductory Reference : The Colon and the Semicolon Compared, by Larry Trask .  We then see what CJ Cherryh does with them, and debate her choices.  I do not assert that her choices are always ideal,  but they are worth discussing.  (If students want to see a wider range of her style, I suggest the Russalka series.)

For older students,  small groups try to write their interpretations given those rules (they are expected to look up any words they don’t know, and figure out which words name an ethnic group/ nation / region names);   for younger students a more structured explanation sets the scene, the words are part of word study,  and it is a supervised small group or full class discussion.

CJ Cherryh  Fortress in the Eye of Time

p 246 .  [Heryn,  Lord of Amafel, has been found to have been careless to the point of being criminal concerning Prince Cefwyn’s safety.   Cefwyn, soon to be king of Ylesuin (by Heryn’s treachery), cannot prove the carelessness was deliberate action, or that Heryn has been taxing his people heavily and passing little on to the King.    Cefwyn sits in judgement – in Heryn’s castle.]

“I must bear that, then,” Heryn said, and where sarcasm might have prevailed, perhaps, there was no apparent edge to his voice, only anguish.

Something must be done with him; the whole hall waited, anxious, sceptical of Heryn alike, perhaps embarrassed in Heryn’s fall from dignity, perhaps thinking of their own weapons:  Cefwyn knew the volatility of the region all too well; but he considered rejecting Heryn and his offer, and his tax records, a moment of two longer than he might ordinarily contemplate a move to fracture the peace.

But after such a delay, enough to make Heryn’s face go to pallor, he beckoned the man to rise, and, still frowning, gave him the formal embrace courtesy and custom demanded after such an accepted capitulation.

p 382. [ Idrys is Cefwyn’s spy master, and often goes into danger for him;  Emuin is Cefwyn’s wisest advisor.  The Marhanen are the ruling family, Cefwyn’s family.  Cefwyn has become King, and has made choices that go against his land’s and his family’s traditions]

He cast a frowning look at Idrys, and knew that there was yet another danger that Emuin did not reckon of:  Idrys’ loyalty, and Idrys’ perception.  Idrys had taken an oath of homage to him.  Of fealty to him.  But in the challenge to the Marhanen that those oaths had never anticipated, he found himself without sure knowledge what Idrys’ attachment was: to him, as king; to the realm; to whatever man Idrys served – or to his own unexpressed sense of honor.  Idrys measured things by some scheme that had never yet diverged from his personal welfare.

[Note: from context, I suspect that the “his personal welfare” there is the king’s, and that she would have written “his own” had it been Idrys’ welfare. ]

p 399.  [People from a neighbouring kingdom are invading across Amefel – and the Lord of Amafel and some nobles have recently been executed for treason.  Cefwyn considers what his warlike and successful grandfather had taught him.]

It meant, of course, that the Elwynim disrupted their own harvest by taking men away from the farms, but if in years previous they had had the foresight to hold reserves of their grain, they could bring it from Elwynor, managing the extended supply that Grandfather had declared was the most important item to have secured: Never rely on the farmers for food, was another of Grandfather’s  rules; it makes the farmers mad, gives your enemy willing reports, and it never amounts to what you think it will once you most need it.

Grandfather was silent on the problems of feeding the farmers of Amafel while the armies of five provinces and all the enemy camped on their fields and their sheep-meadows – when the Amefin were farmers and shepherds of the chanciest loyalty in all Ylesuin.  As well the King did stand on their pastures;  holding Amefel otherwise would not be possible.

The next piece is good to read aloud, stopping if necessary to write up and define any unknown words.   There is then the opportunity to hand out an unpunctuated copy, for small groups or pairs of students to choose their own punctuation before seeing how Davies has done it.  This allows discussion of ways of punctuation, and thought about choices, before discussing how the piece was actually punctuated – and then discussing  how he gets away with breaking so many of the formal writing rules  (Lessons:  A  sentence can be very long and yet easy to read, if you punctuate clauses carefully.  A sentence fragment can be a paragraph – if you are writing in an informal style, and if you set up the situation correctly in your readers’ minds .)

Andrew Davies   Marmalade Atkins’ Dreadful Deeds

pp 18 – 19

Torchy was a fat white pony who went round with a secret smile on his face.  He was a very nice pony to ride if you didn’t mind stopping every few yards for him to have a snack.  The other thing he liked to do was roll on his back kicking his legs in the air, and most people found it best to dismount while he was doing this.

And then there was Rufus.  Rufus had come with the farm and nobody knew how old he was.  He wore an old straw hat that didn’t suit him but nobody had ever dared take it off, because although Rufus usually looked half asleep, there was a certain look about his half-shut eyes that warned you not to take liberties with Rufus or his hat.

After his hat, the next thing you noticed about Rufus was his coat, which was rough and thick, and several kinds of red in colour.  There were sandy tufts, and gingery tufts, and carroty whorls, and pinkish stubble.  His coat was of several different lengths, and grew in several different directions, and he looked as if he had just paid a visit to a drunken barber’s.  Despite all this, he seemed a nice old thing, and people who didn’t know him  would cry out: “Oh, what a sweet little donkey!  Isn’t he a love!” and people who did know him would clear their throats and change the subject, and Rufus himself would throw back his head and let out a sarcastic “Hee-haw!” in his very loud and vulgar voice, and if you looked into his sleepy old eyes you could see his crafty old brain ticking over, working out something bad to do.

Because Rufus was a pretty diabolical donkey.

Rufus liked to give people surprises.  One way of doing this was to come up behind them and give them a very gentle nudge with his nose.  Usually they would stroke his muzzle saying “What a sweet old thing!”  Then he would give then another nudge, a bit harder, then a very hard nudge indeed.  After about three nudges, most people fell down, and Rufus would stand on them.  Donkeys look small, but they weigh at least twice as much as your fattest auntie, and it is no joke being stood on by a donkey like Rufus.

Marmalade’s mother would try to smooth the situation over by whacking him with a twig and saying “Don’t be a bore, Rufus!” or “It’s only his way of showing he likes you!” but people who were stood on by Rufus wished he could show his affection in some other way; and those who looked up into his wickedly gleaming eyes thought, but didn’t like to say, that Marmalade’s mother was quite wrong and that Rufus did not in fact like them at all.

And in this they were usually right.

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Alexander at the World's End

Alexander at the World’s End

On teaching students to show their working

May 25, 2011

Karl F Gauss (1777 – 1855) “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”¹

I have struggled with the problem of persuading the talented students to show their thinking in any detail – the greater the gift, the less likely they are to want to explain the details.  After all, if it is blatantly obvious, who wants to discuss why it is so?

“Because I say so!” is a non-starter – too many of them can turn mulish.  The argument that it helps one to find one’s errors doesn’t work – they, having genius egos and little experience, do not really believe that they can be in error.

In literacy and other communication-loaded subjects, the argument that the details are needed to help the audience understand one’s thoughts may help.  Unfortunately, if the student feels that the teacher knows the details already, ve may logically respond that details are therefore not required.   More powerful for the score-motivated, however, was the clear opening statement that the person assessing one’s work will have a mental checklist of “things to give points for”, and that including those statements will get one points.  This was particularly important for a student, asked to discuss  a complex piece of writing, who skipped all the obvious bits (the teacher’s focus, of course!) to discuss subtleties in the subtext .  However, unless the teacher has written a very careful programme, has a very clear marking key linked to the topic, and has provided examples of pieces showing discussions of  “obvious bits” ,  and the student has attended, this leads to the lesson being that the teacher wants the student to guess what the teacher wants to see –

Now,  here is a win/win situation: that “unless” sounds like good teaching practice,   and the latter outcome reflects the reality of many test and workplace experiences .²

But then, there are those with much more internal motivations.   One approach for them which  I enjoyed involves a little history and psychology:

Many experts find they “know” but can’t easily explain why – like the soldier in Afghanistan who believes there is a trap, but can only say that “that street gives me a cold feeling” – not much help when training a rookie.   I knew a mathematician who had spent three years working on proving that two different areas of extreme geometry which were using different theorems could be reduced to one set of theorems – he “knew” they were linked, but had to prove it using both sets of theorems.  In higher maths, I myself often knew the answer to a problem and then had to work to choose the approach to showing that it was so.   

Even the great scientists and mathematicians experience this:  thus, the Gauss quote: Karl F Gauss (1777 – 1855) “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”¹ 

If all these people know things are so, then it is not surprising  that some  students will start to know also.  But how does it come to be so? 

When   one is learning to read, one remembers the shape-sound match, then sounds-out the letters, then links the sounds to find the word, and try to remember that one while reading the next word.   At each step, neurons are firing chemical messages and stimulating each other to grow and link across brain structures.  Later, the shape-sound match is known: neurons have made linkages, so the visual system gets the verbal system for the letter-sound doing its job below consciousness.   Then the sets of letters in each word start having neural networks, so the whole word is known.  Later, groups of words are linked, so that if a new word is made up of them, the set of activated networks means that the new word is known.  With much reading (and especially with good speed reading training) the networks may link so that entire sentences may be grasped by the expert neural systems rather than  read “word by word” by the conscious mind. 

In all aspects of learning, it comes to the same thing: neurons signalling and  linking and signalling.  What you practice is what you get good at.

If you practice just knowing, and you have made a faulty connection somewhere, that fault is strengthened.  That is the first reason to check the working consciously.

If you practice just knowing, you can unconsciously be using systems elsewhere in your brain – other expert systems can be involved without your knowledge.  This often happens where science uses mathematics, or any subject uses literacy.   Examining your processes can make surprising linkages available to make useful shortcuts – for example. having to remember only one of five physics formulae because they are all derived from one mathematically.  Making links where no-one else saw them is what gets people Nobel prizes.  That is a second reason to check the working consciously.

If you practice just knowing, you do not practice self-questioning.  To question one’s own inner processes is a valuable skill in later life, when more complex problems engage many neural networks – many adults spend long hours with psychologists, trying to figure why they make such bad decisions and how to improve their lives.    Start practicing with small things – like adding three-figure numbers – and develop the skills you will need for the big things later.  That is a third reason to check the working consciously.

Practicing just knowing means you cannot be sure that you have really grasped the whole of the problem.  In a hurried situation it is useful to be sure enough to gamble on, but where there is time –  conscious checking allows certainty.  That confidence is a fourth reason to check the working consciously.

If you practice just knowing, you can be manipulated by events elsewhere in your brain.  If conscious checking gives an answer different from your knowledge, you have a starting point for finding out what you know (in the normal sense) which contradicts your conscious thinking.  Sometimes, there is a fault which can derail your life (see the psychologist’s work, as above.)  And, from experts in fields from medicine to farming, there is another case:  if you know the area really well, your gut feeling is often right – and finding out why is the path to excellence.    That is a last reason to check the working consciously.

Finally, the more complex the problem, the more useful it is to do the working in writing and in a careful format, so that each step can be checked over again.  Doing this gets easier with practice – so practice doing it in writing, neatly, and in the standard form for the subject.

 Go, and justify your answers from now on.  Or I will go over this again.


1.  K.F.Guauss, cited by Paul Williams (2010) p.338.  In Afterword in Sturgeon, N. (Ed.) Case and the Dreamer (pp.327-354)
Berkeley: North Atlantic Press

2. A teacher’s view of this fact of life, and advice on teaching students to live with it:  Mark Lopez “The Little Black School Book ” Vols. 1 and 2, 2008 and 2011, Connor Court Australia.