"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Challenge of Unlearning

Almost 14 million voters in the Philippines have chosen to bring the son of a former dictator a heartbeat away from presidency. With an election involving more than two candidates, a mere third of the votes cast can send a candidate to a national office. Still, 14 million is a significant number. Such is the enormous challenge of basic education in the Philippines.
Above copied from the New York Times
Unlearning has always been a huge task for basic education. In the sciences, for instance, misconceptions abound. Obviously, to correct these misconceptions, delivering the right information is required. Unfortunately, such effort which already demands good learning resources and a competent teacher is often not enough. Confronting the issue of climate change deniers, Joel Achenbach of the National Geographic writes, "...Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers... ...Throwing more facts at them doesn’t help...." Clearly, to unlearn requires not just providing the correct information but also an understanding of the misconception.

Such understanding obviously begins with an awareness of misconceptions. One cannot methodically cure without knowing the illness. An article written by Philip M. Sadler and Gerhard Sonnert published in the American Educator specifically looks at addressing misconceptions and what may be required of teachers. Sadler and Sonnert find that a teacher who is knowledgeable in the subject he or she is teaching is inadequate for correcting misconceptions. In order to be effective, a teacher must be likewise aware of the misconceptions his or her students have. This is summarized in the following graph in Sadler and Sonnert's paper:.

Above copied from American Educator
When it comes to topics where students are unlikely to hold prejudices, a knowledgeable teacher has a dramatic impact on student learning. However, in topics where misconceptions are present, teachers who know their subjects well are still ineffective in helping students unlearn misconceptions. There appears an improvement when the knowledgeable teacher is also aware of the misconceptions his or her students may have, but the effectiveness still does not reach the same level of learning as in topics where students do not carry misconceptions.

Why is it so difficult to unlearn? The reason is that such misconceptions have become beliefs. Achenbach quotes Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of Science and president-elect of the US National Academy of Sciences:
“We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school. People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”
It therefore makes sense that creating a cover page similar to the one below to characterize Marcos' undying popularity in the Philippines is really an exercise in futility.

Above copied from the Daily Mirror
As children, we learn a lot from stories handed down to us by our elders. As we grow up, we lean towards those that support our own beliefs (confirmation bias) and we seek only the evidence that agrees with our own instincts.

Unlearning is indeed a significant challenge to education and it becomes insurmountable if people of influence remain unaccountable for spreading misconceptions. Millions of Filipinos appear to have misconceptions of the Marcos dictatorship. It is perhaps true that textbooks as well as teachers have not done enough to correct these misconceptions. This, however, is not the complete story as demonstrated by Sadler and Sonnert in their science instruction study. People dream of better times when they are unhappy. The failure of various administrations after the Marcos era to deliver a more transparent government and a more inclusive economic growth continues to fuel these misconceptions. Addressing this only through basic education is not enough. With continuing incompetence and corruption in both private and public sectors in the Philippines, this misconception of the Marcos dictatorship will only grow in the generations to come.

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