Conscious and unconscious minds: Implications for teaching and learning literacy

This is a guest post by Hugo Kerr who got in touch with the offer that this appear first on the blog. What Hugo refers to as the ‘unconscious mind’ is, I think, largely analogous with my interpretation of long-term memory. There are echoes of Daniel Kahneman’s system 1 and 2 and Jonathan Haidt’s elephant and rider in these ideas. I’m not sure I agree with all his ideas and proposals, but Hugo’s plea that we address ourselves to aligning teaching with the silent, unseen power of our unconscious is certainly worth of consideration. Here follows an introduction to his thoughts and a link to the paper.

We have a very particular view of mind. It is an ancient view, but seems to work and seems self-evident. It’s common sense.

We know the facts (sort of). We know the unconscious exists. We accept that it does stuff. (We can walk and chew gum at the same time.) We know that this unconscious is absolutely and always invisible but then forget that we are prone to forgetting it. We therefore believe that the sparkly bit of our mind is our conscious mind – it’s the only bit we can see. Here is where all the intellectually interesting stuff goes on; here’s where we live and learn; this is who we are.

It’s perfectly obvious, all this, but it’s also perfectly wrong. It’s a basic misapprehension of the nature of mind, and it matters in the classroom.

Research and reason show that the conscious mind is a small, serial, ponderous thing (and always a little late). The unconscious mind, by contrast, is huge, holistic and smart. What consciousness is for (if anything) is unclear. It is, certainly, only a presentation given by our unconscious.

So there we embarrassingly are. The mind we can see is an enigma.  The mind we cannot see is an absolute enigma. Where do we go from here?

We have two very different systems in there. One, the unconscious, silently processes the multitudinous minutiae of life. It assimilates and manages data. ‘We’ (our consciousness) have no idea how this is done and could not, ‘ourselves’ do it. Happily, the unconscious is colossal and competent. Unhappily, for educational purposes, it is also secret. We can’t see it, so we don’t see it, and seeing is, of course, believing.

The other system, consciousness, finds data difficult but enjoys ideas and understandings. It is about meaning. Perhaps meaning is all it is about, or can manage.

Maybe we should consider this issue formally? Maybe this new lens helps? Are we deploying consciousness and unconsciousness optimally? How should we teach detail and when should we not? Does making ‘rules’ explicit help? Are some of our intuitions going to prove defensible after all?

The complete text of Hugo’s article is available here.

12 Responses to Conscious and unconscious minds: Implications for teaching and learning literacy

  1. “So there we embarrassingly are. The mind we can see is an enigma. The mind we cannot see is an absolute enigma. Where do we go from here?”

    I find it fascinating looking back on Phrenology, and thinking “…how could they ever have hoped to properly understand things with such a crude lack of knowledge about the kinds of things we know now…?”

    I then look at the fact that we still understand so little about how the brain and our intellectual feats and experiences work together, and I imagine just how silly we will look centuries down the line with the certitudes we wrote about the functioning of people, and how we should best educate them. Are we just an another level of Phrenology?

  2. Mark Feathestone-Witty says:

    There’s an obvious conundrum here, isn’t there? How can you write or talk about the unconscious consciously? At the moment you do this, the unconscious disappears … if it was ever there in the first place. And how can we know it was?

    • I think – as Hugo says – we can’t consciously access the unconscious in the first place – we simply infer of its existence. There certainly seems to be plenty of intelligent behaviour which is unaccounted for by our conscious direction (such as driving a long distance with our minds dwelling on something else), and there certainly seems to be plenty of intelligent ‘support work’ done in sustenance of our conscious deliberations (such as the mixture of phonic decoding and the automatic accessing of relevant meaning when we read). As I mentioned on the previous post, I think that the creation of dreamscapes and dream narratives is a fascinating thing to ponder (and I mean that in a cog-sci way – not Jungian).

    • David Didau says:

      Agreed: we have no conscious access to the unconscious. Did you read Hugo’s article?

  3. Hugo Kerr says:

    I have a (facsimile) phrenology head on my desk, to remind me that humility is intellectually decorous.

    • I really rate your article Hugo as a philosophical summary piece regarding the apparent state of our understanding of our conscious/unconscious minds. I think the only think I disagreed with was the way round you had the two problems of consciousness. I personally think it will be easier to find a functional purpose to consciousness than to find a mechanism which satisfies the philosophical issue of how 3rd person interactions create a 1st person unity of qualia-rich experience – but that’s just a personal prejudice! I’m about to start listening to the audiobook of Daniel Dennett’s ‘From bacteria to Bach and back’ (15 hours of domestic chores usefully occupied), and I’ll be interested as to whether it leaves me any clearer on the main points you discussed than your article has left me. I might come back to this discussion after my journey through it.

      David – which of the ideas/proposals do you find most dubious?

  4. howardat58 says:

    The clue here is that the brain develops patterns.
    This article is amazing!

  5. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Hugo: David tells me you’re not on Twitter, so here’s a paper on this topic that I tweeted in response to David’s tweet on this post:

  6. Hugo Kerr says:

    Thank you for this. I will read this properly as soon as I can. It looks very interesting.

  7. Hugo Kerr says:

    Chris, I think we would come close to agreement on function and philosophy. My own opinion as to what consciousness is, or how it arises, leads fairly straightforwardly to the illusory sense that we are a creature at least sometimes watching itself perform. This is because I think consciousness may result from all those loops from limbic system to cortex and back. These will tend to give you the delay which leads to the illusion of being a conscious watching an unconscious. Wildly speculating, I wonder if these loops are deliberately used when the unconscious wants a special kind of thinking to be done? It does seem to me that conscious thought can do particular kinds of thinking. Is it an amplification system? It is certainly only deployed about particular things of unusual interest to the unconscious. Most ‘stuff’ is never referred to it.

    Dylan’s paper is interesting, particularly on affect. Another interest of mine is affect. After decades as a volunteer literacy teacher of adults and children, I have reached the conclusion that affect is at least as important as anything technical we might do. And I think it is unconsciously mediated, which is partly why it is so important. I would be interested to hear any comments.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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