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Using the Subconscious as a Monitoring Tool and Assessment Tool

Keith Sgrillo's picture

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Decision making and responding are complex processes of the human mind.  Often, as educators, decisions are made and responses are given without much thought as to the influences that could have contributed to those decisions or responses made.  Some of the decisions made in education, both by students and by teachers, do carry some risk when the subconscious is allowed to take precedence over the reflection that usually takes place some point following the decision or reaction.  Doonan (2001) suggests that risk management is a process in which individuals and organizations try to minimize the role of subconscious decisions (in that sense, impulsive) without reflection.  And further that those individuals should take time to reflect upon those thoughts as to gain insight into where they came from and what the implications are to those thoughts if acted upon.  Doonan takes a Freudian perspective on this topic in that the view of subconscious thought is the arousal of inner conflict that is brought to the conscious, a recognition of those conflicts, analysis of the conflict through awareness, evaluation of the possible outcomes of the conflicts, and then strategies to cope with or deal with those conflicts. 


So what role could this play in an educational environment?  Many times teachers are left asking “why did you do that?”  And the student’s reply is eloquently put “I don’t know.”  And as frustrating as this may sound, it may very well be an accurate explanation.  The “why did you do that” question is often asked immediately after a response, behavior, or lack thereof; whether in positive, negative, or even benign situations.  It is critical for the educational field to begin to recognize such responses as more than just an easy out or an irresponsible response.  Without proper reflection skills and adequate time to think about the subconscious, students and educators alike may develop an apprehension to the learning experience. 


Doonan (2001) also goes further to discuss the idea of risk and what it could mean to an individual.  He defines risks as being in two categories: bad risks (failures) and good risks (successes).  This definition of risk can be viewed as simplistic and shallow.  If failures are considered bad risk, the question raised then would be “How do we make improvements if risks are not taken?” Failure carries with it so many connotations with negative tones that it may be difficult to get students and teachers alike to take risks, especially those that are desirable.   A better way to view risks may be to look at them in eye of “valuable” and “invaluable” meaning that risks, whether successful or not, may have value or none at all.  If the Wright brothers never tried different models of airplane after their first attempt, humanity may never have gotten their feet off the ground. Conversely, if the first plane they actually got off the ground was seen as adequate and needed no further improvement, we may still be crashing every 100 meters or so. 


So how does this tie to education? Well, the Wright brothers must have done some reflection on the thoughts and plans they had for new planes.  With that thought and reflection must have come some recognition of the risks involved in the changes made to the original design.  The pattern is thus cyclical.  So the idea of including the subconscious thought, in the realm of education as one of value, stands to be a risk that has some value.  Students and teachers alike should be encouraged to express those thoughts but also to evaluate them and reflect both before and after acting on them.  Klein (2007) discusses the impact of intuition on the decision making process.  Many factors find their way into the process of thinking, especially as it pertains to unconscious thought.  According to Klein, this is problematic due to the nature of subconscious thought that involves some levels of “emotional arousal and bias.”  Klein suggests a model known as Simple Decision Processes (SDP).  Due to the nature of the American classroom, it may not be suitable to use what Klein calls the Systematic Decision-Making Process due to the high level of involvement, but more of an approach that combines both the systematic and intuitive thought processes.  It may be the case that in many cases, those involved in the educational process have an immediate intuitive response to concepts and ideas.  These intuitive responses may come from within with no explanation as to why.  So the respondent may see this as an unnecessary risk and not offer it to the discussion.  Therefore, it is important to encourage risk taking as well as valuing those unconscious thoughts.


It is acknowledged, however, that acting on impulse may also have some negative and serious consequences.  These may include rash behavior, poor selection of appropriate language, or even an expression of ideas that the individual may not "feel" they necessarily believe.  That being said, it is important to understand that these thoughts do merit and deserve some kind of attention and that they be discussed.  This is not to say that the discussion needs to be in an open forum, but through inner dialogue.  Teaching individuals to acknowledge these thoughts and to develop some concept of an inner dialogue to understand them may very well be critical to deeper understanding and knowledge acquisition.  

One suggestion is the idea of building within learners (to mean both students and teachers) a set of simple questions one can ask one's self to identify the risk of the thoughts that come from the intuitive.  Simple questions to monitor the intuitive thoughts can provide an insight and monitoring tool to evaluate the value of the risk involved.  This is not to say that there needs to be a set of standard questions to be taught and learned.  It is suggested that these questions be left flexible to allow the learner to apply the practice to multiple situations and environments.   The subconscious can be used to identify what learning is actually taking place, as well as biases that may exist that learners may not be aware of.  It is through this practice that learners can then eliminate or at least restrain these biases and begin knowledge acquisition at higher levels. 

Heid (2008) suggests that this is used frequently with art teachers, particularly in the elementary field.  Students are encouraged to begin with a thought, to explore and analyze this thought, then to apply the analysis in crating or interpreting a work of art.  The use of synectics (subconscious thought) is not a new concept, but one that is not explicit in education or, from this perspective, encouraged in other curricular domains.  It is through the use of synectics that learners develop originality, creativity, and imagination.  In this way, Heid suggests that it is a way to transfer knowledge of familiar things in a new way but also to transfer knowledge of unfamiliar ideas in ways the learner is familiar.  This idea can be transferred across curricular areas of study.  However, it involves risks that need to be evaluated as valid and invalid, valuable and invaluable.  It is obviously a decision that needs to be made at the district and school levels, but it is also relevant at the teacher and learner level as well.  Risk taking inspires innovation and change.  It encourages the spontaneous evolution of abstract thinking and development.  The subconscious is a useful tool that can help learners to develop a stronger sense of understanding, but also of metacognition and self expression.  The subconscious can bring to the forefront the ideas of monitoring and develop self-monitoring skills and thus help educators to use assessment strategies to better understand the ideas of learners.


In light of this, I am very interested on feedback to the following questions.  It does not matter what credentials an individual has (other than you have to be alive).  All perspectives and experiences are welcome and needed.


1) What are the observed outcomes of intuitive thought used as a learning tool?


2) What are the costs of such a technique were we ask students to share their intuitive thoughts after they have done some brief reflection on them?


3) What are the gains to be made?


4) Are there situations where the use of intuitive thought has negative risks? Positive risks?


5) Has anyone tried this before? 





Doonan, P.  (2001). Freud, fishing and Risk Management. Risk Management, 48(12), 48.  Retrieved July 13, 2010, from Alumni - ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 93747528).

Heid, K.. (2008). Creativity and Imagination: Tools for Teaching Artistic Inquiry. Art Education, 61(4), 40-46.  Retrieved July 15, 2010, from Research Library. (Document ID: 1566301761).

Klein, J.. (2007). The Contribution of a Simple Decision Process (SDP) to Reducing Biases in Educational Decisions. The Journal of Experiential Education, 30(2), 153-170.  Retrieved July 13, 2010, from Research Library. (Document ID: 1482648091).




Keith Sgrillo's picture

Thanks Paul. I have a huge

Thanks Paul. I have a huge wish list of books and titles that everyone has been sharing. 


I have always tried to emphasise to my students that they need to take risks.  I have been thinking about the actual use of the word "risk" in that it has a prevailing negative connotation.  It seems to scare them a bit (just the word itself).  I still have yet, even with the help of my students, to come up with a suitable synnonym for it.  Any suggestions?  Or should I just keep pioneering the rebirth of the word risk as a positive force in our educational world. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

The unconscious in classrooms: virtues and risks

Thoughtful, provocative, and well worth persuing further.  Also gratifying.  Certainly one of my objectives for this summer was to get educators to start thinking more about the unconscious/intuitive in connection with classroom practice, and you've nicely laid out some of the directions well worth exploring.

Glad to have the "risk" dimension added in to the mix.  Yes, of course, there is "risk" associated with giving increased attention/expression to the unconscious.  But there is "risk" associated with all aspects of behavior, as you nicely point out.  For more along these lines, see Evolution/science: inverting the relationship between randomness and meaning.

As we've talked a bit about in our sessions, there is increasing attention being paid to the "wisdom" of the unconscious.  Malcom Gladwell's Blink is a popular example.  Among the researchers active in this area is Gert Gigerenzer, whose recent Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious provides another useful account.  Joyce's use of "brain drains" and our adoption of that practice is relevant to several of your questions.  Looking forward to seeing more exploration of them.