All the world’s a classroom

There are things you know to be true in general that you will reject when it comes down to the specific. This is true of all people and it’s really, really odd. Consider the fact that the vast majority of people in a crowd, if they see someone fall over, perhaps in obvious pain, will not move to help that person. We know that this is true, it has been demonstrated time and time again. It’s called Diffusion of Responsibility and it’s a well documented, well studied, scientific fact.

Yet, most people, when questioned, insist that they and their friends would do something. It is, clearly, impossible for something to be true of most people in general and untrue of most people specifically. Yet we, in our muddled minds, still find a way to believe it is so. There is a blocker between the specific and the general and this blocker undermines learning and, more importantly, the behavioural change learning should lead to. This is a big problem.

That we reject the facts about Diffusion of Responsibility is an example of a bias. There are some things about which we have such powerful biases that we just can’t bring ourselves to apply factual, statistical and general information to them, no matter how much data we have and how reliable we know that data to be. We know, yet we fail to learn. How can we know two different and incompatible things? The explanation is found in how the mind handles information.

Humans have, according to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, two different mechanisms for thinking: the intuitive System 1 and the analytical System 2 (this is not to be confused with the idea that the left and right sides of the brain handle creative and logical functions separately. That’s just bunk). Without getting bogged down in detail, it’s worth pointing out that the system that’s perceiving this this sentence is your intuitive System 1. That’s why you probably didn’t notice the second “this” back there (your System 1 filtered it out because it didn’t make sense). System 1 loves patterns, conformity, causality and simplicity and works constantly to ensure the world you perceive makes sense according to your own, personal worldview.

System 2, on the other hand, is required for you to solve 18/2 + 4. System 2 is needed for counter factual thinking, figuring out puzzles and holding on to doubts and ambiguity; knowing that either of two, mutually exclusive ideas may be true but that we don’t or can’t know which. System 2 is the way we process the counter intuitive.

System 1 is where our biases live. It is, arguably the true “you”. It’s your fallback position, how you respond under pressure or when put on the spot. The reaction you have before you’re even fully aware of what it is you’re reacting to. It cannot be changed with abstract concepts. These can only be handled by System 2. Therefore, you will find that any functions of System 1, including our biases, cannot easily be swayed by classroom based, theory centric, statistical, conceptional learning. System 1 is where the abstract and counter intuitive goes to die. This is why, as we found earlier, you can both “know” that the vast majority of people in a crowd would not stop to help someone who falls over and “know” that you and all your friends would.

Most of the things we have to actively teach people are, at least in large part, counterintuitive.

If they were entirely intuitive we wouldn’t need to teach them (consider that children learn language instinctively)! It should be obvious, therefore, that it is not good enough to teach something in a classroom and have someone take a test if the aim is to bring about a change in behaviour in the world beyond the classroom because our behaviour is usually driven by System 1, the intuitive system. System 1 doesn’t learn from books or sit exams. In order to alter System 1’s biases and instincts you need real world experience.

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” C.S. Lewis

If you’re training or teaching people and expect that training or teaching to carry over into how they work or how they live, the lessons can’t end at the classroom door. Nor can they end with homework and essay writing. Any new knowledge about the world that’s taken in by the analytical System 2 must be learned again, a second time, by the intuitive System 1 – that means learning by doing. Your classroom has to extend to the environments in which people work and live, and lessons must be intrinsic to daily activity. Only then can we bring our biases in line with what we know in our higher minds. Only then can learning, become truly knowing and, finally, become being.


This is a guest post by Aran Rees who works for Fujitsu; a 100%Open client. These views are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.


  1. Exceedingly valuable insight for those of us seeking to impart new methods and information to our workforce. It clearly reinforces the need for
    limiting classroom learning and focusing instead on hands on activity with new forms of testing the effectiveness of that learning.

  2. Interesting article. Certainly has a good (but rather obvious — to practitioners in education at least) point in extending the learning experience beyond the classroom.

    Not sure, though, if I would agree with every part of the ‘scientific basis’ you base it on, for example how far statistic data can serve as an indicator for individual behavior.

    One thing, however, I can say for sure: I spotted the ‘this’ instantly …

    My point here: general ‘rules’ are fine and certainly important, for example to organize a course, curriculum, or anything involving addressing bigger groups of people for that matter. But it always must be questioned in favor for the individual.

    Enno Hyttrek
    Course Director
    L’Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, China Campus

  3. It’s probably very uncool to comment on a blog post of your own but here goes anyway!

    I wanted to note that, since writing this, I’ve come across a talk by Tony Robinson about how emotions drive behaviour and I think that idea comes at this from a different and complimentary direction.

    When most people think of their emotions they attach them to personal experiences. Very few of us acquire a deep, burning passion for something through reading a book! In the same way that real life experiences can help change your model of the world, they also give you the emotional push to really bring about a change in the world.

    So, in this way, you can think of the real world classroom as a place where you learn with your heart.

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