I am presently reading Daniel Kahneman’s engaging book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics (!) for his collaborative work with Amos Tversky that helped to develop the field of behavioral economics, gained notice primarily for his work on understanding the kind of biased (and often incorrect) decisions toward which we gravitate.  In this book he draws a more synthetic and accessible picture of how we think.

In sum, he simplifies our thinking processes into two “systems.”  System 1 is our default, intuitive system – it allows us to make decisions with little or no effort.  System 2 is our more deliberate, focused way of thinking, which we consciously engage in order to solve problems too difficult for System 1.  This is certainly a simplification of thinking, but it is not entirely a heuristic.  When System 2 is engaged, there are measurable physiological changes, including a rise in pulse and dilation of the pupils.    The book describes these two systems but, more importantly, elaborates on how they work and their ramifications.

I will most likely write a few posts on this book, but I am now thinking about how  educators in higher education might maximally exploit these findings in a classroom in order to fool increase student learning.  Right now I am intrigued by the possibility of using a pre-class audio/visual presentation.  That is, students walk into the classroom and encounter a loop of a series of slides and background music.  The purpose, of course, is to put them “in the mood” to learn.

This, though, is where it gets interesting.  Because System 1 is lazy and works with the information that is easily at hand, it is very susceptible to “priming.”  A slide show thus might include technical vocabulary.  When we actually discuss that vocabulary later in class, there should be some increased degree of recognition.  A well-designed set of slides could thus prime students for the learning to come.

In addition to priming, the music sets the mood.  My classroom is generally discussion centered; it is a System 2 kind of place.  For discussions to work, students must be thinking rigorously, but they must also feel comfortable.  Here, then, is my conundrum.  Dissonance activates System 2.  Nice, easy, listening is System 1 music: “all is fine around me, there is no need to think too hard about anything.”  On the other hand, I am sure that if I were to open class with a track from Metallica, it would leave many students (but certainly me) grumpy and combative.  So here is where I turn to you, reader: What music in particular would you suggest that I play in my classes (now entirely putting aside the actual subject of those classes) to achieve these goals?