The Upside of Irrationality for Learning

People are irrational creatures. As much as we might like to say that we always make rational decisions, this simply is not true. I’m in the middle of reading Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality, and I thought I would share some of my insights regarding how understanding people’s irrational tendencies can make us better teachers and learners.

Ariely conducted an experiment to test what he calls the IKEA effect. His hypothesis was that when people put in the effort to create things (e.g. when they put together their own IKEA furniture), they attribute more value to their creation. Without going into the details of the actual experiment, I can tell you that the IKEA effect indeed exists. Teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon by giving students more control over their learning, thus providing them with more ownership over the material.

In a separate study, Ariely also found that when people are required to spend more effort on a particular task, they attribute more value to the final product. However, if the task is tricky to a point that the person does not complete the product, then the attributed value drops to below that of an easier but finished product. This finding supports the idea that students learn best when in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). In other words, we should be aiming to provide students with tasks that are just outside the bounds of the students’ current abilities, but that can be completed with some guidance from the teacher. The amount of expected guidance from the teacher is important to consider, however, because as mentioned previously, students should still feel like they contributed significantly to the completion of the task.

These ideas about teaching are by no means revolutionary. However, I thought it was an interesting exercise to consider how people’s irrational behavior can explain why certain teaching techniques may be effective.