‘A future more discerning’: A tale of two systems

‘A future more discerning’: A tale of two systems

Mr Stephen Woods, Director of English

I really like our school song, for two reasons. The first of these is its inherent quirkiness; it’s a jaunty and original tune, not your run-of-the-mill rewording of a familiar anthem.  It starts with gusto, proceeds stridently, and ends emphatically. The tempo is brisk, and I get left behind. I belong to that half of the world’s population who come in half way through the line of a song anyway, so I have no chance with ‘Nil Sine Labore’. One of the line endings I do better is ‘a future more discerning’ which I like to do with a bit of a trombone-ey effect (a musical colleague tells me this is called ‘portamento’). The other, more edifying reason I like that line, is its use of ‘discerning’. It is why and how we inculcate and foster discernment that has had me thinking of late.

It’s because I’m an English teacher that this particular word stands out. Those of you who know the school song might wonder why I’m not transported instead by its avian metaphors of spreading wings and fledgling talents. The prosaic truth is that when it is not appearing in a cameo in our school song, ‘discerning’ is the starring adjective in the ‘A’ standard in the Senior English Syllabus. To receive an A, Year 11 and 12 students of English in this state (everyone is graded against the same descriptors) have to show in their written and spoken work, things such as ‘discerning use of a wide range of apt vocabulary for specific purposes’; ‘discerning selection, organisation and synthesis of relevant and substantive subject matter’; and ‘discerning use of aesthetic features to achieve specific purposes’. If august institutions like our school and the QSA see discernment as valuable, it is worth considering what exactly it is and how it can be fostered. School obviously plays a crucial role in helping young adults emerge from their choice-sheltered early years, to the judicious exercise of their (young) adult agency.

‘Discernment’ seems to me more apt than its closest synonyms – ‘discrimination’ is ambiguous; ‘acumen’ is always associated with business; and ‘perspicacity’ is just showing off. What they all denote, however, is the ability to look at options, judge their worth and, most importantly, to make a judicious choice. Anyone who has selected a tertiary course, a career, a house to buy, a life partner, or even one of the countless versions of milk available at the supermarket, knows just how useful discernment can be. Those of us who have been less-than-discerning in those choices will understand this all the more keenly. The standard western model has, since the Greeks, told us that good decisions are made rationally, and bad ones when we follow our emotions. But the evidence of recent psychology, economic theory, and the nascent field of neuroscience suggests otherwise. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman goes so far as to describe our logical brain as ‘the supporting character who believes herself to be the hero’ (p. 31).

To use Kahneman’s rather functional labels, our brain’s System 1 is the automatic, always-on, involuntary, intuitive, experiential, emotional system, while System 2 runs effortful conscious deliberation, logic, working memory, and calculation. In teens, ‘the emotional brains are working at full throttle, (while) the mental muscles that check these emotions are still being built’ (Lehrer p. 114).  Their System 2s have not yet caught up to their System 1s.  But the problem is exacerbated because System 1 operates on the storehouse of dopamine-flavoured emotional pathways we build through trial and error.  Adolescents do not yet have a full storehouse of such emotional cues. We give the girls in the Senior School a range of ‘free’ choices to make – a poem to analyse; Hamlet theme to reflect on; or ethical topic on which to write a persuasive speech. For many of our girls, this choice-driven phase is the most trying of the entire task, while for others the distress is stronger in the editing phase, when they are forced to make discerning choices about which two of their poem’s five juicy metaphors they should focus on; which five of their eight minutes worth of speech they should keep; or whether to refer to Hamlet as the ‘eponymous’ or ‘titular’ hero (I wish they faced that last dilemma).  The girls’ System 1s haven’t had enough experience of these tasks to develop intuition, and their liminal System 2s have a tendency to ‘choke’ when overloaded.

So why do we subject the girls to choice-making for which they are ill-equipped? It is not, as some girls would have it, because English teachers are sadists (this is beside the point). The emotional stress of a forced choice, and the pleasure or pain of choosing well or badly, is crucial to the development of discernment. The disappointment of a teacherly ‘No, there isn’t enough to discuss in that poem’, or the relief of a ‘Good choice, there’s plenty to say about dissembling in the play’, is stored in the emotional repository of System 1. We feel such feedback viscerally, indeed chemically, and with every such feeling, our ‘neurons are busy rewiring themselves, constructing a theory of what sensory cues preceded the emotions. The lesson is then committed to memory, so the next time (we) make a decision, (our) brain cells are ready’ (Lehrer p. 42).  The nexus between making bad decisions and learning is clear: ‘when denied the emotional sting of losing, (our brain) never figures out how to win’ (Lehrer p. 47), because it is our emotions that ‘turn mistakes into educational events’ (p. 249). We start saying ‘no’ in Year 8 so we can say ‘yes’ in Year 12.

For System 2 to supervise the constant activity of System 1, it needs to be left undistracted. Countless experiments (you may have watched, and were probably duped by, the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court clip) have, without exception, shown that distractions compromise our rational faculties. Subjects who are given free scope to solve a puzzle do so far more effectively than those who are given the same puzzle plus something else to think about. If, as Jonah Lehrer asserts in his helpfully-titled How We Decide, ‘the prefrontal cortex (where a lot of System 2 work is done) can handle only so much information at any one time’ (p. 160), we can assume that a growing teen PFC can handle fewer items at once than a mature one, making rational deliberation in our information-cluttered, multi-tasking 2012 world, a fragile process.

I reluctantly perform an all-too-frequent anecdotal experiment in this kind of distraction of System 2 as the girls cross Kalinga Avenue from the Boys Grammar side each morning, a crossing which any undistracted System 2 would attempt only after stopping to check over their right shoulders for cars turning into Kalinga Avenue from Gregory Terrace. Girls whose System 2s are distracted by conversations, ear buds, or misplaced confidence that few vehicles use the avenue, are far more likely to receive an admonishing (and, I hope, startling) blast of my horn as they stride obliviously into the road in front of me. Hunger, tiredness, crankiness, and overwork will also distract our System 2s from their supervisory roles. Many students work hard, but if their distracted System 2s are not in attendance, they are unlikely to be working smart.

Lehrer, Kahneman, and the economic theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have compiled between them a set of fallacies, pitfalls, or ‘heuristics’ to which we are all susceptible when we make decisions. We make poor decisions because we see causality where there is only randomness; are swayed by what we like rather than what we think; answer easier questions instead of the hard ones we are asked; extrapolate illogically from very small samples; and respond to people rather than facts. Naturally, those who would sell us things, or garner our votes, exploit these patterns to influence us to make the decision they seek.

In English, we teach these anti-discernment strategies explicitly when we study the psychology of advertising, feature articles, or polemic films. Then we train the girls to use these tactics against their audiences when they debate, devise their own advertising campaigns, or compose rhetorical speeches. In the Year 12 Persuasive Speech, for example, girls are directed to deliberately appeal to their listeners’ System 1s and to circumvent the rationality of System 2. Our hope, of course, is that the girls will make better decisions themselves because they will—having themselves used them—detect  the neural pitfalls towards which persuaders (or QCS examiners) would lead them.

The overarching principle of good decision-making seems to rest on metacognition – being aware of our own thought processes. Lehrer contends that we can all improve the decisions we make by ‘be(ing) aware of the kind of decision (we) are making, and the kind of thought process it requires’ (p. 250).  He posits a tentative (neuroscience, after all, is a new science) ‘taxonomy of decision-making’ (p. 243) based on his survey of the research. To simplify a simplification, we should rely on System 2’s logic if the problem is new, as there is no System 1 emotional experience to fall back on. For complex decisions, or matters in which we feel a strong investment, we should listen to the emotional cues that our System 1 sends us. Perhaps most significantly, Lehrer argues that the certainty we seek is often illusory, because uncertainty—the ongoing ‘mental debate’ (p. 247)—is our true, default setting, and the one most likely to brook discerning choices.

By alerting our girls to these notions, and by letting them feel the joys and despondencies of choices good and bad, we are doing something (even) more important than setting them up for astute choice of metaphors for analysis. We are training the complementary systems that they will each need to shape their own ‘future(s) more discerning’.



Lehrer, J. (2009). How We Decide. New York; Houghton-Mifflin.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London; Allen Lane.

Thaler, R., and Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. London; Penguin.

Salecl, R. (2010). Choice. London; Profile.


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