The role of exclusion in learning and reasoning

When we focus on learning, we usually focus on what we are including in our reasoning (learning and knowledge acquisition are often seen as similar concepts). Most often, we associate learning with gaining. Lately, I’m finding increased value in determining the role of exclusion in learning. What we choose to exclude in order to learn may provide as much information as what we actually include.

It’s commonly accepted that our learning filters through some type of framework. This framework is an aggregation of personal beliefs, experiences, existing knowledge, and emotional intelligence. As an example, (if we can briefly utilize stereotypes for illustration purposes) conservatives are usually perceived as business focused, whereas liberals are perceived as people (or social issue) focused. These political worldviews shape and influence the type of information that penetrates into our active region of thinking and deliberation.

Often, we exclude from thought those concepts which are strongly antagonistic to views we already hold. Back to the stereotypes of conservatives/liberals – when these two groups engage in dialogue, they are largely speaking past each other. Instead of embracing each other in an attempt to understand what is really being said, the debate centers on what each party has included in their thinking…while focusing on what the other party has excluded in their thinking. The conservative promotes the value of business, the liberal the value of social structures. The conservative criticizes the liberal’s lack of business focus; the liberal criticizes the conservative’s lack of social focus. We argue our points of inclusion and criticize the points of exclusion in the reasoning of others.

Similarly, we are uniquely susceptible to logical fallacies in domains in which we have strong beliefs. The stronger our beliefs, the more susceptible we are to fallacies. Moving back to politics – we are often very forgiving of errors within our personal party. We are not very compassionate to errors in “the other party”. This is particularly the case when we are espousing personal theories. When I’m discussing connectivism with colleagues, I’m aware of my willingness to forgive cognitive conflicts in my own theory. I’m much more critical of the shortcomings of behaviourism, cognitivism, or constructivism. Why is that? Why do our cognitive processes function in a domino fashion (see Ideas as Corridors)? Why is it so hard for liberals to see value in conservative views (and vice versa)?

The process of exclusion is a vital learning process. We cannot possibly consider every facet of a new idea. We exclude in order to be able to move to the point of active cognitive interaction with an idea. Exclusion occurs during the filtering process. What we choose to ignore speaks to our larger worldview (beliefs and values). When we are trying to influence the values of others (for example, in helping students learn about other cultures), we spend our time trying to get the learner to acquire new mindsets. We need to take a step back and focus on what is happening during the filtering process.

By analyzing what we exclude in our own reasoning, we are able to gain a better understand of our own learning process. It’s unrealistic to regularly evaluate our core beliefs and values, but a periodic evaluation may provide the ability for more effective learning in general. What we ignore in learning can be a valuable tool to ensure that our perspectives are properly balanced (and at minimum acknowledge the existence of other viewpoints contrary to our own). Sometimes, the ability to step out of our thought corridor, and into the corridor of an “opponent”, can lead to deep insight and understanding. Not all learning (or cognitive activity) is logical. The choice to include/exclude information may be the point were emotional intelligence exerts its greatest influence. Thoughts?

2 Responses to “The role of exclusion in learning and reasoning”

  1. Dave Lee says:

    George: I am in total agreement with you. That we don’t “know” everything our senses perceive is becoming more and more clear as the speed of information accelerates. It only makes evolutionary sense that we have developed a mechanism to filter out information that is unlikely to fit into our current knowledge base (schema). I remember being taught in school how to read newspaper headlines first and how to write a lead paragraph with all the key facts when I worked for the school newspaper. The reason? So readers could skim the paper and decided that they wanted to read and what they didn’t. What is RSS if not the latest in this journalistic evolutionary imperative?
    Both the multiple intelligences community and the individual learning styles community discuss not only the power of knowing and using your natural learning capabilities, but they also point to the gains that can come from flexing to utilize other styles. While difficult, because it goes against our nature, becoming facile in another style or intelligence can open vast new opportunities. We immediately are percieved as compassionate and empathetic by those who are native to our newly learned style. For instance, if you speak Mandarin as a second language, you’ve probably seen the reaction of native speakers when you use their language rather than English to communicate. Often, you’ve made a new friend!
    I’m curious if there is any research that as been done on the role of exclusion or the power of consciously setting aside our normal filters to include information we’ve previously excluded. I’ll stop for now (and probably blog on further on my blog), but you really got me thinking, George. Thanks!

  2. Wayne Batchelder says:

    A very interesting concept that we learn from our exclusions. I identify with the awareness of my “filters” that I approach the world with, and suggest that we can learn to be even more open to the truths of any level of thought be it “conservative/liberal” or any other diacotomy. I would refer you to the work of Ken Wilber whose “integral approach” is a way of seeing that all the various “levels” of human consciousness, and stages in which we are experiencing, are in fact necessary and important to our evolution. When you suggest that “the power of consciously setting aside our normal filters to include information we’ve previously excluded”, you are getting very integral. While not everything is truth, there is often a lot of truth in some one or some position or state that we “disagree” with, and we tend to shut them out, rather than see what truth may be present. It is this type of acceptance that allows us to integrate all that is meaning in human experience, and not only that which we have so carefully filtered in or out!