The bias in learning – and vice versa

If there’s one thing us social constructivists have learned, it’s that learning is not good. Necessarily. We do so love to claim that it is though – both directly and indirectly, explicitly and implicitly. We like to overlook that learning is a function of bias also. And vice versa to be fair. Whilst each of these words has an innate (well, formed but fairly uniform) association of positivity or negativity, they are both, both. You might even say that they are two sides of the same coin.

Jonathan Zerzan, an anarchist philosopher, similarly argues that technology is generally seen as neutral. As a tool. A function. It is therefore impossible for us to see it, as a whole, as a movement, as something that could be good or bad. And so we don’t question it as much as we should. It’s in this attribution of moral value that I wish to paddle.

If your social group influences you to be less lazy, more committed to work or education or to being kinder, that’s a bias. You have been biased. It may even lead to you being reinforcing that bias with others. Exchange bias for learning in those sentences and – grammatical awkwardness aside – they still work.

Manipulation and deceit are similarly attributed. But what is management if not manipulating someone’s behaviour? What is maintaining a positive outlook so as not to affect your colleagues or friends or family other than deceitful? You may well find those concepts difficult to accept, or even offensive. But from the most annoying angle possible, that reflects your (to be fair, learned) interpretations of those words.

So what am I getting at? Put simply it’s the semi-philosophical stance that nothing of this world is all good or all bad. And if it is, it isn’t for long. And so we must be wary when we attribute inherently positive or negative sentiments to words and concepts. If nothing else, we reduce their utility. But also, through this assumption, we limit our ability to see the negative in the oft presumed positive. And we miss the positive in what otherwise would be seen as negative.

If I manipulate a friend to be more open minded and forgiving towards a burgeoning romance, under what conditions/motives would that be considered a largely negative thing to do? If I maintain my own doubts about that relationship, but feel it not a situation where additional pessimism is required/balanced/fair, is that good or bad deceitful. See what I mean?

But back to learning and bias. Ultimately it isn’t the word that is good, bad, indifferent or ugly. It is largely the direction in which it travels (e.g. the progress it seeks), and the source it comes from (e.g. the motive that drives it). Much like progress. Progress towards what? And why? To what immediate satisfaction and to what long term end? All fun stuff to consider.

Dare I even try to make this relevant to the real world in any way? I’ll have a pop. When we talk about what people are learning, we refer only to the positives. Of personal growth, technical specialisation, soft skills all leading to a full and bright career. But what are the negative things we’re learning. The bad habits. The toxic cultures. The unreasonable expectations. The destructive behaviours. The things to ignore. The things to prioritise.

So when looking at someone’s behaviour or performance, as disarmingly self-critical as this may get, we have to ask where these less productive behaviours have been learned. And how we, as colleagues, are reinforcing them. With a little power comes a little responsibility. Responsibility to own up to our negative influences. To see both sides. And to see them as made from the same material. More tenuous coin references in case you weren’t following. If you want to understand someone, consider the metal that makes them, from both sides (and all the others). Consider our influence over others. Consider what people shouldn’t be learning from us, but are. To what bias we’re creating, and whether we can steer that towards the more positive side of things. Or at least try to with better odds than a simple toss of a coin.

The bias in learning – and vice versa

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