Two young daughters hover nearby as their mother carries her newborn infant.  Precise handling techniques are used to ensure the baby’s head doesn’t fall.  One of the daughters watches, while the other doesn’t.  After suggesting each take their turns, the mother asks the watching daughter to hand the baby to the other.  What happens?  Well, hopefully in this scenario the second daughter does just fine.  Hopefully, she properly lifts the baby’s head because she’s at least watched her knowledgeable sister.  Hopefully she uses observational learning, a learning theory popularized by Albert Bandura and his bobo dolls.

That observational learning is critical in a wide variety of situations, from language, to morality, to eating with chopsticks, is widely accepted, yet as a way of actually learning it seems to often fly under the radar.  However, here I’m not talking about domains such as speech and language (where people are often advised to model the correct sounds), behavior (where experts frequently extol the virtues of modeling correct behavior), or sports or music (often taught by “watch this, then do this”), but now I’m talking about groups.

We seem to increasingly be a society of information proliferation outpacing our ability to effectively use information.  Daylight savings is just one case in point; an example of an idea that people love to criticize while ignoring how others do it.  I did find this one article examining some trials of daylight savings in other countries, which generally suggested that many (but not all) people elsewhere tend to dislike the practice.  Though I’m curious about the sentiment in other countries, with this topic as well as so many others, I don’t seem to share this curiosity with many others.

We do sometimes get bits and pieces filtered to us.  We know that some states and countries do health care well.  There have been many surveys of happiness comparing different cultures and countries.  In education, some school districts are acknowledged as being successful, although recent attempts to put numbers out there in order to enable easier comparisons, have far too often done nothing but muddle the situation, providing an excellent example of a case of information overload actually making things more difficult to understand.  How many people know how well their school is actually doing?  Why isn’t anybody talking about how hard it is to find out?

This then brings us to the opposite of observational learning – the “head in the sand” syndrome.  Observational learning works when both our curiosity and our desire to improve cause us to

ostrich head in sand
It’s a myth that ostriches hide their heads in the sand.  Don’t believe me?  You don’t have to.  You can look it up.

attend to what someone else is doing, hoping to emulate it.  The head in the sand phenomenon occurs when our fear causes us to ignore what others are doing because it might be uncomfortable.  The recent situation in Flint, Michigan, as well as the general ignoring of similar infrastructure needs throughout much of the rest of America are good examples.  And this happens as well in education.  And in health care, the environment, health and exercise, and a whole slew of subjects with potentially uncomfortable truths.

The good news is that increasingly, with so many subjects, the statistics are getting out there.  Sure, there is a distrust of the media, and of the internet, but it doesn’t take much to cross reference stats, and see who’s distorting what.  The first step often involves just the simple lifting of a head.

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