Yanny and Laurel Have Something To Tell Us

By Matt Cohn, Test Prep and Academic Tutor

I love memes. I can sit in bed for an hour scrolling through memes if I’m not careful. But one particular recent meme caught my attention because it can serve as a meaningful reminder of two lessons that perhaps we’ve all learned, but we also too often forget.

Maybe you’ve already heard of Yanny vs. Laurel; take a moment to check it out here if you haven’t already. (By the way, ask any young person “Yanny or Laurel?” with no context or introduction and I guarantee they’ll have an answer for you. One reason I love memes: we’re all in on the joke!)

Lesson #1: We perceive things differently. I’m not talking about our thoughts; I’m talking about the actual way our brains receive signals. This is even more true with young people whose brains are still developing. If you don’t see, hear, or feel things the same way, it might be that you literally don’t see, hear, or feel things the same way!

There’s another clip I enjoy even more than Laurel vs. Yanny: brainstorm vs. green needle. Try it here: think “brainstorm” the first couple times you listen, then think “green needle” the next couple times. Or vice versa, because it doesn’t matter: whatever you think about, you’ll hear!

Lesson #2: Expectations shape reality. We are not objective processors of information, and we are more likely to experience whatever we expect to experience.

Imagine you’re a history teacher and one of your best students asks you what caused the Civil War. Your expectation is that this student does the reading and asks good questions; surely she wants additional insight and the “real story” beyond just what the textbook says. But what if a D student asked the exact same question? You might reply by asking if he’s read the book, expecting that he’s only asking because he hasn’t.

Are your expectations wrong? Not necessarily! But knowing that your expectations guide your responses—consciously or subconsciously—is actually a pretty big deal in terms of treating each student fairly and helpfully. And it’s not just teachers whose experience of reality is shaped by expectations. What about a student who walks into class expecting it to be boring, or believing that the teacher doesn’t like him? His experience that the class is boring, or that the teacher really doesn’t like him, is not purely an objective one—and we know how many students walk into school this way, unfortunately!

There are plenty of ways to put these ideas into practice. Hypothetically:

Student: “Ms. K hates me.”
Adult: “What makes you think that?”
Student: ”She always puts notes on my papers about every little thing I did wrong.”
Adult: “Okay. Maybe she does that because she hates you. What are three other reasons she might do it?”
Student: “My papers suck. She thinks I’m supposed to be perfect. She nitpicks.”
Adult: “Okay. Your papers aren’t great, she thinks you can do better, and she wants you to know how.”
Student: “I don’t know.”
Adult: “Maybe you’re right. But assume for a minute that she actually likes you and thinks you are very intelligent. You know this for one-hundred percent certain. Then what would you think about all those comments?”
Student: “That she’s trying to get me to do better. But she’s not.”
Adult: “It sounds like we expect her to be mean, then it seems like she hates you. If we expect her to be helpful, then it seems like she likes you. Do you see what I see?”

I’m not claiming that one conversation will change anything—or even that it won’t turn into an argument! But I do claim that having more awareness of how our expectations guide our experiences of our world is pretty darn important, as much in education as anywhere else.

Matt Cohn has 14 years of experience teaching and tutoring high school students, ranging from SAT and ACT prep to teaching AP Psychology in a classroom setting. For more information on his practice, visit baytutoring.com.