Retrospective on Teaching Rationality Workshops

post by Neel Nanda · 2021-01-03T17:15:06.154Z · EA · GW · 7 comments


  Teaching Philosophy
  Doing These Yourself
  Appendix A: Lesson Content Continued
    Good Habits
    Useful Systems
  Appendix B: Highlighted Testimonials Continued

TL;DR: I organised a series of afternoon applied rationality workshops for the Cambridge Effective Altruism group based on some core CFAR classes. These went much better than I expected them to, and seem to have added long-term value to participants. My goal in this post is to share my resources and lesson plans, my thoughts on teaching applied rationality well, my attempts to distill the concepts into key ideas & mental habits, and to convince other people to organise similar workshops!

(Disclaimer: This was inspired by CFAR material, but is very much all my interpretation and framings. Any problems with the material are likely from me, not CFAR)


I went to a Centre For Applied Rationality (CFAR) workshop last year and found this a really valuable experience. I especially found that a few techniques stuck well with me and became valuable parts of how I thought. So, to help consolidate these and to share them with others, I organised some afternoon workshops for the Cambridge EA group based on my favourite classes. I think these were extremely successful and added more value than I expected to the participants. So this post is my attempt to write up a retrospective on the workshops, what I think was valuable about them, and what I learned from them.

I taught four workshops:

The format was fairly different from the standard CFAR workshop (90 minute afternoon workshops every 2 weeks, rather than an intense 4 day workshop), which I expected to make it much harder to have an impact. But, based on a followup 2-3 months later with participants, I found that some insights had stuck, and were being used regularly. A significant component of this was that I focused on distilling the techniques down to the key ideas, and useful mental habits. These seemed to stick well with some people, without requiring much followup effort.

Overall, I feel very happy with the impact, and I think afternoon classes are low cost to run (and seem to transfer acceptably to remote). I don’t think a CFAR-style framing of rationality resonates with everybody, but there are enough people who found it high value that I think this was super valuable on average. So I would be very excited to see more people try to run classes like these! 

I’d be especially excited to see more EA student groups running them I expect improving the long-term effectiveness of young EAs to be very high leverage, and a significant way for a local group to add value. I’d also expect it to be valuable to the organisers, I found writing and running these workshops extremely helpful for understanding the ideas more deeply myself, and for improving at teaching! And I’ve found myself applying these ideas much more widely in my life.


I have a few different goals with this post. As a result this post ended being pretty long, so I’ve tried to write each section to be self-contained, and to indicate which sections different people might find interesting:



Format: These were 90 minute afternoon classes on weekends, mostly aimed at student EAs (late teens/early twenties). The target audience were people with a prior interest in EA, rationality and optimising their life, but without much specific experience of CFAR techniques. 

The following is a rough summary of the key takeaways and structure of my productive disagreements workshop (based on CFAR’s Double Crux class). I’ve tried to go into detail on Pedagogical-Content Knowledge (PCK): knowledge about the topic, how students tend to engage with it, and how to teach it well. Eg examples that worked well, common misconceptions, subtle nuances to emphasise, etc. I think PCK is really useful to teach the classes well, but also very useful to understand the ideas more deeply yourself, even if you don’t intend to teach them. In the interests of space, I’ve put similar sections for my workshops on planning, habits and systems in Appendix A [EA · GW].

I tried to heavily frame each workshop around building mental habits and reflexes. Ie, rather than the point being to learn a long, effortful algorithm, breaking the algorithm into bite-sized steps, learning the cues for when each step is relevant, and learning to bring them up in the moment. I think this is a skill best trained with TAPs. And based on the long-term feedback, this was an extremely successful approach! Few participants put in much effort to practice the techniques, but several managed to absorb these mental habits


People generally enjoyed the workshops, and when asked immediately afterwards gave highly positive feedback. I think the main source of impact is whether people absorb these techniques in the long-term, so I followed up 2-3 months after the workshops, and asked for qualitative feedback on how well the techniques had stuck. I heard back from about 85% of participants. 

My best attempt to summarise this data was to loosely categorise people into neutral (no real impact), moderate successes (some long-term benefit) and strong successes (significant long-term benefit, regularly use the ideas in daily life). If you want to try analysing the feedback yourself, you can see my anonymised summaries of all testimonials

Two highlighted testimonials from the productive disagreements workshop that I’m particularly excited about:

In the interests of space, I give some highlights of the testimonials I am most excited about for the other workshops in Appendix B [LW · GW]. I think reading things like this is most interesting for gauging the impact of teaching rationality in this format. But I also find that seeing how other people engage with techniques in practice can help me understand them more deeply myself, and help me see how to put them into practice

My prior was that short, one-off classes would not have any noticeable long-term impact, because they would be too short and easily forgotten, and not have a surrounding context of self-improvement to reinforce the ideas and get people to practice. Seeing this long-term feedback has strongly updated me towards thinking these kinds of workshops are valuable. The workshops didn’t have a significant long-term impact on most attendees, but had an impact on enough attendees that it seems extremely worth the total time investment to run and attend them. 

I expect that certain kinds of people will get much more benefit from these workshops than others, and I had the useful filters of:

I expect these filters significantly increased expected benefit

I framed each workshop around a series of Trigger Action Pattern-style mental habits, eg “when I notice I am confused about what somebody is saying -> try paraphrasing it back to them”. I think this worked extremely well, and created a significant amount of the value of these workshops. A lot of the most successful feedback is people for whom these habits stuck, and are now regularly used. As far as I can tell, people didn’t put significant effort into deliberately retaining these habits, they just made intuitive sense and stuck. I am very pleasantly surprised that they stuck this easily. My rough model for this is that people remembered and used the habit shortly after the workshop, found it useful, and this reinforcement kept happening until the habit stuck. 

One major weakness is that for the more practical workshops, people rarely put in meaningful effort to practice or retain the techniques after the workshop. Eg, in the systemisation workshop, I had participants design and implement a system in the workshop. Many found this useful, and had the system stick, but far fewer applied the ideas to design more systems afterwards. One guess for addressing this would be to have follow-up workshops entirely focused on applying and practising the techniques, as a form of group accountability. I’d be extremely interested in hearing any other ideas for addressing this problem!

In hindsight, I think most of the value of the workshops came from people doing exercises and practising the ideas, and less so from the content and theory. In future, I’d shift emphasis to spend less time talking, and spend more time on the exercises. Though I think there is still significant benefit to spending some time on theory, and trying to articulate the mindset behind why the techniques make sense and are useful.

Teaching Philosophy

I think teaching is an extremely important skill, and teaching skill and philosophy is responsible for a lot of the variance in how well people learn, so it’s something I try to think about a lot. In this section, I’m going to try to summarise my thoughts on teaching as relevant to applied rationality. If you’re interested, I go into a lot more detail on my thoughts on teaching generally in this blog post

One of the most important parts of my teaching philosophy is that learning is a process of information compression. We take in far more information than we retain. From a 90 minute workshop, most people will retain a few key points tops. This is important, because it means that I should be trying to choose those key points, and shaping the lesson around them. Fundamentally, the entire point of the workshop is to give context and reinforcement to those key points, everything else is irrelevant. Further, extracting those key points from a stream of information is significant intellectual labour. The student doesn’t know what is and is not important, and it takes effort to identify this, effort taken away from actually learning. Thus, as the teacher who does know what is and is not important, my role is to make it as easy as possible to identify these key points. Some strategies to achieve this:

Some ideas for teaching applied rationality specifically:

Doing These Yourself

Overall, I think these workshops were a major success at actually conveying the techniques to the audience. I’ve gotten a lot of value from these ideas in my personal life, empirically they’re teachable, and I’d be excited about seeing these insights spreading and helping others to become more effective! I also found teaching these to be valuable personally, because it significantly clarified the ideas in my head. I’ve noticed myself using the ideas much more often in normal life as a result.

My lesson plans are here. I expect these to work best as a source to ad-lib from and adapt, rather than to follow perfectly, but I designed them to be detailed and thorough, so I hope they can save a significant amount of work! EA Stanford have run two of these workshops based on my lesson plans, and seemed to think it went well and was much lower effort to run than if writing workshops from scratch.

If you want to run one of these, to prepare, I would recommend making a copy of these notes, reading through in detail, and editing it to be in your voice. Eg, noticing the framings you dislike and changing them, replacing my examples with ones you relate with, noticing the points you don’t understand and cutting or thinking more about them. I think it’s important to understand what’s in the plan and to have it be something that makes sense to you, before trying to teach it to others. I generally err on the side of putting too much content into lesson plans, and cutting things when presenting (or overrunning, or both). I’d recommend cutting the parts of the lesson that don’t seem as interesting or exciting to you.

I’d be especially excited to see the productive disagreements workshop done in EA groups. To me, a key part of EA culture is having good epistemics - taking other people’s ideas seriously, trying to understand them, and being open to changing your mind. But I rarely see this norm explicitly set or taught, it seems more something that people are either already on board with, or pick up by osmosis. And I’m excited about seeing attempts to explicitly set culture.

Further thoughts on how to actually do this:


Overall, I think this was an excellent experiment! These ideas have become a powerful part of my mental toolkit, and I’ve been able to transfer them to others. My priors were against them being transferrable in this kind of context, but I’ve strongly updated in favour after doing long-term followups

I’d be very excited to see other local groups trying to run these, and I hope my lesson plans can save some effort there. If you plan on organising these, I’d be very happy to chat and give any advice! Please feel totally free to reach out, and I’d be extremely interested in hearing how it goes if anybody does try them. My email is


Thanks to all of the many people who took the time to give feedback on the draft! Especially Dan Keys, Luca Righetti, Nora Ammann and Nathan Young, who helped make this significantly better. And thanks to CFAR for introducing me to these ideas in the first place! A year on, I've gotten a ton of value from my workshop

Appendix A: Lesson Content Continued

The continuation of the content section for my workshops on planning, habits and systems. I summarise the motivation, key takeaways and structure of the workshop, and try to give Pedagogical-Content Knowledge - common misconceptions and specific insights for teaching the ideas well.

Effective Planning

Building Good Habits

Building Useful Systems

Appendix B: Highlighted Testimonials Continued

Some more examples of the testimonials I’m most excited about from the other 3 workshops:


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by meerpirat · 2021-01-04T20:44:18.540Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Wow, really solid work, thanks for sharing! I‘m really impressed how systematically and intentionally you went about this. I vaguely remember me and us much more on the half-assing and blindly copying end of the spectrum when we organized our rationality and EA workshops.

Replies from: Neel Nanda
comment by Neel Nanda · 2021-01-05T07:30:57.037Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Aww, thanks! What kinds of stuff did you do when organising rationality workshops?

Replies from: meerpirat
comment by meerpirat · 2021-01-05T08:19:33.196Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I and two or three others also went to a CfAR workshop, so mostly things from there. Productive disagreements and Hamming circles, where people split in small groups and confidentially talk about their biggest personal bottlenecks, stick out as most valuable in memory right now. Oh, and I remember people from a later iteration finding the bug hunt from the Hammertime Sequence most valuable, where people are guided to find things in their lives that could use improvement. I remember that this was a minor mind-blow for one person. [LW · GW]

comment by EricHerboso · 2021-01-04T05:18:51.728Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For the Effective Planning section, when trying to get across the idea of a Murphyjitsu inner sim, you explained the process by using visualizations. "Imagine biting into this apple. ... Picture a good friend, and imagine talking to them. This is something that's familiar, that you're good at."

I, as well as 3% of the population, have a condition called aphantasia where visualizing a scene like this is impossible for us to do. Another 5-10% of the population have "poor" phantasia; they can imagine a scene like this, but not well at all, and certainly not in a way that they would describe as "something that's familiar" or that they are at all good at.

However, that doesn't stop us from being able to use a Murphyjitsu inner sim. I cannot visualize in the way that your lesson plan asks — I can't visualize the arc of a ball I intend to throw; I can't visualize pouring a bucket of water over a friend's head — and yet the thing that you're trying to teach here is accessible to me. I can know what my friend would do if I poured water over their head and I know where the ball will go if I do throw it.

I'm bringing this up because the language that you're using in this section of the lesson plan excludes people with aphantasia and may make it unnecessarily difficult for people with poor phantasia, even though people with aphantasia like me are perfectly capable of doing the intended ultimate lesson of querying what was likely to have gone wrong when we imagine that a plan has failed. We just can't do it by "making it sensory", as you put it in your lesson plan. 

You already covered this under your general recommendation to avoid the typical mind fallacy, so I'm sure that if you knew someone in your workshop had aphantasia you'd do your best to work around it. However, I wanted to highlight this atypical mind capability because of the potentially surprising fact that most people with aphantasia do not realize that they have it nor that it is unusual to be unable to visualize.

For people with poor phantasia that think that everyone else also has a similar mind, they will take your lesson instructions to imagine these things as an instruction to keep a running list in their head of all these numerous qualities (like how the apple tastes, listing what they see, whether it is hot or cold, whether there's something that they should hear), and this is the exact opposite of what you're trying to get across. While you're looking to get them to use imagination as a way of grasping a situation more easily, your instructions to visualize may inadvertently cause them to instead increase their cognitive load in trying to keep track of all the visualized elements. You say "Modeling a thrown ball requires a lot of effort, algebra, etc.", but asking people with aphantasia to notice objects, sounds, etc. in their imagination also requires a lot of effort, because they imagine in terms of lists, not in terms of a visual scene. This isn't a problem if they know they have aphantasia (because they'll correct for it without you having to say anything), but since most people with aphantasia don't even know that they have aphantasia, they will misunderstand your instructions and end up doing the opposite of what you're intending them to do here.

(For years when others tried to help me meditate by visualizing a scene that they narrated, I would experience a huge cognitive load of keeping track of all those imagined elements, which always kept me from being able to meditate. Counting sheep always made my mind more active, not less. It never occurred to me for 35+ years that my mind was different and that others experienced such visualizations as relaxing.)

An easy fix for this is to include a single line in the lesson plan about how different people visualize differently, and just explicitly say that if you have poor visualization abilities, then they shouldn't try to visualize in a way that makes it more difficult for them.

Replies from: Neel Nanda
comment by Neel Nanda · 2021-01-05T07:34:15.700Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Huh, that completely didn't occur to me. Thanks a lot for pointing it out!

Do you think the easy fix you mentioned of "people engage differently with this kind of thing, and some people struggle with sensory detail, feel free to skip the sensory detail step if that doesn't resonate" would be sufficient? Or does it seem important to replace it with a more substantial alternative?

Also, I'm curious, does aphantasia specifically make it hard to simulate visual stimuli? Or is it anything sensory? Eg, can you imagine sounds or textures?

Replies from: EricHerboso
comment by EricHerboso · 2021-01-05T15:00:54.741Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The problem isn't that people with aphantasia can't visualize; it's that these people are generally unaware that they have it in the first place. (People who know they have it will correct for it in the same way that handicapped people will automatically correct for 'ableist' language.) Because of this, I'm not sure what kind of notice would suffice. I think saying to skip the sensory detail step if it doesn't resonate may work for people with poor phantasia; but for pure aphants like me, the phrase "struggle with sensory detail" won't pattern match to what's going on in my head. If you had asked me five years ago whether I struggled with sensory detail, I would have said that I didn't, because I didn't know that visual mental imagery was possible at all, and I would have thought that I had a lot of practice with memorizing elements in a scene.

However, people with aphantasia only take up 1-3% of the population. The 10% figure I cited earlier was for people who merely have poor phantasia: their visual mental imagery exists but it is cloudy, in black and white, and/or is generally not suitable for close inspection. For people with poor phantasia, I think the proposed sentence will work well, as they'll certainly realize that they "struggle with sensory detail".

Regarding the other senses, I can only really speak for myself. I have no visual mental imagery at all, nor can I simulate textures or smells in my mind's 'eye'.  Regarding sound, I can kind of hear auditory mental imagery, but not well at all. (If you tell me to imagine a cow's moo, I can think "moo", but can't reproduce a cow's belt in my head. If told to imagine raindrops, I can think "pitter-pat", but not hear the sound. If told to remember a song, I can runback individual series of notes, but can't hear the combination of several instruments.)

Anecdotally, I've heard many in r/aphantasia and elsewhere report similar lacks, but it is definitely not universal. A stickied post there claims that half of people with aphantasia report "being unable to simulate any of the 5 [sic] senses", but it apparently came from a reddit survey and has no other source. Wikipedia says that "many people with aphantasia also report an inability to recall sounds, smells, or sensations of touch", but they don't give a citation for this. This may be because the term "aphantasia" was only just coined in 2015 and there may not have been any proper studies yet that have focused on how many people lack mental imagery of senses other than sight.

Regarding whether the sentence will suffice, I say yes. It may exclude full aphants who don't know that others have visual imagery, but this is a very small part of the population. The sentence will successfully help people with poor phantasia, which is a far more significant portion of the population, so I think it is sufficient.

comment by EricHerboso · 2021-01-05T15:06:23.167Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I anticipate these lesson plans being very useful! Thank you for sharing.

My siblings (aged 13, 17, & 25) and I have a twice-yearly event where I will pick a topic and teach them about it in depth. I plan to use one of these lesson plans in my next meeting with them this summer.