Reason and Moral Development

November 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Last week I posted about the lack of ability to engage in deductive reasoning in the general adult population. As well as the problems I highlighted there, one aspect that deserves further attention is the effect that has on moral development.

Piaget assumed that all people, when they reached adolescence, would progress naturally from his “concrete operational” stage to the “formal operational” stage of cognitive development. The formal operational stage is where we see deductive reasoning emerge. However, research since Piaget’s proposal has let us know that not all (in fact a minority) of adults reach a formal operational stage of cognitive development. This is because it does not emerge naturally, but must be taught, and in our test, test, test world of education today, there is no room for teaching students how to think.

Moral development relies directly on the ability to reason, with Kolberg’s moral development stages tied neatly to Piaget’s cognitive development stages. What this means, is that the majority of people do not move beyond a concrete operational stage of moral reasoning. Here is a table outlining the stages of moral development.


Concrete operational thinkers don’t progress beyond stage 4 in their moral development. As the next table shows, there are few adults who progress beyond Stage 4 in their moral reasoning.


Why is this a problem? If you read the description of stage four moral development, you can see that there is little thinking involved. At this stage, people simply follow the rules. Right and wrong are defined by the law, and the highest moral authority is the government of the day. Whatever laws are passed defines the morality of the day for the vast majority of people.

Think of Nazi Germany, and the laws they passed targeting a group of people. With stage four moral reasoning, because it is written in law, it is the right thing. Institutional racism or bigotry become, not only okay, but right, because they are legal. Simply looking out on the events of today, and you can see the same thing happening again, both in North America and in parts of Europe.

One of the evidences that there is a lack of reasoning ability in America today is the emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the Republican race for the Presidency. Given how politics in the USA tends to swing between parties, this means that he is likely to be the next President. He is using the same language and techniques to target and oppress Muslims in America that Hitler used on the Jews 70 years ago.

Because of the failure of education to train people to think, there is an inability to engage in moral reasoning that will stop both the current, and the onrushing atrocities that are hurtling toward us. If, what is on the horizon, actually happens, we have to face the fact that we, as educators, have been complicit in shaping the society that would allow this to happen.

As the most powerful force shaping society today, we need to do better. We need to break out of the memorize and regurgitate model of education, and teach people to think. In the age of information abundance, we don’t need to focus exclusively on content, and yet, for all the innovations in education over the past ten years, that is still our predominate model. When are we going to really engage in meaningful discussion to fix what is broken.

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The Dearth of Reason

November 20, 2015 2 comments

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.

Henry Ford

Reasoning has been divided into two basic types – inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning is universal, emerges at a very young age, and is fundamentally attuned to the structure of the brain and how memory is stored. Inductive reasoning is the emergence of a general principle from the experiences of a person. A toddler shows basic inductive reasoning when, after touching several hot surfaces, they decide that hot surfaces burn. After this, there is an almost universal reaction to telling them something is hot – they clutch one hand with the other, and with a very concerned look say “hot” (or something like that). Deductive reasoning at its best.

Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, is not natural, and must be learned. The cognitive functioning that is necessary to engage in deductive reasoning develops during adolescence –  the ability to engage in abstract thought processes. However, deductive reasoning is difficult to carry out, and normally becomes evident after formal instruction in deductive reasoning. This is the type of thinking that Henry Ford was referring to.

Unfortunately, the number of adults who ever learn to reason deductively is not high. Studies in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that as few as 40% of North American adults are unable to use deductive reasoning to solve problems and understand the world, with the ability being directly linked to educational attainment. More recent studies have suggested that the number of people who are able to engage in deductive reasoning has dropped from about 40% to as low as 20%. This is alarming for a number of reasons.

First, it demonstrates a serious shortfall in the education system. With our obsession in education for memorizing more stuff and finding the right answer, there is no room left for teaching people to think.

Why is this a problem? Obviously, with so large a proportion of the population unable to use deductive reasoning, and society is still functioning – or is it?

Being unable to use deductive reasoning means that an individual is unable to follow the logic that is used to reach a conclusion that is based on deductive reasoning. It is not that a person doesn’t want to, they are simply unable to because of a lack of training.

Why does this matter? Because there is a growing chasm between the scientific world and society in general. Most of the members of our society are cognitively unable to follow the arguments scientists use to demonstrate what they are finding, and scientists can’t understand why the members of our society just don’t look at the data and come to the same, obvious conclusions that they have. The lack of deductive reasoning means that members of society are simply unable to follow the logic, and so must turn to other sources to find out the truth.

Thing about climate change, or immunization. Within the scientific community, and among generally well educated members of society (and there is a strong correlation) who can engage in deductive reasoning, there is confusion about how there can even be a controversy. For those who can use deductive reasoning, there is no controversy. The facts speak for themselves when they are followed through the logical sequence that leads to a conclusion. The science is absolutely solid.

The lack of ability to engage in deductive reasoning for a majority of participants in a Western Democracy is problematic, to say the least.

Another reason, which will have to be dealt with in a future blog post, is the effect that the lack of deductive reasoning ability (or formal operational thinking in developmental terms) has on the development of moral reasoning.

We can do better than this – if we are willing to look closely at ourselves and embrace the necessary changes.

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Announcing QueBank

April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Last July, I posted an article about an idea I had for an open educational resource to host multiple-choice questions (MCQs). Today I have started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary to get the project up and running.

I am well aware that MCQs are not the best form of learning, however, they are an effective way to measure how well someone knows a content domain. I didn’t say understand, but simply has the content knowledge at hand. Once the content knowledge is known, a learner can begin to work with that knowledge to understand and think about the area.

I’ll post regularly during the fundraising window (open until May 15) about how the project will work, but for today, the project is launched.

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How good are these techniques?

November 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Originally posted on Scholarship of Learning:

Dunlosky et al (2013) published a brilliant paper that looked at a number of techniques that are used to learn material in an academic setting. They tested the various techniques, and produced a pretty good assessment on just how good the techniques were. The techniques ranged from the testing effect (very good technique) to highlighting what you want to remember (poor technique for learning). I have reproduced their table below for you to have a look at.

I think they might be mistaken in their rankings. This feeling is based on anecdotal experience and how often each of these techniques are used in the learning process. I think re-reading and highlighting are by far the most useful for learning – based on how often they are used as the principle method of learning :-)

The entire concept of the Scholarship of learning is based on just how wrong we are about…

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Learning for Understanding

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Originally posted on Scholarship of Learning:

The goal of learning to simply pass exams is a fairly recent phenomenon – historically, the goal of learning was so that the learners were prepared to use their knowledge in a post-learning environment to help solve problems and contribute to society. Since the need to contribute anything to society has greatly diminished, and the most pressing need to is enhance career and financial prospects, learning for performance activities (exams and assessments) has become the end goal for most learners. Earlier this week, I wrote about the performance enhancing strategy of capitalizing on state dependent learning.

However, there was a time when learning was primarily to understand the world.

When a person is learning for understanding, different strategies are needed. I often hear students bemoaning the idea that they are engaged in education for the institution to teach them to simply do something. They talk about their hate for the…

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State Dependent Learning

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Originally posted on Scholarship of Learning:

I remember how fascinating I thought the whole idea of state dependent learning was when I first heard of it as a second year undergraduate in a Cognitive Psychology class. For those of you who haven’t taken Cognitive Psychology, state dependent learning is the principle that you will remember much better if your state of recall is closely matched to your state of encoding. The example given was the memory tests given in scuba gear. When the divers learned something at the bottom of the university swimming pool, they could recall it much easier if they were tested on the information at the bottom of the pool than if they were tested on the information in a classroom sitting at desks. The take home message (at least for me as a student at the time) is that you need to study for your exams in a state as close to…

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Striving for Mediocracy

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Originally posted on Scholarship of Learning:

I was reflecting this morning on an exchange I had at a recent event I was at (teaching mini-conference at a prominent business school). I was the keynote speaker. During my talk, I asked the group if their graduates were being prepared to change the world, and the response (amidst some laughs) was along the lines of “they can barely get through their exams “.
As is usual when I speak, I talked about the quality of lectures as learning events (poorest type of learning event available). During the questions after my talk, one of the participants noted that all the other business schools she was aware of lecture exactly the same way they did at their school.
As I thought about this today, I thought, “I’ll bet that is one thought that has never entered the head of anyone who has awakened in the morning with the intention of…

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