Thought and Power

In July, I wrote about learning thresholds, and how we could use technology to define and attain learning thresholds. I was reading Diane  Halpern’s “Thought and Knowledge” yesterday, and came across a passage that explains my thinking about learning thresholds, memorization, and critical thinking. It reads:

…thought is powerful only when it can utilize a large and accurate base of knowledge (page 5).

The preceding part of that line is also important in the context of learning in today’s world “…knowledge is powerful only when it is applied appropriately”.

Never before has the world had a greater need of people who can use critical thinking skills, and never before have we had a greater paucity of critical thinking skills – when compared to the total number of ‘educated’ individuals.

The large and accurate base of knowledge has taken precedence over everything else. And, as the sheer amount of information continues to increase to amounts truly unimaginable at a human scale, the obsession with the large and accurate knowledge base threatens to overwhelm, us with multitudes of memorizers who have no concept of thinking.

My problem is not with ‘a’ large and accurate knowledge base, but with ‘the’ large and accurate knowledge base. Those charged with the preparation of the next generation of thinkers have often spent years, if not decades, accumulating and conceptualizing their sliver of the world, and are rightly called experts in their fields. However, that expertise, in no way, prepares them to teach novices how to think. And the current state of affairs in higher education doesn’t allow for subject experts to become learning experts. These experts who focus on more and more information,with more and more classes, programmes, degree schemes, areas of study focus so intently on their field of study (as they are rewarded to do) that they have no conception of what the problem is. Except that they know that their students are not becoming the experts they think they are training them to be.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the recent findings that over 95% of university leaders thought their graduates were well prepared for the world of work, while about than 10% of business leaders agreed (see below). We are so out of touch with reality, we are rapidly losing the credibility that we are banking on to carry us through the disruptive innovation digitization has landed us in.

We can, and need to do better.

I found the evidence – and here it is:

“…(in) Inside Higher Ed‘s 2014 survey of chief academic officers, ninety-six percent said they were doing a good job – but… in a new survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders and the American public view the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans – and only 11 percent of business leaders – strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.”

Metacognitive Monitoring

Metacognitive monitoring is the ability of people to discriminate between what they know and what they don’t know. Monitoring is considered the foundational metacognitive skill, with other components of metacognition (e.g. metacognitive awareness or metacognitive strategies) being built on the basic, do you know what you know and what you don’t know.

What we have found from numerous studies, is that participants are normally very poor at judging if they know something or not. In numerous studies done in my lab, we found that incoming university students were often performing at levels just above chance when it comes to discriminating between whether they knew the information or whether they were guessing. In other words, they were very poor at their metacognitive monitoring skills (not surprising, given the memorise and regurgitate nature of standardised testing that is the core of education today).

Based on the work around the “feeling of knowing (FOK)”, we reversed the FOK paradigm, and asked people to indicate their confidence in their answers to questions after they had already answered (normal FOK asks subjects to predict how well they can recall information in the future). The question we asked was simply, how sure are you that your answer that you just gave, is correct. We took their predictions, and married them to their actual performance, and were able to devise an accurate measure of their metacognitive monitoring ability – something we have called a metacognitive index (MI).

Although many of the subjects started out with very low MI scores (often, only slightly better than chance). we wanted to know if practise with the paradigm would improve their MI scores. Through the use of reinforcement schedules for adapting their behaviour, we managed to dramatically improve their MI scores after just a few weeks (30 minutes/week for six weeks). In follow up studies, we found that this made a significant difference in their studies, as you would expect given that metacognitive monitoring is the foundational metacognitive skill.

Armed with these results, we built an app for mobile devices  (Cognaware) that both measures and develops a user’s metacognitive monitoring ability. My hope is for large numbers of people engage with the app, and to improve their metacognitive monitoring ability. Research has shown that irrational decision making is linked to metacognition, not intelligence – effecting businesses and politics in a big way. The phenomenon of politicians being able to make the same promises every few years (and then breaking them) is because of the poor metacognitive monitoring ability in the general population. If we could, somehow improve individual’s monitoring discrimination ability (MI), I believe (based on research and expertise) that it would positively effect students, business people, and democracy as a form of government (and we certainly need the last one).

Help me spread the word about Cognaware by trying out the app, sharing your experience, and talking to people about what it can do for them.

Cognaware is based on years of research exploring ways to accurately measure and develop metacognitive monitoring. Help me make a difference in other’s lives.