Learning in Education?

Learning is at the heart of education, or should be. Over the years, as someone who has engaged in The Science of Learning and how that can be applied to formal learning settings, I have spoken at conferences, given numerous workshops and seminars, and worked to support teachers who were in need of help. I have always been shocked at the reception to the idea of incorporating learning into teaching.

What most teachers are really looking for is a quick tip that will make their teaching easier, more dynamic, or be more popular with the students. There have been a few exceptions, but that has been my experience for many years.

Even when trying to get students to learn content for some of the standard ways they are assessed, The Science of Learning has told us much that is known about how students learn. Almost all of that research is ignored by those participating in the workshops and seminars I have run, and virtually all of it is ignored by the majority of those in mainstream education. All that is wanted is a teaching tip. There are very few who engage in trying to find out how people learn because education is all about teaching.

Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a pioneer in effective science education and past associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that although much is known (from cognitive psychology, brain science, and college classroom studies) about thinking and learning, this knowledge is almost never applied to teaching techniques.

A couple of examples demonstrate what I mean.

After a seminar, I asked a lecturer who attended several seminars that I led, “What are you going to do with the things we have been talking about here?” Her answer stunned me. It was something like, “I come to these seminars to meet my continued professional development requirements. I have no interest in what the research and evidence tell me about teaching. I worked hard to become a lecturer because that’s what I want to do. I don’t care if the students don’t learn that way. I want to lecture, so that’s what I am going to do”.

How can anyone respond to that kind of answer? I had sensed that sentiment from numerous participants over the years but never had it put quite that bluntly.

More recently I was teaching a couple of classes at a college and was trying to help the students memorize what they needed to know to pass three MCQ exams. I had no input into the curriculum and the tests were written by a team leader. As a sessional, I was hired to deliver material. I introduced a number of measures that would help the students really prepare for these exams using what I know about The Science of Learning. It was different from what they were used to and a couple of the students complained. I was called into the department head’s office and we had a talk about it. She said to me that I needed to make clear exactly what I was doing and why. I did that.

A month later, I was called in again as the same two students had complained a second time about what I was doing. Their complaint was essentially that I was not doing what everyone else was doing and they were not happy. This time, the head of the department was clearly upset. I did point out that the class average for the three classes I taught was somewhat higher than the average test scores from the other sections of the same class. She stated, rather firmly, that the college was a business and the students were customers. If the college could not attract customers, we would all lose our jobs because there would be no students to teach. Again, I heard a stunning statement as she told me that my job was not to worry about what the students learned but my job was to make them happy, so I was to teach the way everyone else was teaching. I left her office ticked off a bit and said – I guess I’ll go read the PowerPoints to the students because I can do that as well as anyone! Needless to say, I was never called back to do any more sessional work.

I realize that there are hundreds of thousands of lecturers who want nothing but a tip to make them look better because their institutions have essentially the same philosophy – make the students happy! But if I can just reach out to a few who care about their students as people and their responsibility to help their students learn, I would feel that I was making a difference. Maybe it is a time for some self-reflection where we can ask ourselves, have I ever really studied anything about The Science of Learning? What is it that I really care about, my students and their development, or how I look out there in the spotlight? That’s something that only you can answer.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?


The Value of Learning

Learning is natural. We begin to learn before we are born. The wonderment of childhood in largely because of the excitement that comes with learning. What happens to the excitement and what value do we put on learning?

In a world where we are facing problems of epic proportions (climate change, aging populations, dysfunctional democracy, uncertain energy supply, hungry mouths to feed) we need to harness the power of human creativity. I am, at heart, an optimist, (although the evidence around me would suggest I’m starry-eyed and need to wake up to reality) and I believe that we can learn how to deal with the monumental problems that face us today.

As an educator, I don’t believe that the education world is anywhere close to harnessing the power of learning. Creativity, critical thinking and analysis, and creative applications of thinking define the milestones of human progress. We live in an age when more people receive an education than ever before, and we have reaped the massive benefits that have arisen because of the massification of education at all age levels. We live in an age where information, a vital component of learning, in ubiquitous. However, we have now found ourselves in a state of defending the status quo because it has become one of the largest and most powerful cultural institutions in the world. We are expending massive energy clinging to outdated and restrictive models of education. We didn’t get where we are by refusing to change, we are here because, in the past, a few were willing to risk everything they were to change the world with new and outlandish ideas.

We need to do this again, and one of the most fundamental changes that is needed is the re-evaluation of learning.

Although there are arguments that education is already too expensive, I believe that in order to really harness the potential of the creative and learning mind, the value of learning has to be increased. I’m not talking about money (although that will be needed), I’m talking about the value we put on learning. We don’t just need to increase learning’s value, we have to really increase it.

In much of the developed world, classrooms of children, teenagers and (young) adults in formal learning environments are large and getting larger. As a result, much of our energies have been focused on making teaching more efficient, forcing conformity, and putting out a uniform product. How can we process huge numbers of minds uniformly and simultaneously when we are all unique.

If we look at our society today, while we strive for ever greater efficiencies in teaching, we find that fewer and fewer of our graduates find meaningful employment that uses the real creativity and talent that they really have. Much of what we have traditionally done as people is, due to the miracles of technology, being replaced by gadgets, mechanisms, and algorithms. Machines and technology are doing many of the jobs we have relied on, in the past, to provide meaningful employment to millions. We are on the cusp of seeing millions more displaced by ever evolving and brilliant technologies. We have found ourselves in a state of massive social and cultural upheaval, with our values anchored in a mercantilist past. A money trader is worth a million times more than a teacher. Even though money trading can (and has been – to a large extent) automated.

I would say that teaching can’t and shouldn’t be automated. Certainly, parts of education can be automated, but the real learning of complex ideas, complex information, and complex skills involved in thinking and creativity, that would really unleash the power and brilliance of individual minds must still be learned in a face to face, supportive environment with very low student/teacher ratios. Shaping and molding an individual mind to reach its full potential is a customized process that can’t be achieved using the factory methods developed early on in the massification of education.

As a society, why don’t we really value learning? With millions of people unemployed, why are we creating ever larger lecture theaters and classrooms to do nothing more than transmit information?

Would there need to be endless testing and measurement necessary if a teacher of six-year-olds had only five children to work with? If a middle-school teacher could really inspire a handful of young teenagers to love the beautiful simplicity of math (if that’s what the teens found interesting)? How enjoyable would the teaching and learning experience be in higher education if a teacher (wouldn’t be lecturers in this world) worked with a few eager students to help them learn to think and be creative as opposed to setting continuous memorization exercises for the hundreds or thousands?

If we were to revalue learning, we could provide meaningful and fulfilling careers for millions – think about how you feel inside when you see the bulb light up in one of your student’s eyes. We could harness the power of human thinking and creativity instead of churning out ever greater numbers of graduates who have learned the two most important skills we focus on in today’s world: memorization and conformity (the opposite of creativity). We are talented and brilliant people. We have been entrusted with molding the minds of the next generation. We have, in our hands, the opportunity to really make a difference today. I believe we can and will come up with solutions to the world’s most challenging problems, but not if we continue to try to address tomorrow’s world with yesterday’s methods.

Let us work together to change the world by making thinking and creativity the goal of our teaching and not just passing on information. Thinking and creativity will find solutions to the challenges we face, not ticking a box on an MCQ answer sheet, writing a single essay with no opportunity to defend arguments through a number of iterations, or presenting a single talk channeling all of their creativity into using a canned theme for impact.

We can do this.

How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?

Academic Skills: Why Should We Teach Them

In the late 90’s when the skills agenda was all the rage in the UK, I was tasked to develop a skills program. At the time they were key skills, and they were slowly transformed into employability skills. I don’t think anyone cared what they were called, they were all the same thing.

According to the skills agenda, the best way to teach the key skills was to embed skills into the curriculum for the students to acquire. As I went to workshops, seminars, conferences etc. etc. etc., I found that the number one way to meet the skills agenda was to embed the skills into the students’ classes. As a lecturer, you require the students to give a talk as an assessment in a class, and you then tick off the oral communication skill (one-off embedding). Writing an essay counts as teaching student how to write (written communication). The other, less popular, but still fashionable way to meet the agenda is to, run a key skills class for all students in their first year, and they then have the necessary skills to succeed at university (and hence, life).

Both of these approaches are phony, for entirely different reasons. Giving someone the experience of doing something once in a class (oral presentation) does not constitute teaching, and skills are, by their very definition, something that you need to initially acquire at some baseline level, and then improve on over time. With all of the skills, including the skill to think, there is no teaching, just make the students do something once and they then have it.

By the same token, having a single class in the first year that covers a wide range of skills does not mean that you are skilled at anything, it means that you have barely begun acquiring a skill at some baseline level. Nobody (except 16-year-olds) would argue that taking driver’s ed and passing a drivers test makes anyone a skilled driver. Like any skill (including academic skills), the real skill of driving is acquired over time, after having driven for years.

Skill development is something that must be explicitly taught and then practiced over and over again in a focused way. It takes time and energy. How many lecturers will tell their students that they must give an oral presentation and then wonder why they aren’t very good at it. How many classes give students the opportunity to speak (or write, or think) over and over while providing help and guidance along the way so that the students can improve. I know that you can’t because you have too much stuff to cover. How can you take the time to improve the students’ academic skills when there is just so much curriculum to cover?

How can we expect our students to learn to engage in formal operational thinking (or more colloquially, think critically) if we never teach them how? I hear it all the time that students don’t come to university properly equipped with critical thinking skills and so it is the fault of the primary and secondary school system. When it comes to formal operational thinking, the developmental stage when people’s brains reach the developmental milestone that even begins to equip them with the ability to think critically is adolescence. Even then, by grade 12, only about 60% show any sign that they are actually able to simultaneously work with multiple abstract variables. This is what formal operational thinking is, and this is what critical thinking requires.

When students enter university there is still a sizable minority of who are unable to engage in critical thinking skills because their brains have not yet reached that developmental milestone. And then, rather than taking the time to teach them how, we assess them and complain about how unprepared they are when they arrive. One of the most frequent laments is, “Why don’t we raise the admission standards so we can get students who can think?”.

As a result, we give them content to memorize. Content is easier to prepare, easier to present, easier to test, and easier to grade. Forget the skills. Skills are difficult to prepare, difficult to present, difficult to test, and difficult to grade. And besides, the students like it that way. Give them content to regurgitate, plus a minuscule twist so you can say you are not one of those who just lectures, and everyone is happy. Besides, no one really knows how to do this stuff anyway, so just let it be.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Effort in Learning

I’m disappointed to see so much effort put into making learning effortless (learning styles, cognitive enhancing drugs etc.). The most basic and critical components of learning is the laying down of memory traces. Making meaningful connections to the knowledge you already have. The act of taking information and going through the process of moving it from information to knowledge and then understanding.

Another critical component of learning involves the correct reactivation of those memory traces. If you can’t recall what you’ve learned, then you haven’t really learned it. Laying down memory traces, and strengthening them so they can be reactivated takes energy. Whenever the brain uses energy in a directive fashion effort is involved.

In fact, research into cognition clearly demonstrates that the more effort that is put into learning something, the better it will be recalled in the future. For effective learning, that effort must be in both the encoding (the learning) or the retrieval (the recall). Transferring information from sensory memory to short-term memory, to episodic memory and finally into a stable long-term memory trace is the kind of learning we are trying (or supposed to be trying) to accomplish in higher education. Bjork’s (one of the world’s leading memory researchers) Desirable Difficulties chapter provides great background reading about the work of memory in learning (that is if you are looking for real research int how people learn rather than the latest fad). The idea that we make it as easy as possible for students to learn is missing the point. Requiring them to invest energy in the process and put real effort into the process is what fosters learning.

Although this might not fit well in a world where the massification of higher education means packing them ever higher and deeper into a lecture hall for the shallow sit down, shut up, face the front while I tell you how to think type of activity that accounts for most of the teaching that takes place in higher education today.

How Could We Take Something as Natural and Wonderful as Learning and Turn it into Education?

It’s not How we do Education, it”s What we do in Education

We live in a complex world with a myriad of problems that need attention. We have what we need to seriously address them, but we have failed to develop what we most need – our human capital.

Students enter higher education by the millions with 87% wanting nothing more than a degree and we teach them how to get a degree. We teach them how to use their episodic memory in order to get through an exam. We teach them to conform to a system. We teach them how to navigate a bureaucracy. And, most importantly, we teach them how to use most of the Microsoft Office suite.

We pretend to teach them a range of skills that the world needs, but where do we teach them? Critical thinking doesn’t just happen, it has to be taught and practiced over and over, and even then, it is hard work. Public speaking isn’t taught by simply requiring a student to give a presentation in class, it needs to be taught. We know that our assumption about them knowing how to write is incorrect, but then, we don’t really teach them that either.

Conformity and bureaucratic navigation aren’t enough. The problems we face in the world today need millions of graduates who can think, not just memorize enough to tick the right box on a multiple choice answer sheet or the much more difficult fill in the blanks for the short answer exam.

By thinking, I mean:

•      a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture (Bacon 1605)

•     the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action (Paul, 1987)

•     self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way (Elder)

•     the mental processes, strategies, and representations people use to solve problems, make decisions, and learn new concepts (Sternberg, 1986, p. 3)

•     the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism (McPeck, 1981, p. 8)

•     reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1985, p. 45)

•     thinking that is goal-directed and purposive, “thinking aimed at forming a judgment,” where the thinking itself meets standards of adequacy and accuracy (Bailin et al., 1999b, p. 287)

•     judging in a reflective way what to do or what to believe (Facione, 2000, p. 61)

•     skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it 1) relies upon criteria, 2) is self-correcting, and 3) is sensitive to context (Lipman, 1988, p. 39)

•     the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome (Halpern, 1998, p. 450)

•     seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth (Willingham, 2007, p. 8).

•     purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or conceptual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Facione, 1990, p. 3)

Our own research tells us we’re failing at this. Being able to tick the right box on a multiple choice answer sheet doesn’t teach this. Writing a canned essay for a class doesn’t teach this. We know that the most effective way of teaching these vital thinking skills is through consistent, robust, and challenging academic discussion. But we don’t do it.

Instead, we pack them into increasingly larger lecture theaters – and an online learning environment has become just that – and tell them what they need to memorize in order to pass an examination.

I know that no one really does this, because everyone in higher education tells me that they do more than just teach students how to memorize enough to pass a test, but that isn’t what the evidence says. We are failing abysmally our duty to make a meaningful contribution to form a better society. All we are doing is training workers for jobs that disappeared 10 years ago, and that is if we work at a progressive institution, otherwise, we are training them for jobs that disappeared 40 years ago.

The discussion around reform in higher education is all about how we deliver or repackage what we are already doing. When are we going to begin the discussion about what it is that we are doing?

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Willful Blindness & Educational Management

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about willful blindness amongst the professoriate. Today, at the risk of some repetition, I’m going to look at the problem amongst the managers of our educational institutions.

In my a previous post, I presented the sorry state of affairs in equipping our graduates with thinking skills. The ability to engage in formal operational thinking may be inherent, but the skills necessary to use formal operational thinking must be taught. With up to 45% of our graduates unable to engage in formal operational thinking, we aren’t doing a good job of teaching it. This is what the higher in higher education stands for, higher thinking skills.

The story of Libby, Montana best illustrates the concept of willful blindness – I’ve provided a link, but reprint it here because it is important to know:

The town had a vermiculite mine in it.

Vermiculite was used for soil conditioners, to make plants grow faster and better. Vermiculite was used to insulate lofts, huge amounts of it put under the roof to keep houses warm during the long Montana winters. Vermiculite was in the playground. It was in the football ground. It was in the skating rink. What she didn’t learn until she started working this problem is vermiculite is a very toxic form of asbestos.

When she figured out the puzzle, she started telling everyone she could what had happened, what had been done to her parents and to the people that she saw on oxygen tanks at home in the afternoons. But she was really amazed. She thought, when everybody knows, they’ll want to do something, but actually nobody wanted to know.

In fact, she became so annoying as she kept insisting on telling this story to her neighbors, to her friends, to other people in the community, that eventually a bunch of them got together and they made a bumper sticker, which they proudly displayed on their cars, which said, “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana, and no, I don’t have asbestosis.”

But Gayla didn’t stop. She kept doing research.The advent of the Internet definitely helped her.

She talked to anybody she could. She argued and argued, and finally she struck lucky when a researcher came through town studying the history of mines in the area, and she told him her story, and at first, of course, like everyone, he didn’t believe her, but he went back to Seattle and he did his own research and he realized that she was right. So now she had an ally.

Nevertheless, people still didn’t want to know.

They said things like, “Well, if it were really dangerous, someone would have told us.” “If that’s really why everyone was dying, the doctors would have told us.” Some of the guys used to very heavy jobs said, “I don’t want to be a victim. I can’t possibly be a victim, and anyway, every industry has its accidents.” But still Gayla went on, and finally she succeeded in getting a federal agency to come to town and to screen the inhabitants of the town — 15,000 people — and what they discovered was that the town had a mortality rate 80 times higher than anywhere in the United States.

That was in 2002, and even at that moment, no one raised their hand to say, “Gayla, look in the playground where your grandchildren are playing. It’s lined with vermiculite.”

This wasn’t ignorance. It was willful blindness.

It is easy to say that what happened in Libby has nothing to do with higher education. Institutions ignoring the evidence about lecturing and not teaching students higher order thinking skills, and even defending their practices in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is just plain wrong, is willful blindness.

One of the management mantras that is heard over and over again is efficiency. We must strive for efficiency at all cost. Efficiency in teaching means large (or maybe small) lectures. Teaching efficiency, at an institutional level, means lecture theaters. The biggest impact and the most loudly trumpeted signs of institutional capital investment are the big beautiful atriums built to impress, followed closely by the ever larger, better-equipped lecture theaters.  The evidence tells us that around 90% of teaching in higher education is done through lectures, and a walk through almost any higher education building will affirm this through the literally hundreds of tiered teaching spaces built to direct all attention to a single focal point – the lecturer. Lectures don’t work! As Gibbs writes:

More than 700 studies (referring to Blighs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

This evidence cannot have escaped the notice of institutional management. Lectures lead to assessments that encourage cramming and the use of episodic memory as a way to get through the test. Students don’t learn to think, they learn to pass tests. With 70% of this year’s incoming cohort here for the purpose of getting a qualification so they can get a job, the game works for them.

What is the cost to our wider society of our institutional willful blindness? In Libby, Montana, the cost was real and measurable in needless lives lost. Is there a cost to society of the willful blindness effecting higher education?

I would argue that there is, and that cost is enormous. Not equipping our students with higher order thinking skills is having a devasting effect on our society. It is a cost that means that many of our societal problems don’t get addressed since the ability to fill in a multiple choice answer sheet does not equip our graduates with the ability to address them. Poverty, dealing with dementia, crime, global climate change, the lost goes on and on and a society well equipped with formal operational thinking skills (higher order thinking skills) would be a society equipped to really address these problems with the only capital that will make a difference – well developed human capital.An example of what these higher order thinking skills

An example of what these higher order thinking skills that I am talking about illustrate what I mean:

  • purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or conceptual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Facione, 1990, p. 3)

People who do not or can not engage in higher order thinking skills don’t grasp the use of evidence in argumentation. Evidence means nothing.

What do you think it was that allowed the residents of Libby to keep on denying what was happening in their town in the face of overwhelming evidence. To them, evidence means nothing!

What do you think it is that allows normal everyday people (many with higher education degrees) to keep on denying global climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence. Without higher order thinking skills, evidence means nothing!

Because of our almost exclusive focus on efficiency in teaching as best management practice, we are one of the primary contributors to this state of affairs. The collective willful blindness of higher education management (and the professoriate they represent) is costing society incalculable suffering, and there is no real end in sight.

I have looked for an enlightened institution where this is not the case and have yet to find one. If you know of one, please let me know. Somewhere there has to be an institution where teaching students to think is their primary purpose – as a reality and not just a slogan. Help me find it so we can have somewhere we can look for inspiration and guidance.

The cost of our willfully ignoring what we know to be true is beyond imagination.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?