The Failed Promise of Technology

Why is it that technology has not revolutionized education. The promise of the decades has failed to fundamentally change education in any meaningful way. With all the educational technologies promising to change the world, I still have to agree with  William Bagley (1934) “If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young imgresdoctor fresh from John Hopkins School of Medicine, with his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor. On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys, and if by some miracle, I could secure Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, with his latest technologies and techniques of teaching,… I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.”

Why? Why? Why?

We’re coming up to almost 100 years since Bagley said this with some of the greatest technological advances in the history of the world, and we’re still here. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) would be impressed with PowerPoint and a data projector, but otherwise would be unimpressed with the way we do things in education.

With all the progress we have made in the last 150 years, where have we come (or not) with education? Lecturing (memorize and regurgitate) still comprises about 90% of the learning experiences in our institutions of higher education. The ability of our graduates to actually think barely increases in the time they are with us. We have finally entered the age of information ubiquity. Technology has emerged that has the potential to transform how we learn. And yet, here we are.

Why is it that the best we have been able to do with the promises of technology is to take the worst of our educational practices and digitize them? Why are we still training students for jobs and occupations that existed 50 years ago? No one wants to use technology to change what we are doing, we want use technology to change how we are doing what we have always done.

Why is it that the subjects that should be driving changes in the way we learn are doing so poorly. According to Arum and Roksa, education has one of the worst track records when it comes to teaching their graduates how to think. Change in the way we do things is not going to emerge from there. Psychology, where the study of how people learn has been going on for some 150 years, has a lecturing rate exactly the same as the rest of higher education. Resistance from the field is exactly the same as the resistance encountered everywhere else.

When are we going to stop for a moment of serious self-reflection? When are we going to begin to really ask the questions that will lead to something different? When are we going to actually change what we do in order to make a difference? When are we going to change our model of education from a model of information scarcity to a model of information abundance?

We all know that any time a system works for people there is massive resistance to change. The system has worked for us and so why change it.

Instead of just thinking of ourselves and basking in our own brilliant success, shouldn’t we think about our obligation to make our society a better place? Isn’t it time for us to make a transformational change that will result in transformed graduates who can transform the world? Or is this just asking too much?

I don’t believe it! We can do better! We can do this! Let’s find a leader who can take us there!

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

What is Needed for Learning to Think

There are three primary ingredients necessary to teach students how to think. They are 1) a way to motivate the students to engage in the process, 2) the ideal way for them to learn how to think, and 3) a technology that allows you to bring the other two together and scale it up to class sizes just under 100. It took some time for me to find a way to bring all three together, but I figured it out and have been teaching that way for about seven years now.

The method of teaching works when the students have a basic background in the subject. This method has worked across a variety of subjects from Learning and Education  and Social Cognition (subjects you would expect the students to love learning with the method I use), to Advanced Research Methods. When you teach students they way they learn and include for them a chance to learn how to think the results are amazing.

Some of the student comments from over the years can give you a flavor of what their experience is like (I love it, and I’m not kidding). I’ll give you a random selection from each year so you can see what they say. I promise you, I am not picking the best to impress you. This is what I hear over and over again. Students love to think, and when they get a chance, this is what they say.

I think it has given the majority of us a new perspective on the education system, giving us the opportunity to experience self-directed learning. Comparing this to other teaching methods, it seems hard to understand why methods like this aren’t used more often, especially in higher education. I don’t think I previously realised the true value of the ‘deeper learning’ which is associated with experiential learning and problem solving; whilst these don’t initially seem to apply to this module, I would argue that presenting an argument on your topic every week, and thinking creatively to comment on others’ blogs, both of which require a lot of research and a good understanding, do encourage deeper learning. (

Before beginning the (MA) degree I expected nothing more than long tedious lectures consisting of note taking and doodles, how wrong was I? Never in my four years of undergraduate study have I experienced learning in such an effective way, and dare I say it – fun! I’ve learnt more in this module that has ‘no teaching’, than I have in any other so far. My only critique of this module is that it makes going to other lectures very hard! Thank(s) so much for a great learning experience; let’s hope others adopt (this) teaching model. (

Over the past 3 years, we have been exposed to ‘traditional’ teaching environments – all of us sitting in lecture theatres, facing forward in silence, listening to the ‘expert’. What have we learnt in these environments?

What Educators Think: We have gathered a vast knowledge and understanding of the topic. We are prepared for the upcoming exam.

The Reality:   We have updated our facebook statuses. Our doodles have become more advanced. We have learnt to sleep subtly.

This module has demonstrated the success of modernised learning environments. I have learnt more across the last semester than I ever have in any other module. I am driven to learn. I am excited to read my peers’ ideas.

I have been inspired and excited by this educational module and only hope that we begin to see more flexible and student-driven programmes in the future! (

If I had to sum up this module in a single word, it would most likely be refreshing; this module has rejuvenated a part of education that I had long since forgotten, a desire to expand my knowledge for my own benefit, not just learning for the benefit of high grades.

It’s quite clear to see then that the reason this module is such a success is because it uses many concepts that provide excellent learning methods – concepts that the module actually teaches us about! It teaches us about teaching through teaching! It’s a metamodule! (

For me the most significant experience was how the module induced feelings of cooperation, with amazing support and words of encouragement off peers when performing presentations, respect from others for differing opinions and amiable responses that introduced conflicting evidence

All in all, this module has been amazing, empowering, engaging, motivational… obviously highly EDUCATIONAL… and so much more!!! (

I can honestly say I have enjoyed the module. By no means has it been an easy ride, the work load has been much more demanding as you had to produce a good standard of work on a weekly basis.  Despite the hard work, I haven’t been sat in a lecture with hundreds of others bored, frustrated and not understanding concepts being presented. Instead I have taken an interest in others work, enjoyed divulging in extra research and writing about topics that I care about. I think this is what education should strive for, a love of learning. (

The only reason people get lost in thought is because it is unfamiliar territory – This may well be the case for some people, but this module certainly has made me think, and quite a lot! (

Thank You Jesse for coming up with an original way to conduct a module, and thank you to my co-students for all the stimulating debates that have happened during this module!! (

Wow, what a journey this module has been. I really feel that I have learned more here than in any previous module. Being able to go off on research what interests you and then write up your findings as you wish really ignited an intrinsic drive to do well. As Jesse pointed out, all of our work is on the open internet, for all to see. Couple this with the fact that our class mates are all critically discussing each other’s work, and there is certainly reason to stay motivated. I agree with Rich, that to some degree I have felt like a real writer at times, and besides from all of the content knowledge that I have learned, it is certainly worth while acknowledging all of the other skills that I (as I’m sure we all have) have improved/ picked up. For one, my writing has definitely improved. Further, I am sure that our research skills have improved, having to research each week in at least one area, and more if we were to give a decent response to other people’s blogs.

Thank you Jesse for a fantastic module, I hope it is recognised as the success I see it as, and continues and progresses further. (

…other modules are boring. I have never been completely enthralled by a lecture given by the professors. Listening to the same voice and sitting in the same seat for 2 hours used to send me into the most wondrous and incredible powernaps I have thus far experienced! However this module really opens your eyes to the different possibilities and it makes you think if the other lecturers chose this approach how much more fun and learning would occur it would be insane!!! (

The method of teaching, which this module has utilized, has been extremely effective process of learning. I think I have done more external research here than any other module while at university. This is because in order to understand properly what people have been talking about each week then I have had to do my own research. This has proved to be very effective method of learning for me and I think something like this could be used in other subject to teach students in secondary schools.

I would like to thank everyone for making this module really interesting. I would also like to thank Jess in designing this novel way of learning module as this has not only been fun but have been really informative and eye opening on the field of science of education (

I’ve never read so many papers than for this module. I’ve definitely gone the extra mile with the actual writing too, trying to please the reader (although perhaps my word counts weren’t appreciated). Everyone works hard not to look an idiot in front of their peers, but more than that, they want to impress them. And this has really raised the bar for the class of work being produced. I have also learned a lot from others who have addressed questions that I never even thought of before, such as “What are we educating for?”. Awesome module… (

I don’t think the things I have picked up in this module will be forgotten and I also think I will continue to read about these issues past the module which is something I don’t usually do!

All in all, it depends upon the module organizer, we have been lucky in Jesse that he was willing to try something new; I’m sure not every member of staff would be as open to new methods of teaching and learning. (

Some of “transferable” skills I think I have developed are:

  • Flexible writing. I am now able to write more freely, before I had a tendency to fall under the word count. I now think that I am able to discuss points in more depth and draw on previous learning in my writing (I found after the first few posts blog ideas came easily to me). I will try to continue blogging to try and retain and develop this skill.
  • Review the evidence. Many of the topics I chose had unclear answer or highly differing opinions. I feel I have developing my researching skills and can review the evidence.
  • Discussion. Although this is not a specific skill I feel that I am more confident in doing so. I really enjoyed this aspect of the class. It is something that I feel that should be developed within other classes, especially the format as it allowed for freedom of expression.
  • Interest. Again not a specific skill but I before I hadn’t considered pursuing this area as a career. I have developed a passion for the subject, especially evidence-based practices and intervention within schools.


I also notice in most blogs, that we do not pitch our blogs and comments at Jesse, we pitch them at each other. This is peer learning and it just shows that we can learn a lot from each other. I’m sure Jesse has also learnt a few bits and pieces from us too.

It’s great to get an insight into what you’ve gained from this module. You’ve not shied away from difficult topics in your talks and blogs and this has been great for expanding existing knowledge and learning about new topics. It shows what a difference a open can mind can make. (

This module has definitely left me with life long skills. It has got me trying to better myself, what with being in comparison with fellow classmates/Housemates. It keeps you on your toes and makes you want to out do yourself every week.

I agree with you that this module has helped improve my writing skills as well. Being dyslexic I was very apprehensive about writing a blog each week at first. As I’m an awful speller and at times my grammar can be bad too. This has made me aware of my weaknesses in writing and I have found ways to get around this each week. (

Jesse Martin is awesome!

Oh captain, my captain!

(always wanted to say that)

Anonymous student evaluation comment

Contact me at if you want to know more about what and how I do it and both you and your students will be changed forever – I promise!

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


Disruptive Innovation in Education

Disruptive innovation, as proposed by Clayton M.Christensen, has and is occurring in higher innovation. Technology has left its mark on a number of sectors, primarily commercial, in the recent past with many of the traditional models that have served well in the past being swept away. The primary innovation that has changed so much of the world around us has been digitization. It is not that we are doing new things, it is that the way we are doing them has changed.

I think of photography as an example. While I was doing my undergraduate degree, I worked in a photo development shop – which some of you will never have seen. I was working in an innovative 1-Hour photo shop. It was amazing that you could take a roll of film with 24 pictures on it and drop it off and I would load the film into a developer where it would go through a series of rollers and racks only to emerge 20 minutes later dried and ready to print. I would then print the 24 pictures, and 15 minutes later the photos would come out, neatly cut and trimmed, ready for the customer to pick up in a nice neat envelope. Once they paid the $14.95, they could take the pictures home and enjoy them in whatever way they chose to enjoy their photographs.

That model seems absurd in today’s world. Incredible that you would pay $.62 per picture, whether they turned out or not, and had to wait, even an hour for them to be printed. I still find it amazing that I (or more likely my grandchildren) can take my mobile phone and snap pictures until the memory runs out (which they did when I had less memory) and not have to wait even a full second to see the photo. If you want to print it out, which rarely happens these days, it can be done less than five minutes later. Digitization not only disrupted the industry, it destroyed it. Some of the biggest companies in the world (Kodak, Fuji etc.) were all but destroyed as they fought back against the arrival of digitization.

We are beginning to see the same thing in higher education. The earliest signs have been in how we communicate with our students. E-mail, learning platforms, and classroom projectors have completely transformed the way we interact with our students. Even though there are a few holdouts who refuse to use these tools, for the most part, they are ubiquitous in higher education. There even some classes that are taken completely online. Since we deal with the transmission of information, we can expect the digitization of information to have some impact.

More recently the traditional method of publishing research findings has begun to change. At first, there were a few on-line journals that have made real inroads into the traditional industry. The industry has fought back by making their product, academic journals, available on-line for scholars to read – for a price, paid either by the institution or the individual. Freeing up the information from behind the locked doors of the publishers has been a difficult process, costing us the life of one of the brightest tech minds (Aron Swartz) of the last 25 years. However, try as they might, the walls are crumbling, and with the advent of Sci-Hub, the traditional academic publishing world is coming to an end. They are not going without a fight. Just as in every other industry that has been destroyed by digitization, the big academic publishing houses are doing all they can to stave off the disruptive innovation that is destroying them.

One of the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation is the intransigence of the established institutions in expending their energies resisting the changes. Just as the publishing houses are fighting tooth and nail trying to protect their business model while it is crumbling around their ears, so to have other industries exhausted their energies and capital defending a doomed working model.

The same thing is happening in higher education as a whole. Digitization has moved the world from the age of information scarcity to information abundance. Looking at the way that universities conduct their business, you would think that digitization has never happened. A few new tools have been adapted, but the model hasn’t changed. I have written endlessly (it seems) about the proven ineffectiveness of lecturing, but lecturing still maintains a grip on around 90% of the teaching done in higher education. This grip is being maintained by nothing more than inertia, but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade.

Students are paying enormous amounts of money to go to university in order to get a qualification that will give them access to a great job and set them up. I remember a student colleague who said to me that getting a degree was a get rich slow scheme – and it worked. It did work well when I was a student, but our unwritten social contract with our students is broken. Our graduates are leaving our institutions to nothing. We are preparing them for jobs that existed 30 or 40 years ago, and they can’t find work. Our graduates, for the most part, are entering a world where they are likely to be employed in part-time short-term contracts, often in the service industry.

The system that worked so well for us in the past is no longer working for our students. Even more depressing is that if nothing changes, these trends are likely to deteriorate rather than improve.

Higher education can continue to rely on the prestige of a qualification for a while yet, but as these numbers continue to deteriorate disillusionment will set in and our qualifications will plummet in value.

We are at a crossroad. Do we expend our energy and resources trying to maintain our institutions as they are or do we begin to explore what we can do to change in a positive direction for all the stakeholders involved? Universities have survived earthshaking changes in the past – will we be able to survive this one, or will we be swept away like the photos or record albums of yesterday?

I know that if we try, we can do it. I have faith in the system. We can do better, so let us just do it.

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

Higher Thinking and Higher Education

Virtually every higher education institution has in its mission statement or some other sloganistic pronouncement reference to the development of critical thinking skills – also known as higher thinking skills of formal operational thinking. We know from extensive research that brain development during adolescence confers on adults without intellectual disability the ability to engage in formal operational thinking. The challenge is that the actual expression of these abilities must be taught. The higher in higher education refers to these thinking abilities. Students enter universities and colleges to learn how to use formal operational thinking, whether they know it or not. We, however, do not teach them how to think.

One of the hallmarks of information abundance is the explosion in the sheer amount of information that is known. I know that the estimates for how often information doubles in the world are somewhat exaggerated, but there is an information explosion. In teaching students to think, they must have some corpus of knowledge about what to think. Since the first university was founded a millennia ago, one of the core purposes of a university is to transmit the world of knowledge to our students. If we are to believe in the knowledge doubling estimates, and we try to keep pace with the transmission (which it seems that we are) of the world of information, we have a mammoth task that we are desperately trying to achieve.

According to the information doubling estimates, the content for a five-minute lecture segment from 1965 expanded to become a 90-minute lecture by 1979, and could fill an entire 15-week course by 1990. To fully explore the 1965 five minutes of content today would fill a lecture lasting five years – non-stop. What we have done as a result is to offer ever more classes on topics that cover smaller and smaller slices of minutia about more and more specialized fields of knowledge – and we wonder why our students disengage.

What we have forfeited in the process is the teaching of higher order thinking skills. While we bemoan the lack of critical thinking skills amongst the students, because of the crammed curriculum in our various subject areas, we don’t have time to cover anything other than stuff – whether it will ever be needed or not. Except for a hyper-specialized expert in the field, I’m unsure why a final year undergraduate needs to know what the 14 neurons three millimeters to the right of the left eyebrow do, or why the citation style used by Bede was adopted by him. And yet, this is exactly what we are doing!

We know how to teach these skills (or we did once), but it takes time. Time that could be better used to publish more papers and get more grant applications in. Time that is vitally more useful spent in committee meetings. Time that can be used to do something that counts towards a promotion. Time that is spent on anything other than teaching (which doesn’t really count for a promotion anyway).

Even those second class academics who focus on teaching spend their time honing their lecturing skills or trying out the latest evidence empty fad sweeping through education or trying to figure out how they might get one of the latest tech gadgets that will make their teaching greater.

The scholarship that is needed is the scholarship of learning. There is already more than enough written, usually with no other evidence than student evaluations, about how we can have great teaching. We know how people learn. It is a well respected scientific endeavor. What we are lacking is taking that knowledge and applying it to formal learning environments.

We can do it. We can use technology to teach masses of undergraduates to learn how to think. We must stop focussing on teaching the ever expanding minutia within our fields and start focussing on teaching students how to think critically. Unless we do this, we risk becoming irrelevant and losing our place in producing students who can change the world. We have enough experts at memorizing (for a day) enough to successfully tick the right multiple choice answer. We need graduates who can think in order to solve today’s problems, let alone face whatever tomorrow will bring.

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

Willful Blindness & Education

Both the education and the higher part of higher education is broken.Research is the only game in town and as that relies more and more heavily on private (read: commercial) funding the research game becomes more and more private (and trivial).

Research is the only game in town and as that relies more and more heavily on private (read: commercial) funding the research game becomes more and more private (and trivial).

In my last 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 40% 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 education part of higher education refers to the methods we use to teach our students the higher thinking skills that higher education stands for. Constant pressure to crank up the research output means that more and more teaching is becoming less and less. Efficiency in teaching means large (or maybe small) lectures. The evidence tells us that around 90% of teaching in higher education is done through lectures. 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.

Lectures don’t work to teach higher order thinking skills. I can’t tell you the number of times I hear – “But my lectures are different!”.

Given all of the evidence demonstrating that lectures don’t work to teach our students how to think, why do we still use them? Unless a working academic has not engaged in a single conversation about teaching in the last 30 years (and I daresay there will be some), they will have heard that lectures don’t work. Given that Bok reported (in “Our Underachieving Colleges”) that fewer that 5% of working academics will read anything about teaching in a given year, is it any surprise that nothing changes.

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. Academics 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. But nobody dies – do they?

I would argue that they do. An example of what these higher order thinking skills are illustrates 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 (some with higher education degrees) to keep on denying global climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence. To them, evidence means nothing!

Because of our almost exclusive focus on delivering information, with most of us (and our students) carrying around most of the world’s information in our pockets, we ignore our duty to teach people to think. We willfully ignore the evidence around us and it is costing people their very lives, not to mention the enormous cost to society when the majority of the people on our planet cannot or will not engage in formal operational thinking.

The cost of our willfully ignoring what we know to be true is beyond imagination. We can do better than that. We must do better than that.

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

Cognitive Development and Higher Education

Cognitive development across the lifespan throws up an interesting problem for us here in Higher Education.There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Although there is some argument about the details, with some adjustments that have been made here and there, the basic premise has pretty well stood the test of time.

There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Although there is some argument about the details, with some adjustments that have been made here and there, the basic premise has pretty well stood the test of time.

The quandary faced by the higher education community lies in the final stage of cognitive development proposed by Piaget. The formal operational thinking stage that emerges at adolescence. As a person develops through their childhood, a normally developing child will reach a cognitive developmental milestone, acquire whatever skills that are attached to that stage of thinking, and move on.

As an example, as a young child, one of the stages is called egocentrism. Simply put, in this stage (finishes at about age four), a child thinks that everyone sees and experiences the world the same way that they do. If a child in this stage is viewing a scene and they were to ask you about something they were seeing, they wouldn’t be able to conceive the concept that you were not able to see exactly what they were, regardless of where you are. However, once a child passes through the stage, that doesn’t happen again in their lifetime. I doubt very much that you have experienced this recently because once the stage is passed it is simply the way you think.

This type of fairly linear developmental pattern holds true for virtually every cognitive developmental stage that we go through. However, this is not true of the final, formal operational thinking stage. Although the ability to think in a formal operational stage emerges during adolescence, thinking in this way requires teaching and practice. This is the only stage of cognitive development that is this way. All of the rest of the stages we simply acquire, but the formal operational thinking stage only bestows on us the ability to think that way, not the thinking itself.

Why is this a quandary for higher education? Because the higher part of higher education refers to the thinking that has to be developed for the expression of formal operational thinking. It doesn’t just happen, it has to be taught and practiced. We tend to call this thinking critical thinking and expect that our students arrive with this ability in place and ready to be fully expressed during their higher education. When it doesn’t happen, we are filled with disappointment and blame the secondary school system or the students themselves for not being prepared.

The research demonstrates to us that only a few (about 10%) of the adult population are ever fully equipped with formal operational thinking skills – whether or not they have received any higher education. Between 30% and 40% of the population lack the ability to engage in this type of thought completely. The remaining 50 to 60 percent have some formal operational thinking skills ranging from barely demonstrating that they have any to usually, but not always using them.

Given that we are now educating about 40% (or more) of the general population, how can it be that we are only seeing about 10% able to consistently use formal operational thinking skills to solve problems and analyze information? Because our model of “sit down, shut up, face the front, memorize, and regurgitate” used in 90% (or more) of the higher education classrooms neither teaches or requires the use of formal operational thinking skills.

The skills I’m talking about would include some of the following:

  •  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)

I have written extensively about the state of higher education today, but our failure to deliver on our historical core purpose beggars belief. We can do better than this.

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

Information Scarcity – Students

Although faculty and the institutions strive to keep the information scarcity model of information alive and kicking for their own benefit, students are just as resistant to change as the other two. This seems paradoxical as students are the primary beneficiary of a move to an information abundance model.

We know that students gain little or no benefit, when it comes to learning, from the way education happens today (lecturing). In a study done in 1980 showed that students at the end of their course scored only 20% higher than students who didn’t take the course. Seven years later that difference had dropped to 10%. Another study showed that the drop in performance in a test taken at the end of a class and a test taken on the same material a week later saw the raw scores drop on average from 42% of the material to just 20% of the material.

And yet, students demand lectures. They believe that a lecture is the proper way to learn in university. Every time I have supported a lecturer in trying something that will actually facilitate learning (and even experienced this myself), the students erupt with fury at the idea that someone is doing something different from a lecture.Thanks to social media, I have read for myself the kinds of things they say. In one case, what my colleague received from the students was “You should lose your job. Your job is to tell us what we need to memorize in order to pass the test and you aren’t doing it“. This comment was followed by almost 200 others echoing the same sentiment (there were 350 students enrolled in the class).

I was teaching at a local college and was hauled onto the carpet three times during one semester and chastened for using methods other than the “read them the powerpoint slides” kind of teaching that is so prevalent today. This dressing down was instigated by a group of students who demanded a more traditional approach. When I suggested that I was doing this so that the students would actually learn, I was told that their learning was not my concern and my primary responsibility was to keep them happy.

I believe that the primary driver for this resistance to change comes from the reasons that students enroll in higher education in the first place. In the 2016  Gallup Purdue Index (GPI) found that 86% of students want a higher education degree so they can get a better job (up from the 73% average for 12000 to 2009). If 83% of the students are there for a paper that says they were there then learning is an obstacle rather than an opportunity.

Lectures (and the wait to regurgitate stuff for an exam) is the traditional way to do it and subscribes to the information scarcity model of learning. Besides, attending lectures and cramming for a test is relatively easy. When all you want is a degree so you can get a better job, why do any more than you have to?

There are very few students in today’s mass education system who are there to learn. As a senior colleague at my former place of work said, “If we don’t ask too much of them, they won’t ask too much of us, and we’ll all be happy.”

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