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 – Faculty

Institutions embrace an information scarcity model because as long as information is scarce, it is worth something. That doesn’t explain why faculty members, who teach, continue to support an information scarcity model. I believe it is because of several factors: the reinforcement system, inertia, ease, and lack of interest.

Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a big factor. The university and college system have as their primary focusses things other than learning. In universities, the focus is research. As such, the reinforcement system in place is for research. Few, if any, faculty members receive monetary rewards (raises), real recognition, significant promotions, and peer approval for their prowess in teaching. If a person receives tangible rewards for research related activities (publications, grant capture, PhD students etc., space (labs) and assistants), those are the activities that will receive their time. I have worked in a research intensive institution and know faculty members who teach students a few hours a year so that teaching activities do not interfere with their research.

When there is explicit teaching relief (you get to teach fewer classes) for excellence in research, the institutional and peer expectations direct your activities. Although excellence in teaching is recognized (somewhat), the real driver for promotion is research activities. With promotions come monetary rewards. Although money isn’t a factor for academics (at least that is what they say) I know too many academics (pretty well all) who respond favorably to financial incentives to actually believe them. Money talks in the academy.

Inertia

Lecturing is what academics do when they are teaching. Everyone knows this and we know that conformity is a basic driving force for behavior. Two-thirds of the people who were shown three lines that had obviously different lengths went along with the rest of the group when asked to identify the longest line when it was blatantly wrong. Academics are people, and if everyone is doing it (especially their peers), and if this is what everyone has always done, there is little impetus to alter long-standing habits. And so we see that lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all teaching events despite “

Academics are not trained to teach, and there are few people who go through the grueling training that it takes to obtain a PhD who want to teach. They are trained as researchers, and that is what they want to do. And so we see that lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all teaching events despite “no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective (for learning) than lecturing.

Ease

This is one of the main drivers for keeping the information scarcity model of learning in place. Dealing with students takes time. This is especially true when using non-standard teaching methods that actually foster learning. It takes about three years to get a series of lectures to the point where a lecturer is satisfied. The first year is real work. The second year, most of the material is revised to get it better. The third year, some tweaks are made to get it just right and from then on you just deliver the same-old, same-old. When you can do this with hundreds of students at a time and test their understanding (or is it memorization) with a multiple choice test, you can satisfy the teaching requirements of your job in a few hours a week. Why change a method that works for everyone except those who actually want to learn. Administrators are happy, students are happy, and a faculty member can then focus on what is really important.

Lack of Interest

This is the real reason why the information scarcity model reigns supreme. Faculty members are not interested in how students learn. The few who are interested in their students, focus on how they teach. Teaching is the only thing that matters. I have found very few teachers (or other faculty members) who want to know anything at all about how people learn. When I have been approached, as an expert in the field, practitioners don’t want to know anything about how people learn. All they want to know is some teaching tip that will make their students happier. When institutions talk at all about students today, it has nothing to do with learning. The institutional focus on students is called

When institutions talk at all about students today, it has nothing to do with learning. The institutional focus on students is called “the student experience” which can be interpreted as “keep the students happy”. How can anyone be interested in how people learn when they find themselves in complete isolation when they do.

There are thousands of research articles published about how people learn. These articles are published in journals with very narrow mandates on psychology (the study of human behavior). There are very few researchers who examine this literature with a view to applying it to formal learning situations. Education is not interested because their focus is on teaching, not learning.

Is it any wonder there is no interest. What is in it for the instructor who wants to know?


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

Information Scarcity – Institutions

Why would universities work under an information scarcity model of learning and resist moving to an information abundance model of learning?

I believe that there are several reasons such as research focus, efficiency of teaching, teaching rather than learning focus, and real – rather than stated purpose.

Research Focus

The definition of a university is a higher education institution that has research as the primary activity of the institution. Some would argue that the research interests come second to teaching, however, the reality is that research is the only game in town. The status and prestige of the institution is based on research and has nothing to do with teaching. Academic hiring and promotional opportunities pay lip service to teaching but are focussed on research activities with the few teaching only posts seen (and treated as) second class academics.

The very idea that teaching release is given for excellence in research clearly states where an institutions values lie. There are even teaching only colleges that will give teaching release for what can only be called a mimic of real research. Clearly, research activities are what is valued in higher education.

In many institutions, students are actually referred to (in the backrooms and corridors) as cash cows to support the real activities of the institution. Teaching is seen as a necessary chore that is made as efficient as possible, meaning doing it with as small a resource commitment as possible, which brings us to the second reason.

Teaching Efficiency

Large lectures with as many students as possible packed into the allocated space is efficient. In one hour, a learning event for 400, 800 or even a thousand(s) students can be checked off an administrators list with the accompanying income.

In a world obsessed with efficiency of delivery and accountability of resources in virtually every aspect of our lives, maximizing efficiency in teaching is seen as a positive aspect of a successful institution. To advertise inefficiency would be seen as negative aspect of the university administration. As a result, in most institutions, minimum class sizes are specified. If fewer than twenty students sign up for a class it is canceled because it is inefficient to run such a small class.

Obsession with efficiency leads to larger and larger lecture theaters, in spite of the fact that “no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective (for learning) than lecturing”.

Teaching rather than Learning Focus

If you closely examine teaching activities in education from the earliest start through to higher education, education is focussed on teaching. In the training of a teacher, the time spent learning how people learn is almost non-existent. I was talking to a recent education graduate and he told me that he could remember the class he took that talked about how people learn, and I was very excited. I asked him what the resources that were used to teach this, and he said “I think you misunderstand me. I mean that I took a class, a one hour class about how people learn. Not a semester long class.” Needless to say, I was astounded. I knew that the emphasis on learning is minimal, but that minimal.

It doesn’t change as students get older. I have studied how people learn and how that can be applied to formal learning situations for decades now, and am considered a curiosity – not to be taken seriously. You would think that a higher education institution would want to have a learning expert somewhere in the institution. Instead, they bring in teaching experts. There is not even lip service paid to learning. It is all about teaching.

Institutional Purpose

Many institutions have, as a part of their mission statements (or whatever they call them) words like leadership, excellence, reaching potential, innovation, and on and on. Although these buzzwords are officially a part of the heart of the institution, actions speak louder than words. Larger lecture theatres, relegating teaching to a second class activity without even a mention of learning, rewarding and focussing almost exclusively on research – this is why institutions work under an information scarcity model.

Institutional Information Scarcity

Information scarcity means that information is hard to find and is housed in information repositories (universities). Learners must go to a place of learning in order to access information. Learners must gather together by the hundreds and thousands to hear the words of a scholar and engage in real learning events (lectures). Access to significant information (journals, books etc.) must be carefully controlled, and this access is sold to learners. Institutionally, an information abundant model would threaten their very existence as the guardian of information. Scarcity adds value. Without institutional control, there would be no scarcity and the cash cow (undergraduate) would disappear and the real activities of a university would cease because of the lack of funding just as newspapers and investigative journalism disappeared with the classified ads and the associated income stream.

Information Scarcity Today

There is no doubt that formal education today is based on an information scarcity model. The methods used are firmly rooted in the past with lectures in higher education still accounting for over 90% of all formal learning events. Referring to an earlier post, I quote:

As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:

More than 700 studies (referring to Gibbs 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.

A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by 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 is appalling – For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. 

And yet, lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all learning events in higher education and I can only speculate about primary or secondary education, but would be surprised if it was much less.

Why?

That we live in an age of unprecedented and ubiquitous information abundance (at least in the developed world) is beyond argument. Since this is the case, why do we cling to learning models that were developed a thousand years ago?

MOOCs – the next big thing from about 2001 to 2013 – have been offered, and taken up, by hundreds of thousands of students as an alternative to formal education. Like most (again, over 90%) of the online provision available, educators have taken the worst we have to offer (no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing) and dished it out in larger and larger portions. There have been a few shining examples that have taken advantage of an information abundance model (cMOOCS), but they are few and far between.

Why?

There are a number of stakeholders involved, and I will consider each one of them, in turn, over the next few weeks. I may miss some, but the ones I will consider will be: the institutions (and administrators), the teachers, the students, parents, and employers. As a spoiler, I will say right now that the biggest factor is expectation.

Stay Tuned


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

Mistakes are Useful?

The most alarming part of this post is in the middle where we find out that learners “…are more concerned with grades than they are with learning. This causes the supposedly smart students to take less risks in order to get better grades. Students that take more risks are punished with bad grades.” How many symphonies have not been written in order to protect a GPA?

anthony2193

If you have heard the phrase that “we learn from our mistakes” you may wonder why mistakes are unacceptable in schools. The very places that we go to learn. In school, the more mistake you make the more you are scorned. Only the students that happen to give the teacher the exact answer that they want seems to succeed in the current system. However, this is not how learning works in the real world. When we make mistakes we learn not to repeat them and we find out what does work and what does not work.

According to (Tugend, 2011) in our current education system, children are more concerned with grades than they are with learning. This causes the supposedly smart students to take less risks in order to get better grades. Students that take more risks are punished with bad grades. So in other words (Tugend, 2011) is saying…

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Conformity and Education

A new post I just put up there.

Scholarship of Learning

I have written before about the drive for conformity in education. Given the massification of education which has led to huge classrooms with, literally, hundreds of students being taught, conformity is essential. It has become, unabashedly, one of the central and core tenants of education. When I wrote about conformity three years ago, I focussed on the loss of creativity in the learning process. However, I now believe that there is a much greater cost to our society than the simple loss of creativity. I now believe that the greatest cost that society bears as a result of the enforced conformity from the youngest to the oldest students in education is a personal tragedy borne by, literally, millions of students and former students.

That students of all shapes and sizes are forced into a mold by the educational “system” is without disagreement. Students, at least for a significant portion of…

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