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 Digitization – a Paradigm Shift

Scholarship of Learning

There is a paradigm shift taking place in learning today. I have written before that there is a paradigm shift in education, but the status quo is reinforcing the traditional trenches in a way that is unbelievable in today’s world. Just as the Germans simply zipped around the impregnable Maginot line (the massively reinforced trenches from WWI) at the beginning of WWII, learning is preparing to zip around the heavily reinforced educational institutions of today.

The music industry, the publishing industry, the newspaper industry, the postal systems, the public libraries, the traditional bookstore, video stores, movie theatres – these and other sectors of our society have had to (or are in the process of) reinventing themselves to fit into the new world of digitized information. Only in education have the powers that be refused to engage in a critical self-examination to ask what digitization really means to this sector of society.

As…

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How good are these techniques?

Scholarship of Learning

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

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

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

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Evidence & HE

One of the real challenges I face in trying to convince people that there are better ways to approach education is an attitude towards evidence that I don’t understand. I was talking to one educator about the evidence from psychology about how to motivate students to engage in their academic studies. Her response puzzled me, but it is something I have heard before and since. She said: that’s all right if you believe in that kind of stuff. When I asked about the stuff she was referring to, she said she was referring to research, as (according to her) we all know, researchers can find any outcome that fits their agenda.

Needless to say, that was the most extreme example of the dismissal of evidence, but certainly not a rare one.

In my research methods class, when I used to talk to the first year students about rational thinking and evidence, I used an audience response system to poll the students about various aspects of their understanding. One of the questions I used to ask was:

Should the major decisions in our society be based on (a) solid evidence gathered using the best research methods available, or (b) feelings, beliefs and just “knowing” when something should be a certain way?

As it was during a lecture on rational decision making, of course I would get 98% responding with “a” as the appropriate response.

I then showed the following slide.

Slide23

During this slide, I explained to the students that a placebo-controlled randomised study is about as good as it gets in the clinical scientific world, and that the homeopathic society was saying that the best science couldn’t measure the effects of homeopathic medicine. I then repeated the question:

Should the major decisions in our society be based on (a) solid evidence gathered using the best research methods available, or (b) feelings, beliefs and just “knowing” when something should be a certain way?

To my surprise (the first year I did this) those responding with “a” dropped to about 55%. These are students who enrolled  in University to obtain a BSc in psychology from one of the five top psychological research departments in the UK. Suddenly, there was something they wanted to believe in, and the idea of using science to answer a question wasn’t that important to them.

I have always hoped that by the time the students graduated with their degrees, they would, once again put science and evidence back into a premier place for answering questions in about the world. And yet, I have my doubts.

The Right Answer

Roger Shank wrote something last week that I think is worth looking at:

Math and science are meant to teach thinking (or so it is said). They could actually teach thinking of course, but when the scientific questions are given to you, and the right answers are taught to you, science ceases to be about observation, experimentation, hypothesis creation, and reasoning from evidence, and becomes memorization to get good scores on multiple choice tests.

Does constantly coming up with the right answer mean that we don’t learn to think. I can expect individuals who are uneducated to undervalue the power of rational thinking and the scientific method; evidence, to the uninitiated, is nothing better than opinion. But an education, at the very core, should about thinking, rational thinking, and critical evaluation of evidence. If a person has been trained to understand the process and rigour that accompanies the proper application of the scientific method, and the strength of properly obtained evidence,  how can scientific findings be something that you can simply dismiss as though they were nothing more than opinions.

Scientific discovery has laid the foundation for much of what we enjoy in the world today. However, conservative influences in society, just as in the past, use whatever power is at their disposal to ensure that science only supports the worldview that is already established. Delivering well educated, thinking individuals is needed to counterbalance the antiscientific influence that has arisen in recent years. Unfortunately, well educated has come to mean great memorisation.

I would suggest that our obsession with content and getting the right answer has meant that rational thinking has become an optional extra in HE.

 

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

Donald Clark’s TEDx Talk

I love it (thanks Miguel)!

Those of you who read my blog know that I regularly refer to Donald. He refers to so much that is dear to my heart in this talk – great job. The only thing I have to disagree with is that there are still a few of us trying – ever so hard – to change education from within.

 

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

Caution – Shallow waters all around us

Roger Shank’s blog post yesterday struck a note with me when I read it this morning. As I was reading the BBC’s article about Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, I thought about what Roger was saying, and how the thinking questions and real issues seem to have been displaced by the vacuous.

In HE, we teach students how to answer questions with the right answer. John, at Learner WebLog was comparing the c and x versions of MOOCs, and why the xMOOCs attract so many more people. In his analysis, John states one of the factors as being that xMOOCs are easier, and writes

xMOOCs are much easier compared to cMOOCs.  This is grounded on that in xMOOCs, the instructors would have done most, if not all of the ground work necessary for teaching and learning for the learners.  What the learners are normally expected to do would be to consume the knowledge transmitted or broadcasted to them, and to confirm their understanding of the concepts through repeated quizzes or assignments.  This requires certain perseverance from the learners, though it is possible to achieve a high or perfect score in test, assignments and examinations through drills, repeated practice, as is common in a rote learning scenario.   The use of standard answers in the case of multiple choices, true/false, or short case scenarios, could all be checked with automated grading or assessment software.  For peer assessment, these are done in a closed manner, with the merits of “protecting” the learners from being “criticised” in public, but the demerits of being critiqued by only a few participants (5 other peers) in the whole evaluation.  Nevertheless, this seems to be well accepted as a way to assessment in the xMOOCs, as that might be the only feasible and reliable way to assess students in an institutional environment, without overly involving the professors in the assessment.

People want the right answers. We want to be correct, and don’t want the effort of having to figure out something that isn’t black and white. As my students finished up my module, where I use a connectivist and constructivist approach to learning, one of the reoccurring themes in their reflection about the beginning of the module was along the lines of what is Jesse looking for, or is this going to get me a good grade, or how can I learn anything without an expert telling me what I need to learn. Having the freedom to explore a topic, with no right or wrong answers was terrifying. They couldn’t understand that I wanted to see their thinking, their evaluation, their critical approaches. However, by the end of the semester, they loved it.

As I (an many of you) talk about the faults of the educational system, the zombification of learning, the factory foundations, the memorisation/regurgitation model, am I out of touch? Donald Clark tells us that the social contract between HE and society is broken, and uses as evidence the graduate unemployment and underemployment rates, the riots in London a couple of years ago, the occupy movement, the disillusionment that industry leaders have in graduates today. The list could go on, and on, but is anyone listening? There are good people who talk and think about the shallowness of todays educational system, with its fixation on content. There are good people who are doing what they can, within their sphere of influence, to change things. But, is there any measurable impact? MOOCs have become the darling of education today, and yet, the xMOOC model seems to be the only game taken seriously. The most powerful educational institutions in the world have abdicated their responsibility for learning and have opted for MCQs.

This leaves us with more academic articles being published about snowboarding than about real threats to human existence. It leaves us with the endless pursuit of the right answer and the good grade. It leaves us with 70% of graduates in the UK this year about to be awarded a top degree (2i or 1st). It leaves us in the shallows with everyone leaning over the edge of the boat examining their reflection in the water to see how well their complexion is holding up.