Willful Blindness & Educational Management

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

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

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

The town had a vermiculite mine in it.

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, people still didn’t want to know.

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

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

This wasn’t ignorance. It was willful blindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Self Regulated or Self Directed Learning: The new divide

In the past, we have had socioeconomics, the digital divide – and various other methods to divide the world between those who are likely to be highly successful and those who are not likely to be quite so successful, both in learning and in life.

I think that we might be seeing the emergence of a new kind of self-imposed divide – those who are self directed, self regulated learners (I know they are not the same thing, but they tend to be related), and those who are instructor or teacher led in their learning. In my experience here at Bangor, I find that the students tend to be split, almost in half, as to whether they want student centred, self regulated learning or if they demand teacher led instruction. About half of them adopt their learning to be something different from what they are used to (instructor led), and the other half demand that the lecturer do their job – which is to tell them what to memorise (this is actually what one of the students demanded last year when they were exposed to a different kind of learning activity).

Of those who adopt a self-regulated approach, some do well, and others, not so well. However, in either case, they end up being more successful (academically) than students who refuse to be moved from an instructor led learning mindset.

Is this a new divide amongst people?

In the age of information abundance,  what we need to know is all around us for the learning. Increasing our self regulated and self directed learning skills means that we will be better prepared to work as an information worker, and lead as an information leader. Last week, I wrote about the half-life of information. Given that information is regularly being created and updated, do we want the leaders of our communities, businesses and institutions dependent on someone who has become an expert at being told what they need to memorise in order to do well on a regurgitation exercise in a month or two (I’m not referring to politicians here)?

I believe that students who break out of this mindset will be the successful leaders of tomorrow. I have to believe that the institutions, public or private, old or new, large or small, that develop the kind of learning environment that fosters self regulated and self directed learning will be the most successful learning institutions of tomorrow. Higher thinking skills like creativity, critical analysis, flexible thinking and metacognition, are largely absent from most undergraduate programmes – largely because of the need to cover more content. An institution that begins to pay more than lip service to these higher order thinking skills will be posed to become very influential in tomorrow’s world. They will be producing graduates that can take the lead in solving the problems that are facing us today, as well as figuring out how to solve the problems that will confront us tomorrow. The rest of HE will still be producing graduates to solve yesterday’s problems.

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

Education Apocalypse – An Interesting Read

Audrey Watters wrote an interesting (I mean that I really found it really interesting) post on the role of disruptive innovations in the future of education. I enjoyed what she said, but have to respond with my own view of the “real” disruptive innovation that we are facing in education.

Audrey wrote about the various claims to what the disruption, that will change education for good, really is. The biggest claim to disruption lies with the edtech industry, with their latest classroom killer app or idea.

I think they have missed the boat. I am still firmly of the belief that there is a disruptive innovation that will (is) change(ing) the face of education forever. The innovation lies at the very foundation of our collective institutional philosophy. We have moved – for better or for worse – from an age of information scarcity to an age of information abundance.

The implications of this shift are only now beginning to be realised within the academy. MOOCs are a natural offshoot of this change and other manifestations will emerge.

Information is no longer scarce. It is no longer difficult to store, find or transmit. Information manipulation is no longer the domain of experts. Information is no longer only available in select places that hoard, store, catalogue, and disseminate it. It is becoming freely available to anyone with an internet connection. It will continue to increase in its availability and accessibility into the distant future. We are truly entering the information age.

One of the fundamental principles upon which Higher Education is built is information scarcity. According to this model, information is difficult to acquire, store, find, transmit, and manipulate. Universities arose as institutions that collected information (knowledge) to keep it in a safe place. Our very purpose has been to protect knowledge, store it, catalogue it, understand it, and disseminate it. This was best accomplished by large, well resourced institutions that offered a safe place for people who were interested in knowledge (academics) could gather themselves together in communities and work with it, becoming experts as they developed an intimate understanding of the information that they had access to through their proximity to the knowledge storage places (libraries and museums).

Over time, two offshoots emerged from the establishment of universities. The first was that, since knowledge and information were scarce commodities, the transmission and dissemination of knowledge could adopt to a market model, providing income for the support of the knowledge working community.

The second was that universities could play a leading role in the production of knowledge through research.

As a result, we see the institutions we are familiar with today.

However, what happens when information is no longer scarce? What happens when it costs virtually nothing to access, transmit, search and disseminate information? What happens when information becomes freely available, all over the world, almost as soon as it is created? What happens to our traditional institutions in the world of information abundance. This is the disruptive innovation. We are watching the beginnings of the changes now and the unease in the academy is real.

The market economy has seen opportunities to move into the world of education and change the way things are done. However, they are more concerned with the bottom line than they are with learning, and as a result, they appear as cheap, plastic replicas of the real thing. They have lost their lustre, and are working hard to gain it back again.

Traditional universities have become obsessed with the production of knowledge, and haven’t taken the time to reconsider what they are really all about in this new age of information abundance. Although the universal mantra is that teaching is important, the real importance of teaching lies with the funding that the market model of information scarcity attaches to students. What happens to all of this when information is abundant? Or maybe the better question is what happens to all of this when the world becomes aware of the irrelevance of universities (as teaching institutions in their current form) in the age of information abundance?

We are witnessing the onset of a massive disruptive innovation. Inertia keeps everything together, but for how long. I’m not so foolish as to date the arrival of the new, but disruption is, and will continue to happen. One of the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation is the failure of established institutions to adopt to the innovation, which eventually leads to their demise. My hope is that higher education can adapt to this new world. My hope is that these institutions, that have played a central role in bringing the world to where it is today (for good and bad) will be able to adapt to the new reality – that information is not scarce, and that they need to change how they operate to take advantage of this new reality.

We need to remember that individual learning lies at the core of what we are, and begin to care about individual learning again.

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?

Information Abundance and Teaching

I received an e-mail from a friend today, and I’d thought I’d share some of it:

Dave said that he would like to talk to “us” about training of computer/technical information.  Apparantly they are getting lots of enquiries about how to better teach IT-like skills…. he said (and, I swear I am not saying this just for Jesse):  “….people are contacting me asking things like ‘how can I teach kids who know more than I know? and, what am I supposed to teach them when they can just look up any answer at any time?  how can I teach in an age of information abundance?”  [ok, maybe I added that last one…..].

The “us” referred to is our Psychological Scholarship Innovations group – we look into teaching and learning from an evidence based perspective (kind of some of the stuff I write about).

At the risk of stating the obvious – we are in the age of information abundance. If we insist of maintaining our place as the expert on something that we just teach, and are not truly an expert on, we will constantly be upstaged by those we teach. Especially if they are taking a class in something that they are interested in. If there is an intrinsic motivation to learn about something, they will probably have already looked into the area, and sometimes this is to some depth.

When I am teaching adults, there are some classes where I would defy anyone to challenge what I am teaching. There are other classes that I am assigned to teach, and I have to go out and do some work in preparation of what I want to cover – because I’m not really an expert. I am a good teacher, and I have a strong background in psychology, but that doesn’t make me an expert across the entire area.

when the information is available, literally all around us, why do teachers resist asking the students to contribute? Why is the conversation still, almost always, one way? I was reading some stats about high school classes, and it was saying that something like 95% of the dialogue (including questions) comes from the teacher. If you are in a traditional university lecture, the numbers have got to be even higher. Learners today think this is what makes good learning. No matter what we say to the contrary (as a community), our actions are drowning it out.

At a recent meeting, someone said to me that as learner centric classes become the norm – become the norm. This statement is in response to having a single core class with a learner centric philosophy, and a couple of optional modules doing the same. Out of about 15 mandatory classes, and 20 optional module offered in our department, I’m not sure how three or four is beginning to represent the norm.

The internet is here to stay. Access is becoming ubiquitous. Information is freely available.

I don’t hear anyone arguing anything different, so when are teachers going to stop spouting and start curating?

Learning Perspective: Students

Where are the students in the learning game, and what do they want out of it? I read Donald Clark’s “7 Fails” that he awarded the education system during the Berlin Educa debate, and found his description of students and what they are trying to get out of the system disturbingly familiar (not actually what he was writing about, but it came through loud and clear). The disturbing part is his opening framework outlining how the system (as it stands) has so abysmally failed the students.

Having said that, the students are getting exactly what they are demanding from the system. They want to know what they have to do to get the qualification they think they should have. They want procedural learning. How do I pass this piece of coursework? is all they want to learn. Is this on the exam? is a common refrain. All I want to learn is how to give you what you need to award me an A (or B or C or whatever they want). Tell me how to do it so I can satisfy the requirements.

This isn’t what the world needs – even if it is what business leaders demand of higher education. A couple of months ago I wrote about learning for talent or learning for labour. What our students don’t realise is that procedural learning is algorithmic? What they are demanding is learning for labour. Most of the skills they are asking for can be done by computers. For too many of our students, they gain qualifications through producing mediocre, uninteresting essays or ticking boxes in MCQ that ask for the colour of the sky in ever more sophisticated (confusing and obscure) ways (exactly what we ask them to do). Computer are close to being able to do this, and in the very near future I can foresee a computer programme earning a passable degree from almost any one of our thousands of HE institutions.

This is what is happening to the qualifications that we are mass producing. We are producing a massive labour pool through the teaching techniques we use and our students demand. Labour can be, and is being, automated and outsourced. Our post industrial, capitalist society is destroying labour, and elevating talent.Talent is related to initiative, creativity, and passion, and is not easily replaceable by automation.

We are wasting millions of our most precious resources – our human resource – by extinguishing initiative, creativity, passion, and the ability to think through our mass education system. Businesses demand qualifications, students demand qualifications, and we oblige. All it takes for mediocracy to smother excellence is for us to wring our hands and ask “What can we do?”

Jef Staes made the point (in the Berlin Educa debate) that “We have 2D teaching and 2D testing that leads towards 2D thinking and 2D people who live and work in a 3D world.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Learning is what?

This past week or so I have been wondering what I am talking about when I refer to learning. I have a simple, succinct definition of teaching that I stick to, and it has served me well: Teaching is fostering learning.

However, what is learning? I read about simple slugs with only a few neurons learning, and I think, that’s not

Slug (Photo credit: Michael of Scott)

what I am fostering when I am teaching. At least I don’t think that is what I am fostering. I read about robots learning to do various tasks and wonder if that kind of learning would result from my teaching? I read about organisations learning, and wonder if my teaching fosters that?

Psychologists have identified two broad categories of knowledge, and there has been extensive studies done working out the differences between the two: procedural knowledge (knowing how) and declarative knowledge (knowing what). A third type of knowledge has emerged in recent years that has not been as extensively studied: conceptual knowledge (knowing why). The conceptual knowledge can come in a couple of varieties, shallow knowledge (oh, that’s why), and deep knowledge (I understand why).

The first two types on knowledge (procedural and declarative) come with associated learning (procedural learning and declarative learning). Studies surrounding conceptual learning has been limited to the ability to categorise items – not exactly the knowing why that I am interested in, however, there must be a learning that leads to both shallow and deep conceptual knowledge.

With all of these different types of knowledge and learning, what exactly is it that we talk about when we talk about learning in higher education? What is it that businesses are asking for when they say that students haven’t learned? When we are asked to focus on skills, what type of learning is being referred to? When we hear that students graduate, but can’t think, what are they talking about? When we look at connectivism as a learning theory, what kind of learning is are we talking about?

I know that when I am talking about my teaching, I am talking about conceptual learning for my senior level psychology in education module, with procedural learning in my statistics class (with a bit of conceptual learning thrown in) as I equip my students with the necessary tools to study psychology.

I think there a couple of blogs that arise from different perspectives on exactly what learning is about: students’, employers’, educators’, and theorists’.