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?

Advertisements

Cramming – You Don’t Learn from Episodic Memory

Actually cramming works to pass a test, and for millions of students that is the only goal for their education. Eighty-five percent of the students entering university in 2016 were doing so in order to get a qualification that would lead to a better job. For them, cramming works, because they have no intention to learn anything, just get a degree.

Research tells us that immediately following a lecture, students recall about 42% of the material. Two weeks later, they recall about 20%. A year later, they recall less than 10%. Although cramming will get a student through an exam, they don’t really learn anything.

The why is really quite simple. When students study for a test they are using what is called episodic memory. Episodic memory is a type of memory that we use every day. When you think about what you ate for breakfast this morning or what you ate for dinner last night, you really don’t have much trouble remembering. That is your episodic memory. However, if you try to remember what you had for lunch a week ago last Tuesday there are few if any of us who could recall the delectable feast. If I ask you what you did on Tuesday afternoon on January 17 of this year, unless you have a regularly scheduled event of participated in an emotionally charged event, it is very unlikely that you could tell me what you were doing. Even if you could tell me because you have a regularly scheduled event on Tuesday afternoons, there is an almost zero probability that you could remember what exactly took place at your event that day. That is because episodic memory isn’t designed to remember that way.

Episodic memory is the type of memory students use when they cram for an exam. They put a lot of information into their episodic memory that they have no intention of retaining, they use the information to get through the exam (some doing very well), and then they dump the information as being useless in the same way that we dump the memory of climbing the stairs to somewhere on March 15th.

Episodic memory is the kind of memory we use when we have regularly scheduled lectures to attend. Writing down the information has a negligible effect on remembering more than sitting passively. Having notes available does not help at all. The purpose of handwritten notes or lecturer provided notes is to provide the student with information that they can use for cramming.

The system works. Lecturers put in minimal effort. Students put in minimal effort. Graduates get degrees. Everyone is happy.


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

Lecturing (Again)

Some of this post is using recycled material from earlier posts: It has been re-written for a different audience, but I thought it was good for this audience as well.

Bligh (1972, page 4) tells us that “In politics, lectures are called speeches. In churches they are called sermons. Call them what you like; what they are in fact are more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants an audience to learn something.”

In HE, lectures are the primary form of teaching – from Marris, 1964 to Lesniak, 1996, numerous surveys speak to the dominance of lecturing as the form of teaching, and it continues to be so today.

Academics love them, and swear by their effectiveness (based on a case study with an N of 1 – themselves). Without a doubt, there are good lecturers and poor lecturers. Nothing riles the passion of an academic more than an attack on their favourite pastime – in the UK we’re even called lecturers!

Students love them because they are both expected and easy. As brave teachers move away from lectures as the primary form of teaching, students rise up in anger, demanding that the lecturer do their job and tell them what to memorise (this is not a joke, but has actually happened in the recent past).

Administrators love lectures because in an hour or so, you can tick the box on hundreds of hours of contact, calling them effective learning experiences.

But, how does lecturing stand up to scrutiny as effective learning experiences?

In 1972, Donald Bligh wrote a comprehensive review of the research evidence on teaching in HE – curiously, the book title was What’s the Use of Lectures? In this review, he looked at over 700 studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of lecturing as a learning event.

Bligh looked at several areas, and reviewed the literature looking at how effective a lecture is at achieving particular educational goals. Here is what he found:

 

Educational Goal Number of Studies Found
Lecture Less Effective No Difference Lecture More Effective
The Lecture as a Method of Acquiring Information 27 57 20
The Lecture as a Method of Promoting Thought 12 17 0
The Lecture as a Method of Teaching Values Associated with the Subject Matter 28 24 7
The Lecture as a Method of Inspiring Interest in a Subject 16 11 4
The Lecture as a Method of Promoting Personal and Social Adjustment 14 8 4
The Lecture as a Method of Teaching Behavioural Skills 27 30 7

 

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.

As academics, we need to decide if we base our working practises on gut feelings and the love of where we have come from, or look at what we do with a rational view of the effectiveness of our work.

As I read the reflections of my students who just completed my Science of Education module in the autumn, I actually had tears in my eyes as I read of their frustrations with the missed learning opportunities they had experienced (and paid good money for). They were lamenting the time spent wasted sitting passively through lecture after lecture, believing that they were engaged in an effective learning activity, only to find out, in my class, that lecturing is such a poor method of learning (they find this out themselves, I never actually tell them this – it is part of their self-directed learning experience into the Science of Education).

I believe that we can, and should, do better than this. It is really up to us.