Thought and Power

In July, I wrote about learning thresholds, and how we could use technology to define and attain learning thresholds. I was reading Diane  Halpern’s “Thought and Knowledge” yesterday, and came across a passage that explains my thinking about learning thresholds, memorization, and critical thinking. It reads:

…thought is powerful only when it can utilize a large and accurate base of knowledge (page 5).

The preceding part of that line is also important in the context of learning in today’s world “…knowledge is powerful only when it is applied appropriately”.

Never before has the world had a greater need of people who can use critical thinking skills, and never before have we had a greater paucity of critical thinking skills – when compared to the total number of ‘educated’ individuals.

The large and accurate base of knowledge has taken precedence over everything else. And, as the sheer amount of information continues to increase to amounts truly unimaginable at a human scale, the obsession with the large and accurate knowledge base threatens to overwhelm, us with multitudes of memorizers who have no concept of thinking.

My problem is not with ‘a’ large and accurate knowledge base, but with ‘the’ large and accurate knowledge base. Those charged with the preparation of the next generation of thinkers have often spent years, if not decades, accumulating and conceptualizing their sliver of the world, and are rightly called experts in their fields. However, that expertise, in no way, prepares them to teach novices how to think. And the current state of affairs in higher education doesn’t allow for subject experts to become learning experts. These experts who focus on more and more information,with more and more classes, programmes, degree schemes, areas of study focus so intently on their field of study (as they are rewarded to do) that they have no conception of what the problem is. Except that they know that their students are not becoming the experts they think they are training them to be.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the recent findings that over 95% of university leaders thought their graduates were well prepared for the world of work, while about than 10% of business leaders agreed (see below). We are so out of touch with reality, we are rapidly losing the credibility that we are banking on to carry us through the disruptive innovation digitization has landed us in.

We can, and need to do better.

I found the evidence – and here it is:

“…(in) Inside Higher Ed‘s 2014 survey of chief academic officers, ninety-six percent said they were doing a good job – but… in a new survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders and the American public view the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans – and only 11 percent of business leaders – strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.”

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Higher what?

I read Harold Jarche’s review of Marina Gorbis’ new book, and was thinking about what to write about it (it struck a chord) and then Clark Quinn came up with something brilliant. It was his comments about our unique human skills and specifically our abilities for sensemaking, and  novel and adaptive thinking that hit me. In a nutshell, these are our higher order thinking skills. Higher, as in higher education. Higher as in the manipulation of the abstract in order to find emergent patterns. Higher as in taking the mundane and creating something new. Higher as in bringing together disparate strands and synthesising information to produce a new, emergent thing (property, thought, theory etc.). This is what sets us apart as different. We can do these things, and we can do them well. Even at the most basic level, we learn to decipher recognisable thought patterns from a series of sounds (speech), and we learn to decipher thoughts from abstract symbolisation (writing).

Early in our history, we figured out how to fashion tools that would augment our physical abilities. We learned to hunt with implements, farm with tools, and lift and move with technology. The augmentation of our physical abilities has allowed us to build and create on an unprecedented scale. We are building a new arts and innovation centre, Pontio, at Bangor University.

New arts and innovation centre at Bangor University, scheduled to open in 2014.
New arts and innovation centre at Bangor University, scheduled to open in 2014.

As I watch the building grow from my office window, what I find amazing are our abilities to lift and move the hundreds of tons of materials and carefully put them in place. We can do this in a relatively short time period because we rely on tools that amplify our natural lifting and moving abilities.

In the last 50 years or so, we have developed some equally impressive tools to amplify some of our thinking abilities. Not the higher order abilities, but many of the routine thinking abilities we possess. We have machines that can do routine and complex calculations, memorise and regurgitate with impressive speed and accuracy, and with storage and searching facilities that are immense and fast. And, yet, we don’t have machines that can do what makes us really special: synthesise and create.

The sad thing is that in our higher education institutions, we still focus on the routine calculations, the rote memorisation, and the regurgitation skills that we needed in the pre-computer age. I hear my colleagues say to me that if our students don’t learn all the content, and memorise all the ideas, they couldn’t function well if all the computers in the world suddenly stopped working. I wonder if construction workers worry about their buildings remaining unfinished if all the cranes in the world suddenly stopped working.

Instead of challenging our students to sharpen the skills that only we (humans) possess, we assemble them in massive groups and lecture them, bringing them back together several months later to go through an examination exercise; the routine memorisation/regurgitation exercise. Is this the best we can do?

By the way, our beautiful new Pontio building is going to have a massive lecture theatre (over 500 seats), accompanied by a number of smaller (200+) lecture theatres so that we can perpetuate and expand our carefully honed memorise/regurgitate routines. How sad.