How We Know

Scholarship of Learning

I know that this blog post will be old news to most of us, but I think it needs reiterating within the present context of my thinking – how do we find out what we believe in, or what are the methods of knowing?

According to Peirce (1877), there are three methods of knowing charles_sanders_peirceinformation, method of authority, method of tenacity, a priori method, and the scientific method. I will review each one of them, and consider how they impact us in our society today. I will consider the method of tenacity and the a priori method first

In both the method of tenacity and the a priori method, there is often no way to identify where knowledge of a belief came from, it just is. The fundamental difference is the willingness to change a belief.

In the a priori method, the belief is there because it…

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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.


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?

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?

The Purpose of a Brain…

As my career has moved from mainstream cognitive psychology to applying psychology to education, I have become aware of how far apart these two fields (psychology and education) are. There are many educationalists who are very aware of psychology, and a number of them have psychological backgrounds. What surprises me is how the field of education has so many theories and ideas that are not based on what we know about the brain.

One of the most pervasive is the learning preferences (VARK) idea. With no empirical evidence to support it, it has become a fundamental principle of teaching. Other educational theories are brilliant ideas that just don’t fit when it comes to the reality of how we work.

A friend of mine once said to me that the brain is the organ of selection. Using the various sensory inputs, vast storage capabilities, and incredible processing power, the brain uses information to select a course of action. There are various domains of action that might be considered from selecting nourishment from among everything that could be consumed or identifying physical threats to manoeuvring through a complex social structure. I need to be able to select the edible berries from the poisonous ones, respond appropriately the big cat while ignoring the zebra, or differentiate between the sarcastic remark of my line-manager belittling my work, and the joke at the water-cooler. I must be able to select the proper course of action, my brain is the bodily organ that serves that function.

Over the years, I have filtered my understanding of behaviour through that simple theory of the brain with great effectiveness. If someone has an idea about what some form of behaviour represents, I ask myself if this fits with the brain being the organ of selection.

For this reason, I wonder about the recent ideas that the digital world results in the brain rewiring itself. Or the idea that exposure to digital stimulus means that the brain wires itself in a different manner somehow. I know that the brain has incredible plasticity, and changes constantly on exposure to new (or even repeated) stimulus, however, I think that the educationalists who are proponents of brain rewiring are thinking of something more profound and fundamental. This leaves me asking the same question again: how does this fit with the brain being the organ of selection.

As the organ of selection, the brain stores, reuses, recombines information that has been useful in making good selection decisions in the past (learning), and will create novel solutions that can be used to make good selection decisions either in the present or in the future. A vital aspect of the brain’s selection processes are tools. Tools are incorporated by the brain as being extensions of itself, and can include bodily appendages (arms and hands or legs and feet) physical implements (spear, hammer), or mental implements (abacus, computer or internet). When incorporating a tool into its arsenal, the brain does rewire itself in order to effectively use it, but the brain does not become a fundamentally different organ. It is still about selecting the proper course of action.

I read again Siemen’s connectivist theory of learning, and asked myself, how does this fit with the brain being the organ of selection. I think connectivist theory is a brilliant way of thinking about how we can incorporate and use information for selecting a course of action, however, I wouldn’t say that connectivist theory is a theory explaining learning. I think of it as a tool that the brain uses to carry out selection. A powerful tool that provides competitive edge to those who understand and use it, but a tool nonetheless.

Psychological Foundations of Education

About 150 years ago, the medical community was seeped in non-scientific traditions. Doctors of the day were offended by the suggestion that they should wash between patients. How could anyone suggest that they were not clean; they were gentlemen and professionals. Even though Semmelweis had collected clear evidence that washing their hands between patients reduced the deaths of new mothers from around 10% to 2 – 3% in maternity hospitals, the medical community refused to accept anything that interfered with their established view of the world. Only after a great deal of work and effort on the part of reformers was medicine established on the basis of biological sciences. Even today, there are those who insist on carrying out medical procedures based on non-scientific traditions (e.g. homeopathy).

Hippocrates: a conventionalized image in a Rom...

In 1934, William Bagley said “If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young doctor fresh from John Hopkins School of Medicine, with his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor. On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys, and if by some miracle, I could secure Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, with his latest technologies and techniques of teaching,… I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.” I am afraid that I agree with Bagley, even with nearly 80 years of development in education since he said this. I believe that this is because education is not founded on scientific principles, but on traditions dating back centuries.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

As I read the literature published by educational psychologists, I see great insights and solid ideas, however, I see them as things a teacher should consider within the practice that are already immersed in. I was speaking to a recognised educationalist recently, and when I brought up the work of an educational psychologist, she replied that this was a good idea if you bought into the philosophy of educational psychology. What philosophy might that be? One with a scientific basis?

From my observations, the present basis of education seems to be the training of clerics (or accountants) established centuries ago. Clerics were trained in a lockstep fashion in an tradition where mistakes could not be tolerated. This training has been expanded to include a number of topics, but the primary methodology has remained essentially the same. If Francis Bacon were brought into a university classroom today (or even a High School classroom), he might be astounded by the cool technology, but he certainly wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with the methods or philosophy behind the instruction.

I think it is time to completely rethink education. We need to consider everything that is done in education, and ask the critical questions about the practises. Why do we do _______? Where is the evidence that ________ works in learning? What does the psychological literature say about the optimal way to foster learning of ________? How can we restructure what we do to incorporate the most recent scientific knowledge about how we might learn ______?

All of these questions need to be asked about every aspect of education, and about every related aspect of psychology. Educationalists and psychologists have lived in their bunkers long enough – with the timid recommendations for consideration squeaking forth from the Ed Psych community. An entire rethinking of educational philosophy and practise needs to begin based on solid psychological foundations and built on solid scientific principles. The world has changed. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges and begin to look for real solutions.

Teaching Resources

I went to a presentation about open access teaching resources at ALT-C this year, and it made me think about the resources for teaching that have become available as a result of the internet. There is a massive resource to be used. I think it is unusual for a teacher in HE today not to use the web as a resource to find teaching supplements (too bad for the teaching supplement business). Isn’t this really what open access teaching resources are.

I was chatting to a colleague earlier about how we are quick to use the resources that are there, and she reminded me that we have begun using public blogs in a big way in our teaching.

In my module last year, I required the students to present evidence, followed by informed opinion, on a public blog. As a part of the weekly exercise, the students had to comment on each others work. This has formed a network of blog entries (600+) of a reasonably high standard discussing evidence based education. This year, we have started blogging with our psychology research methods students in Years 1 & 2. I think that it is early yet to see what the outcome is, but I know that, as we continue, there will be thousands of entries about studying psychology, and issues around how and why we conduct research. My colleague is using blogs in her MSc module studying consumer psychology, and is really pleased with the engagement of the students.

My colleague reminded me that these blogs are both public, and informative, and do add to the resources available for teaching. We all add what we have to the pool, and the pool just gets deeper and richer.