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?

Reason and Moral Development

Last week I posted about the lack of ability to engage in deductive reasoning in the general adult population. As well as the problems I highlighted there, one aspect that deserves further attention is the effect that has on moral development.

Piaget assumed that all people, when they reached adolescence, would progress naturally from his “concrete operational” stage to the “formal operational” stage of cognitive development. The formal operational stage is where we see deductive reasoning emerge. However, research since Piaget’s proposal has let us know that not all (in fact a minority) of adults reach a formal operational stage of cognitive development. This is because it does not emerge naturally, but must be taught, and in our test, test, test world of education today, there is no room for teaching students how to think.

Moral development relies directly on the ability to reason, with Kolberg’s moral development stages tied neatly to Piaget’s cognitive development stages. What this means, is that the majority of people do not move beyond a concrete operational stage of moral reasoning. Here is a table outlining the stages of moral development.


Concrete operational thinkers don’t progress beyond stage 4 in their moral development. As the next table shows, there are few adults who progress beyond Stage 4 in their moral reasoning.


Why is this a problem? If you read the description of stage four moral development, you can see that there is little thinking involved. At this stage, people simply follow the rules. Right and wrong are defined by the law, and the highest moral authority is the government of the day. Whatever laws are passed defines the morality of the day for the vast majority of people.

Think of Nazi Germany, and the laws they passed targeting a group of people. With stage four moral reasoning, because it is written in law, it is the right thing. Institutional racism or bigotry become, not only okay, but right, because they are legal. Simply looking out on the events of today, and you can see the same thing happening again, both in North America and in parts of Europe.

One of the evidences that there is a lack of reasoning ability in America today is the emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the Republican race for the Presidency. Given how politics in the USA tends to swing between parties, this means that he is likely to be the next President. He is using the same language and techniques to target and oppress Muslims in America that Hitler used on the Jews 70 years ago.

Because of the failure of education to train people to think, there is an inability to engage in moral reasoning that will stop both the current, and the onrushing atrocities that are hurtling toward us. If, what is on the horizon, actually happens, we have to face the fact that we, as educators, have been complicit in shaping the society that would allow this to happen.

As the most powerful force shaping society today, we need to do better. We need to break out of the memorize and regurgitate model of education, and teach people to think. In the age of information abundance, we don’t need to focus exclusively on content, and yet, for all the innovations in education over the past ten years, that is still our predominate model. When are we going to really engage in meaningful discussion to fix what is broken.

The Dr is in the room

As I have been really thinking about the shape and future of HE, I have been thinking about the role of expertise in tomorrows teaching.

In this weeks Times Higher, Quintin McKellar mentions the long established link between research expertise and teaching, stating that “Although the evidence for the contribution of research activity to teaching excellence is thin, what exists is largely positive…”. Does this thinking belong to an age of information scarcity?

What I mean by this, is that an expert researcher is expert at creating information, knowledge, and understanding – content in HE parlance. Given that information and knowledge is readily available all around us, and given that the research game leads to hyper-specialisation in knowledge fields, can we still argue that knowledge generators are the best teachers?

I look at my colleagues – many of whom are top researchers in their fields – and I see a passion about something that is so specialised and esoteric that I wonder how inspirational they sound to students looking for a degree. HE lecturers with strong research backgrounds aren’t interested in teaching – they do it as a part of their job, but their passion is in asking the questions and seeking the answers. They teach according to the time honoured tradition of the profession – by lecturing. Even when they are faced with a group of six students in their classes, they still stand in the front reading their Powerpoint slides out to the group – punctuated with an occasional anecdote.

I was talking recently to the head of another department here at the University, and he said to me that – everyone can basically teach pretty well. He is wrong – dead wrong. Everyone can stand up and read lecture slides. We even get some teachers who can perform well while they are reading their slides (they might even have the information memorised) – but it is still the same basic delivery.

I have proposed a Masters course about applying the principles of psychology to education taking into account the emergence of information abundance thinking along the lines espoused by Roger Shank (so far approval in principle – hooray). As I sat with a few of my colleagues – all of whom are deeply skeptical about something that doesn’t involve powerpoint slides, essays and formal exams – I asked them about their understanding of the principles of psychology (they were all PhDs in psychology). They were somewhat offended that I would even ask, and when I pressed them on applying the principles they understood so well to their teaching, I had an amazing brush off – as though I hadn’t even asked.

Anyway, I believe that the use of hyper-specialists to deliver excellence in teaching has had its day. They want to research – we need good and dedicated teachers (not wannabe administrators that I find in so many teaching institutions).

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.