Cognitive Development and Higher Education

Cognitive development across the lifespan throws up an interesting problem for us here in Higher Education.There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Although there is some argument about the details, with some adjustments that have been made here and there, the basic premise has pretty well stood the test of time.

There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Although there is some argument about the details, with some adjustments that have been made here and there, the basic premise has pretty well stood the test of time.

The quandary faced by the higher education community lies in the final stage of cognitive development proposed by Piaget. The formal operational thinking stage that emerges at adolescence. As a person develops through their childhood, a normally developing child will reach a cognitive developmental milestone, acquire whatever skills that are attached to that stage of thinking, and move on.

As an example, as a young child, one of the stages is called egocentrism. Simply put, in this stage (finishes at about age four), a child thinks that everyone sees and experiences the world the same way that they do. If a child in this stage is viewing a scene and they were to ask you about something they were seeing, they wouldn’t be able to conceive the concept that you were not able to see exactly what they were, regardless of where you are. However, once a child passes through the stage, that doesn’t happen again in their lifetime. I doubt very much that you have experienced this recently because once the stage is passed it is simply the way you think.

This type of fairly linear developmental pattern holds true for virtually every cognitive developmental stage that we go through. However, this is not true of the final, formal operational thinking stage. Although the ability to think in a formal operational stage emerges during adolescence, thinking in this way requires teaching and practice. This is the only stage of cognitive development that is this way. All of the rest of the stages we simply acquire, but the formal operational thinking stage only bestows on us the ability to think that way, not the thinking itself.

Why is this a quandary for higher education? Because the higher part of higher education refers to the thinking that has to be developed for the expression of formal operational thinking. It doesn’t just happen, it has to be taught and practiced. We tend to call this thinking critical thinking and expect that our students arrive with this ability in place and ready to be fully expressed during their higher education. When it doesn’t happen, we are filled with disappointment and blame the secondary school system or the students themselves for not being prepared.

The research demonstrates to us that only a few (about 10%) of the adult population are ever fully equipped with formal operational thinking skills – whether or not they have received any higher education. Between 30% and 40% of the population lack the ability to engage in this type of thought completely. The remaining 50 to 60 percent have some formal operational thinking skills ranging from barely demonstrating that they have any to usually, but not always using them.

Given that we are now educating about 40% (or more) of the general population, how can it be that we are only seeing about 10% able to consistently use formal operational thinking skills to solve problems and analyze information? Because our model of “sit down, shut up, face the front, memorize, and regurgitate” used in 90% (or more) of the higher education classrooms neither teaches or requires the use of formal operational thinking skills.

The skills I’m talking about would include some of the following:

  •  a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture (Bacon 1605) 

  • the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action 
(Paul, 1987) 

  • self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way (Elder)
  • the mental processes, strategies, and representations people use to solve problems, make decisions, and learn new concepts (Sternberg, 1986, p. 3) 

  • the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism 
(McPeck, 1981, p. 8) 

  • reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1985, p. 45) 

  • thinking that is goal-directed and purposive, “thinking aimed at forming a judgment,” where the thinking itself meets standards of adequacy and accuracy (Bailin et al., 1999b, p. 287) 

  • judging in a reflective way what to do or what to believe (Facione, 2000, p. 61) 

  • skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it 1) relies upon criteria, 2) is self-correcting, and 3) is sensitive to context (Lipman, 1988, p. 39) 

  • the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome (Halpern, 1998, p. 450) 

  • seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth (Willingham, 2007, p. 8).
  • 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)

I have written extensively about the state of higher education today, but our failure to deliver on our historical core purpose beggars belief. We can do better than this.


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

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Mistakes are Useful?

The most alarming part of this post is in the middle where we find out that learners “…are more concerned with grades than they are with learning. This causes the supposedly smart students to take less risks in order to get better grades. Students that take more risks are punished with bad grades.” How many symphonies have not been written in order to protect a GPA?

anthony2193

If you have heard the phrase that “we learn from our mistakes” you may wonder why mistakes are unacceptable in schools. The very places that we go to learn. In school, the more mistake you make the more you are scorned. Only the students that happen to give the teacher the exact answer that they want seems to succeed in the current system. However, this is not how learning works in the real world. When we make mistakes we learn not to repeat them and we find out what does work and what does not work.

According to (Tugend, 2011) in our current education system, children are more concerned with grades than they are with learning. This causes the supposedly smart students to take less risks in order to get better grades. Students that take more risks are punished with bad grades. So in other words (Tugend, 2011) is saying…

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

How good are these techniques?

Scholarship of Learning

Dunlosky et al (2013) published a brilliant paper that looked at a number of techniques that are used to learn material in an academic setting. They tested the various techniques, and produced a pretty good assessment on just how good the techniques were. The techniques ranged from the testing effect (very good technique) to highlighting what you want to remember (poor technique for learning). I have reproduced their table below for you to have a look at.

I think they might be mistaken in their rankings. This feeling is based on anecdotal experience and how often each of these techniques are used in the learning process. I think re-reading and highlighting are by far the most useful for learning – based on how often they are used as the principle method of learning 🙂

The entire concept of the Scholarship of learning is based on just how wrong we are about…

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Learning for Understanding

Scholarship of Learning

The goal of learning to simply pass exams is a fairly recent phenomenon – historically, the goal of learning was so that the learners were prepared to use their knowledge in a post-learning environment to help solve problems and contribute to society. Since the need to contribute anything to society has greatly diminished, and the most pressing need to is enhance career and financial prospects, learning for performance activities (exams and assessments) has become the end goal for most learners. Earlier this week, I wrote about the performance enhancing strategy of capitalizing on state dependent learning.

However, there was a time when learning was primarily to understand the world.

When a person is learning for understanding, different strategies are needed. I often hear students bemoaning the idea that they are engaged in education for the institution to teach them to simply do something. They talk about their hate for the…

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Using Social Media Tools for Assessments

Information abundance means that learners have unprecedented access to information.This coupled with what we know about student engagement in academic study means that we might want to rethink the way we approach assessments. I believe that social media (SM) tools provide us with unique opportunities to asses in ways that weren’t even possible a few years ago. Using SM tools can provide opportunities not available using traditional assessment tools.

Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of blogging as a form of assessment using SM. Some of the advantages (from my perspective) for the use of SM blogging include public exposure, and the ability to comment. Other advantages, that I think are relatively minor (from my perspective as a teacher) but are important to students, are: solid platforms, 24/7 access, universal availability, and simple and quasi-familiar interfaces. I think that the advantages that the students focus on are important to their ability to do the work, however, the advantages I focus on are real advantages for learning.

Public Exposure

Although a few students (and a great many teachers) fear public exposure when it comes to assessment, I believe that it is of great benefit in the learning process. One of the hallmarks of authentic assessment is that the assessment is a closer reflection of the type of activity that is expected in real life. Seldom is serious writing done for the purposes of having a single individual read it, and then have it disappear. That is how most traditional writing assessments are done in HE today, with few exceptions. When students work is put up for public display, several things happen, they take more care in their work, they begin to produce work that will impress their peers, friends and family (you wouldn’t believe how many of my students invite their parents to participate in their learning this way), they look at each other’s work as models of good practise (how often does that happen with traditional assessments), they monitor each other’s work for unfair practise (with serious repercussions), and they are available for the wider community to engage with them.

My students tell me that after a few weeks of producing their weekly blog posts, I begin to disappear from their thinking when they are writing. They begin to write for their audience, in which I  become a minor player. They write to convince those who will be making comments on their work, not for me, who will be grading the work. They present coherent arguments, backed by evidence and clear thinking, that allow them to get across the points that they want to make.

They also tend to invite others, not involved in the class, to read their work. They will interlink their various SM tools so that when they publish a post, it goes out to their friends and family on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. When I see them in class and ask about a mother’s (or friends, or cousin’s) comment on their post, they invariably blush and say, “That’s my mother (or cousin or whatever) – I don’t know how she got on there.” Well, I do! The students have invited them in. In many cases, this is just an extension of them bringing the pictures home that they drew in grade 2, and looking for some measure of praise. This is great. Anyone who is going to write something that their mother is going to read is going to make sure she has a reason to say ‘well done!’. Why wouldn’t we, as educators, want to take advantage of this?

They have to read each other’s work in order to write (required) comments every week. As a part of the model I use, I write a short paragraph each week about what I have noticed in their collective writing (keeping them broadly within the parameters I set at the first of the class), and also point out the blogs that particularly impressed me. At the first of the semester, I tell them I will do this, and let them know, through a series of very unsubtle hints, that the posts I mention are the ones that got high marks that week. Over the course of the first three or four weeks, the spread of marks gets narrower and narrower as the students use the posts I mention as templates for their own writing. Our students are bright, and they want to do well. By showing them what I mean by doing well, they begin to seriously imitate the best. When they come and talk to me about how they can improve, I ask them if they have read the posts I have listed. When they tell me yes, I ask them if they notice a difference in what they are producing and what I have pointed out as being good work. They tell me yes, and then ask me what it is about the posts that make them better. I can (quite honestly) say to them that the really good posts make me go WOW!, and that is what they need to do. When they ask how that is done, I reply (again, quite honestly) “I have no idea, it just does”. They agree that it made them go wow as well, and then go away and try to make that happen in their work as well, and it often happens. “We are seeing peer-based learning networks where students are learning as much from each other as they are from their mentors and tutors (John Seely-Brown)”

I have had a single case of plagiarism in the five years I have taught this way. The students identified it (the student was using other students’ work and passing it off as his own), and were incensed that this would happen in their class. A delegation of students actually came to me demanding that the offending student be made to stand in front of the class and publicly apologise for what he had done. I told them not to expect that to happen any time soon. It was near the end of the semester, and the students didn’t even come back to the class again. Although this incident has had a few of my colleagues argue that we should protect students from this type of treatment, I tend to disagree. Although not a fan of Ayn Rand, I have to agree with her when she said “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” I think that, too often, we try to protect our students from reality when that is exactly what they need to experience.

Finally, the public exposure opens them up to the likes of you and I -Professionals in the field who are always looking for good, interesting ideas that are presented in a well thought out format. In the past, my students have received favourable comments from around the world. One of my students received a scholarship to do a Masters  degree at a prestigious university based on the blogs she wrote for my class. Someone commented on her work, and asked if she would like to collaborate with their research group, and when she explained that she was an undergraduate who was finishing up her degree that year, they asked if she would consider continuing her studies with them, all expenses paid. Unsolicited and unasked for, but welcome and appreciated. Not something you would get from having written an essay that only a single lecturer ever looks at (unless the work is double marked).

Commenting

The requirement to comment on each other’s work is the other great learning outcome of using some SM tools for assessments.

I require my students to write five comments a week, bringing in fresh evidence each time to support the arguments they are making. This requires a significant amount of reading and thinking, and this is the one requirement that the students ask me to reduce every year. They are happy to write a blog post weekly, but feel that requiring them to make five comments makes for a heavy workload. I say, that’s what you’re here for.

Writing blog posts each week means that the students study a particular principle to a depth that I can be satisfied with in a senior undergraduate class. Having them comment on five of their peers posts means that they have to move out of their comfort zone, and engage in material that they otherwise wouldn’t. This satisfies me, as their teacher, that they have covered some breadth in the class.

However, I think the most powerful aspect of comments are the discussions and debates they spark. “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it (Joseph Joubert)”.  I couldn’t agree more to a statement. They write, think and discuss matters in a lively, civil and scholarly manner. Everything I could hope for from my students.

As a learning tool, I have to say that blogging is one of the best. And social media blogging is far more powerful than blogging behind a firewall. In higher education, we deal with adults. We should be providing them with authentic experiences, and treating them like fully responsible adults. Helping them grow and develop in the real world in, for me, one of the most wonderful aspects of the work I do. I wish there were other who shared my excitement.