On Willingham and Dweck: pedagogic memes can be dangerous in practice

mindsetI was intrigued by the idea of a pedagogic meme.  One of @surreallyno’s recent blogs was the inspiration for the idea. The blogs are most definitely worth a read here and here; if you haven’t already done so.

I’m not entirely sure about the concept of meme. It seems to be a biological type explanation of the social theory of structure. It is a useful discursive tool, in the sense that, it is widely known.

The idea about memes in the blogs is contained within the following passage:

I have been on Twitter long enough to notice an idea that is increasingly taking hold, especially in the U.K. education: memorization as the main tool for learning. Danniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist whose work I consistently shared for a few years now, has irrevocably (and most likely unintentionally) created a meme when he wrote in one of his widely known books (Why Don’t Students Like School?): Memory is the residue of thought.”

The truth of the sentence is obvious, almost trivial: to remember something you need to have thought about it quite hard. What happened though is that its meaning got completely twisted in some educational settings and turned into “Memorization is the only way to learn”.

DT Willingham’s meme is the view that critical thinking is indivisible from knowledge. This has been adopted to the extent that any discussion about skills ends up as a vindication of knowledge. The logical conclusion to this particular meme is that learning equates to knowledge and, more specifically, how much of that knowledge has been memorised.

It could have a very insidious impact upon practice but it is “meat and drink” to cognitive psychologists.. It’s based on a definition of critical thinking that I find impossible to agree with in the document Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach critical thinking is defined as follows:

As the main article explains, the ability to think critically depends on having adequate content knowledge; you can’t think critically about topics you know little about or solve problems that you don’t know well enough to recognize and execute the type of solutions they call for.

Central to DT Willingham’s definition of critical thinking are the value judgements; “effectiveness” and “novelty”. It seems to me that critical thinking can simply be defined as “self-direction” or “taking a critical stance” on something or other. The other two; effectiveness and novelty have aspects of expertise implicit to them  I’ve written about this (not particularly clearly but the point is there) here. In other words we can think critically about something, or other, but it is not necessarily novel or effective.

The consequence of that definition is that it renders very few of us with the ability to think critically about almost anything. Even the most efficacious quantitative researcher will find critical thinking and knowledge inseparable if critical thinking is conflated with expertise. I would describe “expertise” as “self directed”, “effective” and potentially “novel”.

The key to really understanding the problem of some types of quantitative research is to understand the issue of epistemology. I wrote about that here. Random causal experiments are welded together using ontological glue that has a cavalier attitude to definitions and their meaning. Once the research has been completed the discourse addresses statistical findings; causal factors etc few ask about the assumptions implicit to the research particularly once individual research projects are buried within meta analysis.

Growth mindset has a similar problem. As with other pedagogic “hot topics” such as feedback, growth mind set is a very complex social phenomenon. The meme that seems to have taken hold in educational circles is that “growth mind set”  is some kind of answer to the problem of low aspiration and socio-economic disadvantage.

Worryingly students could be written off as not having the right “growth mindset” or teachers described as ineffective because they are unable to engender a “growth mind” set in their students. Growth mindset needs a theoretical proposition that can be used in practice it shouldn’t rely upon random quantitative experiments by researchers many of whom have an investment in the fact that their research vindicates their adopted research position.

Unpicking the research arguments behind growth mindset, for and against here and here, is a mine field and often takes more time than the payback. You would presume that the end result  would probably re-affirm the intuitive view that growth mind set is a complex business as likely to be abused and misused in practice as to be used positively and intelligently. Or even more likely to end up in practice as a couple of those motivational posters that provide the, largely ignored,  backdrop of so many classrooms. Ideas from research, for use in practice, need to be “practice ready”.

A great deal of thought needs to be given to the research  “big idea”, whatever that maybe, as a praxis. In other words how is the “big idea” to be enacted or realised in educational practice. My concern is that many research “big ideas” are being promoted with few nuances and caveats, They are not practice ready. What is required is a process of re-contextualisation of the “big idea” from research to practice. A critical review or, perish the thought  a little bit of critical thinking because pedagogic memes can be dangerous.


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