I’m going to touch upon the Sugata Mitra debate. Mitra is accused of poor research. I would describe it as “discursive research”; it generates the potential for change but it is empirically weak. You could accuse Coe (EEF toolkit) and Hattie (visible learning) of the same.
In this blog, I’m going to mainly focus on DT Willingham, on Twitter, the DT Willingham meme is everywhere. The meme conflates higher order thinking skills with knowledge to the extent that thinking largely disappears. Those who advocate this argument seem to have scant regard for interpretation, empathy, analysis and synthesis, evaluation or some humanist or esoteric notion of cleverness tending to conflate “thinking well” with expertise.
The beauty of this meme is that any attempt to counter it relies on some kind of knowledge in the same way that car driving skills rely on some involvement with a car. The question then is how do you differentiate between driving skills and the car?
In this blog, I am going to differentiate between thinking well (higher order thinking skills) and expertise (extensive knowledge of something or other). Car skills and cars are not as intrinsically interlinked as thinking and knowledge clever discourse is useful, often, we hear arguments and accept them based on the fact that they sound sensible even if they are not.
DT Willingham is master at clever discourse particularly in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”. He makes assertions that sound sensible::
Most of the teachers I know entered the profession because they loved school as children
It is indisputable that most teachers DT Willingham knows, or knew, loved school but is it true generally speaking? Students, on the other hand, don’t love school. The point is that as a consequence of their expectations, having enjoyed school, teachers are not prepared for life in classrooms teaching those who do not enjoy school.
What teachers don’t realise is that the reason that students don’t like school is:
Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking
I suppose that is a matter of opinion. It is, according to DT Willingham, designed for long-term memory.
Have a go at this puzzle:
In an empty room are a candle, some matches, and a box of tacks. The goal is to have the lit candle about five feet off the ground. You’ve tried melting some of the wax on the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall, but that wasn’t effective. How can you get the lit candle to be five feet off the ground without your having to hold it there?
The solution is that you use the tacks to secure the box to the wall then balance the candle on top of the box. As DT Willingham explains, the difference between “real life” and the artificial world of education is that in real life most people would have picked up the box of tacks, and made the connection between it, and the tacks inside.
Some would solve it others not. The point is, if you have encountered the problem before and have stored it in long-term memory then you can answer the question. It is irrefutably true but what does it prove? It is what I would describe as clever discourse.
DT Willingham also says things like this:
Data from the last 30 years leads to a conclusion that is not scientifically challenge able: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes like reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just in the environment).
I actually think substantively the statement is unchallengeable; let us see where this takes us:
The human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, that does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game, or about the current situation in the Middle East, or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. The critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge.
I honestly cannot see why someone can think critically, or well, about the second world war but not be able to think well about the current situation in the Middle East. It seems to me that this conflates thinking well with expertise.
Expertise would require knowledge of the facts of the thing, as well as, higher order thinking skills; however, someone with less knowledge but better-thinking skills could find more insight into some aspects of the war in the middle east than some experts. Some may empathise more with the circumstances of war and see it from a different perspective.
A variant of this argument and one that illuminates the point somewhat is used by Daisy Christodoulou here to justify her approach to multiple choice questions:
To know why the First World War happened you have to have a very good knowledge of chronology and knowing when the Entente Cordiale was signed is an important, if small, part of that wider question. Indeed, the question Why was there a war in Europe in 1914?’ requires a lot of facts to be able to answer successfully, and one of the things that allows you to be able to analyse a deep, open question like this successfully is how many facts you have and how well you know them.
Again it is clever, it is a descriptive question requiring situated knowledge. What if I asked the question “what causes war, such as the one in Europe in 1914”. It doesn’t require as much subject-specific knowledge to answer the question. You can think well about it albeit not be an expert. The question is selected to create the evidence for the argument. The chronology of events that gave rise to the first world war is not higher order thinking about the first world war.
Here is another one from DT Willingham:
Until about 20 years ago, most researchers seemed to have the sense that the range of intelligence was mostly set by genetics, and that a good or poor environment moved one’s intelligence up or down a bit within that range.
A real turning point in this work came during the 1980s with the discovery that IQ scores over the last half century have shown quite substantial gains. For example, in Holland, scores went up 21 points in just 30 years (1952–1982), based on scores from Dutch military draftees.This is not an isolated case. The effect has been observed in over a dozen countries throughout the world, including the United States.* Not all countries have data available to be tested—you need very large numbers of people to be sure that you’re not looking at a quirky subset—but where the data are available, the effect has been found.
These increases in IQ scores are much too large to have been caused by changes in genes. Some of the increase may have come from better nutrition and health care. Some of it may have come from the fact that our environment has gotten more complex, and people are more often called on to think abstractly, and to solve unfamiliar problems—the exact sorts of things you’re often asked to do on IQ tests. Whatever the cause, it must be environmental. But how does that fit with previous intelligence is mostly determined by genetics?
This is a really good example of clever discourse. You have to read it several times before you realise the points being made in the first and last sentence are not vindicated by what comes in between. At some point in these three paragraphs, IQ tests become conflated with innate intelligence. IQ tests do not offer much insight into anything other than the ability to do IQ tests; the point is made and then ignored.
You can learn to do IQ tests; what has that to do with genetics? More people are computer savvy now than 100 years ago; there weren’t any, the reasons for it are clearly environmental but it has little to say about nature/nurture arguments related to genetics. The fact that IQ tests are determined by the environment does not mean that intelligence is not determined largely by genetics.
It seems to me that expertise requires a lot of knowledge, but “thinking well” does not. As fellow Core Knowledge educator Ed Hirsch suggests:
“How much do I really need to know about DNA in order to comprehend a newspaper text directed to the common reader”.
The answer Hirsch gives: “not much”.
The point is weak research evolves into a very clever discourse. The meme replicates itself because the arguments are clever. In the case of Mitra’s research bucket loads of charisma has led to TED talks and tabloid headlines.
What the two have in common is that they offer a cheaper future for education. They both effectively sideline the teacher. In the discourse of DT Willingham and Christodoulou, that fact is cleverly hidden in the midst of talk about a return to traditional teaching. Mitra on the other hand hardly hides the fact that he sees computers as, partially at least, an alternative to the classroom teacher.
Tom Bennett wonders how Mitra secured such large amounts of funding. Some of us may also wonder the same about the Core Knowledge Foundation. The answer is that ideas may evolve but power selects, which ideas survive. Power also selects those who re-iterate those ideas. Ideas that sound in opposition to one another actually serve the same purpose for power.
My point is this: higher order thinking skills are not about the facts of things, quite the opposite, they are about being able to see through the facts of things. Think about it.