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On Mitra’s “no holes in the wall” and the DT Willingham meme: weak research needs clever discourse to survive

I wanted to try and thread some recent twitter debates together and make the point that what often looks superficially to be random different issues are in fact related.

I’m going touch upon the Sugata Mitra debate. Mitra is accused of poor research. I would describe it as “discursive research”. It generates discourse, 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 for no other reason than it links to previous blogs. On twitter, it seems, 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 thinking skills such as: interpretation, empathy, analysis, synthesis, evaluation or some humanist or esoteric notion of cleverness. Assessing how well we think, therefore,  is correlated to assessing how much knowledge we have. This seems to be the reasoning behind Daisy Christodoulou’s understanding of multiple choice questions.

The argument generally goes along the lines of: 1) knowledge is the be all and end all  2) describe something that doesn’t involve knowledge 3) QED.

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 the skills and the car? The car becomes more important than the skills required to drive it.

In this blog I am going to differentiate between thinking and knowledge: or thinking well (higher order thinking skills) and expertise (extensive knowledge of something or other). Of course, car skills and cars are not as intrinsically interlinked as thinking and knowledge. This is where 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, according to Willingham, 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 because:

Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking

I suppose that is  a matter of opinion. It is, according to 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.

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 both irrefutably true and completely meaningless. 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, it states the obvious 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 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. Possibly 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.

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 it is not, in itself, evidence for it. 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 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 becomes conflated with innate intelligence. IQ tests do not offer much insight into anything other than the ability to do IQ tests. That point is made and then ignored.

You can learn to do IQ tests. What has that to do with genetics? I could claim that more people are computer savvy now than fifty years ago. It is self evident and self evidently meaningless.

It seems to me that expertise requires a lot of knowledge, but “thinking well” does not. As fellow Core Knowledge conspirator 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 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 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 its ideas. That is the difference between the natural and social worlds. 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.

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8 thoughts on “On Mitra’s “no holes in the wall” and the DT Willingham meme: weak research needs clever discourse to survive

  1. I think you are trying to use a very poor study conducted by Mitra the same weighting as better thought out and researched ideas. Mitra used the ignorance of most westerners about India to paint a picture of his findings which does not relate to reality at all. The others you mention do not.

    You are merely holding them up in the same regard as it suits you ideologically to do so.

    If you thought there was merit in his research then point that out rather than trying to discredit those you disagree with anyway.

  2. I found this very thought provoking, thanks.

    Interestingly, I came into teaching because I didn’t enjoy my own experiences of school, and I wanted to try and make it different for others. I have met quite a number of teachers who came into teaching for that very same reason.

    I’ve always wondered about the title of Dan Willingham’s book, because both my kids really did enjoy primary school very much. The jury is currently out on secondary. 😉

    1. Same here. I was ambivalent about school and fell into teaching mainly due to the needs of the family at the time. I’ve met few teachers that cited their own school experience as the reason they came into teaching.

      In my experience kids like school more than teachers like professional development. The problem is the same though over a period of time we made it irrelevant to them. We began to improve and now its all going back again. Teachers say the same about professional development – “its just not relevant”.

      Of course, you can’t make everything relevant to the individual but you can try a little bit to make it more meaningful culturally speaking. I agreed with you about culture. In social theory culture is about the meaning of things; its not just music or art. Culture is how we interact with the knowledge of society. As you say it is so important: stories, the ability to make meaning abstractedly.

      Aha I’m beginning to bang on. I think you already know all this anyway. Thanks for the comment appreciate it.

  3. Wow, so much here:

    1) “I honestly cannot see why someone can think critically, or well, about the second world war but not be able to think think well about the current situation in the Middle East. It seems to me that this conflates thinking well with expertise.”

    I would argue- upon my reading of Daisy, Hirsch and Willingham (and many others)- that there is a difference between having an opinion and ‘thinking well” (I am sure you have heard the meme that opinions are like a**holes…). As a micro-experiment I asked my son about the causes of WW2. He said that the German’s wanted to take over other countries. I then asked him about the middle east. being in grade 2, he thought the middle east was in Manitoba (we are Canadian). I then gave him a brief explanation about the conflict between the Muslim countries and Israel (and showed him on a map). He said that the Muslim Countries should stop bullying Israel. I then told him that some people think that the Israelis took over land that other people had lived on he then said they should give it back. I then told him that the Israelis believed that the land had been theirs to begin with a long time ago… I think you know where I am going with this. My son had many different opinions that changed with every new bit of information I gave him but I wouldn’t be able to say that he could ‘think well’ about the middle east because he didn’t have any prior knowledge. Maybe you can think well about the middle east, I don’t know, but to completely discount all your prior knowledge of the situation in your opinion is exactly the trap that Daisy describes.

    2) “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 it is not, in itself, evidence for it. The chronology of events that gave rise to the first world war is not higher order thinking about the first world war.”

    Really? What causes war? I think that- with a statement like that- you should tell us what the right answer should be or what ‘Thinking Well’ might look like. Again, think about the difference between opinions and a**holes before you respond.

    3) “You can learn to do IQ tests. What has that to do with genetics? I could claim that more people are computer savvy now than fifty years ago. It is self evident and self evidently meaningless.”

    So, people have had as much practice and instruction on how to take IQ tests as they have had on working with computers? You might want to point to all the practice people have had taking IQ tests before you can make a claim like that. I took an IQ test once and I was given no practice before-hand. I have had thousands of hours of information about how to use computers. Please explain to me how the two are the same?

    Please define how ‘thinking well’ about something doesn’t require background knowledge? (see the meme about opinions and a**holes above). As I am starting to think that, for people like you, the idea that ‘thinking well’ must be differentiated from having an uninformed opinion because that would be the difference between thinking about yourself as clever or just having an a**hole. (For the record, the meme is: “Opinions are like a**holes, everyone has one”)

    I am very interested to see if you allow this challenge to be posted.

    1. Thanks for the response Nick. Here it is posted. I will pay you the courtesy of responding but if you want to post something up without a response just say so and I will do that as well.

      I think we can respectfully disagree can’t we?

      1) Do your opinions not change as you learn new things. Is that not simply “thinking well”. Are you forever locked into one mind set that sees knowledge as a dichotomy between those that know the truth and “***holes”.

      Is it not possible for me to argue that all these categories given to you: Israel, the Middle East and Palestine are irrelevant that in fact this is just humans fighting over land and exercising power. That in fact your knowledge potentially clouds the issue? It is given to you for precisely for that reason. Can you not perceive of a circumstance where knowledge is given to deceive?

      Do the newspapers in the West not engage in propoganda? Do you accept everything you are told at face value? How do you decide between good knowledge and bad knowledge?

      More to the point at what point does anybody decide that enough knowledge is enough and they are no longer an ****hole.

      2) “Please define how ‘thinking well’ about something doesn’t require background knowledge?”

      You see that is the meme. I didn’t say that. I said that there was a difference between thinking well and expertise. You haven’t really addressed the point I am making.

      I presume you are not an expert on the middle east, most aren’t. Are you suggesting that a lack of expertise precludes you an opinion. Can anyone justify teaching their son / daughter when, in fact, they actually do not have that much knowledge at all. Can anyone’s son / daughter not have an opinion until they knows as much as a parent? Can a parent not be impressed with his son / daughter’s thinking even if he /she hasn’t yet mastered all the facts?

      3) IQ tests can be learned. The quoted text accepts as such. Any assertions about genetics are meaningless. The computer example was a metaphor to aid understanding it was not the point itself.

      I haven’t downgraded knowledge, quite the opposite, I describe it as expertise. Sociologists will discuss War as much as historians and political analysts. Each has a different knowledge base. Do you see knowledge as fixed. Can there be no interdisciplinary engagement?

      Engage with what I wrote and not with what you perceive “people like me” think. Thinking well is not the same as expertise, that was my point. If you conflate the two you make all kinds of epistemic errors about knowledge.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for this interesting & thought-provoking piece, I would agree with your well-made points.

    You mention this:

    There seems to be little room for thinking skills such as: interpretation, empathy, analysis, synthesis, evaluation

    This is what I find odd about the opposing argument. Although a good foundation of knowledge on which to build is important, surely the skills you mention here are exactly the higher order thinking skills we should be encouraging. How helpful are discrete factual bits of knowledge without the higher order abilities of evaluation and synthesis, for example?

    Nice blog!

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