I wanted to try and thread some recent twitter debates together. 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 focus on arguments centred upon the work of the American psychologist DT Willingham. On Twitter, the DT Willingham meme is everywhere. The meme conflates higher order thinking skills with knowledge (and sometimes memory) 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.
Attempts to counter the meme with the argument that thinking and knowledge are not the same is met with the response “tell me something you can think about that doesn’t involve knowledge”. Well quite, but show me any skill that doesn’t require the ability to breathe.
In this blog, I am going to differentiate between thinking well (higher order thinking skills) and expertise (extensive knowledge of something or other). I define clever discourse as arguments that are accepted because they sound plausible. VAK learning styles is an example, learning visually sounds plausible until you think about it.
DT Willingham in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” 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 loved school; however, is it true of those teachers DT Willingham does not know? Students, so the theory goes do not love school thus teachers are not prepared for life in classrooms:
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. The brain, according to DT Willingham, is 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. If you have encountered the problem before and have stored it in long-term memory then you can answer the question. So, if you know the answer, you can answer the question.
DT Willingham also says 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).
The statement is unchallengeable; however, it leads to this view:
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.
It seems to me that this conflates thinking well with expertise. You can think critically about both wars with little domain knowledge. Of course, some would say that you need some knowledge to have an opinion, who could disagree; but how much knowledge is required to have a critical opinion? Expertise requires domain knowledge, most of us are not domain experts on war but we can think critically about it.
A variant of this argument and one that illuminates the point is used by Daisy Christodoulou 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 critically about the First World War but not with expertise.
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 good example of clever discourse. At some point in these three paragraphs, IQ tests become conflated with innate intelligence and genetics. IQ tests do not offer insight into anything other than the ability to do IQ tests; they have little to say about genetics.
Expertise requires a lot of knowledge, but “thinking well” does not. As Willingham’s 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 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. My point is this, higher order thinking skills are not about the facts of things they are about being able to see through the facts of things. Think about it.