Philosophy of Education

On the clever discourse of Mitra’s “no holes in the wall” and the DT Willingham meme

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”.  Indeed, thinking is dependent upon knowledge but that does not mean there is a correlation between the type, or quality, of thought on a subject and the extent of knowledge of that subject.  There is no correlation between the two.

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 students don’t like school because:

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

I suppose that is a matter of opinion. 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. In other words, if you have experience of the situation and know the answer then you can answer the question.

Who can disagree? But it says little about domain knowledge and thinking creatively other than you need to know the nature of a tack to know it can be hammered into a wall. Knowing the nature of a tack does not guarantee that someone would solve the problem. Again, thought is dependent upon knowledge but the quality and type of thought is not.

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 without much 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; you have to really think about it. 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.

A skim read just accepts the correlation at face value. The fact that IQ tests can go up and down is only relevant to a point about innate intelligence if IQ tests are the same as innate intelligence, but they aren’t.

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 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.

12 thoughts on “On the clever discourse of Mitra’s “no holes in the wall” and the DT Willingham meme

  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!

  5. You said, indeed, thinking is dependent upon knowledge but that does not mean there is a correlation between the type, or quality, of thought on a subject and the extent of knowledge of that subject. There is no correlation between the two.

    That is clearly incorrect. Even if general thinking skills exist it is still wrong. A correlation does not need to be perfect or the 40 a day lived to a 100 smoker becomes a good argument.

    1. There is no correlation between “thinking well” and knowledge. My son knows more about Hip hop than I do so if you asked us both “what do we know about the subject” He would get an “A” and I an “F”. If you asked us what we thought about it I think I would get an “A” and he an “F” because I have learnt how to think well about things (relatively speaking). If I learned a lot more about the subject it would not change the quality of my thinking but it would improve my ability to talk about the subject and superficially look as though I am thinking better. Over time my son will learn how to think better, but he may not learn much more about Rap, but his output on the subject would be immeasurably better. I think you conflate thinking and knowledge because of the discourse associated with cognitive load theory.

  6. “what causes war, such as the one in Europe in 1914?” Do you think its an easy question? And people can think critically without the domain knowledge of understanding war.
    “There is rarely one single, clear cause of conflict and, ultimately, war. The causes of a war are usually numerous, and several reasons for a conflict can be intertwined in a complicated way.”
    Dunning–Kruger effect

    1. I’m not an expert on the First World War but we could have a discussion about it based upon knowledge of other domains such as economics, human nature etc. Clearly, you don’t need much knowledge of the First World War to discuss it. We can prove it, if you like, by having one.

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