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On education and the influence of Cognitive Psychology: can you learn 1 + 1 = 3?

In this blog, I want to consider a Twitter debate on the nature of learning. I was surprised to learn that many educationalists believe you can learn untrue truth propositions. Education has long struggled to define learning but a relativist perspective has emerged due to the increasing influence of  Cognitive Psychology.

Vygotsky, Bruner, James and Dewey have been central to educational thinking for decades; however, Ofsted’s definition of learning endorses a view held by some cognitive psychologists that privileges memorisation,  but does it reflect the true nature of learning 1?

Social theorists, such as Archer, describe knowledge as a social structure 2, individuals interact with it to learn. For example, knowledge of the bible doesn’t solely exist in human cognition; it also exists in books, print media and online. It is interpreted by different social groups and institutions. Historians, theologians and educationalists from all parts of the world and throughout the ages have contested its meaning. No one person or group owns the meaning of the bible.

Memorisation maybe the residue of thought but learning represents an ongoing relationship between social structures, normative cultures and individuals. To make that point, I highlighted the issue of the untrue truth proposition citing two examples a) 1 + 1 = 3; b) Stranraer is the capital of Scotland.

 The blog does not consider whether hobbits live in holes in the ground; it accepts the truth they do in Tolkien novels.

The issue of language  

The issue could be more easily resolved if there was a word for memorising an untruth. There are words such as mislearn or misconceptualisation, which describe a truth proposition learned incorrectly but not one that is untrue. For example, the proposition “there is a number 4″ where 4 is spelt “fore” by error is mislearned. The proposition if memorised as intended is true and can be learned. Stranraer is the capital of Scotland is untrue, whether memorised correctly or otherwise.

Picture the scene, a student returns from school:

Parent or guardian, “what did you learn at school today”?

Student replies, “I learned Stranraer is the capital of Scotland”.

Parent or guardian, “that’s not true you should have learned it is Edinburgh”.

A parent wouldn’t say “you have memorised but not learned it”. They may say “you have learned it incorrectly, Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland”. The learning referred to is the object of the learning, in this case, Edinburgh not the outcome Stranraer. We can be duped into correlating untruths with learning simply by the vagaries of language.

Memorisation is not the same as learning

It’s not necessarily the case that learning an untruth is unintended. Memorising is not the same as learning. For example, you encounter a spy in a seedy bar, she tells you she is intent on harming a Scottish politician. Quite possibly the worst spy ever, still the spy asks you “what is the capital of Scotland?” You are stirred but not shaken and reply, Stranraer is the capital of Scotland. Ethically it’s justifiable, but still an untruth and in this case a lie.

The spy responds curtly, “I’m a spy, write it on a piece of paper“. The spy memorises the information and then, with a flourish, burns the piece of paper before proceeding to Stranraer.

The spy has memorised the proposition as intended. The question is, has the spy learned anything? The answer is not until she learns Edinburgh is the capital and you, dear reader, are a liar. You had your reasons, don’t feel too bad.

If we define learning in terms of memory then how can we differentiate between what is right and what is wrong? The consequence of a Cognitive approach is to descend into reductivist relativism whereby anything you can think and memorise constitutes knowledge. A hole that we cannot easily escape 3.

Conclusion

Memorisation might be the residue of thought but not everything we think constitutes learning. You can memorise 1 + 1 = 3 but you can’t know or learn it. It seems a number of educationalists disagree.

You can partially learn something but you cannot learn something that is propositionally untrue and known to be so. Only by maintaining the difference between learning, memorisation and knowledge can education begin to define learning.

The desire of some to make their field central to an issue is understandable; however, defining learning solely in terms of one aspect of cognition is unhelpful; particularly, if a standards agency, like Ofsted adopts it.

Education is a social practice involving a number of fields including Philosophy, Sociology, Linguistics and Psychology; therefore, educationalists should resist any particular field overly extending its influence on educational thinking 4.

Notes

1. Ofsted introduced this definition in a presentation on the Education Inspection Framework 2019 (schools)

2. Margaret S. Archer: Realist Social Theory: The morphogenetic Approach (Cambridge: 3. CambridgeUniversity Press, 199 S ) and Culture and Agency. The Place of Culture in Social Theory. revised edition (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1996)

3. Popper defined relativism in the open society and its enemies (1962) as:

“The choice between competing theories is arbitrary, since there is no such thing as objective truth.” (Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. II (London, 1963), p. 369f.)

4. Various papers exist that describe the relationship between cognitive science and psychology.  Paul Thagard describes it quite well here: Why Cognitive Science Needs Philosophy and Vice Versa:

Whenever science operates at the edge of what is known, it runs into general issues about the nature of knowledge and reality. Mundane science can operate without much concern for methodological and ontological issues, but frontier science cannot avoid them.

For example, innovative research in theoretical and experimental physics inevitably encounters fundamental problems about the nature of space and time, as well as methodological questions concerning how scientific investigation should proceed. Cognitive science has made substantial progress in investigating phenomena such as perception, memory, learning, problem solving, and language use, but clearly it is still a frontier enterprise.

3 thoughts on “On education and the influence of Cognitive Psychology: can you learn 1 + 1 = 3?

  1. I’m struggling to quite link with all this Peter.

    For me ‘memorisation’ is an encoding of abstract propositions (hence being the residue of thought). ‘Memory’ however is much broader – such as in encountering a smell which evokes a certain experience I never consciously thought about. This is clearly memory, but I don’t think it fits the ‘residue of thought’ criterion.

    Like you (I think) I am keen to see ‘learning’ as something bigger than simply ‘memorisation’. I am keen to see it as an interaction between an intentional act, the process of ‘memorisation’ and SOMETHING beyond us which means EITHER that what as been learned is definitely ‘true’, or at least that it is beneficial to us in some way.

    So, I ‘learned’ as a child that Pluto is the 9th planet. I have now learned that this isn’t true, as it’s no longer defined as a planet. So did I never really ‘learn’ the first fact…? Certainly I memorised it. Certainly it was useful (for a period of time) in as much as it linked me closely to the dominant discourse. For practical purposes, it was ‘real’ knowledge – at the time – but is no longer so. Does this mean that learning can be real, but then become ‘unreal’…?

    I think that – for me – the closest attraction to the distinction between ‘memorisation’ and ‘learning’ is in its practical consequence, and nothing more. I like the idea of trying to link an intentional action to its memorisation (to say that learning is an interaction in essence) but this ONLY has valiance in as much as it has social significance – which (one way or another) is defined by consequence.

    1. Great comment Chris, I’m going to come back to you on this one because I think you highlight an important issue related to language but it does deserve a thoughtful response. I’ll come up with something this weekend.

      1. Great response Chris, but whilst I agree on our shared desire to widen the definition of leaning I’m struggling to see how you escape from memorisation and relativism.

        I previously argued that a definition of learning is dependent upon the nature of knowledge.You cannot claim to know that 1 + 1 = 3 because it is a known untruth. Equally, you cannot learn a Greater Crested Periwinkle was spotted in London yesterday because I made it up. It is possible to memorise one or both but neither is true, has ever been true or ever will be true.

        You describe memorisation as the encoding of “abstract propositions” or experiential data, such as smells, but this seems to me to lose the notion of thought. I can think anything and memorise it. Is everything we think and memorise, learning? If not, how do we differentiate between the two?

        A proposition is a testable conjectural relationship between constructs. It is dependent upon an objective body of knowledge external to the knowing of the individual. You tacitly construct an objective reality external to individual knowing to maintain your argument.

        I accept the general acceptance of the proposition “Pluto is the ninth planet of the Universe” is problematic It was right when first encountered but now it is wrong. You compared your memorised thoughts with an external truth proposition and eventually discovered its untruth.

        You ask the question, does this mean that learning can be real, but then become ‘unreal’… I agree that if you put it in those terms, it sounds wrong but we are not debating semantics. In effect, you thought you had learned something but you were wrong. If a 19th century, ornithologist found a new species of bird it is real but if the ornithologist proved a fraud, the bird does not become unreal. Language is the issue here.

        We are unused to considering knowledge in terms of external structures. Everyday language conflates memorisation with learning. Linguistically we can say anything but a profession has to differentiate between the language of the everyday and the way it represents its professional knowledge.

        Other than a play on words, I do not see an argument justifying your assertion you learned “Pluto is the ninth planet of the Universe”. You cannot learn something that isn’t, never has been and never will be true.

        Remember, I am not trying to ascertain truth here, I am demonstrating that memorisation is not the same as learning.

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