Posts Tagged ‘Daniel T Willingham’

“All that glitters is not gold” is one of the better known English proverbs. It means that not everything that looks glittery and precious turns out to be.  That pearl of wisdom is also a tiny piece of true knowledge, found in Aesop’s Fables, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and it readily comes to mind when confronted with Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy‘s recent conceptual invention, New Pedagogies of Deep Learning.

Since the launch of its first installment, A Rich Seam, with Sir Michael Barber at Pearson Learning in London, UK, back in January 2014, Fullan and Langworthy have been preaching the new gospel of Deep Learning at education conferences around the English-speaking world. “New teaching partnerships between teachers and students are the essential foundations of effective new pedagogies,” they claim, and are “beginning to emerge as digital access opens the door to broader and more varied sources of content knowledge.”  These new pedagogies are capable of not only motivating “bored students” and “alienated teachers,” but “blowing the lid off” learning in the 21st century classroom.

The New Pedagogues funded by Pearson International, the world’s largest “learning corporation,” exude great faith in the power of learning technology. Fresh from Microsoft and its global research team, Langworthy sees “exciting things” happening in schools world-wide when teachers set aside  knowledge “content delivery” and engage students using “collaboration” facilitated by the latest technology. While Fullan’s latest research partner holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Boston University, she introduces herself  with the phrase “I am a learner” (rather than a teacher), and claims that A Rich Seam is “trying to put some substance and conceptual rigour” around the theory.

Fullan and Langworthy’s grand theory is heavy on imaginative thinking and incredibly light on content. Tapping into the “rich seam” of the new pedagogies involves “deep collaboration” to “learn from and with your students.”  Deep Learning seeks to develop what are termed Fullan’s Six Cs: character education, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, so, one is left to assume, the fundamentals of reading, writing and mental computation are just as passe as teaching content knowledge in the classroom.

The New Pedagogues, much like John Dewey and the old-school Progressives, tend to see factual knowledge in opposition to the kinds of abilities and thinking they seek to develop in students. While teaching isolated facts is clearly unhelpful, they go far beyond that in assuming that teaching facts is somehow opposed to teaching meaning and essential context. Indeed, as Daisy Christodoulou shows in Seven Myths about Education (2014), mastery of bodies of factual knowledge actually allow creativity, problem-solving and analysis to happen.

Exciting discoveries can happen spontaneously, but thinking well requires knowing facts.  That’s the considered view of one of America’s leading cognitive scientists, Daniel T. Willingham. Based upon cognitive science research over the past 30 years, knowing things actually facilitates deeper thinking and learning.  In Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), Willingham put it succinctly: “The very processes that teachers care most about –critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving –are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” So intertwined are they that one London English teacher, Joe Kirby, likens the development of knowledge and skills to a “double helix.”

Distinguishing between “deep” and “”surface” approaches to study is certainly not new and can be traced back to original empirical research in the 1970s.  A 2013 literature review of “deep and surface learning” by J.S. Atherton clarified the differences and provided a useful comparison chart.  Although learners may be classified as “deep” or “surface,” they are not necessarily attributes of individuals and are often found in combination with one another. They do correlate fairly closely with motivation, since “deep” tends to be associated with intrinsic motivation and “surface” with extrinsic. What is abundantly clear, however, is that knowing something is absolutely critical to “deep learning” and reflected in its first three characteristics: finding significance, relating previous knowledge to new knowledge, and relating knowledge from different courses. 

Michael Fullan’s The New Pedgaogies of Deep Learning may well turn out to be yet another 21st century learning illusion. He’s now riding high on global rocket fuel provided by Sir Michael Barber and Pearson International. It is well advanced in Fullan’s educational ‘sandbox’, the Ontario school system, where he commands seemly unlimited research dollars and seems to appear on every “educational leadership” conference program. After four decades of “new initiatives” now long-forgotten, it’s incredible to read his rousing January 2014 call for “new pedagogies” capable of unleashing “rich futures” where “students and teachers” are “always learning” and it makes the whole “system” go round.

What’s really driving Michael Fullan’s latest project funded by Pearson Learning? Is it possible to truly learn deeply without a sound foundation in factual knowledge and subject content?  How much of the New Pedagogies rests upon “21st century learning” conceptual thinking and false assumptions about the place of knowledge in student learning? 

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A recent visit to the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) in Potomac, MD, opened my eyes and forced me to confront my preconceived notion about the efficacy of “brain science” in guiding teaching practice. Director of the CTTL Glenn Whitman and his Research Head Ian Kelleher are leaders in the “neuroteach” movement deeply committed to applying sound, research-based principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience in the real life classroom. Their new book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, also attempts to sort out the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in this burgeoning field.

neuroteachcttlcoverSince my faculty of education days, the critical pedagogical concept of “crap-detection” introduced in Charles Weingarten and Neil Postman’s 1969 classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity has loomed ever larger in my thinking about education. The whole notion actually originated with the great novelist Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” For at least two decades, listening to various and sundry travelling education consultants promoting “brain-based learning” has tended to set-off my own internal crap-detector.

That perception was further cemented by reading Daniel T. Willingham’s 2012 book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. The field of teaching and learning , he warned us, is “awash in conflicting goals, research ‘wars’, and profiteers” and we need to be vigilant in critically evaluating new pedagogical ideas and less persuaded by “bad evidence” drawn particularly from neuroscience. He provided us with a helpful shortcut to help in assessing the latest panacea: “strip it and flip it, trace it, analyze it, and make your own decision about whether to adopt it.”  In short, become an informed consumer of initiatives floating on unproven theories or based upon dubious research evidence. 

Whitman and Kelleher’s book Neuroteach and the CTTL both venture into contested terrain in the larger debate over the value of neuroscience in informing and guiding classroom teaching. Like many such cutting-edge ventures, the CTTL is housed in an impresssive state-of-the-art learning centre and comes beautifully packaged in booklets exhorting teachers to “think differently and deeply” about their practice.  Upon closer examination, however, there is more to this initiative than meets the eye.

Whitman and Kelleher are plainly aware of the wall of skepticism aroused by pseudoscience and expressed in hushed tones in today’s high school staff rooms. British education gadfly David Didau (@LearningSpy) put it best: “While cognitive psychology is playing an increasingly important role in how teachers understand their craft and how students can best learn, neuroscience has, for the most part, remained the realm of quacks and snake-oil salesmen.” In such a field, Whitman and Kelleher are a breath of fresh air – playing an important role in bridging the gap between sound research and classroom practice.  They also use “crap-detection” in helping us to understand “the complexities of the science of learning.”

The CTTL is school-based and focused specifically on improving teaching practice by applying the best research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Some readers of Neuroteach may be put-off by the optimistic, aspirational tone and tendency to appropriate “transformational” rhetoric. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine teachers caught up in the euphoria as they “begin to rewire each other’s brain, to develop neural pathways and connections informed by mind, brain and education science.” Not everyone possesses an “ambitious brain” and will be easily convinced to either stop teaching as they were once taught or to abandon teaching to their own “learning strengths.” ( p. 7).  Some outstanding teachers, we all know, do both.

neuroteachpcknowledgeWhitman and Kelleher, to their credit, do deliver more than the usual messianic educational progressivism. Educators familiar with Tom Bennett’s ground-breaking work with researchED will heartily approve of certain sections of this book.  It’s encouraging to see British teacher-researcher Carl Hendrick’s classroom wisdom brought to a North American audience. The doctor who still uses leeches to treat his patients and, when questioned on it, replies “it works for me” is, as Carl reminds us, simply not good enough these days. Research-informed teachers will also be pleased to see Professor Robert Coe, head of Britain’s College of Teaching, cited for his penetrating observation: “The problem with what’s obvious is that it is often wrong.”  This applies not only to the traditional “leeches” but to supposed 21st century psuedoscientific curatives.

The proposed CTTL teacher research agenda is a welcome contribution to the field of teacher growth and development.  Focusing on two different strands makes good sense: 1) mastering MBE (mind-brain-education) science and 2) curriculum understanding ( p. 153).  The primary objective, according to Whitman and Kelleher, is to marry curriculum understanding and teaching strategies informed by MBE science to achieve pedagogical content knowledge. 

The CTTL approach aligns well with Rob Coe’s recent Sutton Trust research review identifying six “research-backed components of “great teaching,” all cast within the context of assessing “teacher quality.” Coe’s top two factors match the two strands underlying the CTTL program philosophy: 1) content knowledge; and 2) quality of instruction, both of which show “strong evidence of impact on student outcomes.”  In essence, “knowing your stuff” still matters and applying the lessons of MBE science can make you even better as a teacher.

Cutting through the accretion of “crap” in cognitive psychology and neuroscience is not easy. What can be done to develop in new teachers and everyday classroom teachers what Postman termed a “built-in crap detector”?  Is it possible to transform teacher development into something approaching immersion in research-informed practice?  How can we separate initiatives like the CTTL from the commercial and trendy purveyors of pseudoscience? 

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With the release of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) on the horizon,  the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Education Office has stoked-up the “Math Wars” with a new study. While the October 2016 report examines a number of key questions related to teaching Mathematics, OECD Education chose to highlight its findings on “memorization,” presumably to dispel perceptions about “classroom drill” and its use in various countries.

mathsubtractionboardThe OECD, which administers the PISA assessments every three years to 15-year-olds from around the globe, periodically publishes reports looking at slices of the data. It’s most October 2016 report,  Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers and How PISA Can Help Answer Them, based upon the most recent 2012 results, tends to zero-in on “memorization” and attempts to show that high-performing territories, like Shanghai-China, Korea, and Chinese-Taipei, rely less on memory work than lower-performing places like Ireland, the UK, and Australia.

American Mathematics educator Jo Boaler, renowned for “Creative Math,” jumped upon the PISA Study to buttress her case  against “memorization” in elementary classrooms. In a highly contentious November 2016 Scientific American article, Boaler and co-author Pablo Zoido, contended that PISA findings confirmed that “memorizers turned out to be the lowest achievers, and countries with high numbers of them—the U.S. was in the top third—also had the highest proportion of teens doing poorly on the PISA math assessment.” Students who relied on memorization, they further argued, were “approximately half a year behind students who used relational and self-monitoring strategies” such as those in Japan and France. 

Australian education researcher Greg Ashman took a closer look at the PISA Study and called into question such hasty interpretations of the findings.  Figure 1.2: How teachers teach and students learn caught his eye and he went to work interrogating the survey responses on “memorization” and the axes used to present the data.  The PISA analysis, he discovered, also did not include an assessment of how teaching methods might be correlated with PISA scores in Mathematics.  Manitoba Mathematics professor Robert Craigen spotted a giant hole in the PISA analysis and noted that the “memorization” data related to “at-home strategies of students” not their instructional experiences and may wel;l indicate that students who are improperly instructed in class resort to memorization on their own.

mathpisateacherdirectedgraphWhat would it look like, Ashman wondered, if the PISA report had plotted how students performed in relation to the preferred methods used on the continuum from “more student-oriented instruction” to “more teacher-directed instruction.” Breaking down all the data, he generated a new graph that actually showed how teaching method correlated with higher math performance and found a “positive correlation” between teacher-directed instruction and higher Math scores. “Correlations,” he duly noted, “do not necessarily imply causal relationships but clearly a higher ratio of teacher-directed activity to student orientation.”

Jumping on the latest research to seek justification for her own “meta-beliefs” are normal practice for Boaler and her “Discovery Math” education disciples. After junking, once again, the ‘strawmen’ of traditional Mathematics — “rote memorization” and “drill,” Boaler and Zoido wax philosophical and poetic: “If American classrooms begin to present the subject as one of open, visual, creative inquiry, accompanied by growth-mindset messages, more students will engage with math’s real beauty. PISA scores would rise, and, more important, our society could better tap the unlimited mathematical potential of our children.” That’s definitely stretching the evidence far beyond the breaking point.

The “Math Wars” do generate what University of Virginia psychologist Daniel T. Willingham has aptly described as “a fair amount of caricature.” The recent Boaler-Zoido Scientific American article is a prime example of that tendency. Most serious scholars of cognition tend to support the common ground position that learning mathematics requires three distinct types of knowledge: factual, procedural and conceptual. “Factual knowledge,” Willingham points out, “includes having already in memory the answers to a small set of problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.” While some students can learn Mathematics through invented strategies, it cannot be relied upon for all children. On the other hand, knowledge of procedures is no guarantee of conceptual understanding, particularly when it comes to complexites such as dividing fractions. It’s clear to most sensible observers that knowing math facts, procedures and concepts is  what counts when it comes to mastering mathematics.

mathtimestableimageSimply ignoring research that contradicts your ‘meta-beliefs’ is common on the Math Education battlefield. Recent academic research on “memorization” that contradicts Boaler and her entourage, is simply ignored, even that emanating from her own university. Two years ago, Shaozheng Qin and Vinod Menon of Stanford University Medical School led a team that provided scientifically-validated evidence that “rote memorization” plays a critical role in building capacity to solve complex calculations.

Based upon a clinical study of 68 children, aged 7 to 9, studied over the course of one year, their 2014 Nature Neuroscience study, Qin, Menon et al. found that memorizing the answers to simple math problems, such as basic addition or multiplication, forms a key step in a child’s cognitive development, helping bridge the gap between counting on fingers and tackling more complex calculations. Memorizing the basics, they concluded, is the gateway to activating the “hippocampus,” a key brain structure for memory, which gradually expands in “overlapping waves” to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math.

The whole debate over memorization is suspect because of the imprecision in the use of the term. Practice, drilling, and memorization are not the same, even though they get conflated in Jo Boaler’s work and in much of the current Mathematics Education literature. Back in July 2012, D.T. Willingham made this crucial point and provided some valuable points of distinction. “Practice,” as defined by Anders Ericsson, involves performing tasks and feedback on that performance, executed for the purpose of improvement. “Drilling’ connotes repetition for the purpose of achieving automaticity, which – at its worst, amounts to mindless repetition or parroting. “Memorization,” on the other hand, relates to the goal of something ending up in long-term memory with ready access, but does not imply using any particular method to achieve that goal.

Memorization has become a dirty word in teaching and learning laden with so much baggage to the point where it conjures up mental pictures of “drill and kill” in the classroom. The 2016 PISA Study appears to perpetuate such stereotyping and, worst of all, completely misses the “positive correlation” between teacher-directed or explicit instruction and better performance in mathematics.

Why does the PISA Study tend to associate memorization in home-study settings with the drudgery of drill in the classroom?  To what extent does the PISA Study on Mathematics Teaching support the claims made by Jo Boaler and her ‘Discovery Math’ advocates? When it comes to assessing the most effective teaching methods, why did the PISA researchers essentially take a pass? 


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Educational talk about “grit” – being passionate about long-term goals, and showing the determination to see them through –seems too be everywhere in and around schools. Everywhere, that is, except in the rather insular Canadian educational world. Teaching and measuring social-emotional skills are on the emerging policy agenda, but “grit” is (so far) not among them.

GritFaceGirlGrit is trendy in American K-12 education and school systems are scrambling to get on board the latest trend.  A 2007 academic article, researched and written by Angela Duckworth, made a compelling case that grit plays a critical role in success.  Author Paul Tough introduced grit to a broad audience in his 2013 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which went on to spend a year on the New York Times bestseller list.  And in the same year, Duckworth herself gave a TED talk, which has been viewed more than 8 million times online.

Since then, grit initiatives have flourished in United States school systems. Some schools are seeking to teach grit, and some districts are attempting to measure children’s grit, with the outcome contributing to assessments of school effectiveness. Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is one of the hottest North American non-fiction titles this publishing season.  In spite of the flurry of public interest, it has yet to register in the Canadian educational domain.

GritDuckworthBookCoverOver the past three years the Ontario-based People for Education (P4ED) advocacy organization has been pursuing the goal of broadening the existing measures of student success to embrace “social-emotional skills” or competencies. With a clear commitment to “move beyond the ‘3R’s” and redefine the established testing/accountability framework, P4ED founder Annie Kidder and the well-funded Toronto-centred research team have been creating a “broad set of foundational skills” and developing a method of “measuring schools’ progress toward those goals.”

The Ontario P4ED initiative, billed as “Measuring What Matters “(MWM), proposes a draft set of “Competencies and Skills” identified as Creativity, Citizenship, Social-Emotional Learning, and Health — all to be embedded in what is termed “quality learning environments” both in schools and the community. The proposed Ontario model makes no reference whatsoever to cognitive learning and subject knowledge or to the social-emotional aspects of grit, perseverance or work ethic.

The P4ED project has a life of its own, driven by a team of Canadian education researchers with their own well-known hobby horses. Co-Chair of the MWM initiative, former BC Deputy Minister of Education Charles Ungerleider, has assembled a group of academics with impeccable “progressive education” (anti-testing) credentials, including OISE teacher workload researcher Nina Bascia and York University self-regulation expert Stuart Shanker.

A 2015 MWM project progress report claimed that the initiative was moving from theory to practice with “field trials” in Ontario public schools. It simply reaffirmed the proposed social-emotional domains and made no mention of Duckworth’s research or her “Grit Scale” for assessing student performance on that benchmark. While Duckworth is cited in the report, it is for a point unrelated to her key research findings. The paper also assumes that Ontario is a “medium stakes” testing environment in need of softer, non-cognitive measures of student progress, an implicit criticism of the highly regarded Ontario Quality and Accountability Office system of provincial achievement testing.

GritGrowthMindsetWhether “grit” or any other social-emotional skills can be taught — or reliably measured — is very much in question. Leading American cognitive learning researcher Daniel T. Willingham’s latest American Educator essay (Summer 2016) addresses the whole matter squarely and punches holes in the argument that “grit” can be easily taught, let alone assessed in schools. Although Willingham is a well-known critic of “pseudoscience” in education, he does favour utilizing “personality characteristics” for the purpose of “cultivating” in students such attributes as conscientiousness, self-control, kindness, honesty, optimism, courage and empathy, among others.

The movement to assess students for social-emotional skills has also raised alarms, even among the biggest proponents of teaching them. American education researchers, including Angela Duckworth, are leery that the terms used are unclear and the first battery of tests faulty as assessment measures.  She recently resigned from the advisory board of a California project, claiming the proposed social-emotional tests were not suitable for measuring school performance.  “I don’t think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” she told The New York Times.

Why are leading Canadian educators so committed to developing “social-emotional” measures as alternatives to current student achievement assessment programs? Should social-emotional competencies such as “joy for learning” or “grit”  be taught more explicity in schools?  How reliable are measures of such “social-emotional skills” as creativity, citizenship, empathy, and self-regulation? 

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