Almost two years ago, I was asked by Professor Paul Kirschner to write a book with him. The original title was ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ and the basic premise was to discuss what we felt were the foundational works in education psychology and present them to educators in a way that would hopefully inform their practice. To be asked by someone of Paul’s stature was a huge honour for me and I really enjoyed reading through almost 100 years of the best evidence on learning and the weekly meetings over Skype talking about the book (and football).
The chapters are divided into six sections. In the first section we describe how our brains work and what that means for learning and teaching. This is followed by sections on the prerequisites for learning, how learning can be supported, teacher activities, and learning in context. When we got near the end of the book we thought it would be good to provide some cautionary tales so in the final section we discuss what can only be described as educational Novichok in a chapter called ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of Education’ which you can download for free here.
It was a fantastic experience to write this book with someone like Paul. His knowledge on this topic is vast and he has a unique ability to make the highly complex accessible and explain even the most difficult psychological processes in a clear and concise way. I learned an awful lot from him over the 18 months we worked together about how learning happens and I hope you learn something from it too.
“So often I’ve been asked to recommend a starting text for educators interested in the workings of the mind―now I have one. The text Kirschner and Hendrick offer alongside each seminal article does a wonderful job of situating the content in the broader scientific context, and in the classroom.”
– Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology and Director of Graduate Studies, University of Virginia
“As the volume of research into psychology and education grows, it becomes ever harder for researchers, let alone teachers, to keep up with the latest findings. Moreover, striking results often turn out to be difficult, or impossible to replicate. What teachers need, therefore, is good guidance about research that has stood the test of time, and practical guidance about how these well-established findings might be used to inform teaching practice, and this is why this is such an extraordinary, wonderful and important book. Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick have selected the most important research publications in the psychology of education, and, for each publication, they have provided a summary of the research, the main conclusions, and a series of practical suggestions for how the findings might inform teaching practice. I know of no other book that provides such a rigorous, accessible and practical summary of the last fifty years of research in educational psychology, and anyone who wants to understand how research can improve teaching needs to read this book. Highly recommended.”
– Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment, University College London
“It’s hard to overstate just how fabulous this book is; a book I’ve wanted to exist for years and now here it is. A judicious and comprehensive selection of seminal research papers presented by two expert communicators, this is absolutely superb – from the mouth-watering list of contents, and through each of the chapters. I meet teachers in schools every week who, on hearing about various findings from research, feel liberated, enlightened with a whole new perspective on the problems they wrestle with in their classrooms. Teachers are busy – often overwhelmed – and all too frequently have not yet found the time or had the opportunity to engage with research that underpins the profession they’ve committed their lives to. This book is going to change that for a lot of people. The format is excellent, presenting the original papers alongside insightful commentary and key practical recommendations; a brilliant idea executed with style! Every school should have this book and every teacher should read it.”
– Tom Sherrington, education consultant; author of The Learning Rainforest and Rosenshine’s Principles in Action
“Teachers are rightly encouraged to base their practice on research – but education research is a huge field and it’s hard to know where to start. This book provides the answer: it’s valuable in its own right as a summary of some key research papers, and it’s also a great starting point for further reading and research.”
– Daisy Christodolou, Director of Education at No More Marking
“With the increasing volume of calls for education to become more evidence based, teachers everywhere have shaken their heads and wondered where on earth they’re supposed to find the time to locate, read and evaluate the ever-increasing acreage of research papers out there. Worry no more. In How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice, Kirschner and Hendrick have done the hard work so that you don’t have to. The volume you have in your hands has compiled some of the most important and prominent research papers in the field of education and distilled them into a form that is genuinely useful to anyone chipping away at the chalk face. But, not only is this a resource of unparalleled utility, it’s also a fascinating and world-enlarging read.”
– David Didau, author of Making Kids Cleverer
“Future historians of education will look back on this period as a Renaissance; a time when dogma and orthodoxy were being challenged, and gate keepers, priesthoods and shamans felt the ground shift beneath their feet. The sleep of reason has bred monsters of pedagogy, and they have been fattened and nurtured by the relative ignorance of the teaching profession. Not a general ignorance, but a specific one: ignorance of the evidence bases behind the claims made in education. This Renaissance has been accompanied by an evolution, as teachers and academics reach out to one another and seek sincere, authentic dialogue. But, unless we stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before us, each generation is doomed to rediscover what their ancestors painstakingly uncovered. For the health of the profession, we need the best of what we know in one place, so that successive generations of educators can carry on from their ancestors, and carry the conversation into the future rather than tread water endlessly.
This book is the perfect resource with which to do so. I can give no higher accolade than to say that every teacher should be familiar with the research it represents, its chapters should be required reading on every teacher induction course, and no teacher should account themselves a professional until they can demonstrate its acquaintance. I wish I had read it in the infancy of my career.”
– Tom Bennett, Founder, researchED
Delighted to announce that the American edition of ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ has been released this week with a new foreword by Dylan Wiliam which you can read here.
The book is the third volume in @Learn_Sci‘s Dylan Wiliam Center Collection
In 1999, Paul Black and I were working with a group of math and science teachers. We had just completed a major review of the research on the impact of assessment on learning, and we had published our findings in a rather dense 65-page academic journal article.1 However, since we thought our findings would be of interest to practitioners and policy-makers, we also wrote a more accessible summary of our research, and its implications, which was published in Phi Delta Kappan magazine.2
One of the most surprising findings of our review, which we were sharing with the teachers, related to research on feedback. A particularly comprehensive review of feedback in schools, colleges and workplaces by two American psychologists—Avraham Kluger and Angelo DeNisi—had found that while feedback was often helpful in improving achievement, in 38% of the well-designed studies they had found, feedback actually lowered performance.3 In other words, in almost two out of every five cases, the participants in the research studies would have performed better if the feedback had not been given at all.
In trying to makes sense of their findings, Kluger and DeNisi suggested that feedback was less effective when it was focused on the individual (what psychologists call “ego-involving”) and more effective when it was focused on the task in which the students were engaged (“task-involving”). We therefore suggested to the teachers that to make their feedback to students more effective, they should give task-involving rather than ego-involving feedback.
Most of the teachers seemed to find this advice useful, but one teacher, after some thought, asked, “So does this mean I should not say ‘well done’ to a student?” Paul and I looked at each other, and realized that we didn’t know the answer to the question. We knew, from the work of a number of researchers, that in the longer term, praise for effort would be more likely to be successful than praise for ability. However, without knowing more about the relationship between the teacher and the student, about the context of the work, and a whole host of other factors, we could not be sure whether “Well done” would be task-involving or ego-involving feedback.
What is ironic in all this, is that we had failed to take the advice we had given teachers a year earlier in the Phi Delta Kappan article, where we said,
if the substantial rewards promised by the research evidence are to be secured, each teacher must find his or her own ways of incorporating the lessons and ideas set out above into his or her own patterns of classroom work and into the cultural norms and expectations of a particular school community. (p. 146)
The important point here is that the standard model of research dissemination, where researchers discover things, and then tell teachers about their findings, so that teachers can then implement them in their own classrooms, simply cannot work. As Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson point out in this book, classrooms are too complex for the results of
research studies to be implemented as a series of instructions to be followed. Rather, the work that teachers do in finding out how to apply insights from research in their own classrooms is a process of creating new knowledge, albeit of a distinct, and local kind. This is why this book is so unusual and important. It is not an instruction manual on how to do “evidence-based teaching” (whatever that might mean). It is, instead, an invitation to every educator to reflect on some of the most important issues in education in general—and teaching in particular—and to think about how educational research might be used as a guide for careful thinking about, and exploration of, practice.
A second unusual—and welcome—feature of this book is the way it was put together. Carl and Robin started by identifying a number of issues that are relevant to every teacher—student discipline and behavior, motivation, grading, classroom practice, reading, inclusion, memory, technology and so on. At this point, most authors would have written advice for teachers on these issues, but of course, the danger with such an approach is that it reflects the concerns of the authors, rather than of the potential reader—what philosopher Karl Popper described as “unwanted answers to unasked questions.”4
Instead, in a novel twist, Carl and Robin decided to ask practicing teachers what were for them the most important questions in each of the areas. Then, again counter to what most writers would have done, they posed the questions to both academic experts and those with expertise in classroom practice. The result is a marvelous combination of insights into teaching that are both authoritative and immediately relevant to classroom practice.
If you have read the previous volumes in the “Dylan Wiliam Center Collection” —Craig Barton’s How I wish I’d taught maths and Tom Sherrington’s The learning rainforest—you will know that our aim has been to bring to North American readers the very best of authoritative writing on education from around the world. While the questions that were posed by the teachers that Carl and Robin worked with may appear to be focused on issues that are of particular concern to teachers in England, the extraordinary range of expertise of those responding to these questions means that the answers are relevant to every American educator. The very best writing on educational research, in an accessible form—solutions you can trust.
1 Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5(1), 7-74.
2 Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-148.
3 Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: a historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254-284.
4 Popper, K. (1992 p. 41). Unended quest: An intellectual biography. London, UK: Routledge.
It is difficult to think of an idea in the recent educational past that has had as much traction as growth mindset. In researching this topic, I set a Google alert and was genuinely surprised at the amount of articles dedicated to, or referencing it on a daily basis. Growth mindset is a cultural juggernaut its followers are legion. However, recent evidence would suggest that it’s not the educational elixir of life that many of its proponents claim it to be. They might protest that it’s a sound theory infected by poor implementation but there is another argument to say that growth mindset was fatally flawed from the outset and it is now more virus than host at this stage.
Certainly when viewed as an intervention, there are reasons to be sceptical but when viewed as a guiding principle or a set of values, few can disagree with the power of this idea. Perhaps the problem is that growth mindset has travelled too far from its original intent and should be seen as more of a philosophy and less of an ‘intervention.’ Although we have mapped much of the terrain of how we learn, there is still a vast hinterland unavailable to us. Growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, but when administered in the classroom, doesn’t appear to be working. Rather like Dr. Rank in Ibsen’s famous play, we might be able to diagnose the illness but ultimately, we are powerless to cure it.
There is a story of uncertain origin about a visitor to the home of Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Neils Bohr who was surprised to discover a horseshoe nailed above the door of his home. This symbol of superstition was not something he expected to find at the abode of such an eminent man of science. Could the man who made such important discoveries in the fields of atomic structure and quantum theory really believe that a horseshoe brings good luck? When asked, Bohr’s reply was characteristically elusive: “of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.” Despite a lack of evidence, in many schools today growth mindset theory functions as a kind of Bohr’s horseshoe hanging over the front gates; it ‘works’ whether you believe in it or not.
At any rate, I have written a long-ish essay on this topic for Aeon which you can read here.
One of the biggest lessons from research is that many students don’t really know how to study. Various studies have shown that students rate re-reading and highlighting as the most effective ways of revising when in reality they are often a waste of time giving an illusion of competence in the short term at the expense of long term gains.
Students may spend large amounts of additional time studying despite no gain in later memory for the items, a phenomenon called ‘‘labour-in-vain’’ during learning (Nelson & Leonesio,1988). Recent research with educationally relevant materials has shown that repeatedly reading prose passages produces limited benefits beyond a single reading. (Karpicke, Roediger, Butler, 2009)
In contrast, retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.
Recently I got the chance to talk to some year 10 students from across our partnership of schools about study skills and I put together a brief guide to help them. The idea was to introduce them to five powerful approaches to studying in a language they can understand with the opportunity to apply them to a period of revision designed by them. All materials are below.
Thanks to the brilliant Olivier Cavigioli for the illustrations and design.
Once you talk students through these key principles, you can get them to plan their revision using a revision planner like this depending on how much time they have left:
In our new book ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ we interviewed Dylan Wiliam on how to implement research on assessment in the classroom.
A central problem in the area of assessment in the classroom has been in the way we often confuse marking and feedback. As Dylan Wiliam points out in our discussion, there is an extraordinary amount of energy expended by teachers on marking and often very little to show for it in the way of student benefit. Although feedback is one of the most effective drivers of learning, one of the more surprising findings is that a lot of it actually has a negative effect on student achievement.
A set of marked books is traditionally seen as an effective proxy for good teaching but there is a lot of evidence to say that this might not always be the case. This problem is on a scale that might surprise a lot of people:
Dylan: I once estimated that, if you price teacher’s time appropriately, in England we spend about two and a half billion pounds a year on feedback and it has almost no effect on student achievement.
Certainly students need to know where they make misconceptions or spelling errors and correcting those is important. Doing so also provides a useful diagnostic for teachers to inform what they will teach next, but the written comments at the end of a piece of work are often both the most time-consuming and also the most ineffective. For example, taking the following typical comments on a GCSE English essay:
- Try to phrase your analysis of language using more sophisticated vocabulary and phrasing.
- Try to expand on your points with more complex analysis of Macbeth’s character.
This is a good example of certain assessment practices where the feedback mainly focuses on what was deficient about it, which as Douglas Reeve’s notes, is “more like a post-mortem than a medical.” The other thing is that it doesn’t really tell the student what they need to do to improve. What is more useful to the student here? receiving vague comments like these or actually seeing sophisticated vocabulary, phrasing and analysis in action? It’s very difficult to be excellent if you don’t know what excellent looks like.
Often, teachers give both a grade and comments like those above to students, hoping that they somehow improve by the time their next piece of writing comes around a week later and then berate the student when, lo and behold, they make the same mistakes again. Perhaps part of the problem here is that we have very low expectations of what students are willing to do in response to a piece of work and do not afford them the opportunity to engage in the kind of tasks that might really improve their learning.
To address this problem, Dylan advocates a much more streamlined model of marking that is not only more manageable for teachers, but also allows students to have more ownership over the process:
Dylan: I recommend what I call ‘four quarters marking.’ I think that teachers should mark in detail, 25% of what students do, should skim another 25%, students should then self-assess about 25% with teachers monitoring the quality of that and finally, peer assessment should be the other 25%. It’s a sort of balanced diet of different kinds of marking and assessment.
Dylan Wiliam’s Four Quarters Marking (Oliver Caviglioli)
After producing a piece of work, instead of using abstract skills based success criteria, it is probably more powerful for students to have access to a bank of exemplar essays or worked solutions to see concrete examples of success against which to self-assess their own work. Marking everything in sight and leaving detailed comments is an established cultural norm now but this practice doesn’t appear to be based on good evidence. We know for example that many students will look at a grade and not engage with the feedback but is that feedback always useful anyway?
As we discuss in the book, a common issue we see again and again in using research in the classroom is the ‘Chinese whisper effect’ where by the time evidence works its way down to the level of the classroom, it’s a pale imitation of its original form. This is especially prevalent in the area of marking where convoluted policies such as triple marking are enacted as a means of raising pupil achievement whereas all they are doing is often increasing teacher workload. As Dylan Wiliam reminds us, “feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor,” but how do you change a culture that has traditionally been the opposite?
Dylan: In terms of what we do about this, I would say first of all, headteachers should lay down clear expectation to parents and say things like, “We are not going to give detailed feedback on more than 25% of what your child does. The reason for that is not because we’re lazy. It’s because there are better uses we could make of that time. We could mark everything your child does, but that would lead to lower quality teaching and then your child will learn less.” Heads have to establish those cultural norms. If a teacher is marking everything your child does, it’s bad teaching. It is using time in a way that does not have the greatest benefit for students.
As a profession, we are too some extent, we are our own worst enemy. Using marking policies that have little impact on student achievement and a negative impact on teacher workload and morale makes little sense. By adopting an approach like four quarters marking, we might go some way to address this issue and at the same time, give students more ownership over their own learning.
‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ is out later this month.
On an indecently hot day in Texas, professor Jerry B. Harvey was visiting his wife’s family when his father-in-law suggested they visit a new restaurant in the town of Abilene to which his wife exclaimed “sounds like a great idea.” Harvey had reservations about this however, as a 53 mile trip in a car with no air-conditioning sounded terrible to him, but not wanting to rock the boat he also proclaimed this a good idea and asked his mother in law if she wanted to go. As she was now the only one in the group who had not yet expressed agreement with this “great idea,” she also said they should go, and so they began their journey to Abilene. However, as Harvey explains, the trip was not a success:
My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we had arrived. The cafeteria’s food could serve as a first-rate prop in an antacid commercial.
Some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We silently sat in front of the fan for a long time. Then to be sociable, I dishonestly said, “It was a great trip wasn’t it?”
No one spoke.
After a while, his mother-in-law admitted that she never really wanted to go but only did so because she thought everyone else wanted to and didn’t want to cause a fuss, to which his wife also protested that she never really wanted to go either which then lead to a volley of argument. Eventually his father in law broke the silence and exclaimed in a long Texas drawl: “Shee-it. Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.” This experience led to Harvey coining the term ‘the Abilene paradox’ to explain a curious aspect of group dynamics in which the opposite of what everyone wants is tacitly created by the group who thinks they are agreeing with what everyone else wants.
After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.
The Abeline paradox lies in the fact that we have problems not with disagreement, but rather with agreement. It is characterised by groups of people in an organisation privately agreeing that one course of action makes sense but failing to properly communicate those ideas and then collectively stumbling to what they think is the right course of action or what everyone else wants. Eventually an inaccurate picture of what to do emerges and based on that, the organisation takes steps towards actions that nobody really wants and which is ultimately counterproductive to the aims of the organisation itself.
You can witness the Abilene paradox at work in many schools. Often this takes the form of ill-considered marking policies which increase teacher workload to the point of exhaustion, endless tracking and monitoring of students, behaviour policies which punish the teacher more than the student who misbehaves, and graded lesson observations where teachers abandon what they normally do to put on a one-off, all singing, all dancing lesson for the observer, because that’s what everyone thinks that’s what inspectors want.
A lot of this can be accounted for by innate cognitive biases such as groupthink but it can also be exacerbated by either poor evidence, as in the case of learning styles or a poor understanding and misappropriation of good evidence as in the case of formative assessment. With the emergence of a solid evidence base, we might just be able to defend ourselves from these kind of cognitive biases if they are communicated clearly and appropriated effectively as part of a broader discussion about the values of a school. At it’s best, good evidence can act as a bulwark against the tsunami of nonsense that has so often washed over our schools. If we fail to have these important discussions and simply go with what we think might work, then we are at risk of loading the entire staff onto the school mini-bus and heading off to Abilene.
This is an excerpt taken from the forthcoming book ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice
I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian Teacher network on what books teachers should read. You can read it here.
1. Motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation.
While there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement and we tend to think of it in that order, the actual effect of achievement on self perception is stronger than the other way round (Guay, Marsh and Boivin, 2003.) It may well be the case that using time and resources to improve student academic achievement directly may well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds (2011) note that:
At the end of the day, the research reviewed shows that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.
Despite this, a lot of interventions in education seem to have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time and may well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. In my experience, teaching students how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, careful scaffolding and then praising their effort in getting there is a far more effective way of improving confidence than showing them a TED talk about how unique they are.
2. Just because they’re engaged doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.
One of the slides from a talk that has stuck with me the most in recent years was this one from Professor Rob Coe which in which he criticised graded lesson observations and highlighted several performance indicators for learning which are actually very misleading:
This again is quite a counterintuitive claim. Why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning? This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks.
3. Marking and feedback are not the same thing.
This subtle difference may seem semantic but there is an important distinction to be made. The value in marking a piece of work may counterintuitively be of more benefit to the teacher than the student as David Didau explains:
While there’s no doubt that marking and feedback are connected, they are not the same. In some parts of the world – Japan for instance – teachers do very little marking but that’s not to say students are not getting feedback. From my own experience, I’m pretty sure it’s possible to make marks in students’ books without providing anything in the way of useful feedback and of course lots of thinking (some of it disastrous) has been done to try to prevent this from happening. Ask any group of teachers if their marking load has increased dramatically in past five years and they’ll fall over themselves to let you know just how much impact marking has on their lives, but what impact does it have on students’ outcomes? The answer is, we just don’t know.
4. Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.
Possibly the most damaging misappropriation of research in my career has been the mangling of Assessment For Learning – a quagmire from which we are now only beginning to emerge. Not long after Dylan Wiliam’s seminal 1998 ‘Inside the Black Box’ became adopted at a national level, school leaders and policy makers managed to twist it into a pale imitation of its original form as AFL became about students memorising what level they were working at and teachers marking books at a level that defied sense in order to show ‘evidence’ of learning. But for feedback to be truly meaningful to students, they need to take ownership of it which may well mean not giving levels to a piece of work at all and instead just leaving comments for the student to reflect and act upon. As Dylan Wiliam writes:
Robyn Renee Jackson suggests that one of the most important principles for teachers is “Never work harder than your students” (Jackson, 2009). I regularly ask teachers whether they believe their students spend as long processing feedback as it takes for the teacher to provide it. Few teachers say yes. We spend far too much time giving feedback that’s either completely ignored or given scant attention.
5. (a) The steps needed to achieve a skill may look very different to the final skill itself.
If you want to get good at a certain skill then surely the best way to get good at it is to practice that particular skill right? Well not according to the tenets of deliberate practice which asserts a more indirect approach that breaks a global skill down into its constituent local parts and focuses on specific feedback and incremental improvement rather than a set of assessment criteria/performance descriptors that are “aimed at some vague overall improvement.” (Ericsson) In her book ‘Making Good Progress’, Daisy Christodoulou writes:
Whilst skills such as literacy, numeracy, problem solving and critical thinking are still the end point of education, this does not mean that pupils always need to be practising such skills in their final format. Instead, the role of the teacher and indeed, the various parts of the education system, should be to break down such skills into their component parts, and to teach those instead. This means that lessons may look very different from the final skill they are hoping to instil. For example, a lesson which aims to teach pupils reading may involve pupils learning letter-sound correspondences. A lesson with the ultimate aim of teaching pupils to solve maths problems may involve them memorising their times tables. The idea here is that the best way to develop skills does not always look like the skill itself.
5. (b). There is no such thing as developing a ‘general’ skill.
Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of any student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of the curriculum is often meaningless and ineffective. As Daniel Willingham puts it:
[I]f you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.
This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission but without anchoring them in domain specific contexts, they are often a waste of time. Anders Ericsson develops this point:
This explains a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a diagnostician or a pathologist or a neurosurgeon.
Writing in 1985, Neil Postman made the interesting observation that of the first fifteen U.S. presidents, many of them could walk down the street without being physically recognised yet they would be instantly identifiable by things they had written or speeches they had delivered. Today the opposite is true.
Postman saw 1980s America as a world that celebrated the transient and the superficial, where the power of the written word as a space to formulate and expand on complex arguments gave way to impressionistic understanding and surface engagement. He claims the 19th century was the apogee of human thought where the act of undistracted reading in particular represented “both their connection to and their model of the world.” He saw the advent of mass entertainment TV in the 1980s as a tipping point characterised by an over-saturation of information to the point of total distraction:
“Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”
What’s remarkable about Postman’s dystopian vision is that it was written before the advent of the Internet. The dizzying amount of information now produced daily would have been inconceivable to him yet many of its stupefying effects would have been instantly recognisable. If TV was having this effect on adults 30 years ago, what impact is the Internet having on young people today?
An important new study on student use of the technology has shown that students who have access to the Internet in the classroom are being distracted out of learning in any kind of meaningful way. Students who used laptops in lessons voluntarily logged into a proxy server which monitored their in-class behaviour and researchers found that “the average time spent browsing the web for non-class-related purposes was 37 minutes. Students spent the most time on social media, reading email, shopping for items such as clothes and watching videos.”
An essential point to make here is that an adult using the Internet is not the same as a 15 year old using it. Most adults have developed schemas of knowledge that allow them to navigate the great highways of the Internet, identify subtle exits, negotiate fruitful side-roads and avoid potential dead ends. Asking kids to ‘research a topic on the Internet’ is like dropping a five year old on a motorway and expecting them to find their way home on their tricycle.
An older friend of mine who is a history teacher remarked to me recently that it was about 15 years ago that students who were asked to write assignments on Martin Luther King started handing in essays on the American civil rights leader who nailed 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg in the 16th century and subsequently led the Protestant Church movement until his tragic assassination in 1968. Simply unleashing kids on the Internet with the vague justification of ’21st century skills’ is not just largely ineffective but a dereliction of duty.
Many techno-evangelists cite the vague concept of ‘creativity’ as a justification for the Internet in our classrooms but as Andrew Keen presciently pointed out ten years ago, as ‘truth’ becomes a relative term, not only is real creativity threatened but the wider implications for society are perhaps far more concerning:
This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Darren Rosenblum noted that when teaching a unit on what he thought would be the engaging topic of sexuality and the law, his attempts to provoke discussion with his students was met with a “slew of laptops staring back” at him. He subsequently appealed to students not to bring laptops and created what he felt was a more human connection which in turn led to a better environment for learning: “Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”
Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning.
And that’s the thing about learning, it should be hard. It should be initially challenging and uncomfortable in the short term in order to be effective in the long term, but the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of Web 2.0 Internet has produced some disturbing effects on young people. As Simon Sinek has recently pointed out, there are some worrying trends in the millennial generation who are often characterised by chronically low self esteem, (facilitated he claims, by failed parenting strategies among other things) who now look to Facebook and Instagram approval to fix their lack of self-worth rather than human interaction and who are exhibiting behaviours that are profoundly addictive in nature.
It’s a bleak view of the future, often described as dystopian but for Neil Postman, there is an interesting distinction between the dystopian visions of Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ The former portrayed a bleak vision of oppressive state control in the form of Big Brother which sought to actively ban expression and limit human agency, however in ‘Brave New World’ there is a far more horrifying phenomenon at work:
In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Technology has afforded us some incredible opportunities for education, such as comparative judgement or the JSTOR Shakespeare digital library and there are some good examples of purposeful, well structured environments but increasingly, we are suffering from what Sartre called ‘the agony of choice’ as we become more and more connected the the Internet of Things. Allowing kids to browse the Internet in a lesson and then expecting they will work productively is like bringing them to McDonald’s and hoping they’ll order the salad.
Techno-evangelists have sold us the Internet as a form of emancipation, freeing us from the ‘factory model’ of education (despite the fact the evidence for this is thin) but often technology in education seems to represent a solution in search of a problem that actually gets in the way of learning. Perhaps the most liberating and empowering thing we can do for young people today is to create a space for them where they can read the great works of human thought undisturbed and without distraction, for at least a short while.
Being an air traffic controller is hard. Really hard. The job entails having to remember vast amounts of fluid information often within a context of enormous pressure. Essentially the job is about ‘situational awareness’ which involves “the continuous extraction of environmental information, the integration of this information with prior knowledge to form a coherent understanding of the present situation.” The job is sometimes done under extreme duress, where they have to make life or death decisions often with a lack of sleep leading in some cases to long-term fatigue and burnout. So stressful is the job that they are eligible for retirement at age 50 or after 25 years of service.
In the 1960s, a series of interesting experiments was done on air traffic controllers. Researchers wanted to explore if they had a general enhanced ability to “keep track of a number of things at once”  and whether that skill could be applied to other situations. After observing their sophisticated abilities in air traffic control, they then gave them a set of generic memory based tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that when tested on these skills outside their own area of expertise the air traffic controllers did no better than anyone else.
These findings challenged contemporary thinking on generic skills. Surely they had developed a set of general cognitive capacities that could be used in other areas or ‘domains’? The evidence suggested the opposite. In order to be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about that specific domain and moreover, “the more complex the domain, the more important is domain-specific knowledge.” This phenomenon is now well established and has been replicated many times. Other research for example has shown that the ability to remember long strings of digits does not transfer to the ability to remember long strings of letters. Indeed, we all know very ‘clever’ people in their professional lives who seem to often make very stupid decisions in their personal lives:
“A person who is able to reason logically in science may show no such ability in his or her personal life or in any areas outside of his or her areas of science. Knowing that we should only test one variable at a time when conducting a scientific experiment is critical. Outside of hypothesis testing, it may be irrelevant, with other knowledge being pre-eminent.” 
Take another example, sport. Within a football team you have many different types of positions or ‘domains’ such as goalkeepers, defenders and attackers. Within those domains you have further categories such as centre backs, full backs, attacking midfielders, holding midfielders and attacking players. Now the ‘general skill’ that all these players have is the ability to play football, however if you put a left back in a striker’s position or put a central midfielder in goal they would be lost.
A footballer’s ability to be effective in a particular position or domain is based on years of experience where they have built up thousands of mental models from playing the game in that particular position so that when they have to perform at a high level they can do so with faster reaction times and their full concentration can go on anticipating the complexities of the game faster than their opponent. Of course there are elements that are consistent with each position such as touch and technical ability but they look very different in each position and are heavily context specific. For example, a central defender heading a ball away to safety is very different to a striker heading a goal and the types of positioning and runs an attacking player needs to make are radically different to those of a defender. In other words, elite footballers are not “good at football” as such, they’re good at being a left back, defensive midfielder or attacker.
Despite the growing body of evidence questioning the efficacy of teaching general skills in recent years, there is still a near constant refrain for them to be prioritised in schools. This usually takes the form of generic “critical thinking skills” often taught in some form for an hour or two a week and decontextualised from any specific subject. This is a problem as Dan Willingham reminds us
Critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.”
Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. 
Another problematic area is the diaphanous world of “21st century learning skills” which some schools have made a central part of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain training games whose proponents claim can help kids become smarter, more alert, and able to learn faster. However recent research has shown that brain training games are really only good for one thing – getting good a brain training games. The claim that they offer students a general set of critical or problem solving skills was recently debunked by a new study reviewing over 130 papers :
We know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.
Instead of teaching generic critical thinking skills, an alternative strategy would be to focus instead on subject specific critical thinking skills that seek to broaden student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. This goes for other dispositions and faculties taught generically such as Growth Mindset and Grit – students may well have a Growth Mindset in English but not in Maths, and yet the concept is often portrayed to students as a general capacity that can supposedly function in a transversal way across all subjects.(Despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether these can be taught at all.)
In the same way that teaching knowledge devoid of any platform for students to discuss, explore and develop that knowledge makes no sense, the teaching of standalone, decontextualised general skills is a questionable practice at best. It’s enduring appeal is probably in the fact that the concept seems so intuitively right yet when the evidence is appraised we find their justification weak. To those advocates of the ubiquitous critical thinking skills we might risk the question: “but what are they going to think with?” As Dan Willingham reminds us “thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.”
The Role of Memory in Air Traffic Control (Gronlund, Dougherty)
Domain-Specific Knowledge and Why Teaching Generic Skills Does not Work (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? (Willingham)
Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? (Simons et al 2016)
1 (Dominquez, 1994)
2 (Yntema & Mueser, 1960)
3 (Ericsson & Charness, 1994)
4 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
5 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
6 (Willingham 2007)