From the Enlightenment to neurobollocks: The ‘myth of progress’ in teaching

In my last post I looked at recent research which illustrated that brain-training is not as effective as the adverts might make out, as well as reminding us that many of the benefits claimed by brain-training programs are available using existing, often time-honoured and rather mundane methods. This lead me to think about why this bias towards the novel exists, to the point where we may systematically ignore solutions that have been effective for years.

The concept of universal education can be traced back to the Enlightenment, indeed it is one of the most enduring products of the period. In a “post-factual” age when, in the words of Stephen Fry,

the achievements of the enlightenment are questioned, ridiculed, misunderstood and traduced by those who would reverse the progress of mankind

it is notable that the notion of universal education has never been seriously questioned. It was the product of two major Enlightenment advances, one scientific and one philosophical. Firstly, scientific breakthroughs from the likes of Newton, Kepler and Galileo led to an optimistic outlook regarding humans’ ability to comprehend and shape the world around them. Subsequently, John Locke and other figures from the emerging philosophical school of Empiricism began to argue that knowledge could only be gained through the senses; through our interactions with the world and by our subsequent reflections on the impressions that these interactions created. Empiricism led naturally on to ideas of universal education; since we all have pretty similar faculties for the sensation of the world, there seemed no obvious reason why all people should not be able to benefit from educational experiences which had, to that point, only been available to a privileged few. Presumably, then, the more people that were educated, the faster still would be the progress and development of the species. The confluence of these two factors – optimism about our scientific capabilities and an empiricist notion of education for all – created a powerful narrative which persists today: humans are capable of greatness and education is the tool for that greatness to be realised as widely and as effectively as possible. Education as the engine of human progress. So far so good, and I agree…

But this optimism can also have a corollary. It can create a general belief that, the occasional blip notwithstanding, we are on something of an inexorable march of ‘progress’. Indeed the notion of ‘progress’ was an important one for many Enlightenment thinkers, who drew a sharp distinction between more ancient voices such as Plato and Aristotle who saw society as a cycle, with periods of progress and development unavoidably followed by decline and disaster. Enlightenment thinkers, especially those armed with the emerging theories of evolution in the late 18th century and beyond, often presented ‘progress’ as an essential part of human nature, with our increasingly successful adaptation to our surroundings reduced to a simple (and inevitable) biological necessity. This narrative of progress is powerful and seductive, but it is also potentially dangerous one. Theories regarding the ‘progression’ of the species have been at the heart of some of the worst of subsequent human thought, justifying eugenics and genocide. In a less serious form, however, a blinkered faith in human ‘progress’ can lead to either a casual over-optimism regarding our current actions, or a tendency to embrace the ‘new’ and to reject the status quo. In both cases, this novelty bias can encourage us to change systems without due scrutiny being applied to their newer replacements.

Teaching, as we have said, is an Enlightenment profession. The nature of teaching means that many of the goals of the Enlightenment are also implicit assumptions of the profession. The belief in improvement through information, that the widest benefits for the world will come from the widest dissemination of knowledge, a passion for the democratisation of learning and so on. It is hard to imagine anyone entering the profession without holding these basic assumptions. In addition, it is not a profession where we can ever conceivably judge that we have done enough, or produced the ‘best possible’ results, so there is always a desire for progress: better exam results, value-added scores, enrolment figures, university entry rates etc etc – something could always be improved. Yet perhaps the same Enlightenment-era zeal which drives us can become something of a double-edged sword, leaving us vulnerable to falling for the ‘myth of progress’. I would argue that, just as it embodies many of the virtues of the Enlightenment, teaching is also prone to demonstrate the occasionally casual over-optimism of the time, and to embrace the novel over the time-honoured too unquestioningly. ‘Change for change’s sake’ is a frequent lament in the classroom in response to yet another management initiative, but teachers also need to critique their own classroom practice in the same spirit. How often do we jump to incorporate trendy new ideas or the latest cultural craze into our lessons (Pokemon Go, Minecraft, iPads etc etc), without really assessing how we are expecting it to make for a more effective learning experience? Another example might be the over-eager and premature adoption of new scientific ideas (gleefully exploited by unscrupulous edu-quacks), which has lead to widespread misinformation about the brain and learning amongst teachers (see e.g. here), and bogus interventions like Brain Gym, the Dore program or inappropriate use of the ‘growth mindset’. We also have explicitly named ‘Progressive’ education movements, which may embody many modern values, some of which have been translated into educational programs without due assessment of the relevance or efficacy of this translation. Changes in conceptions of individual rights and freedoms have metamorphosed into doctrines of student choice or ‘personalised learning’, which in turn have engendered such ineffective educational enterprises as ‘free-schools’ or learning styles.

I should be clear here that I don’t think that these problems are unique to teaching as a profession; I am sure that a good deal of this novelty bias is a natural human tendency shared by us all. But I do think that the aims of the profession, along with the inherent difficulty in ever defining or measuring ‘success’, make it especially vulnerable to a headlong search for the next new magic idea. Sometimes, however, what we’ve got already may actually work pretty effectively. Let’s try to remember that for when the next bandwagon rolls into town.

References:

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, (October). http://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3817

From the Enlightenment to neurobollocks: The ‘myth of progress’ in teaching

The silver bullets we already have

The recent finding (following a detailed review of all available evidence on the subject) that brain-training games are not effective (nicely summarised here if you don’t fancy all 80 pages worth) is the latest in a line of setbacks for the idea that repeated training of a particular mental function can have wide-ranging benefits for cognitive functioning and health (e.g. see here and here). This is not to say that brain-training is dead; it is possible that further research or new techniques (such as neurofeedback) could still allow for more effective forms of cognitive training which transfer over to other skills and domains. So the research should continue… but the hype should stop.

The Simons et al. article was published in the journal ‘Psychological Science in the Public Interest’, and it came with a fascinating commentary, which provided a delightful counterpoint to the main article. The basic thrust of ‘Brain-Training Pessimism, but Applied-Memory Optimism’, by McCabe et al. was that many of the purported benefits that are so desperately being sought by the proponents of ‘brain-training’ are already available to us, and in some case have been so for a hundred years or more, through the application of years of cognitive psychology research into memory. They give the example of three related memory strategies which have been consistently found to improve recall: elaboration, testing and spacing.

What’s really interesting about the McCabe et al. article is just how refreshingly low-key the authors’ solutions are. No novel tricks, or creative new strategies for their use – merely a reminder that before we go out searching for new silver bullets, we should check the ammunition store that we already have. The tragedy is that, for whatever reason, this does seem to happen; McCabe at al. cite a number of studies demonstrating that students still report not knowing how to study effectively. Another great champion of applied memory strategies, the Learning Scientists, have recently taken to re-tweeting students lamenting their lack of study skills as an illustration of the problem.

how-to-study

The great advantage of these applied memory approaches over brain-training type interventions is that they work on the level of strategies, rather than on abilities. Abilities are specific, hence the problem of transferring the development on one into the development of another (becoming very good at doing crosswords won’t necessarily make you better at Sudoku). Strategies can be used across multiple different abilities; I can self-test on geography and on history, and gain benefit in both. This is not to say that any strategy can be used regardless of the domain – the type of self-testing that works best in music may be different from that in maths – but the general principle of testing leading to effective learning does seem to hold across different areas (for excellent recent examples see Dunlosky et al, 2013 and Roediger & Pyc, 2012).

Assessment of the utility of learning techniques, from Dunlosky et al. (2013):dunlosky

Perhaps it is simply natural human nature to be a chronological snob, and to search for newer, shiner solutions to problems than the ones we already have. I suspect, actually, that teachers are unusual in their desire for ‘new’ solutions to problems, something that I will try to explore in my next post. In any event, the lesson that I felt was elegantly made by McCabe et al. is that sometimes finding new solutions can be less important than making sure that everyone knows about what we already have.

Other links for practical suggestions to apply memory strategies to their classroom (or to direct students towards):

References:

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. a., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. http://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

McCabe, J. A., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Brain-Training Pessimism, but Applied-Memory Optimism. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 187–191. http://doi.org/10.1177/1529100616664716

Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242–248. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.002

Shipstead, Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2012). Is working memory training effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 628–54. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0027473

Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186. http://doi.org/10.1177/1529100616661983

The silver bullets we already have

Psychology for teachers

There are many superb blogs on teaching, and some which focus specifically on the links between teaching and the psychology of learning. What I feel is sometimes not available to teachers are short and accessible introductions to some key ideas regarding how we learn.

This section consists of a series of short blogs designed to introduce teachers to research findings about how students learn, with suggestions for how these ideas could influence practice and links etc for further reading. I hope that you enjoy reading them and find them useful. If anyone has any suggestions for other topics which could be added, please let me know!

It is important to realise that none of these strategies is a magic ticket on their own! Instead, they are a foundation, from which each teacher can experiment and adjust their practice as best suits their teaching style and their school environment. The ‘suggestions for practice’ are simply that – suggestions. You may be able to think of much more effective ways of incorporating a particular piece psychology into your lessons. Feel free to try out new things and to experiment, but use these evidence-based ideas as a starting point. Why not use one or more of these as the basis for a new scheme of work or learning policy at your school? Or arrange an internal CPD day to share ideas and resources?

If you find a particularly effective method that seems to improve student progress, why not contact a Psychology or Education department at a university and see if you can arrange for a larger scale trial of the idea. In fact I would encourage all teachers and schools to take part in research projects into what works in education. The more teachers and schools that can become the driving force behind research (and key partners in it), the more progress we will make in discovering what techniques really work in schools.

The ‘Psychology for Teachers’ section currently contains introductions to (in alphabetical order):

Psychology for teachers

Working memory

Basic idea:

Any time you are ‘holding something in your mind’, such as calculating a bill, remembering a new phone number or a set of directions you’ve just been given, you are using working memory – it’s the name given to our ability to hold (and also manipulate) information in our minds over short periods of time.

In adults, famous experiments from the 1950s suggested that the capacity of this memory store was ‘7 plus or minus 2’ items – in other words between 5 and 9 items, depending on the individual. We can increase this capacity with clever strategies or if the information is in different forms… but it’s still a useful guide.

Children’s working memory capacity is still developing until their mid-teens in most cases, and approximately 10% of children in any one class may display impaired working memory. This means that in a class of 9 year olds, we might expect at least 3 or so to have a WM capacity of not much more than 2-3 items. This is important, as teachers may quite often give instructions which consist of a number of steps (e.g. “Cut out the shape from the piece of paper and stick it in your, books, then finish the exercises from yesterday”). This might exceed the WM capacity of some children, leading to organisational difficulties.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Reduce the number of steps in instructions that are given at one time, or breaking down tasks into chunks.
  • Provide instructions in written forms, or some other form that can be referred back to.

Team this idea also with ‘load theory of attention’ – aim to produce activities which have high attentional load but low working memory load. Also with ‘cognitive load theory’, which helps to clarify the sorts of activities which influence working memory.

Further reading:

The WM bottleneck… https://evidenceintopractice.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/the-working-memory-model-a-brief-guide-for-teachers/

http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WM-classroom-guide.pdf

Turn it off! Working memory limitations explain why music and learning don’t often go together…

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/dont-listen-music-while-studying-david-cutler

Working memory

Metacognition: thinking about thinking

Basic idea:

Metacognition means ‘thinking about thinking’ (sometimes also translated as ‘learning to learn’), and the term is used to cover a range of approaches where students are encouraged to analyse their own learning process. For example, they might be asked to explain their thought processes and how they reached a certain conclusion or evaluate a piece of work or their academic progress. The obvious aim of these strategies is that students develop a greater degree of independence with their learning. They discover what strategies work for them, and they are able to find their own solutions to problems. They should also, presumably, become more self-reliant and resilient as well (see ‘growth mindset’).

When done well, there is good evidence that metacognition is an effective tool in improving student learning. However, successful interventions tend to be very carefully planned and thought out in terms of when and how students self-monitor, and when they don’t.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Allow the opportunity for students to discuss learning strategies for particular topics.
  • ‘Scaffolding’ in which specific strategies are taught, but with this support gradually withdrawn. Students could also have the opportunity to evaluate and adapt these strategies.
  • Give students plenty of opportunity to evaluate their work and to monitor their own progress… though not as replacement for feedback from the teacher!
  • Allow students to set goals and targets, but ensure that these are achievable and that the student actually understands what the target is and how to get there (e.g. “I must show more creativity and insight in my written answers so that I get a level 5” is likely to not be a helpful comment for a student to make, as it does uses buzzwords copied from a mark scheme rather than spelling out specifically how they are to improve).

Further reading:

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation/

Metacognition: thinking about thinking

Sleep

Basic idea:

Many of us live our lives in sleep debt – having had less sleep than we should have done. Like financial debt, sleep debt can accumulate and become more severe over time: after 2 weeks of getting 6 hours sleep a night people perform as badly on tests as people who have been awake for 24 hours non-stop (and also at the same level as people who have had a couple of alcoholic drinks!)

Children are particularly prone to sleep deprivation, which can have severe impacts on a developing brain. It is recommended that children up to age 11 are getting 10-12 hours per night of sleep, and that teenagers get 8.5-10 hours. This means that if they are getting up for school at 7am, under 11s should be in bed not long after 7pm, and adolescents not long after 9pm.

Now, of course, sleep is primarily the responsibility of parents to monitor, but given its impacts on school progress, it is something that teachers can (and I think should) take an interest in. Potentially, there are huge academic benefits to be gained through some simple (and free!) changes to students’ routines. this should be something of interest to all teachers.

Suggestions for practice:

Assuming that you do not have the authority to change your school’s start time to later in the morning (on which has been some promising research done with teenagers), you could:

  • Get your classes to keep a sleep diary (works especially well with tutor groups). I have done this and never fail to be amazed both at the variation and at how little sleep those at the extreme end are getting (from my experience 4 hours a night is not uncommon for some teenagers).
  • Educate students about sleep habits and the importance of sleep routines. A set bed time and routine building up to that time have been found to be the best predictor of children getting enough sleep.
  • Encourage them to have a ‘dark hour’ before bed, where they are not using screens
  • Suggest that caffeinated drinks are avoided in the evening.

Further reading:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/parents/sleep_matters/

http://sleepcenter.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=63

Sleep

Load theory of attention

Basic idea:

Load theory can get a little bit technical, but the basic summary of the idea is that we are less likely to be distracted by something if our main focus is occupying more of our attention. Think of attention like a full pint glass. The capacity of the glass doesn’t change size, and neither does our attentional capacity. Also, the glass is always full; in other words we always fill out attentional capacity (we always take in as much information from the information as we can). If the main focus of our attention is not providing us much information, then we will take in information from other sources (i.e. potential distractions).

Imagine doing a spot the difference task with only three objects in the picture. You would likely find the ‘different’ object very quickly, and also very easily. You would probably also find that you don’t lose yourself in the task; you are still aware of background noises or movement in your surroundings. This is because the low level of attentional load in the task is not exhausting our attentional capacity (it doesn’t fill the pint glass), so we process other things as well. Now imagine a more difficult version of the puzzle, with one change hidden in a complex picture of 30 or so objects. You will likely find this task much harder, but you would also probably be much less aware of other things happening in your surroundings as you completed it. This task would fill the ‘pint glass’ of attention, due to it’s increased attentional load, so we would be less likely to process anything else.

For teachers these findings suggest that one way of reducing distraction in the classroom is to pay attention to the attentional load of the material that is being presented. High load materials are likely to lead to reduced awareness of potentially distracting extraneous material.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Experiment with ways of increasing the attentional load of presentations, e.g. by delivering information across multiple sensory modalities.
  • Reduce the number of obvious potential distractors in classrooms, e.g. eye-catching displays around the board or front of the room where you want attention to be focused.

Team this idea also with ‘working memory’ – aim to produce activities which have high attentional load but low working memory load. Also with ‘cognitive load theory’

Further reading:

 

Call for research ideas:

Although very well established in the laboratory, there has been (to my knowledge) no attempts to translate load theory of attention into educational resources and practice. One major reason for this might be that it is difficult to imagine what a ‘high load’ educational resource might look like. For example, what would make written text ‘higher load’? If anyone has any ideas then let me know!

Load theory of attention