The Science of Learning, Thinking & Learning

Its Not How we do Higher Education, It’s What we do in Higher Education

We live in a complex world with a myriad of problems that need attention. We
have what we need to seriously address them, but we have failed to develop what we most need – our human capital.

Students enter higher education by the millions with 87% wanting nothing more than a degree and we teach them how to get a degree. We teach them how to use their episodic memory in order to get through an exam. We teach them to conform to a system. We teach them how to navigate a bureaucracy. And, most importantly, we teach them how to use most of the Microsoft Office suite.

We pretend to teach them a range of skills that the world needs, but where do we teach them? Critical thinking doesn’t just happen, it has to be taught and practiced over and over, and even then, it is hard work. Public speaking isn’t taught by simply requiring a student to give a presentation in class, it needs to be taught. We know that our assumption about them knowing how to write is incorrect, but then, we don’t really teach them that either.

Conformity and bureaucratic navigation aren’t enough. The problems we face in the world today need millions of graduates who can think, not just memorize enough to tick the right box on a multiple choice answer sheet or the much more difficult fill in the blanks for the short answer exam.

By thinking, I mean:

• a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture (Bacon 1605)

• the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action (Paul, 1987)

• self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way (Elder)

• the mental processes, strategies, and representations people use to solve problems, make decisions, and learn new concepts (Sternberg, 1986, p. 3)

• the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism (McPeck, 1981, p. 8)

• reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1985, p. 45)

• thinking that is goal-directed and purposive, “thinking aimed at forming a judgment,” where the thinking itself meets standards of adequacy and accuracy (Bailin et al., 1999b, p. 287)

• judging in a reflective way what to do or what to believe (Facione, 2000, p. 61)

• skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it 1) relies upon criteria, 2) is self-correcting, and 3) is sensitive to context (Lipman, 1988, p. 39)

• the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome (Halpern, 1998, p. 450)

• seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth (Willingham, 2007, p. 8).

• purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or conceptual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Facione, 1990, p. 3)

Our own research tells us we’re failing at this. Being able to tick the right box on a multiple choice answer sheet doesn’t teach this. Writing a canned essay for a class doesn’t teach this. We know that the most effective way of teaching these vital thinking skills is through consistent, robust, and challenging academic discussion. But we don’t do it.

Instead, we pack them into increasingly larger lecture theaters – and an online learning environment has become just that – and tell them what they need to memorize in order to pass an examination.

I know that no one really does this, because everyone in higher education tells me that they do more than just teach students how to memorize enough to pass a test, but that isn’t what the evidence says. We are failing abysmally our duty to make a meaningful contribution to form a better society. All we are doing is training workers for jobs that disappeared 10 years ago, and that is if we work at a progressive institution, otherwise, we are training them for jobs that disappeared 40 years ago.

The discussion around reform in higher education is all about how we deliver or repackage what we are already doing. When are we going to begin the discussion about what it is that we are doing?

2 thoughts on “Its Not How we do Higher Education, It’s What we do in Higher Education

  1. Ken Mellendorf

    A primary difficulty developing over the past ten years is a demand and sometimes a requirement for verifiable learning. Multiple choice is not a good test for acquisition of thinking critically, but it is one of the few methods that can be graded without some form of personal interpretation on the part of the grader. If instructors have to “prove” an evaluation of whether a student is ready to advance further in the sequence of courses, or even within the current course, then that instructor must be able to distinguish between misinterpretation and complete misunderstanding. This requires more than just looking at whether the result is that which is listed somewhere as correct. This requires either discussion of both reasoning and acceptance of results. This requires both time and interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.