Cognitive Enablers, Critical Thinking, Discussions, Reason, The Science of Learning

Learning from Discussions – To my Psych 3850 class

I have been asked on several occasions what my definition of learning is. In the class, I was a bit hesitant about giving too much away, but on reflection, I think my basic definition is okay within this context. I did say this yesterday to one group, so here it is. My definition of learning is changing your internal representation of the world to better reflect reality.

To that end, real learning can be very exciting and wonderful.

Unfortunately, education (learning) today has evolved into an endless cycle of memorizing trivia and regurgitating it on exams in the mindless pursuit of grades.

The ultimate in learning is the acquisition of abstract cognitive enablers (higher-order thinking skills) about which I have written dozens of articles. One of these central enablers is critical thinking.

You have all heard of critical thinking, you have been taught that you are learning it, and you are striving to use it. However, it is rare to find and is not taught well because it isn’t clearly defined by those who bandy around the term. What is referred to as critical thinking is really critical analysis (see my article comparing these similar terms here)? Critical analysis is about looking at evidence to see if it stands up to scrutiny. This is an important aspect of critical thinking, but it is not critical thinking. A different aspect and one that is at the core of the definition and is the most difficult to find amongst those who claim to use critical thinking is the ability to self-correct based on evidence.

If, as a teacher, I tell you something and you change your thinking as a result, that is not self-correction. You have been trained and conditioned to look to a teacher as an authority figure and as a student, you do not question the authority because you are here to learn from authority. This is the main reason why I don’t comment on blog posts (unless I can’t resist). You are all looking to me to tell you what to think. I want you to develop the cognitive enabler that will have you change your thinking based on evidence. You can only learn this from your peers through iterative discussions based on evidence. If you change your thinking because of what I tell you, you are not developing your thinking.

One of the reasons many people avoid developing abstract cognitive enablers is because they have cherished beliefs that they don’t want to question, religion being the main belief system I’m talking about. Don’t worry – you can still have these belief systems, just don’t claim that they are based on rational thinking. My own religious beliefs are kept within a set of beliefs that I hold as irrational beliefs and I am fine with that. They don’t stand up to external scrutiny based on evidence and reason. They don’t have to. They are personal and irrational and I’m fine with that. I don’t try to use evidence and reason to defend them and I don’t bring them into arguments that depend on reason and evidence to define.

Finally, I wanted to talk about education and learning as concepts and how we process them. Education is something that we are all heavily invested in or we wouldn’t be here. However, I find it curious that we can have a brilliant discussion determining that grades are not related, in any way, to actual learning and then move into a discussion that immediately follows where the need for grades is accepted as a desirable given for our learning. The same stands for lectures, memorization, or a host of other educational traditions that we are and will talk about.

Evidence has demonstrated, unequivocally, that lectures are an irrational teaching choice to accomplish virtually any long-term goals of learning. And, yet, in our discussions yesterday, lectures were referred to as the only real method of teaching. How can we have “good” or “bad” lectures if the entire underlying premise is wrong?

The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.

Russell L. Ackoff

I would say that what is called better lecturing is doing the wrong thing wronger.

This is what I am referring to when I say that the ability to self-correct is almost non-existent. After a rational discussion about the uselessness of grades (lectures, focus on memorizing trivial details …), your thinking immediately reverts to what you are comfortable with.

This class will provide you with opportunities to begin to develop difficult abstract cognitive enablers, but only if you let it and only if you really try.

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