Why Enlightenment in Higher Education

When the enlightenment occurred a couple of centuries ago, rational thinking and the scientific method slowly emerged as a way to understand the world. Thousands of scientists and their scientific inquiries arose. A rigorous debate about these scientific findings began, based on the rules of reason and rational inquiry that were hundreds of years old. Instead of a reliance on previous knowledge, practice and tradition, careful observation and analysis coupled with rigorously agreed methods became the way the world around us was explored. The results have been nothing short of astounding.

The previous way of knowing had been dogmatic, defined by tradition, supported the status quo, and was firmly rooted in the past as is wonderfully illustrated in Bacon’s story (it had to be tongue in cheek, even then):

  • In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For thirteen days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition such as was never before heard of in this region was made manifest. At the beginning of the fourteenth day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants, whose deep wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unbend in a manner coarse and unheard-of and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings. At this, their dignity being grievously hurt, they waxed exceeding wroth; and, joining in a mighty uproar, they flew upon him and smote him, hip and thigh, and cast him out forthwith. For, said they, surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding truth, contrary to all the teachings of the fathers. After many days more of grievous strife, the dove of peace sat on the assembly, and they as one man declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down.

In other words, don’t rock the boat.

As the enlightenment was in full swing with industrialization taking full advantage as new findings arose, a new field of study emerged out of the philosophical tradition, and was involved in the study of human behavior – psychology. Over the years, psychology moved from being a philosophical discussion to become a field of study that is a systematic, empirical, and rigorous field in its own right.

At the height of the behaviorist sub-field of study when the brain was almost completely excluded as having anything to do with behavior, the field of cognition arose. Cognitive science is the study of how people think. For years, there had been those who studied how people think, but in the 1950/60s, as a backlash against extreme behaviorism, cognitive science began to emerge as one of the dominant fields of psychology. By the early 1970s, scientists had put together a pretty good picture of how memory works, learning takes place, attention is controlled, and problems are solved. With the advent of non-invasive neuroscientific methods that allow scientists to view how the brain works in real-time, these findings from cognitive psychology have become rooted firmly in the structure of the brain.

In a related field, the cognitive development of children and adolescence has been empirically studied and a good picture of how cognitive development has emerged telling us exactly how and when a child’s/adolescent’s thinking develops and changes.

For the past, almost 50 years, we have known how people learn, with some of the scientific principles more than 100 years old. A new area of study began to emerge called The Science of Learning. I have written extensively about what The Science of Learning has found and how these scientific principles can be applied to formal teaching in order to teach students the way they learn. As amazing as this might sound, this body of knowledge has been virtually ignored by education. Education is about how we teach, not about how we learn.

Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a pioneer in effective science education and past associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that although much is known (from cognitive psychology, brain science, and college classroom studies) about thinking and learning, this knowledge is almost never applied to teaching techniques.

Why the almost universal resistance? Why hasn’t the enlightenment happened in education? Why hasn’t education engaged in a rigorous debate about these scientific findings using the rules of reason and rational inquiry that are hundreds of years old, but based on careful observation and analysis coupled with rigorously agreed methods? Instead, a reliance on previous knowledge, practice, and tradition, along with trends and fleeting fads based on anecdotal evidence remain the way education develops. When will we have an enlightenment in education?

Teachers in higher education, for the most part, refuse to acknowledge that there is a science of learning upon which to base their practice. Over and over again I have heard that when I talk about The Science of Learning I am simply expressing an opinion and everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Not only that, but every oping is valid and should be treated with respect. The reason? Because these professionals teach. Just because I breathe oxygen doesn’t mean that my opinion about the size and shape of an oxygen molecule is as valid as a chemist who has studied in the area for decades. Why do higher education professionals dismiss The Science of Education as opinion when it is based on solid scientific principles dating back decades or even a century ago? Do generally accepted highly trained scientists and other academics dismiss climate change denial or immunization scandals as opinions that must be respected?

For students and graduates of education departments, this resistance is understandable (but not excusable). Evidence tells us that education graduates demonstrate one of the smallest increases in higher order thinking skills (including critical thinking) of all fields of study. They are not trained to critically analyze their teaching methods, and as the ability to self-correct is rooted in critical thinking, are not equipped to change what they believe in or are doing.

However, for teachers in higher education, this is not the case. For the most part, the professoriate in higher education does have well developed higher order thinking skills. So why don’t higher education teachers embrace changes to their teaching methods based on solid scientific evidence?

There are a number of reasons that I have covered in previous articles, however, I believe that the primary reason is rooted in the problem of transference. A root problem in education is transferring knowledge from one context or situation to another. For example, a child who learns fractions on worksheets has difficulty, at least initially, in taking that knowledge and applying it to, say, the kitchen where a cookie recipe is being halved. Once they are explicitly shown how they can apply their worksheet learning to a different context, the process of transference begins and the next time fractions are needed, it is easier for them to apply their knowledge.

The same problem of transference applies to higher order thinking skills. Learning how to think critically while being trained as a biologist does not mean that an individual possesses the ability to be a critical thinker in sociology. Just as in the fraction example, the critical thinking skills learned as a chemist are subject-specific and are difficult to apply outside their own field of study. Once a person begins to apply their higher order thinking skills outside their field of study, he or she finds it easier to use these skills in other domains.

In the meantime, teaching is rooted in the past. Just as Francis Bacon observed in 16th-century reasoning, the methods we use for formal teaching are deeply rooted in the past and highly resistant to change. When faced with evidence from The Science of Learning, most teachers become highly defensive and act as though they had designed the entire education system themselves and an attack on the field is a personal attack against their being. Dogmatism and rigidity set in and sometimes I wonder if I am living in the 21st-century or the 16th-century.

It is time to move on. It is time to fix that which is broken. It is time to stop treating education as a set of religious beliefs that are not based on reason but are based on a deeply rooted orthodoxy that is beyond questioning. A belief system that is internally rational but is removed from reality.

We can do it. We know how. The Science of Learning is real, and all we have to do is look at it and try to apply the critical thinking skills that we have worked so hard to acquire in our field of expertise to our individual teaching practices.

We can change the world, but we have to begin. Let’s start today.

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