biologically primary and secondary knowledge?

David Geary is an evolutionary psychologist who developed the concept of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, popular with some teachers. I’ve previously critiqued Geary’s ideas as he set them out in a chapter entitled Educating the Evolved Mind. One teacher responded by suggesting I read Geary’s The Origin of Mind because it explained his ideas in more detail. So I did.

Geary’s theory

If I’ve understood correctly, Geary’s argument goes like this:

The human body and brain have evolved over time in response to environmental pressures ranging from climate and diet through to social interaction. For Geary, social interaction is a key driver of evolved brain structures because social interactions can increase the resources available to individuals.

Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.

Chapters 2 & 3 of The Origin of Mind offer a clear, coherent account of Darwinian and hominid evolution respectively. They’d make a great resource for teachers. But when Geary moves on to cognition his model begins to get a little shaky – because it rests on several assumptions.

Theories about evolution of the brain are inevitably speculative because brain tissue decomposes and the fossil record is incomplete. Theories about brain function also involve speculation because our knowledge about how brains work is incomplete. There’s broad agreement on the general principles, but some hypotheses have generated what Geary calls ‘hot debate’. Despite acknowledging the debates, Geary’s model is built on assumptions about which side of the debate is correct. The assumptions involve the modularity of the brain, folk systems, intelligence, and motivation-to-control.

modularity

The general principle of modularity – that there are specific areas of the brain dedicated to processing specific types of information – is not in question. What is less clear is how specialised the modules are. For example, the fusiform face area (FFA) specialises in processing information about faces. But not just faces. It has also been shown to process information about cars, birds, butterflies, chess pieces, Digimon, and novel items called greebles. This raises the question of whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces as such (the Face Specific Hypothesis), or to process information about objects requiring fine-grained discrimination (the Expertise Hypothesis). Geary comes down on the Faces side of the debate on the grounds that the FFA does not “generally respond to other types of objects … that do not have facelike features, except in individuals with inherent sociocognitive deficits, such as autism” (p.141). Geary is entitled to his view, but that’s not the only interpretation of the evidence.

folk systems

The general principle of ‘folk’ systems – evolved forms of thought that result from information being processed rapidly, automatically and implicitly – is also not in question. Geary admits it’s unclear whether the research is “best understood in terms of inherent modular constraints, or as the result of general learning mechanisms” but comes down on the side of children’s thinking being the result of “inherent modular systems”.  I couldn’t find a reference to Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory developed in the 1970s, which explains folk categories in terms of general learning mechanisms. And it’s regrettable that Rakison & Oakes’ 2008 review of research into how children form categories (that also lends weight to the general learning mechanisms hypothesis) wasn’t published until three years after The Origin of Mind. I don’t know whether either would have prompted Geary to amend his theory.

intelligence

In 1904 Charles Spearman published a review of attempts to measure intellectual ability. He concluded that the correlations between various specific abilities indicated “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term “General Sensory Discrimination” and similarly a “General Intelligence”” (Spearman p.272).

It’s worth looking at what the specific abilities included. Spearman ranks (p. 276) in order of their correlation with ‘General Intelligence’, performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination.

So, measures of school performance turned out to be good predictors of school performance. The measures of school performance correlated strongly with ‘General Intelligence’ – a construct derived from… the measures of school performance. This tautology wasn’t lost on other psychologists and Spearman’s conclusions received considerable criticism. As Edwin Boring pointed out in 1923, ‘intelligence’ is defined by the content of ‘intelligence’ tests. The correlations between specific abilities and the predictive power of intelligence tests are well-established. What’s contentious is whether they indicate the existence of an underlying ‘general mental ability’.

Geary says the idea that children’s intellectual functioning can be improved is ‘hotly debated’ (p.295). But he appears to look right past the even hotter debate that’s raged since Spearman’s work was published, about whether the construct general intellectual ability (g) actually represents ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. Geary assumes it does, and also accepts Cattell’s later constructs crystallised and fluid intelligence without question.

Clearly some people are more ‘intelligent’ than others, so the idea of g initially appears valid. But ‘intelligence’ is, ironically, a ‘folk’ construct. It’s a label we apply to a set of loosely defined characteristics – a useful shorthand descriptive term. It doesn’t follow that ‘intelligence’ is a biologically determined ‘something’ that ‘really exists’.

motivation-to-control

The motivation to control relationships, events and resources is a key part of Geary’s theory. He argues that motivation-to-control is an evolved disposition (inherent in the way people think) that manifests itself most clearly in the behaviour of despots – who seek to maximise their control of resources. Curiously, in referring to despots, Geary cites a paper by Herb Simon (Simon, 1990) on altruism (a notoriously knotty problem for evolution researchers). Geary describes an equally successful alternative strategy to despotism, not as altruism but as “adherence to [social] laws and mores”, even though the evidence suggests altruism is an evolved disposition, not merely a behaviour.

Altruism calls into question the control part of the motivation-to-control hypothesis. Many people have a tendency to behave in ways that increase their control of resources, but many tend to collaborate and co-operate instead, strategies that increase individual access to resources, despite reducing individual control over them. The altruism debate is another that’s been going on for decades, but you wouldn’t know that to read Geary.

Then there’s the motivation part. Like ‘intelligence’, ‘motivation’ is a label for a loosely defined bunch of factors that provide incentives for behaviour. ‘Motivation’ is a useful label. But again it doesn’t follow that ‘motivation’ is ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. The biological mechanisms involved in the motivation to eat or drink are unlikely to be the same as those involved in wanting to marry the boss’s daughter or improve on our personal best for the half-marathon. The first two examples are likely to increase our access to resources; whether they increase our control over them will depend on the circumstances. Geary doesn’t explain the biological mechanism involved.

biologically primary and secondary knowledge

In The Origin of Mind, Geary touches on the idea of biologically primary and secondary competencies and abilities but doesn’t go into detail about their implications for education. Instead, he illustrates the principle by referring to the controlled problem solving used by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in tackling the problem of how different species had arisen.

Geary says that such problem solving requires the inhibition of ‘heuristic-based folk systems’ (p.197), and repeatedly proposes (pp.188, 311, 331, 332) that the prior knowledge of scientific pioneers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace “arose from evolved folk biological systems…as elaborated by associated academic learning” (p.188). He cites as evidence the assumptions resulting from religious belief made by anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (p.187), and Wallace’s reference to an ‘Overruling Intelligence’ being behind natural selection (p.83). But this proposal is problematic, for three reasons:

The first problem is that some ‘evolved’ folk knowledge is explicit, not implicit. Belief in a deity is undoubtedly folk knowledge; societies all over the world have come up with variations on the concept. But the folk knowledge about religious beliefs is usually culturally transmitted to children, rather than generated by them spontaneously.

Another difficulty is that thinkers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace had a tendency to be born into scholarly families, so their starting point, even as young children, would not have been merely ‘folk biological systems’. And each of the above had the advantage of previous researchers having already reduced the problem space.

A third challenge is that heuristics aren’t exclusively biologically primary; they can be learned, as Geary points out, via biologically secondary knowledge (p.185).

So if biologically primary knowledge sometimes involves explicit instruction, and biologically secondary knowledge can result in the development of fast, automatic, implicit heuristics, how can we tell which type of knowledge is which?

use of evidence

Geary accepts contentious constructs such as motivation, intelligence and personality (p.319) without question. And he appears to have a rather unique take on concepts such as bounded rationality (p.172), satisficing (p. 173) and schemata (p.186).

In addition, Geary’s evidence is not always contentious; sometimes it’s his conclusions that are tenuous. For example, he predicts that if social competition were a driving force during evolution, “a burning desire to master algebra or Newtonian physics will not be universal or even common. Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of American schoolchildren support this prediction and indicate that they value achievement in sports … much more than achievement in any academic area” (pp.334-5), citing a 1993 paper by Eccles et al. The ‘surveys’ were two studies, the ‘American schoolchildren’ 865 elementary school students, the ‘attitudes and preferences’ competence beliefs and task values, and the ‘academic areas’ math, reading and music. Responses show some statistically significant differences. Geary appears to overegg the evidential pudding somewhat, and to completely look past the possibility that there might be culturally transmitted factors involved.

conclusion

I find Geary’s model perplexing. Most of the key links in it – brain evolution, brain modularity, the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking, motivation and intelligence – involve highly contentious hypotheses.  Geary mentions the ‘hot debates’ but doesn’t go into detail. He simply comes down on one side of the debate and builds his model on the assumption that that side is correct.

He appears to have developed an overarching model of cognition and learning and squeezed the evidence into it, rather than building the model according to the evidence. The problem with the second approach of course, is that if the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t develop an overarching model of cognition and learning without it being highly speculative.

What also perplexes me about Geary’s model is its purpose. Teachers have been aware of the difference between implicit and explicit learning (even if they didn’t call it that) for centuries. It’s useful for them to know about brain evolution and modularity and the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking etc. But teachers can usually spot whether children are learning something apparently effortlessly (implicitly) or whether they need step-by-step (explicit) instruction. That’s essentially why teachers exist. Why do they need yet another speculative educational model?

references

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R.D.,  & Blumenfeld, P. (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self‐and task perceptions during elementary school, Child Development, 64, 830-847.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M.J., Anderson, A.W., Skudlarski, P. & Gore, J.C.  (1999). Activation of the middle fusiform ‘face area’ increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 568-573.

Rakison, D.H.  & Oakes L.M. (eds) (2008). Early Category and Concept Development.  Oxford University Press.

Simon, H.A. (1990). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science, 250, 1665-1668.

Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.

 

 

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Home education: the consultation

I’ve just submitted my response to the government consultation on home education (closes 2 July). The consultation documents (a call for evidence, and proposed guidance for local authorities and for parents) are the most poorly drafted I’ve ever seen. Home education is an obscure area of the law. Here’s why I’m interested…and why you should be too.

it’s confusing

Home education is described as ‘elective’ because parents choose it. There wasn’t much choice in our case. One kid wasn’t well enough to continue attending school, but the local authority (said it) couldn’t provide home tuition because the consultant couldn’t give a date for return to school. School provision for the other fell apart after the school’s brilliant SENCO left and we couldn’t find a nearby suitable alternative.

When we started home-educating, the LA offered a visit from an ‘adviser’. I accepted – I did have a few SEN questions.  But the ‘adviser’ said he couldn’t advise because home education was my responsibility; his job was to assess the suitability of my provision. He arranged for a colleague with SEN experience to visit. The colleague was willing to advise, but his advice contradicted that of the occupational therapist. I didn’t accept any more home visits.

My local authority isn’t the only one confused about its duties towards home-educated children. At least two sets of government guidelines have been issued to clarify LA obligations, the most recent in 2007. In 2009, the then Labour government commissioned a review of elective home education by Graham Badman, newly appointed chair of Haringey Local Children’s Safeguarding Board in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. (I’ve blogged about the political background to the Badman review here.)

it’s the law

The current legislative model for home education starts with an education suitable for the individual child. Parents have a legal duty to cause their child to have such an education (s.7 Education Act 1996) – wherever it takes place. LAs should make enquiries ‘if it appears’ a child isn’t receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) EA 1996), and must make arrangements for identifying children not receiving a suitable education (s.436A EA 1996).

In other words, parents are assumed to be complying with the law unless there is evidence indicating they might not be, at which point the LA can take action. This model is commonly applied in respect of other legal duties for individuals (e.g. taxation, vehicle registration). It’s not watertight – no model is – but it’s the most effective approach we’ve found to date.

Graham Badman’s conceptual model of the legislative framework was different. He saw home education as requiring a ‘balance’ between the parent’s and the child’s rights. But parents don’t have a ‘right’ to home educate, they have a duty to provide a suitable education. And legislation has to take into account the interests of different parties within the existing legislative framework, not to ‘balance’ rights regardless of the framework.

Badman’s conceptual model was way off the mark, but at least he explained it, and his recommendations were internally consistent with it, even if they were at odds with the legislative framework. The new proposals are all over the place.

why consult?

The consultation was prompted by “lacunae or shortcomings in the current legislation which have been drawn to the department’s attention by local authorities and by local children’s safeguarding boards” (2.3)*, i.e. organisations experiencing ‘confusion’ (2.3e), being involved in frequent disputes with parents (5.4), and for whom the previous guidelines had to be written. Despite very diverse views about legislation amongst home-educating families, there’s no indication they were involved in framing the consultation documents.

Local authorities’ main concerns are:

  • Home-educated children being radicalised.
  • Children attending unregistered schools under the guise of being home-educated.
  • LAs being unable to identify children not receiving a suitable education unless they know the identities of home-educated children, can find out whether or not a child’s education is suitable, and can monitor it regularly.
  • Home-educated children might be at risk of harm.
  • Some parents “willing and able to be fined repeatedly can continue unsatisfactory provision of home education indefinitely” (L6.20).

The focus of the consultation documents is on compiling registers of children and the sanctions that can be imposed on parents who don’t co-operate with the local authority, rather than on how best to ensure all children get the suitable education defined in law.

Proposals for change include;

  • compulsory registration of home-educated children
  • regular monitoring
  • LAs should have access to the child
  • LAs should know the views of the child about home education
  • not receiving a suitable education constituting a safeguarding issue.

The first three proposals have long been on the LAs’ wishlist because LAs believe those measures will pick up children not receiving a suitable education or at risk of harm. There is no evidence to support that belief. In fact, any evidence was noticeable by its absence from the consultation documents.

absence of evidence

Local authorities frequently see the majority of children getting a perfectly adequate (often very good) education in schools. They rarely see the substantial number who end up not attending school, in pupil referral units (PRUs), or being educated at home.

They also see a very small number of shockingly memorable cases of children educated at home who are neglected or abused. What they don’t see is the large number of home-educated children who get a perfectly adequate (often very good) education at home, and are completely safe and well.

I can’t find figures for the number of school attendance orders issued by local authorities – which suggests it’s very small. Fewer than 0.4% of home educated children had child protection plans in 2009 (see the parliamentary exchange about that here ). And in none of the cases of neglect or abuse cited as examples of the risk to home-educated children, have the children been previously unknown to the authorities. In fact, in several of the cases cited by the NSPCC, the failure of the authorities to follow procedures properly contributed to the harm experienced by the child.

If you don’t have evidence of the extent of a perceived problem, or of the effectiveness of your proposed solutions, your argument is based on speculation, and speculation knows no bounds. As a consequence, the consultation documents:

  1. cherry-pick human rights

States that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or are party to the European Convention on Human Rights must have regard to all the Articles when they legislate – not just those that support recommendations governments happen to think are a good idea. The Articles about a private family life weren’t mentioned.

  1. ignore legislative principles

Even when human rights conventions were a mere twinkle in the eyes of politicians and lawyers, UK law enshrined principles such as the presumption of innocence, protection from undue state intervention, and reliance on evidence. The consultation documents blithely ignore all three.

  1. change the wording of the legislation

Some legislation is cited inaccurately in a way that changes its meaning e.g Part V Children Act 1989 (L7.8) – the ‘reasonable cause’ threshold.

  1. extend the original scope of the legislation

For example, the duty to make arrangements to identify children not receiving a suitable education (s.456A EA 1996), is turned into a duty to find out whether or not a child is receiving a suitable education, exceeding the ‘if it appears’ limitation imposed by s.437(1).

  1. cite irrelevant legislation

For example in L9.4c, s.13 EA 1996 (availability of primary and secondary education) and s.175 EA 2002 (general duty to promote and safeguard children’s welfare). Some legislation is referred to despite being described as irrelevant e.g. s.17A Children Act 1989 (L10.2).

  1. conflate education and safeguarding

Despite warning against conflating education and safeguarding, which are distinct issues in law, section 7 of the guidance for LAs and section 5 of the guidance for parents proceed to do precisely that. These very muddled sections appear to be the result of LAs wanting a way to deal with the small number of parents mentioned in L6.20.

  1. assume average is normative

Requirements and advice for schools are cited despite being irrelevant to home-educated children e.g. L9.4. Children vary widely – they are not departures from the ‘average’ (L9.4e).

  1. focus on bureaucracy

The focus of the law is on an education suitable for the individual child. The focus of the consultation, in contrast, is on compiling a register of children not receiving an education suitable to the average child, and on compliance by local authorities and parents.

  1. offer sanctions not support

The consultation emphasises sanctions that can be imposed on parents who fail to co-operate with LAs. Significantly it does not propose a statutory duty for local authorities to provide advice and support for home educating families. This calls into question the claim that children receiving a suitable education is a local authority’s chief concern.

take home lessons

Whoever drafted the 2007 EHE Guidelines understood the legislation, its purpose and the principles behind it. The current consultation documents appear to have been drafted by someone who sees legislation as being about people’s views; and whoever cites the most pieces of legislation bearing a superficial resemblance to their view, wins.

For many children, home education is their last shot at getting a suitable education. If there’s evidence that home education is causing them significant problems, let’s see it. If there’s evidence to support the proposed changes to the law, let’s see that too. And consult on that, not whatever local authorities think would make their lives easier regardless of the impact it might have on local families.

If the Department for Education can produce consultation documents as poor as these in respect of home education, they can do it for other areas of education too.  Parents of children with SEND, beware!

 

*References in brackets are to the consultation document. References prefixed L are the proposed guidance for LAs.

Bold Beginnings – could do better

Bold Beginnings, an Ofsted report on the Reception curriculum, was published at the end of November. It caused a bit of a stir among Early Years teachers. I thought they might be over-reacting, an understandable tendency developed in response to endless assumptions that the children they teach ‘just play’. Last week, an open letter with over 1700 signatories questioning the report’s conclusions was published in the Guardian. An article in response wondered what all the fuss was about. So I read the report. Here’s what I thought. References in brackets are to the paragraph numbers.

The report was commissioned as part of a review of the curriculum. 41 primary schools  judged good or outstanding in their last Ofsted inspection (86) were visited and asked to complete an online questionnaire.

implicit assumptions

The first thing that struck me was the implicit assumptions on which the report is based. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things.   For one thing, they’re assumptions; no one wheels out evidence to support them – and sometimes there isn’t any supporting evidence. For another thing, they’re implicit – no one spells them out, so they’re easy to miss. Sometimes the people making the assumptions aren’t aware that they’re making them. Here are three.

falling behind  

The first implicit assumption appears in the first paragraph. It refers to the “painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers” (p.4). I find the idea of children ‘falling behind’ baffling. Falling behind what, exactly? The school population is, like any other large population, very varied. And then there’s the age range. Expecting the youngest children in a Reception class to be at the same level of attainment as the oldest, flies in the face of everything we know about human development and population statistics.   Then there’s “in 2016, around one third of children did not have the essential knowledge and understanding they needed to reach a good level of development [as defined by government] by the age of five” (6). Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics would expect 50% of children to be developing more slowly than average in a large population. The assumption that children can ‘fall behind’ and should ‘catch up’ is made by an education system designed around administrative convenience, not the educational needs of children.

increased expectations in Year 1

Reception and Year 1 teachers agreed that the vital, smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum.” (p4 §8) The national curriculum isn’t a Law of Nature or Act of God. It’s a system designed by human beings. There is no reason why early learning has to adapt to expectations for children in Year 1. Year 1 expectations could instead adapt to early learning. The report complains “there is no clear curriculum in Reception” (p5 §3). There’s no reason why a clear Reception curriculum shouldn’t be developed, but the current lack of one might be because many children in Reception classes are below the statutory education age.

the curriculum

A third implicit assumption runs through the entire report. Despite the review being of the curriculum, the focus is relentlessly on reading, writing and mathematics – all fundamental, but only three of the skills children need to acquire to access a broad curriculum and understand how the world works.

Bold Beginnings appears to have been written by someone with little knowledge of what is taught and learned at the Early Years Foundation Stage. That might have been a deliberate choice to avoid the bias towards play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning perceived by some headteachers (81), but it resulted in an impoverished analysis. The focus is on reading, writing and mathematics rather than the curriculum; play is mentioned numerous times but not discussed in detail; and the purpose of  education appears to be GCSE grades.

the three Rs

Schools are supposed to be places where children learn, and for Reception age children there is much to learn. About physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, geography, history, music, art and drama. I’m not recommending formal subject areas for 4-5 year-olds, but found it mystifying that the report makes only a passing reference to ‘science and the humanities’ (13) and ‘music and science’ (21).  The report’s author doesn’t seem aware that at this age children are forming basic concepts about solids, liquids, gases, plants and animals, maps, timelines, rhythm, melody, art materials, scripts and roles, that form the foundation of later learning (Rakison & Oakes, 2003).   Instead, the author sees reading, writing and number as “the building blocks for all other learning” (7), completely overlooking all the learning children do that doesn’t involve reading, writing or numbers.

Although speaking and talking are mentioned in passing, language skills are seen in terms of their contribution to reading and writing (p4 §3) not as an end in themselves. Reading and writing are crucial skills, but the report overlooks the amount of spoken communication that goes on between human beings at all levels.

The report’s author is a big fan of systematic synthetic phonics, but I felt painted themselves into a corner when discussing children’s books.  It makes sense for reading schemes to introduce grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) one-by-one, as the report recommends, to secure children’s knowledge and build up their confidence. Books with unfamiliar GPCs are cautioned against because they encourage children to use other strategies, such as guessing (53, 54). But it wasn’t clear how parents or teachers could avoid this if they read a wide range of stories to, or with, children.

And then there’s the mathematics. What’s actually discussed isn’t mathematics as such, or even arithmetic. It’s number. Number is obviously a foundational mathematical skill, but I couldn’t find any reference to shape, spatial relationships, or operations – all foundational mathematical concepts that most 4 year-olds are beginning to get to grips with.

play

The report mentions play numerous times but its role is seen as “primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills” (p4 §5). There are many references to teachers knowing how children learn through play, but what they know seems to be a mystery to the report’s author.   There’s a rather breathless account of children dramatizing the Three Billy Goats Gruff (35), suggesting that inspectors weren’t very familiar with an activity that’s probably been a feature of every nursery and infant class since at least the 1930s.

achievement

The report appears to see achievement solely in terms of succeeding at the tasks set by schools, rather than in terms of children getting a good knowledge and understanding of how the world works.   For example “The research is clear: a child’s early education lasts a lifetime. Done well, it can mean the difference between gaining seven Bs at GCSE compared with seven Cs.7”(5).  Leaving aside the fact that the reference refers to 8 GCSEs not 7, and that a correlation doesn’t indicate a causal relationship, framing the importance of education solely in terms of GCSE results is troubling. The author of the report doubtless got at least 7 B grades at GCSE, but that doesn’t appear to have equipped him or her with adequate research skills.

the research

Ofsted do not appear to be aware of the impact of their own inspections. For example, the statutory moderation of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile comes in for some stick, one complaint being “a moderator expected to see three pieces of evidence for every separate sentence within the early learning goals” (77). I vividly recall my son’s Year 1 teachers complaining about the insistence of Ofsted in their previous inspection on exactly this. (My son wasn’t very happy about it either, asking why, if he’d shown he could do something, he then had to do it again.)

Then, in Annex B, we have the online questionnaire sent to schools. Q1 doesn’t have an ‘other’ box for anyone completing the form who isn’t a head, early years or reception teacher. And in Q2 there’s an elementary error that most primary school pupils would know to avoid. The narrow focus of the report is clear in Q12. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an Ofsted questionnaire cause raised eyebrows. One teenager thought a questionnaire sent to families “looks like it was written by a Year 7”. It did too. I’d expect better research skills from a regulatory body.

the narrative

Bold Beginnings isn’t an objective, dispassionate analysis of the Reception curriculum. Instead it propagates a particular narrative that goes like this: 1) Because the long-term outcomes are better for children who attend pre-school provision and attend it for longer, and 2) because teachers at good and outstanding primary schools believe that formal education begins in the Reception year, that 3) the Reception curriculum should be shaped by the increased expectations for children in Year 1, and 4) that reading, writing and number need greater emphasis, it stands to reason that formal education should start in Reception, be shaped by the Y1 curriculum, and should focus on reading, writing and number. But the narrative doesn’t hold water. Here’s why.

1) Research (Sylva et al 2014) indicates that long-term educational outcomes are better for children who have attended pre-school provision, and attended it for longer. That’s the current informal provision. The research doesn’t support the assumption that the earlier formal education starts the better. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that starting formal education later (in some countries age 6 or 7) has a detrimental impact on long-term outcomes.

2) “Nearly 95% of the school staff who responded to Ofsted’s survey questionnaire believed that Nursery and/or Reception signalled the start of school. Leaders clearly believe that the moment a child starts attending their school, in whatever capacity, their educational journey has begun. While Year 1 may be the official start, it is clear that the Reception Year is more commonly recognised as the beginning of a child’s formal education” (3). That’s interesting, but an education system shouldn’t be designed around beliefs, whoever holds them. Initial teacher education (ITE) tutors come in for criticism from some headteachers for their emphasis on play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning (81), but the ITE tutors’ beliefs, however strongly evidence-based, don’t play any part in the Bold Beginnings narrative. The word ‘believed’ is used 14 times in this report. That’s probably 14 times too many.

3) There’s no reason why the EYFS curriculum shouldn’t shape the Year 1 curriculum, rather than vice versa.

4) There’s no reason not to improve reading, writing and mathematics in Reception classes, but they are not “the building blocks for all other learning” (7) and the report ignores the vast number of other building blocks routinely developed by Early Years teachers.

conclusion

This is not a well-researched, objective assessment of the Reception curriculum. The research is inadequate, the evaluation of evidence leaves much to be desired, and the recommendations are based largely on the beliefs of teachers in a sample of 41 schools. Ofsted should be leading the way. Instead, they are falling behind.

References

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.
Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj, I,  & Taggart, B (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) Project. Department for Education.

 

 

 

cognitive science: the wrong end of the stick

A few years ago, some teachers began advocating the application of findings from cognitive science to education. There seemed to be something not quite right about what they were advocating but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Their focus was on the limitations of working memory and differences between experts and novices. Nothing wrong with that per se, but working memory and expertise aren’t isolated matters.

Cognitive science is now a vast field; encompassing sensory processing, perception, cognition, memory, learning, and aspects of neuroscience. A decent textbook would provide an overview, but decent textbooks didn’t appear to have been consulted much. Key researchers (e.g. Baddeley & Hitch, Alloway, Gathercole), fields of research (e.g. limitations of long-term memory, neurology), and long-standing contentious issues (e.g. nature vs nurture) rarely got a mention even when highly relevant.

At first I assumed the significant absences were due to the size of the field to be explored, but as time went by that seemed less and less likely.  There was an increasing occurrence of teacher-B’s-understanding-of-teacher-A’s-understanding-of-Daniel-Willingham’s-simplified-model-of-working-memory, with some teachers getting hold of the wrong end of some of the sticks. I couldn’t understand why, given the emphasis on expertise, teachers didn’t seem to be looking further.

The penny dropped last week when I read an interview with John Sweller, the originator of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), by Ollie Lovell, a maths teacher in Melbourne. Ollie has helpfully divided the interview into topics in a transcript on his website. The interview clarifies several aspects of cognitive load theory. In this post, I comment on some points that came up in the interview, and explain the dropped penny.

1.  worked examples

The interview begins with the 1982 experiment that led to Sweller’s discovery of the worked example effect. Ollie refers to the ‘political environment of education at the time’ being ‘heavily in favour of problem solving’. John thinks that however he’d presented the worked example effect, he’d be pessimistic about the response because ‘the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving’.

The implication that the education system had rejected worked examples was puzzling. During my education (1960s and 70s) you couldn’t move for worked examples. They permeated training courses I attended in the 80s, my children’s education in the 90s and noughties, and still pop up frequently in reviews and reports. True, they’re not always described as a ‘worked example’ but instead might be a ‘for instance’ or ‘here’s an example’ or ‘imagine…’. So where weren’t they? I’d be grateful for any pointers.

2 & 3. goal-free effect

Essentially students told to ‘find out as much as you can’ about a problem, performed better than those given specific instructions about what to find out. But only in relation to problems with a small number of possible solutions – in this case physics problems. The effect wasn’t found for problems with a large number of possible solutions.   But you wouldn’t know that if you’d only read teachers criticising ‘discovery learning’.

4. biologically primary and secondary skills

What’s determined by biology or by the environment has been a hugely contentious issue in cognitive science for decades. Basically, we don’t yet know the extent to which learning is biologically or environmentally determined.  But the contentiousness isn’t mentioned in the interview, is marginalised by David Geary the originator of the biologically primary and secondary concept, and John appears to simply assume Geary’s theory is correct, presumably because it’s plausible.

John says it’s ‘absurd’ to provide someone with explicit instruction about what to do with their tongue, lips or breath when learning English. Ollie points out that’s exactly what he had to do when he learned Chinese. John claims that language acquisition by immersion is biologically primary for children but not for adults. This flies in the face of everything we know about language acquisition.

Adults can and do become very fluent in languages acquired via immersion, just as children do. Explicit instruction can speed up the process and help with problematic speech sounds, but can’t make adults speak like a native. That’s because the adults have to override very robust neural pathways laid down in childhood in response to the sounds the children hear day-in, day-out (e.g. Patricia Kuhl’s ‘Cracking the speech code‘). The evidence suggests that differences between adult and child language acquisition are a frequency of exposure issue, not a type-of-skill issue. As Ollie says: “It’s funny isn’t it?  How it can switch category. It’s just amazing.”  Quite.

5. motivation

The discussion was summed up in John’s comment: “I don’t think you can turn Cognitive Load Theory into a theory of motivation which in no way suggests that you can’t use a theory of motivation and use it in conjunction with cognitive load theory.

 6. expertise reversal effect

John says: “As expertise goes up, the advantage of worked examples go down, and as expertise continues to go up, eventually the relative effectiveness of worked examples and problems reverses and the problems are more helpful than worked examples”.

7. measures of cognitive load

John: “I routinely use self-report and I use self-report because it’s sensitive”. Other measures – secondary tasks, physiological markers – are problematic.

8. collective working memory effect

John: “In problem solving, you may need information and the only place you can get it from is somebody else.” He doesn’t think you can teach somebody to act collaboratively because he thinks social interaction is biologically primary knowledge. See 4 above.

9. The final section of the interview highlighted, for me, two features that emerge from much of the discourse about applying cognitive science to education:

  • The importance of the biological mechanisms and the weaknesses of analogy.
  • The frame of reference used in the discourse.

biological mechanisms

In the final part of the interview John asks an important question: Is the capacity of working memory fixed? He says: “If you’ve been using your working memory, especially in a particular area, heavily for a while, after a while, and you would have experienced this yourself, your working memory keeps getting narrower and narrower and narrower and after a while it just about disappears.”

An explanation for the apparent ‘narrowing’ of working memory is habituation, where the response of neurons to a particular stimulus diminishes if the stimulus is repeated. The best account I’ve read of the biological mechanisms in working memory is in a 2004 paper by Wagner, Bunge & Badre.  If I’ve understood their findings correctly, signals representing sensory information coming into the prefrontal area of the brain are maintained for a few seconds until they degrade or are overridden by further incoming information. This is exactly what was predicted by Baddeley & Hitch’s phonological loop and visual-spatial sketchpad. (Wagner, Bunge and Badre’s findings also indicate there might be more components to working memory than Baddley & Hitch’s model suggests.)

John was using a figure of speech, but I fear it will only be a matter of time before teachers start referring to the ‘narrowing’ of working memory. This illustrates why it’s important to be aware of the biological mechanisms that underpin cognitive functions. Working memory is determined by the behaviour of neurons, not by the behaviour of analogous computer components.

frame of reference

John and Ollie were talking about cognitive load theory in education, so that’s what the interview focussed on, obviously.  But every focus has a context, and John and Ollie’s frame of reference seemed rather narrow. Ollie opens by talking about ‘the political environment of education at the time [1982]’ being ‘heavily in favour of problem solving’. I don’t think he actually means the ‘political environment of education at the time’ as such. Similarly John comments ‘the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving’. I don’t think he means ‘the entire research environment’ as such either.

John also observes: “It’s only been very recently that people started taking notice of Cognitive Load Theory. For decades I put papers out there and it was like putting them into outer-space, you know, they disappeared into the ether!” I first heard about Cognitive Load Theory in the late 80s, soon after Sweller first proposed it, via a colleague working in artificial intelligence. I had no idea, until recently, that Sweller was an educational psychologist. People have been taking notice of CLT, but maybe not in education.

Then there’s the biologically primary/secondary model. It’s ironic how little it refers to biology. We know a fair amount about the biological mechanisms involved in learning, and I’ve not yet seen any evidence suggesting two distinct mechanisms. The model appears to be based on the surface features of how people appear to learn, not on the deep structure of how learning happens.

Lastly, the example of language acquisition. The differences between adults and children learning languages can be explained by frequency of exposure and how neurons work; there’s no need to introduce a speculative evolutionary model.

Not only is cognitive load theory the focus of the interview, it also appears to be its frame of reference; political issues and knowledge domains other than education don’t get much of a look in.

the penny that dropped

Ever since I first heard about teachers applying cognitive science to education, I’ve been puzzled by their focus on the limitations of working memory and the characteristics of experts and novices. It suddenly dawned on me, reading Ollie’s interview with John, that what the teachers are actually applying isn’t so much cognitive science, as cognitive load theory. CLT, the limitations of working memory and the characteristics of experts and novices are important, but constitute only a small area of cognitive science. But you wouldn’t know that from this interview or most of the teachers advocating the application of cognitive science.  There’s a real risk, if CLT isn’t set in context, of teachers getting hold of the wrong stick entirely.

references

Geary, D. (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Wagner, A.D., Bunge, S.A. & Badre, D. (2004). Cognitive control, semantic memory          and priming: Contributions from prefrontal cortex. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences (3rd edn.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

genes, environment and behaviour

There was considerable kerfuffle on Twitter last week following a blog post by David Didau entitled ‘What causes behaviour?’  The ensuing discussion resulted in a series of five further posts from David culminating in an explanation of why his views weren’t racist. I think David created problems for himself through lack of clarity about gene-environment interactions and through ambiguous wording. Here’s my two-pennyworth.

genes

Genes are regions of DNA that hold information about (mainly) protein production. As far as we know, that’s all they do. The process of using this information to produce proteins is referred to as genetic expression.

environment

The context in which genes are expressed. Before birth, the immediate environment in which human genes are expressed is limited, and is largely a chemical and biological one. After birth, the environment gets more complex as Urie Bronfenbrenner demonstrated.  Remote environmental effects can have a significant impact on immediate ones. Whether a mother smokes or drinks is influenced by genetic and social factors, and the health of both parents is often affected by factors beyond their control.

epigenetics

Epigenetic factors are environmental factors that can directly change the expression of genes; in some cases they can be effectively ‘switched’ on or off.   Some epigenetic changes can be inherited.

behaviour

Behaviour is a term that’s been the subject of much discussion by psychologists. There’s a useful review by Levitis et al here. A definition of behaviour the authors decided reflected consensus is:

Behaviour is: the internally coordinated responses (actions or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to internal and/or external stimuli, excluding responses more easily understood as developmental changes.

traits and states

Trait is a term used to describe a consistent pattern in behaviour, personality etc. State is used to describe transient behaviours or feelings.

David Didau’s argument

David begins with the point that behavioural traits in adulthood are influenced far more by genes than by shared environments during childhood. He says: “Contrary to much popular wishing thinking, shared environmental effects like parenting have (almost) no effect on adult’s behaviour, characteristics, values or beliefs.* The reason we are like our parents and siblings is because we share their genes. *Footnote: There are some obvious exceptions to this. Extreme neglect or abuse before the age of 5 will likely cause permanent developmental damage as will hitting someone in the head with a hammer at any age.”

In support he cites a paper by Thomas Bouchard, a survey of research (mainly twin studies) about genetic influence on psychological traits; personality, intelligence, psychological interests, psychiatric illnesses and social attitudes. David rightly concludes that it’s futile for schools to try to teach ‘character’ because character (whatever you take it to mean) is a stable trait.

traits, states and outcomes

But he also refers to children’s behaviour in school, and behaviour encompasses traits and states; stable patterns of behaviour and one-off specific behaviours. For David, school expectations can “mediate these genetic forces”, but only within school; “an individual’s behaviour will be, for the most part, unaffected by this experience when outside the school environment”.

He also refers to “how we turn out”, and how we turn out can be affected by one-off, even uncharacteristic behaviours (on the part of children, parents and teachers and/or government).   One-off actions can have a hugely beneficial or detrimental impact on long-term outcomes for children.

genes, environment and interactions

It’s easy to get the impression from the post that genetic influences (David calls them genetic ‘forces’ – I don’t know what that means) and environmental influences are distinct and act in parallel. He refers, for example, to “genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones” (my emphasis), but concedes “there’s definitely some sort of interaction between the two”.

Obviously, genes and environment influence behaviour. What’s emerged from research is that the interactions between genetic expression and environmental factors are pretty complex. From conception, gene expression produces proteins; cells form, divide and differentiate, the child’s body develops and grows. Genetic expression obviously plays a major role in pre-natal development, but the proteins expressed by the genes very quickly form a complex biochemical, physiological and anatomical environment that impacts on the products of later genetic expression. This environment is internal to the mother’s body, but external environmental factors are also involved in the form of nutrients, toxins, activities, stressors etc. After birth, genes continue to be expressed, but the influence of the external environment on the child’s development increases.

Three points to bear in mind: 1) A person’s genome remains pretty stable throughout their lifetime. 2) The external environment doesn’t remain stable – for most people it changes constantly.  Some of the changes will counteract others; rest and good nutrition can overcome the effects of illness, beneficial events can mitigate the impact of adverse ones. So it’s hardly surprising that shared childhood environments have comparatively little, if any, effect on adult traits.   3) Genetic and environmental influences are difficult to untangle due to their complex interactions from the get-go. Annette Karmiloff-Smith* highlights the importance of gene-environment-behaviour interactions here.

Clearly, if you’re a kid with drive, enthusiasm and aspirations, but grow up on a sink estate in an area of high social and economic deprivation where the only wealthy people with high social status are drug dealers, you’re far more likely to end up with rather dodgy career prospects than a child with similar character traits who lives in a leafy suburb and attends Eton. (I’ve blogged elsewhere about the impact of life events on child development and long-term outcomes, in a series of posts starting here.)

In other words, parents and teachers might have little influence over behavioural traits, but they can make a huge difference to the outcomes for a child, by equipping them (or not) with the knowledge and strategies they need to make the most of what they’ve got. From other things that David has written, I don’t think he’d disagree.  I think what he is trying to do in this post is to put paid to the popular idea that parents (and teachers) have a significant long-term influence on children’s behavioural traits.  They clearly don’t.  But in this post he doesn’t make a clear distinction between behavioural traits and outcomes. I suggest that’s one reason his post resulted in so much heated discussion.

genes, environment and the scientific method

I’m not sure where his argument goes after he makes the point about character education. He goes on to suggest that anyone who queries his conclusions about the twin studies is dismissing the scientific method, which seems a bit of a stretch, and finishes the post with a series of ‘empirical questions’ that appear to reflect some pet peeves about current educational practices, rather than testing hypotheses about behaviour per se.

So it’s not surprising that some people got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The behavioural framework including traits, states and outcomes is an important one and I wish, instead of going off at tangents, he’d explored it in more detail.

*If you’re interested,  Neuroconstructivism by Mareschal et al and Rethinking Innateness by Elman et al. are well worth reading on gene-environment interactions during children’s development.  Not exactly easy reads, but both reward effort.

references

Bouchard, T. (2004).  Genetic influence on human psychological traits.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 148-151.

Elman, J. L., Bates, E.A., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Karmiloff-Smith A (1998). Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 389-398.

Levitis, D.A., Lidicker, W.Z., & Freund, G. (2009).  Behavioural biologists don’t agree on what constitutes behaviour.  Animal Behaviour, 78 (1) 103-110.

Mareschal, D., Johnson, M., Sirois, S., Spratling, M.W., Thomas, M.S.C. & Westermann, G. (2007). Neuroconstructivism: How the brain constructs cognition, Vol. I. Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

all snowflakes are unique: comments on ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’ (David Didau & Nick Rose)

This book and I didn’t get off to a good start. The first sentence of Part 1 (Learning and Thinking) raised a couple of red flags: “Learning and thinking are terms that are used carelessly in education.” The second sentence raised another one: “If we are to discuss the psychology of learning then it makes sense to begin with precise definitions.”   I’ll get back to the red flags later.

Undeterred, I pressed on, and I’m glad I did. Apart from the red flags and a few quibbles, I thought the rest of the book was great.  The scope is wide and the research is up-to-date but set in historical context. The three parts – Learning and Thinking, Motivation and Behaviour, and Controversies – provide a comprehensive introduction to psychology for teachers or, for that matter, anyone else. Each of the 26 chapters is short, clearly focussed, has a summary “what every teacher needs to know about…”, and is well-referenced.   The voice is right too; David Didau and Nick Rose have provided a psychology-for-beginners, written for grown-ups.

The quibbles? References that were in the text but not in the references section, or vice versa. A rather basic index. And I couldn’t make sense of the example on p.193 about energy conservation, until it dawned on me that a ‘re’ was missing from ‘reuse’. All easily addressed in a second edition, which this book deserves. A bigger quibble was the underlying conceptual framework adopted by the authors. This is where the red flags come in.

The authors are clear about why they’ve written the book and what they hope it will achieve. What they are less clear about is the implicit assumptions they make as a result of their underlying conceptual framework. I want to look at three implicit assumptions about; precise definitions, the school population and psychological theory.

precise definitions

The first two sentences of Part 1 are;

Learning and thinking are terms that are used carelessly in education. If we are to discuss the psychology of learning then it makes sense to begin with precise definitions.” (p.14)

What the authors imply (or at least what I inferred) is that there are precise definitions of learning and thinking. They reinforce their point by providing some. Now, ‘carelessly’ is a somewhat pejorative term. It might be fair to use it if there is a precise definition of learning and there is a precise definition of thinking, but people just can’t be bothered to use them. But if there isn’t a single precise definition of either…

I’d say terms such as ‘learning’, ‘thinking’, ‘teaching’, ‘education’ etc. (the list is a long one) are used loosely rather than carelessly. ‘Learning’ and ‘thinking’ are constructs that are more complex and fuzzier than say, metres or molar solutions. In marked contrast to the way ‘metre’ and ‘molar solution’ are used, people use ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ to refer to different things in different contexts.   What they’re referring to is usually made clear by the context. For example, most people would consider it reasonable to talk about “what children learn in schools” even if much of the material taught in schools doesn’t meet Didau and Rose’s criterion of retention, transfer and change (p.14). Similarly, it would be considered fair use of the word ‘thinking’ for someone to say “I was thinking about swimming”, if what they were referring to was pleasant mental images of them floating in the Med, rather than the authors’ definition of a conscious, active, deliberative, cognitive “struggle to get from A to B”.

Clearly, there are situations where context isn’t enough, and a precise definition of terms such as ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ are required; empirical research is a case in point. And researchers in most knowledge domains (maybe education is an exception) usually address this requirement by stating explicitly how they have used particular terms; “by learning we mean…” or “we use thinking to refer to…”.  Or they avoid the use of umbrella terms entirely. In short, for many terms there isn’t one precise definition. The authors acknowledge this when they refer to “two common usages of the term ‘thinking’”, but still try to come up with one precise definition (p.15).

Why does this matter? It matters because if it’s assumed there is a precise definition for labels representing multi-faceted, multi-component processes, that people use in different ways in different circumstances, a great deal of time can be wasted arguing about what that precise definition is. It would make far more sense simply to be explicit how we’re using the term for a particular purpose, or exactly which facet or component we’re referring to.

Exactly this problem arises in the discussion about restorative justice programmes (p.181). The authors complain that restorative justice programmes are “difficult to define and frequently implemented under a variety of different names…” Those challenges could be avoided by not trying to define restorative justice at all, but by people being explicit about how they use the term – or by using different terms for different programmes.

Another example is ‘zero tolerance’ (p.157). This term is usually used to refer to strict, inflexible sanctions applied in response to even the most minor infringements of rules; the authors cite as examples schools using ‘no excuses’ policies. However, zero tolerance is also associated with the broken windows theory of crime (Wilson & Kelling, 1982); that if minor misdemeanours are overlooked, antisocial behaviour will escalate. The broken windows theory does not advocate strict, inflexible sanctions for minor infringements, but rather a range of preventative measures and proportionate sanctions to avoid escalation. Historically, evidence for the effectiveness of both approaches is mixed, so the authors are right to be cautious in their conclusions.

What I want to emphasise is that there isn’t a single precise definition of learning, thinking, restorative justice, zero tolerance, or many other terms used in the education system, so trying to develop one is like trying define apples-and-oranges. To avoid going down that path, we simply need to be explicit about what we’re actually talking about. As Didau and Rose themselves point out “simply lumping things together and giving them the same name doesn’t actually make them the same” (p.266).

all snowflakes are unique

Another implicit assumption emerges in chapter 25, about individual differences;

Although it’s true that all snowflakes are unique, this tells us nothing about how to build a snowman or design a better snowplough. For all their individuality, useful applications depend on the underlying physical and chemical similarities of snowflakes. The same applies to teaching children. Of course all children are unique…however, for all their individuality and any application of psychology to teaching is typically best informed by understanding the underlying similarities in the way children learn and develop, rather than trying to apply ill-fitting labels to define their differences. (p. 254)

For me, this analogy begged the question of what the authors see as the purpose of education, and completely ignores the nomothetic/idiographic (tendency to generalise vs tendency to specify) tension that’s been a challenge for psychology since its inception. It’s true that education contributes to building communities of individuals who have many similarities, but our evolution as a species, and our success at colonising such a wide range of environments hinges on our differences. And the purpose of education doesn’t stop at the community level. It’s also about the education of individuals; this is recognised in the 1996 Education Act (borrowing from the 1944 Education Act), which expects a child’s education to be suitable to them as an individual.  For the simple reason that if it isn’t suitable, it won’t be effective.  Children are people who are part of communities, not units to be built into an edifice of their teachers’ making, or to be shovelled aside if they get in the way of the education system’s progress.

what’s the big idea?

Another major niggle for me was how the authors evaluate theory. I don’t mean the specific theories tested by the psychological research they cite; that would be beyond the scope of the book. Also, if research has been peer-reviewed and there’s no huge controversy over it, there’s no reason why teachers shouldn’t go ahead and apply the findings. My concern is about the broader psychological theories that frame psychologists’ thinking and influence what research is carried out (or not) and how. Didau and Rose demonstrate they’re capable of evaluating theoretical frameworks, but their evaluation looked a bit uneven to me.

For example, they note “there are many questions” relating to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (pp.221-223), but BF Skinner’s behaviourist model (pp.152-155) has been “much misunderstood, and often unfairly maligned”. Both observations are true, but because there are pros and cons to each of the theories, I felt the authors’ biases were showing. And David Geary’s somewhat speculative model of biologically primary and secondary knowledge and ability, is cited uncritically at least a dozen times, overlooking the controversy surrounding two of its major assumptions –  modularity and intelligence. The authors are up-front about their “admittedly biased view” Continue reading

educating the evolved mind: education

The previous two posts have been about David Geary’s concepts of primary and secondary knowledge and abilities; evolved minds and intelligence.  This post is about how Geary applies his model to education in Educating the Evolved Mind.

There’s something of a mismatch between the cognitive and educational components of Geary’s model.  The cognitive component is a range of biologically determined functions that have evolved over several millennia.  The educational component is a culturally determined education system cobbled together in a somewhat piecemeal and haphazard fashion over the past century or so.

The education system Geary refers to is typical of the schooling systems in developed industrialised nations, and according to his model, focuses on providing students with biologically secondary knowledge and abilities. Geary points out that many students prefer to focus on biologically primary knowledge and abilities such as sports and hanging out with their mates (p.52).   He recognises they might not see the point of what they are expected to learn and might need its importance explained to them in terms of social value (p.56). He suggests ‘low achieving’ students especially might need explicit, teacher driven instruction (p.43).

You’d think, if cognitive functions have been biologically determined through thousands of years of evolution, that it would make sense to adapt the education system to the cognitive functions, rather then the other way round. But Geary doesn’t appear to question the structure of the current US education system at all; he accepts it as a given. I suggest that in the light of how human cognition works, it might be worth taking a step back and re-thinking the education system itself in the light of the following principles:

1.communities need access to expertise

Human beings have been ‘successful’, in evolutionary terms, mainly due to our use of language. Language means it isn’t necessary for each of us to learn everything for ourselves from scratch; we can pass on information to each other verbally. Reading and writing allow knowledge to be transmitted across time and space. The more knowledge we have as individuals and communities, the better our chances of survival and a decent quality of life.

But, although it’s desirable for everyone to be proficient reader and writer and to have an excellent grasp of collective human knowledge, that’s not necessary in order for each of us to have a decent quality of life. What each community needs is a critical mass of people with good knowledge and skills.

Also, human knowledge is now so vast that no one can be an expert on everything; what’s important is that everyone has access to the expertise they need, when and where they need it.  For centuries, communities have facilitated access to expertise by educating and training experts (from carpenters and builders to doctors and lawyers) who can then share their expertise with their communities.

2.education and training is not just for school

Prior to the development of mass education systems, most children’s and young people’s education and training would have been integrated into the communities in which they lived. They would understand where their new knowledge and skills fitted into the grand scheme of things and how it would benefit them, their families and others. But schools in mass education systems aren’t integrated into communities. The education system has become its own specialism. Children and young people are withdrawn from their community for many hours to be taught whatever knowledge and skills the education system thinks fit. The idea that good exam results will lead to good jobs is expected to provide sufficient motivation for students to work hard at mastering the school curriculum.  Geary recognises that it doesn’t.

For most of the millennia during which cognitive functions have been developing, children and young people have been actively involved in producing food or making goods, and their education and training was directly related to those tasks. Now it isn’t.  I’m not advocating a return to child labour; what I am advocating is ensuring that what children and young people learn in school is directly and explicitly related to life outside school.

Here’s an example: A highlight of the Chemistry O level course I took many years ago was a visit to the nearby Avon (make-up) factory. Not only did we each get a bag of free samples, but in the course of an afternoon the relevance of all that rote learning of industrial applications, all that dry information about emulsions, fat-soluble dyes, anti-fungal additives etc. suddenly came into sharp focus. In addition, the factory was a major local employer and the Avon distribution network was very familiar to us, so the whole end-to-end process made sense.

What’s commonly referred to as ‘academic’ education – fundamental knowledge about how the world works – is vital for our survival and wellbeing as a species. But knowledge about how the world works is also immensely practical. We need to get children and young people out, into the community, to see how their communities apply knowledge about how the world works, and why it’s important. The increasing emphasis in education in the developed world on paper-and-pencil tests, examination results and college attendance is moving the education system in the opposite direction, away from the practical importance of extensive, robust knowledge to our everyday lives.  And Geary appears to go along with that.

3.(not) evaluating the evidence

Broadly speaking, Geary’s model has obvious uses for teachers.   There’s considerable supporting evidence for a two-phase model of cognition ranging from Fodor’s specialised, stable/general, unstable distinction, to the System 1/System 2 model Daniel Kahnemann describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Whether the difference between Geary’s biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities is as clear-cut as he claims, is a different matter.

It’s also well established that in order to successfully acquire the knowledge usually taught in schools, children need the specific abilities that are measured by intelligence tests; that’s why the tests were invented in the first place. And there’s considerable supporting evidence for the reliability and predictive validity of intelligence tests. They clearly have useful applications in schools. But it doesn’t follow that what we call intelligence or g (never mind gF or gC) is anything other than a construct created by the intelligence test.

In addition, the fact that there is evidence that supports Geary’s claims doesn’t mean all his claims are true. There might also be considerable contradictory evidence; in the case of Geary’s two-phase model the evidence suggests the divide isn’t as clear-cut as he suggests, and the reification of intelligence has been widely critiqued. Geary mentions the existence of ‘vigorous debate’ but doesn’t go into details and doesn’t evaluate the evidence by actually weighing up the pros and cons.

Geary’s unquestioning acceptance of the concepts of modularity, intelligence and education systems in the developed world, increases the likelihood that teachers will follow suit and simply accept Geary’s model as a given. I’ve seen the concepts of biologically primary and secondary knowledge and abilities, crystallised intelligence (gC) and fluid intelligence (gF), and the idea that students with low gF who struggle with biologically secondary knowledge just need explicit direct instruction, all asserted as if they must be true – presumably because an academic has claimed they are and cited evidence in support.

This absence of evaluation of the evidence is especially disconcerting in anyone who emphasises the importance of teachers becoming research-savvy and developing evidence-based practice, or who posits models like Geary’s in opposition to the status quo. The absence of evaluation is also at odds with the oft cited requirement for students to acquire robust, extensive knowledge about a subject before they can understand, apply, analyse, evaluate or use it creatively. That requirement applies only to school children, it seems.

references

Fodor, J (1983).  The modularity of mind.  MIT Press.

Geary, D (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing.

Kahneman, D (2012).  Thinking, fast and slow.   Penguin.