“I cannot figure it out!” he said in frustration. My son was distressed. After a long gruelling schedule which started at 5:30am, by the time he started working on maths at 7pm after late and gruelling tennis training, the homework just seemed too much. He could not concentrate; the exhaustion was plainly clear in his body language: slouched shoulders, long face, and heavy eyelids.
I asked him how much homework he had to do that night. He had to work on maths and history. I suggested he does history first, but he wasn’t enthused by the idea. He wanted to do the more difficult part first. Despite the frustration and lack of progress, he did not want to back down and give up. He was not ready for that yet.
I offered to help. He insisted we start with the exercise which was causing him so much grief. After reading the problems and the first question, I realised it was in fact quite easy. His issue was mental blockage; he got stuck in a negative loop. I asked him the same question in a slightly different way and his face suddenly lighten up. The tiredness was gone like magic and the frustration disappeared as if it never happened. He answered the question so quickly, I could not follow him. Next, he hurriedly wrote the answer and in a flash the entire exercise was finished.
We talked a bit more that night about how they get the homework. I thought the teachers would guide their students about which exercises they should focus on as a minimum together with some problem solving strategies. It turned out that it wasn’t like that. In some cases, the system leaves it entirely up to the students to do their homework as they see it fit. If they learn something about geometry, the teacher would describe the homework for the next day by giving them a broad list of questions from which they can choose; nothing about individual problem solving strategy.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The traditional routine homework is the mirror copy of one way lecture in the classroom: a monotonous activity for etching knowledge in the students’ memories. Drill, drill, drill! The homework effort is considered linear. You work more, you solve more exercises and you get better at it. You work less, and you are not as prepared in answering the same type of questions in an exam session. It sounds logical. But is the effort linear? Is the student ready to spend energy in equal portions of effective effort during the homework time? The anatomy of a school day shows too many variations and stress points to support the hypothesis of a linear study. What happens when the student doesn’t know what to do? What happens if the student is not motivated or if it takes too long to solve one problem causing a mini time crisis?
If skill is required to solve a particular type of exercise, which is not covered or explained in the manual, how would the student overcome that hurdle? I am not suggesting that students should be hand-held all the way to save them of any pain, but in the current situation of information and tasks overload, students need a different kind of support.
The key is to teach thinking strategies, the art of coping with stress, how to think in different ways, be effective and stay sane. In the current model teachers give students the homework without any of these personal tools, there is nothing about how to think and how to deal with difficult situations. They teach them no ‘tricks’ about how to deal with frustration and how to recognise their own abilities and talents.
Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy said in a Ted conference presentation that the schools should let the students read the theory at home and do the homework at school where teachers can help them to learn how to think, and how to solve problems. It makes sense.
How damaging could this be for students that get stuck in some of these issues? “I feel so dumb!” my son told me before he solved the exercise. Why would he say that, when he is one of the best student in his grade? Because when you don’t succeed at working out something you feel dumb. What happens with students that don’t get to see other ways of thinking and the experience is repeated over a few weeks pushing them into a negative and self-downgrading belief? I am wondering how much of this could be attributed to the attitude of disconnect from school that some students have.
Anyway, I would argue, that schools should teach students how to deal with stress and recognise when dangerous thinking habits can form and take them down. Very often, students, and this goes for any adult too, cannot find solutions not because they don’t have the capacity to, but because they lack the emotional and cognitive tools to deal with difficult situations.
Why don’t schools teach thinking smart?
The problem with schools is that they have superimposed a different agenda. The performance indicators are not designed to measure improvements in students thinking and positive attitude, but scores at maths and literature assessment. For example, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia is the dominant metric used for measuring school and student performance. The NAPLAN results are used for public show and tell for everyone to see which schools perform better. On My School web site, the school performance is measured using the NAPLAN results. The information presented invites parents to judge a school based on NAPLAN results and financial profile.
An entire industry flourished under NAPLAN, “to capitalise on their [students, schools, teachers] anxieties” as Christopher Bantick put it in an article published in The Age. These assessment scores have become the focus of the public perception inching out other learning priorities (“Why teach a Shakespeare text at year 9 when it will be interrupted by a month of trial tests, spelling lists, endless grammar exercises and punctuation: sonnets out, NAPLAN in.”
There is no time for learning about thinking.
We talk abundantly about 21st century skills, but schools are too busy calibrating their operation in compliance with industrial educational standards. Everybody knows this, but it is just not enough time and the system doesn’t seem to find the resources and the determination to make a drastic change.
Will the next generation of students be able to cope with a world that changes dramatically when the static knowledge absorbed during the school time might be of little use? The Knox Grammar School headmaster John Weeks stated once that the focus on NAPLAN results “threatens to make us factories for one-dimensional students“. 40 years ago the education system was giving students tools which they could use with confidence to manage a career in organisations with fixed hierarchies, with prospect of lifetime employment. Today, the system is still giving students the same tools, but they are of little value. Back then the school classes were a rehearsal of future work place scenarios. Now, the class monologue of lecturing teachers and the linear homework are a rehearsal that prepares students for a scenario that is increasingly irrelevant in the real life.
Higher education faces similar problems, even at the top of the food chain. In “The Organization Kid”, published in The Atlantic in 2001, David Brooks describes what has become of most students studying at top universities in US: “… at the top of meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious”. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with being “bright, morally earnest” but if this is the product of a sausage factory like education system, it is a problem. When education is like a massive train where everyone is on board set for the same destination (get the exams right) no one will know what to do when the train needs to stop at a different destination.
Let’s drop the grades!
Maybe the grades are the culprit? Having a measurement system locked onto a model that is as relevant today as it hand crafting is to computer programming forces everyone to focus on the wrong outcomes. At the core of what we need to possess as a skill is the ability to figure out the answer to a complex question by interacting with data sources and other people.
I don’t mean that in a ‘trick’ way. I mean it as an ability to understand what is going on; what are the personal preferences, talents and experience and decide how to get information, learn and apply that knowledge to produce an outcome over time. This requires a capacity to evaluate the environment, but also to self-evaluate. Schools could teach students the art of self-evaluation and give them tools to deal with difficulties in ways that suits their condition.
The focus on grades, takes the focus away from how to become more productive, how to be confident, how to deal with your own difficulties, and how to adapt. The grades are artificial and encourage toxic competitiveness. Instead of grades we should have a system that describes personal attributes and skills. As an example, this system could give the following value “marks”: student X is agile, fast and detail driven while student Y is methodical, perceptive and creative. Student X had a preference for sports, mastering kinetic skills, and has an interest in operations; she has worked on organising sport events, robotics or public transport management. Student Y has interest for research in human sciences, social behaviour and organisation of enterprises; he has worked on writing essays and organising surveys.
By focusing on personal growth, mastering learning, self-discovery, problems-solving, creativity and collaboration, the students would be given tools they will be using for the rest of their lives. The grades are not that important anyway.
Understanding how things work is an obsession and a necessity of ours as a human race. We explain how things work by trying to link facts in a logical sequence that builds and demonstrates the understanding.
The linear logic that has prevailed for centuries as the only reliable formal tool of thought has encountered a few challenges lately. The surprising aspect is that the challenges are more substantial right now when we have more research data than ever before and which supposedly should help us solve many problems with the application of systematic thought. However, we are finding that the admirable logic that worked so well in the world of mechanics stutters when it comes to more fluid world of biology and social phenomena.
Industrial thinking taught us that if you break down the system into its smaller components we could explain how it works by figuring out the relationship between these components. This works when dealing with systems with low complexity. In that situation it is easy to confuse causality with reality, or facts with “logical” beliefs. That problem didn’t bother us too much, because the logic was sufficient and it worked. But in complex and dynamic systems, the confusion causes big problems. Johan Lehrer explains beautifully the modern paradox caused by the abundance of information in Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us. Oops, I used the word “explains”!
Gathering data and identifying correlations works up to a certain extent as a way of demonstrating causality. Until that extent is reached one can successfully use the expression “explain” as a form of describing causal relationship, but beyond that level the explanation is simply an illusory way in which our brain deals with complexity. It is a bit like Voodoo science. We are generating a huge amount of new information captured in digital format. The social synapsis that connects us in so many ways accelerates the creation process which will boost the pace of generating new information. Very soon, the digital information stored on computer systems around the world will surpass the total of information stored in the people’s brains of the entire global population. The social, economic, cultural and political consequences will be vast and impossible to predict.
When the world is too complex linear logic ceases to operate. We only have our own interpretations as good guesses of what happens. There may be a way to identify the boundaries between the two worlds (the simple and the complex), but I am not aware of any such method or theory. It is all blurry. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking concludes that entire universes with their distinct laws exist in the space created by the Big Bang. Laws don’t have to follow a linear system with which we are so familiar and they certainly don’t have to exist from the beginning of time. There are new laws and old laws. The laws that govern the social phenomena on planet Earth did not exist five billion years ago and we don’t know if they exist as such on other planets. The laws evolve; they change adopting new patterns accommodate behavioural discontinuities of systems in which the laws apply.
The difference between the realms of logic and non-logic thinking is similar to the difference between the art of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and Pablo Picasso. The first is a leading actor in the Renaissance movement dominated by the desire to bring the classics back to life by creating a perfect rational world. Painters have perfected the use perspective as a way of reflecting the reality. Rafael’s paintings are “perfect”. With attention to detail, Raphael produces studies of perfect world where the geometry is used to give the viewer a sense of linear depth. As an example, The School of Athens contains architectural elements based on semicircles and lines to give a 3D perspective that takes the focus of the viewer to a point of view in the centre of the painting. The image is symmetrical, with people occupying spaces in equal weighting and what seem to be important characters being placed in the middle. Even more mundane life moments with architectural elements in ruin are painted with careful choreographed perspective lines – The Virgin with the Veil (the thumbnail on the left) is an example.
Enter Pablo Picasso. In his early years he was a keen learner of the classics and his studies reflected that. Very soon that he broke with the tradition. His paintings challenge the order we have been trained to accept. The perspective is abandoned completely and when it appears it is only to be mocked. The faces of his characters have their parts represented in a multidimensional plan as if several views are painted simultaneously. For instance, The Portrait of Dora Maar is conceptually so different from The Virgin with the Veil. For the typical viewer it is hard to understand and accept Picasso’s art. I am not trying to argue for or against the style, but I am only observing that the rules for “liking” his art are different. For one, the viewer is an active consumer of the artistic product. The viewing is a personal experience and the viewer’s imagination plays a key role in determining that experience. Some may see beauty in the portrait of Dora Maar, and imagine a woman with passion, beautiful eyes and elegant figure. If you use the optical perception as educated by our traditional upbringing, the portrait doesn’t make sense at all. What are those hands and what is that double nose doing in there? What Picasso did though, was to multiply the possible interpretations of the visual design and create a variety of worlds based on individual rules. While Raphael seek to represent one view which was to be readily accepted by all the consumers of his paintings, Picasso created something which triggers different representations created in the viewer’s mind. Picasso captured the expression of our differences, zigzagged and opposed, while Raphael captured the essence of our common understanding, beautiful and uncontroversial. Picasso is “illogical” in stark contrast with the “logical” Raphael.
Let’s imagine the game of chess designed by these two maestros.
The classical chess game is a construct that lives in a perfect world of logic. Everything is known. There are a few rules and the number of combinations is discoverable, although it takes good computational power to do it. With our increasingly capable computers we should be able to calculate the perfect chess match in which the white and the black make the optimum moves based on a library of a huge number of possible scenarios. This is a game Raphael would feel comfortable with.
The non-logical world is one in which the game of chess is changes its rules and structure in unexpected ways. Imagine a chess board with a shape that changes with the temperature of the environment and the rules are slightly altered with each move. If you move the Queen from C4 to F7, the board will lower a corner of the board like melted chocolate extending the affected fields and the Knight can only move one field in a shortened “L” shape because of increased distances. This makes very difficult the analysis of scenarios based on past experience. The decision-tree algorithm becomes useless. A better strategy in this type of game is to experiment, see what changes occur, and based on that observation, decide the next move. Collecting data to identify correlation between temperatures and rules and aspect of the chess board will only give you limited understanding of the game. Perhaps over time, collecting large data, one could build a collection of patterns and use them as a guide, but never as a certain how-to recommendation.
The non-logical chess game suits the world of Picasso, a world in which each game is unique, never to be repeated where players influence the rules. A champion is one that has a lot of practice but has also ability to pick up new skills and has an open mind. In fact, this is a game where entire teams play together collaborating on making the best moves. Because of the many possible interpretations, a collective thinking, a sharing of ideas works best in understanding the evolving game. It is a continuous adjustment of strategy and interpretations that requires many brains working together to solve the puzzled created by each turn of the game.
If we think of creating software programs capable of playing the two kinds of chess, we would recognise that we need two different teams of programmers. The classical chess computer software requires massive calculations that are quite repetitive. The challenge is one of volume and ability to optimise the software to make rapid decisions by navigating through a large library of patterns. For the Picassonian chess game, the team is very different. Their programming must be fuzzy and social to allow for sharing opinions, experiences and expertise. The programmers must be creative and emphasize on the elements of sharing, collaboration and collective action. The outcome will need to be software that can learn and adapt through analysis of large data and parameters as the number of scenarios are practically limitless.
In its recently published report Brain Wave Module 2, the Working Group for the Royal Society, UK made a number of recommendations from the field of neuroscience to inform education policy. Naturally, they support the research done by neuroscientist, but they use caution against extreme optimism or fantastic claims (neuromyths). The report invites dialogue between researchers in the field of neuroscience, education and psychology – some would refer to this type of mix as educational neuroscience, vehemently disputed by others.
One recommendation that caught my eye refers to the use of adaptive technology for learning and cognitive training. The key point here is that while it is impossible to determine the quality of major mental processes, for instance reading, by just using current knowledge and tools in neuroscience, there are practical and demonstrable ways in which specific learning processes can be improved by using adaptive technology.
The science has not yet reached a level where complex mental processes that involve interactions extending far beyond the boundaries of the brain can be understood through empirical observations of the brain. However, neuroscience has made great progress in identifying areas of the brain that are involved in smaller specific functions that are active during thinking. Thus we can today determine which areas of the brain need a “workout” in order to improve certain thinking skills.
In the case of reading and numeric skills, research in neuroscience has made possible the development of tools that can be used for cognitive training which can greatly help learners overcome dyslexia and dyscalculia disorders.
Adaptive technology based on neuroscience is about developing software applications that can be used for adaptive training. As the learner makes progress through training, the software changes the difficulty of the exercises.
This is interesting, but I think if we stop here we would miss the big picture. Adaptive technologies used under the guidelines of educational policies can result in substantial improvement of equity, helping all students that need this type of training.
Advances in neuroscience can extend the application of adaptive technologies to other areas of learning in remediation and accelerated learning. It may be that one day, new methods and new technologies can improve dramatically our learning abilities helping us better deal with the deluge of information.