We hope that kids will learn critical thinking skills in one class and then apply it to another. However, MIT Teaching Systems Lab Director, Dr. Justin Reich, shares that this may not be so. Today we discuss current research that is shaking up how people think about learning.
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Why We Still Need to Know Things in the Age of Google
Link to show: www.coolcatteacher/e264
Date: March 1, 2018
Vicki: Today we’re talking to my friend, Dr. Justin Reich @bjfr. It’s so nice to run into your friends at conferences.
Justin has actually come and seen my classroom at Westwood.
But we ran into each other recently in Dubai, and literally had this amazing conversation in the middle of the desert, sitting on cushions, eating with our hands in Dubai.
And I was sitting there thinking, “Man, why don’t I have my microphone?”
So Justin has since traveled to Malaysia and traveled back home, and I’m back home.
So we’re going to talk today about some of the latest research in education technology. We will link to these in the Shownotes.
Justin, what are some of the recent things out there that have sort of piqued your interest?
Justin: Well, it’s so nice to be talking with you, Vicki, and it was really fun to bump into you on the other side of the world.
One of the things that we were talking about was critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
I’ll use a very specific phrase, which is “domain independent problem-solving skills.” Those would be problem-solving skills that we hope would be universal, would be useful in lots of different places and in lots of different contexts.
It’s hard to learn “domain independent problem-solving skills”
One of the things that psychologists have studied for a long time, and actually have increasingly good evidence about is how hard it is for people to learn domain independent problem-solving skills, and how much of our learning really seems to be constrained to the areas in which we’re studying.
Vicki: Wow. So you’re meaning that — when you say “domain independent” — you’re saying math problem-solving skills, versus the problem solving required to write a research paper, or the problem solving required in chess. That’s what you’re meaning, right?
Justin: I think a lot of educators hope that we can nurture in students this thing called “critical thinking,” and then whatever students encounter, they’ll have this domain independent critical skill that they can bring to lots of different areas and lots of different domains.
And there’s all kinds of research to suggest that actually our problem-solving skills tend to be local to particular areas, particular places where we have domain expertise — where we know something about the topic that we’re studying.
Stanford: our problem-solving skills tend to be local to our domain expertise
Let me give you an amazing example from a research team led by Sam Weinberg at Stanford.
Sam wanted to know about how people determine whether or not things are true online or whether or not information is reputable online.
So he came up with this clever test, where he asked people to evaluate a and look at a website from a group called the American College of Pediatrics.
Now the American College of Pediatrics is not the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has tens of thousands of physicians who are members, and it’s kind of the most well-recognized group guiding pediatricians in clinical decision making.
The American College of Pediatrics is a virulently homophobic group, who tries to practice pediatrics from a strong anti-gay perspective. They just have a few hundred members. They’re a very small sort of splinter group.
So Sam was thinking, “What experts can I talk to, to be able get them to think aloud about how they parse information online? Can they tell that the American College of Pediatrics is a splinter group, not a mainstream group?”
So he does a series of tests on Stanford college students. Now these are theoretically really bright folks, very talented people that have gotten into this school, have done all sorts of research on other sorts of things. Actually, only a tiny fraction of them can correctly identify that the American College of Pediatrics is a splinter group.
So he tries another group that he’s hoping will be experts. He tries history professors at Stanford. So these are people, who nominally are the world’s best people at analyzing historical information, parsing through sources, making sense of things. And something like only 40% of them noticed or sort of figured out that this is just a splinter group and not a reputable source.
If there’s anyone who should have a sort of information literacy skills that would transfer across context, you would think it would be Stanford history professors. But they don’t! The skill sets that they develop are really, really powerful for making sense and solving information literacy problems in historical archives — it turns out that they don’t transfer well to solving problems on the internet.
Now the two groups that he did find were excellent at solving these sorts of problems were Wikipedia editors and magazine fact checkers. Those were the two groups that had real expertise around this.
You actually find these patterns in all sorts of places.
So chess experts are typically not any better at playing checkers than anyone else is. They don’t learn some domain independent sort of strategic thinking skill. The thing which seems to most distinguish chess players is that they have an encyclopedic knowledge of different kinds of positions that show up commonly in chess.
All kinds of evidence from reading — Dan Willingham has great stuff about this — says teaching reading comprehension skills is a thing. It actually helps your students, but it actually helps your students a little bit.
The main thing that predicts people’s reading fluency is how much they know in a domain.
The main thing predictor of reading fluency is domain knowledge
So if you have a kid who’s super passionate about soccer, and you get them to do some reading about soccer, you’ll find out they’re a pretty good reader.
If you take a kid who knows nothing about the desert and have them read passages about the desert, you’ll find out that they’re not a very good reader.
But, it’s not really whether they’re a good reader or not, it’s not really a question of domain independent reading comprehension skills, whether they know something specific about that domain.
So, I think this has a lot of consequences for how we think about the work that we do as educators.
Justin: It’s totally natural to have this real hope that problem-solving skills or critical thinking skills would transfer really well from one domain to another, but it turns out that when we try to find really clever ways of testing that, it just doesn’t.
Problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills don’t transfer between domains
If you want to be a real expert in a domain, if you want to be a real critical thinker, a careful reader, a careful analyst — it seems like there’s no substitute for knowing an awful lot in that domain.
And it would also point to the fact that — you know, some K-12 schools — they have one teacher who really is — they’re the teacher who teaches critical thinking. Right? Whether they’re a history teacher or a lit teacher of a math teacher.
And there is sometimes the thinking that, “As long as we have one of ‘those teachers who teaches critical thinking,’ everybody’s OK, because they’re learning it.”
But what you’re saying is that it really is imperative that every single subject area has an element of teaching critical thinking.
Every single subject area needs to be teaching critical thinking
Justin: Yeah, or… well… Critical thinking is connected to domains.
So people who are really good at problem-solving in math — they know a lot of math. There are probably some sort of math strategies that are domain independent that you could use across lots of different kinds of math domains, but most of them are domain specific.
Another way to think about it… Every single teacher absolutely should be giving students challenges that let them synthesize different materials, let them be creative, let them create and generate new information.
But another thing that’s really important is that the most creative and generative thinkers that we have also know a lot of stuff in their domain.
So there’s another sense that some people have is that, “Well, anything that you can Google — you don’t need to learn anymore.”
But for instance, every single chess position, basically is Google-able. But what distinguishes really expert chess players is that they don’t have to Google them, that they have an encyclopedic knowledge that they can kind of do a search across that space that a search algorithm can’t.
Expert thinkers first must have encyclopedic knowledge in their area
So as important as it is to have students that are solving really interesting complex generative problems in each subject area, it’s also important that people know a lot of stuff in those areas.
The way we become creative in a domain is by having a lot of knowledge in that domain.
Vicki: And then the other thing that it would point to is that the need for really understanding student interests.
Because if what you’re saying is true, for example, about reading… if you have that student who loves soccer, then aren’t you going to teach better reading if you allow that student to read about soccer? Or if you work math problems relating to soccer? Or if you’re working science problems relating to soccer?
I mean, I’m not saying that every single class has to be customized to every single student, but at least knowing their interests, can’t we take them further?
Justin: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Interest-driven learning can be really valuable.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that if students’ interests tend to overlap with the kinds of things that we study in academic areas, they’re going to look smarter to us than if their interests are in areas that are outside those academic areas.
So a lot of the things that we test, a lot of things that we evaluate, questions on standardized tests are about things within academic areas.
If students’ interests sort of align with that, they will appear to us smarter by those test scores and so forth than they will if their interests are in other kinds of domains, which might actually be just as important.
I mean, you know, one of the things about school is that there is far too much knowledge that’s been generated across the world for us to teach everything. And so we take a sample out of that. We choose some things that we think are important.
It’s important to recognize that there’s a ton of really great and really important things that we don’t teach, that students can be really passionate about.
The other side of the coin is that one of the best ways that we can serve students is to help them to learn, you know — I mean, there’s a little bit that we can do to help people develop domain independent problem solving skills.
Like one set of strategies that I think is really, really useful are design thinking skills. Design thinking is a great, kind of generic approach to solving problems.
But if we want students to be really good at solving problems in particular domains — if we want them to be really good history problem solvers, they’ve got to know a lot about history. They have to know facts, they have to know information, they have to know relationships, they have to know chronology.
You know, a sort of crucial piece of this is that as much as we might hope what they get towards is being able to do really generative creative work, a prerequisite for doing really generative creative work is knowing a lot of stuff in that particular domain.
And these are super hard questions that actually different disciplines take different approaches to how they think about what counts as the most important content.
Different disciplines take different approaches to prioritizing content
So I feel like, sort of, literary teachers a long time ago more or less gave up the idea of a canon, and said,
“Look, there are just way too many good books out there for anyone to ever read.”
And that’s fine. We just need to sort of selectively sample. We need to make some good choices about what we should have.
We’ll do some reading in the United States and beyond the United States.
We should have people do some reading that’s contemporary, and then past.
But even within those broad categories, there are a zillion different books that kids might read, and so we choose some things that we think are important for everyone.
We should give students a lot of choice to explore what their most passionate about.”
There are other subjects — you know, math is probably the one which is least flexible about saying, “Linear algebra is just as valuable as calculus is.”
But for whatever reason, we’ve decided that calculus is the really important endpoint in high school mathematics. And linear algebra, students don’t have to get to until they get to graduate school of something like that.
I could imagine a mathematics in the future that has more branches, has more pathways, and to some extent, lets us say, “Oh, you’re really interested in engineering? Like calculus is super important for that.”
Or, “You’re really interesting in computer programming and machine learning and artificial intelligence? Well, linear algebra is really important for that.”
All these things should be implicated in what kinds of choices we help students make about what they learned.
Vicki: So, teachers, there’s a lot that we can get out of this conversation.
I wish we had more, because he and I had a far-ranging conversation and my students were kind of listening there with their mouths open and their eyes wide.
But it comes down to why we still need to know things.
There are those who say, “Well, why teach anything? You can Google everything.”
Why teach anything, when you can Google everything?
Well, there’s no replacement for knowledge in between your ears, and truly thinking critically in a variety of subjects, harnessing student interests, and realizing that we do still need to really have deep domain knowledge — all of us in our area of expertise — I think really values the importance of education and what we’re teaching in the Google age.
So thanks for listening, and I hope this gives you a lot to think about. We will include all of this information in the Shownotes.
Contact us about the show: https://www.coolcatteacher.com/contact/
Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford [email protected]
Bio as submitted
Justin Reich is an educational researcher interested in the future of learning in a networked world. He is an Assistant Professor in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing department at the Massachusett
ology, an instructor in the Scheller Teacher Education Program, a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. The Teaching Systems Lab investigates the complex, technology-rich classrooms of the future and the systems that we need to help educators thrive in those settings. He is the co-founder of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning consultancy devoted to helping teachers leverage technology to create student-centered, inquiry-based learning environments. He was previously the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, where he led the initiative to study large-scale open online learning through the HarvardX Initiative, and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He earned his doctorate from Harvard University, where he created the Distributed Collaborative Learning Communities project, a Hewlett Foundation funded initiative to examine how social media are used in K-12 classrooms. He writes the EdTechResearcher blog for Education Week, and his writings have appeared in Science, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Educational Researcher, the Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. Justin started his career teaching wilderness medicine, and later taught high school world history and history electives, and coached wrestling and outdoor activities.
s Institute of Techn
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