The Science of Learning is a compilation of the principles that underlie exactly what we know about how people learn. This includes the application of that knowledge to formal learning experiences – classrooms and such. Although important for general learning, the real need that I have tended to focus on for the past year is learning higher-order thinking skills.
First of all, we know that The Science of Learning provides us with the knowledge that we need to teach these skills. We know what the skills are and we know the methods that can be used to teach and practice these skills. Since we know how to teach them then we should be using that understanding to actually teach them.
Secondly, research has clearly demonstrated that these skills are not emerging from colleges and universities as useful skills that our graduates possess. If they have learned them, they are confined in a narrow subject matter and, because of the problem of transference of knowledge, that is where they will stay. Not terribly useful to have higher order thinking skills that are restricted within the context of the citation style used by The Venerable Bede in his seventh-century writings.
Thirdly, we have never had the opportunity to unleash the latent potential of the millions of higher education graduates that we turn out every year. In the leading OECD countries, the proportion of the population that graduate with higher education qualifications is high. We have seen a time and a place when over 70% of 18 – 24-year-olds were engaged in or completing post-secondary training.
This is almost three-quarters of the population. My second point about most students not graduating with usable higher order thinking skills means that out of the 70% who gain a qualification, only about 10% of them manage to figure out higher order thinking skills that are usable in a wide range of situations.
What a waste of human potential.
My final point is that there has never been a time in history when these skills have been more needed. The complexity of the problems facing our society needs more than the “getting the right answer” education that we see today.
We are facing a time, within many of our lifetimes, when we will see 800,000,000 working people replaced by technology. What are they going to do?
I regularly read about how past industrial revolutions have led to more employment and better living conditions than were in place before the revolutions took place. However, in the fourth (upcoming) industrial revolution, the skills that will survive the technological purge are skills that make us human. Skills that take advantage of the unique power of the human brain. Skills that have set us apart from animals. Skills that harness the problem solving, rationality, creativity and powerful insights that make us what we are. Higher order thinking skills that we know how to foster and harness, but skills that we don’t teach.
Higher education chants the mantra that says “we will teach you how to think, not what to think” and then provides three or four years of chasing down the “right answers” before issuing a qualification based on memorization.
The right answers don’t cut it. Trying to find the right answer to a question that we already understand isn’t what we need any longer. We need to teach our students to answer questions that haven’t even been thought of yet. We need to develop the ability to weigh the evidence and self-correct when we are wrong. We need to teach people how to reach consensus. We need to teach cognitive flexibility. We need to teach real insight so that our graduates know when to utilize the skills that they have acquired.
The “right answer” teaching that we currently engage in suggests a world that is neatly divided between black and white, right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Is it any wonder that we are living in a society divided by ideologies, wealth inequalities, generational cultures, and hunger, along with exaggerated differences in religion, race, and culture? Everything neatly fits into either a box called "the right answer" (the answer we believe in) or "the wrong answer" (what others believe is right - but they are wrong).
Add to that the toxic mix of using science to addict the masses to social media by strengthening individual confirmation biases. Look for an answer using the internet and you will get the answer that you want to hear. We are in the process of making the countless societal dividing lines deep and permanent. We are sowing seeds that will lead directly to revolution and war with every imaginable tribe and subculture tearing each other apart with weapons available to masses of people on a scale that is unimaginable.
And, we can stop it.
What would the world be like if 70+% of the people could engage in higher-order thinking skills? If the problem-solving power of more than 70% of the population with highly trained critical thinking skills were fixed on the problems we face today? If more than 70% of the population was equipped with higher order creativity and have to ability, and willingness, to weigh evidence and self-correct? What if the majority of our world citizens had been helped to develop their metacognitive abilities and gain the self-insights that would drive a real movement to end world poverty and hunger? How long would global climate change be able to withstand the focus of billions of well-trained minds working together to find solutions?
We have the capability. We have the capacity. We have the potential.
What we don’t have is the will, the insight, the vision, or the hoarded resources needed to make it happen. We are sitting on a powder keg of our own making and have walked away, washing the consequences off our hands.
We desperately need to change education to equip people with the ability to change the world instead of simply conforming to the world the way it is in order to fit in.
We have to do something! As a higher education community, we must come together and begin to develop the solutions both within ourselves and within those who have entrusted the development of their human potential to us.
If we don’t, the outcomes will be catastrophic, and we will have to share some measure of the blame for what happens. We can ignore reality by washing our hands now, but we can't ignore the consequences of the reality we have helped fashion.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.