Are you a medieval teacher?
Carl Wieman and the decision-making education revolution
Carl Wieman is a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who has lately turned his attention to education. He has written a blog post, published by the World Economic Forum, that makes some interesting claims.
Wieman begins by pointing to COVID-19 and climate change as evidence that people are not good at scientific reasoning. To fix this, research on learning apparently demonstrates that we need an education revolution. It seems that teachers of the past thought the brain was unchanging, that teaching was about filling-up the brain and students had innate talent which determined how well they could use what they were taught. To Wieman, “Historically, the primary goal of education was learning information… 'teaching by telling' made sense in medieval times when the printing press had not yet been invented and the only goal of education was transferring information.”
Wieman illustrates the difference between medieval teaching and the revolutionary new form of teaching that he’s invented with the example of a person finding their way around a new city. A satellite navigation device may be useful to get from A to B but the person will not develop a model of the city this way. They won’t learn anything. Instead, they must drive around with no guide*.
Wieman likes physics simulations:
“They allow students to visualize and actively explore the conceptual models that scientists use to explain phenomena in the world, without the usual barriers of technical language and mathematics. Students can make predictions (a type of decision) and test them. The interactivity gives students guided discovery and decision practice that is engaging and automatically adjusts to their individual level. It taps into students’ natural curiosity and develops their science practices and ways of thinking, if appropriately integrated into good instruction.”
Wieman uses the term ‘research’ nine times in the post in phrases such as ‘research shows’, ‘research has revealed’ and ‘research-based teaching’, and yet he only links to one piece of education research - a piece of research that he co-authored with Argenta Price and colleagues. This is interesting and worth examining.
Price et al. sought to determine which decisions experts made when solving science and engineering problems. They recruited 22 experts, asked them to recall problems they had solved and the decisions they made in solving them. Price at al. then grouped these decisions into categories and tested them for validity with a second set of 31 experts. The end result was a list of 29 oddly phrased generic decisions such as ‘How to represent and organize information?’, ‘How to narrow down problem?’ and ‘How well is solving approach working?’.
They suggest that, “The set of decisions we have observed provides a general framework for characterizing, analyzing, and teaching [science and engineering] problem solving.”
OK, so let’s back up a little.
First of all, has it ever occurred to these researchers that it may not be possible to teach students how to make decisions in a general sense? It may not be.
Even if we can, this leads to a question similar to one addressed by Dan Willingham in his Ask the Cognitive Scientist article on Critical Thinking. We could, perhaps, teach students that they must ask ‘How to narrow down problem?’, but if they do not possess the knowledge required to answer that question, they cannot narrow the problem down. Which is more important here, knowing a mantra or possessing knowledge relevant to the problem? Presumably, nobody taught the subjects of Price et al.’s study to ask ‘How to narrow down problem?’ and yet as domain experts, they do so anyway.
The next point to raise is one made by Carl Bereiter in Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age - we may ask experts to explain the steps they took in thinking through a problem, but when you compare that with think-aloud research conducting during problem-solving, there is often a poor relationship between what experts actually do and what they later say they did (Price et al. seem aware of this issue but think it does not apply to their research because they asked about decisions - I cannot see why that matters). Partly as a result, Bereiter is highly dismissive of attempts to teach ‘step-wise procedures’ for thinking.
Physics simulations are great, but are hardly revolutionary. We have had the ability to conduct actual experiments in physics classes for quite some time, complete with the potential to make predictions and test them, and despite determined attempts, experiments have not yet revolutionised physics education.
And the idea that anyone who is sceptical about the kind of problem-based learning that Wieman favours is some kind of medievalist who thinks brains cannot change is weird. It relies on a form of dualism that separates knowledge from the physical substance of the brain. For instance, Wieman claims:
“Modern research has revealed a very different picture of the brain and learning. We now recognize that the brain is quite changeable and good education changes the brain, 'rewiring' how neurons are hooked together. This rewired brain has new capabilities.”
I basically agree, but what does Wieman think happens when teachers ‘transfer information’ to students? Is there a way of doing this that is somehow not encoded in how neurons are hooked together? If so, where does this information go? In my field of cognitive load theory, we hold that interconnected webs of knowledge held in long-term memory, and presumably somehow encoded in the brain, are humanity’s superpower. They transform us from being able to process only a few novel items at a time into beings capable of bringing to bear the wisdom of millennia on the problems we face.
When Weiman claims that, “What research shows is that [learning to ‘think scientifically’] requires the students to be intently engaged with solving problems embedded in realistic contexts, working in small groups with their peers to make and justify the relevant set of decisions involved,” we are left wondering exactly what research he has in mind. After all, it sounds a lot like the centuries-old ideology of Educational Progressivism.
In 1919, The Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education wrote:
“Progressive teachers will encourage the use of all senses, training pupils in both observation and judgement; and instead of hearing recitations only, will spend most of the time teaching how to use various sources of information, including life activities as well as books; how to reason about the information thus acquired; and how to forcefully and logically express the conclusions reached. Teachers will inspire a desire for knowledge, and will serve as guides in the investigations undertaken, rather than as task-masters.”
But educational progressivism cannot be the cause of Wieman’s views because his views are cutting-edge, 21st century and revolutionary.
It is a puzzle.
*I do not advise this approach to navigation, particularly if you have irritable children and/or an irritable spouse in the car with you
Glad you hammered this, it's ridiculous.
Although I do agree with most of the points made by Greg about this blog post by Carl Wieman, I would like to point out that he has been involved heavily in physics education research for at least 20 years (as opposed to "lately turned his attention to education"). Most of the scientific articles he writes are based on good research, and he has had some successes in improving outcomes, especially at universities.
Furthermore, the PHET website with physics simulations I find to be great for the classroom because it does decrease cognitive load in my students.