Why Bill Lucas is almost completely wrong

Bill Lucas has written a piece for Fairfax newspapers in Australia. It is almost completely at odds with what we know from cognitive science and I’m going to explain why.

Lucas is concerned about English and maths taking over the curriculum: “Too often we focus too narrowly on literacy and numeracy when these are only the beginning.” I actually agree with this part. Standardised tests have led to excessive amounts of English teaching that involves rather soulless reading comprehension activities and these could be replaced with studying worthwhile subjects in greater depth. However, this is not Lucas’s plan.

Instead, he wishes us to focus on reified skills of the kind set out in the Australian Curriculum. These skills are the sorts of things that employers claim that they want in their future employees: “People who can find and solve problems, think in three dimensions, understand systems and constantly adapt and improve processes”

The idea that you might be able to do any of these things well without excellent subject knowledge is simply not supported by what we know about expertise. There is no general skill of solving problems, save for the innate process of means-end analysis that we all have and that does not require teaching. As John Sweller put it in his submission to the Australian Curriculum review:

 “It is a waste of students’ time placing these skills in a curriculum because we have evolved to acquire them without tuition. While they are too important for us not to have evolved to acquire them, insufficient domain-specific knowledge will prevent us from using them. We cannot plan a solution to a mathematics problem if we are unfamiliar with the relevant mathematics. Once we know enough mathematics, then we can plan problem solutions. Attempting to teach us how to plan or how to solve generic problems will not teach us mathematics. It will waste our time.”

The “general capabilities” of the Australian Curriculum that Sweller is criticising are the very stuff that Lucas wants us to focus on more:

“Australia is well-placed in this discussion. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has required schools to develop a number of capabilities in young people in addition to literacy and numeracy. These include information and communication technology capability, intercultural understanding, ethical understanding, personal and social capability and critical and creative thinking.”

Again, these are concepts conjured out of the ether. Just because we have a noun for, ‘creativity’, that seems to apply to a range of processes in different areas of human experience, this does not mean that creativity is an actual thing that can be taught. Creativity is intimately bound-up in subject knowledge. We can be highly creative in areas in which we have great expertise. We might  be creative in areas about which we know little but our creations are likely to be a bit rubbish and not highly valued by ourselves and others.

And as Dan Willingham notes of Critical Thinking:

“After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).”

In short, just because you can name a category of thing, it doesn’t mean you can teach it. And I am deeply worried by Lucas’s claim that the examinations authority in my home state of Victoria has got into this stuff. It can only lead down a rabbit-hole of vague statements, unclear objectives and interminable professional development sessions.

I can’t help wondering whether Lucas doesn’t notice something funny about the data that he cites. I have no great confidence in the OECD’s project to try to assess these woolly concepts and Lucas provides the reason why:

“The new PISA problem-solving test is injecting a sense of urgency in the minds of educational policy makers. In 2012, when the test was first administered and called ‘creative problem-solving’ Australia ranked a creditable ninth, just below Canada and above the PISA good-news story – Finland. The top three performers were Singapore, South Korea and Japan.”

The top performers were Singapore, South Korea and Japan! Really? Hmmm… there’s something funny here. Aren’t these the nations that are always coming near the top of the PISA rankings in, well, traditional subjects? And don’t they also top the tables in TIMSS, a set of traditional-style tests in science and mathematics? Might there not be a link between students in these countries knowing lots of traditional subject knowledge and doing well in tests of problem solving? In fact, isn’t that exactly what the logic of Sweller and Willingham would predict?

The vicious nature of these flawed ideas is that, despite being largely unteachable and pretty worthless, these objectives make their way into declarations and national curricula; eminent educationalists tour the world evangelising about them; sinister supranational organisations start trying to assess them; and ordinary teachers think that they therefore represent what science is telling us about the best ways for students to learn. They do not.

Finally, Lucas plugs his book in the article. So I thought I’d follow his lead and plug my ebook which you can buy here. Only ten bucks (Australian). Very cheap.


6 thoughts on “Why Bill Lucas is almost completely wrong

  1. These skills are the sorts of things that employers claim that they want in their future employees: “People who can find and solve problems, think in three dimensions, understand systems and constantly adapt and improve processes”

    This what they claim they want. Claim, being the operative word.

    What they actually want is people who turn up on time, know the stuff relating to their job, work hard and don’t steal. Pretty much what school attempts to teach.

  2. Part of me wants to join the cynicism here and ask why don’t educators simply cut out the middle men and aim to teach students how to be wealthier and happier.

    But I’ll be the contrarian and suggest that students do come out of school with very different levels of problem solving ability. As a way to measure this in one subject area I would look at the relative performance in a high school math class and in math competitions. In regular course work students can do well by learning the procedures and terminology. In competitions that seek to determine who is the most capable out of the top students the problems tend to involve more mental effort to find the right approach. I don’t think I have any argument with Greg here on the need for in depth knowledge of the material. But if you also aimed to raise the median score for students on math competition style problems you would be doing something else as well. Doing proof problems would also be a good measure, where it is not based on a small set of memorized proofs.

    While problem solving may be innate, in some the skill becomes a fun activity and for others it atrophies or never develops and becomes a painful experience to be avoided.

    By problem solving skill I mean being confident about doing the last few problems in competitions such as those at http://www.cemc.uwaterloo.ca/contests/past_contests.html

    I think the mental capability in moving ideas between brain and paper can be coached and developed if not taught and it is worth doing this. Again I would agree with Greg that trying to do this before teaching the relevant background material is worse than a waste of time. You will note that CEMC doesn’t try to create math competitions before grade 7.

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