Bill Lucas is wrong and Victoria is making a mistake

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There is a piece by Henrietta Cook in The Age newspaper that reports that schools in the Australian state of Victoria are about to start measuring students’ performance in three non-cognitive capabilities: critical and creative thinking, personal and social abilities, and intercultural and ethical skills. This is apparently at the urging of the British educationalist, Bill Lucas.

This is deeply misguided for two reasons.

1. These capabilities are highly domain dependent

There is no one thing that we can label ‘critical thinking’ that can be trained and tested. As professor of cognitive psychology Dan Willingham points out, children can think critically about subjects they know a lot about and professional scientists can fail to think critically in areas outside of their expertise. Therefore a general score for ‘critical thinking’ is utterly meaningless. Instead, these capabilities need to be assessed within subject disciplines which is exactly what a traditional curriculum already does.

Take the example of problem solving. There is little that is similar between solving a physics problem and solving the problem of how to deliver two daughters to two different birthday parties whilst still completing the shopping. The only thing they have in common is a strategy known as ‘means-end analysis’. Yet this strategy is something that we are all born with and doesn’t need to be taught. As one of my PhD supervisors, John Sweller, explained in his submission to the recent review of the Australian Curriculum:

“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.”

2. You cannot measure these capabilities reliably

As I started to read the article in The Age, I thought about Duckworth’s critique of attempts to measure non-cognitive skills. To her great credit, Cook later mentions this:

“But some experts, including University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth – who popularised the term “grit” in education circles – have warned that there is no trustworthy way of measuring these social-emotional skills.

Teachers can misinterpret student behaviour and students who self-assess by filling out questionnaires may provide desirable but inaccurate responses.”

This is absolutely spot-on. Attempts to measure many of these capabilities often involve the use of questionnaires. Students aren’t silly and they rapidly realise the sorts of answers that are required, whether it is what they actually believe or not. So we are at risk of convincing ourselves that we have trained students to have excellent ‘ethical skills’ when we haven’t done any such thing. I am reminded of the question I once had to answer on an immigration form that went something like, “are you entering the U.S.A with the intention of committing a terrorist act?” It’s like that.

Other approaches involve setting-up highly artificial environments – let’s go high-rope walking, for instance – and then trying to infer students’ resilience levels from their responses. But, again, this is likely to be highly domain specific. Resilience in one environment may not transfer at all to another. The body confident student who enjoys high-rope walking may give up really quickly in maths class.

A lack of evidence

Finally, I would like to make my usual appeal to evidence. Where is it? Where has this approach been used successfully? What trials underpin the thinking?

If we have simply imported a guru and decided to do what he reckons then we have not only demonstrated a monumental lack of critical thinking ourselves, but we are also at risk of wasting large amounts of public money.


4 thoughts on “Bill Lucas is wrong and Victoria is making a mistake

  1. Whenever I see this, I think of this document from the US NAtional Academies of Science on 21st Century Skills (2012):

    They were positive about the effort, but then say this:

    “Over a century of research on transfer has yielded little evidence that teaching can develop general cognitive competencies that are transferable to any new discipline, problem or context, in or out of school. Much of the research has been carried out in the cognitive domain and it shows that transfer does occur but is limited in scope. Studies of interventions to teach social and emotional skills suggest that these also support transfer beyond the immediate context in which they were acquired, affecting students’ behavior throughout the school day. More research is needed to illuminate whether, and to what extent, competencies learned in one discipline or context of application can generalize and transfer to other disciplines or contexts.”

    THat research has not materialized…

  2. this is likely to be highly domain specific.

    I think otherwise. I haven’t specifically chased down grit, but the heritability of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits had a major role in Eva Krapohl’s paper on achievement in England’s national exams. I would bet a devalued £10 on grit/resilience being a significantly heritable part of personality and largely secreted somewhere in those five broad categories.

    It’s very obvious to me that the majority of my 13-year-old daughters personality (and much else besides) is not because of my parenting and one of her personality attributes that everyone+dog sees is that she is ‘very determined’. If Duckworth had been a thing several years earlier then I expect they, especially teachers, might have said ‘very resilient’. It permeates *everything* she sets her mind to including academic school-stuff, and goes back as far as the baby stubbornly and persistently attempting to escape beyond the raised, confining borders of one of those play mats.

    There is always wriggle-room to improve this or that, but if these people really think resilience is largely taught then I think they are living in cloud-cuckoo land. I don’t just want evidence that resilience can be both measured, I also want some to demonstrate that it can be taught to a significant degree in a manner that is plausible for a school. Of course what we’ll get is lots of obvious spin e.g. something like claims that sending a bunch of kids on some minor hike has significantly created, as opposed to revealed that quality.

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