Why heuristics are not thinking skills or general capabilities #Gonski2

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There has been a flurry of articles in the Australian press about the reforms proposed by David Gonski’s panel. One of these suggestions is that we should emphasise the ‘general capabilities’ of the Australian Curriculum and these include things like ‘critical and creative thinking’ and ‘personal and social capability’. This would be done by creating ‘learning progressions’ for these capabilities i.e. sets of rubrics.

A piece in The Conversation reiterated this theme and I took to the comments to object. Peter Goss of The Grattan Institute then made an interesting point about heuristics. I think it is worth posting along with my response.

Peter Goss wrote:

“You haven’t convinced me that some of the general skills are not transferrable or teachable.

For example, I once worked with a man who was incredibly good at inter-personal skills. One of his tools was to routinely ask himself “what does each person want/need out of this interaction” … questions I didn’t routinely ask myself.

When I use his approach, I find it helpful. But I don’t think that is because of any domain-specific knowledge. Instead, it’s a process or a mental discipline that applies generally, and is enhanced if I can also back it up by domain-specific knowledge that informs what each person might want. Potentially, asking the question activates domain-specific knowledge that wasn’t being activated before.”

This was my response:

“…you touch on an important point and your example is illustrative. It is an example of what we might call a useful heuristic that applies in a range of situations. However, it does not represent a general capability.

Firstly, heuristics such as this operate more as prompts or reminders than the skills they are often mistaken for. Do you get better at it with practice? Probably not much. Would it take much to teach? Not really; the issue is with its application.

Secondly, such heuristics invariably take the form of questions and in order to be able to apply them, you need to be able to answer the questions they pose. In this case, you need to know about the people involved in the interaction and the positions they are coming from. Without this knowledge, the heuristic is useless.

Your example is very similar to a classic critical thinking heuristic that asks students to ‘look at the issue from multiple perspectives’. In order to apply it, you need to know what those perspectives are. If you already know what those perspectives are then there is a good chance that you will already be looking at the issue from multiple perspectives. Nevertheless, this prompt may have some utility, I suppose.

The danger of creating a learning progression based upon the notion that these are a hierarchical set of general capabilities is the lack of accounting for context. For school students, it is going to be far easier to look from multiple perspectives at the issue of whether the family should visit the beach or the shops than it would be for them to look from multiple perspective at the issue of Israel-Palestine.

By creating a learning progression where this is one of the objectives to be ticked-off, we incentivise teachers to use contexts similar to the former rather than the latter. Once attained, we then conclude that our students have achieved this general capability, but it is not general and so what is that worth?

If, by contrast, we force the issue by embedding this learning objective in a context similar to the Israel-Palestine context, we have what many teachers would recognise as a traditional learning objective from an academic subject. There is no need for some kind of separate scale.

I am not surprised that the Gonski panel failed to think this all through because in order to do so, you probably need experience of working with these kinds of objectives in a school context.

Professor Daniel Willingham is good at explaining why heuristics such as yours do not amount to general capabilities:



5 thoughts on “Why heuristics are not thinking skills or general capabilities #Gonski2

  1. The multiple perspectives game is a good one. One of my relatives had to do an essay on ‘Asian perspectives’ based on a book by an Asian author; I wondered how a teenager would be able to understand any Asian perspective when diplomats and business people need long years of immersion in a culture to even start to grasp its perspectives? I frequently meet people who can’t grasp the perspective of the fellow down the road with different politics, let alone for someone in a foreign culture.

  2. One problem with teaching kids heuristics is that they don’t have great skill in knowing which heuristic to apply where.

    So you need to teach them explicitly that in this situation you use this heuristic and that situation you use that one.

    Which is recall just teaching rules. And rules are bad. Apparently.

    In practice the difference between a rule and a heuristic is the label we choose to apply. I use heuristics because I am open minded and flexible, of course. Other people have rules.

  3. Students may not get better a applying a heuristic through practice, but they might build a habit of applying it. Sometimes, that’s important, as in the interpersonal example in this post. Without repetition, habits are not built.

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