Stop chasing unicorns, Mark Scott

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In a bitterly disappointing turn of events, Mark Scott, secretary of the New South Wales department of education, has expressed scepticism about imparting knowledge to students and has instead focused his attention on the nonexistent general skills of critical thinking and creativity.

This comes at a time when New South Wales is reviewing its curriculum and so I now have little hope that my submission, and the submissions of others who are familiar with the relevant cognitive science, will be heeded.

What I cannot understand is that Scott’s comments are completely at odds with recent arguments made by Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, about the importance of disciplinary knowledge. Surely, Scott must be aware of Finkel’s views and yet he has made no attempt to counter or rebut them. Instead, Scott simply seems to be rehashing the kinds of platitudes you hear at the worst education conferences.

Scott frames his comments in terms of assessment. Assessing knowledge is easy, he claims, but assessing critical thinking is hard and still a few years away (it’s always a few years away). He worries that this shifts the focus too much on knowledge.

But assessing critical thinking skills is really easy. Simply ask a student what caused the First World War or why it is that the world took prompt action on reducing CFC emissions but not on climate change.

And that’s where the problem becomes apparent. You cannot divorce critical thinking from disciplinary knowledge. You need to know a lot of stuff in order think critically about it. It is daft to set these up in opposition. As cognitive scientist Dan Willingham suggests, a child can think critically about something she knows about and a trained scientist can fail to think critically about something she does not know about.

The same is true for creativity. You cannot write a new symphony without a little familiarisation with musical notation, old symphonies and so on. Well, maybe you could give it a go, but if we define creativity in the way Sir Ken Robinson does as, “the process of having original ideas that have value,” then we might be sceptical of the value of a symphony written without such knowledge.

There is simply no generic skill of critical thinking or creativity that you can unplug from one context and plug into a different one. Instead, both are better seen as elements of expert performance in a given field.

Any generic test of critical thinking skills will therefore either be invalid or it will end up testing general knowledge. We have seen this before when the OECD developed a test of ‘collaborative problem solving’ and, surprise surprise, the countries that did better on the reading, maths and science PISA tests also did better on this one.

I think one reason that the myth of generic skills still exists is that it flatters a certain class of people into thinking they possess them. A politician who has never worked in the electricity industry feels confident to make pronouncements on energy policy by deploying critical thinking skills. Yet time and again we have seen that when people transfer from one area of expertise to another, they are capable of making horrible decisions and the most basic errors.

A New South Wales curriculum based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of cognitive science is not a good outcome for anyone involved. Please stop chasing unicorns, Mark Scott.

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11 thoughts on “Stop chasing unicorns, Mark Scott

  1. Agree that critical thinking requires knowledge and arguments that downplay knowledge in favour of it are nuts. However, are there not specific critical thinking skills that can be taught such as being able to identify logical fallacies, checking for evidence, questioning assumptions, how human cognitive bias affects our thinking that could be usefully taught?

      1. Agree. I just taught these fallacies. Knowledge comes first, giving the metalanguage and definitions, then comes identification and application. Also known as critical thinking.

  2. One of the curses of the modern age is the MBA, which supposedly equips its possessor with the ability to manage any business. It’s not quite a generic skill, because it does entail a certain amount of knowledge about finance, law and government regulatory bodies, but it supposedly makes you capable of managing any large corporation, no matter what its activities. A sub-species is the ‘quant’–the mathematician who devises algorithms that supposedly enable hedge funds to make enormous sums with no risk. The sub-prime crisis, which triggered the 2008 meltdown of the world’s banking systems, originated with the property bubble in America’s cities, where houses in inner cities were being sold at ridiculous prices to innumerate ghetto-dwellers (victims of schools so bad that constructivist maths hardly made any difference). Having sold real estate in Detroit’s inner suburbs in the 1960s, I knew only too well the kind of scum who preyed on these people, and the bubble was painfully obvious to me long before it burst. But the quants were too busy making a fortune to notice anything other than their beloved algorithms. Huge numbers of people around the world paid a terrible price.

  3. Dedicated reader, first time commenter.

    Adults identify themselves as competent critical thinkers when they have achieved a certain level of success but they forget about the many years of domain knowledge they built up over the course so of their careers. If you asked them to identify a subset of skills which make up critical thinking, I’m sure they would be unable to. Critical thinking may be another term for synthesis or application of a model and it has been confused with a skill. It’s an outcome, not a skill and requires knowledge transfer. So anyway, love the blog. I’m a kindred spirit. English teacher who has a sciency bent.

  4. “Surely, Scott must be aware of Finkel’s views and yet he has made no attempt to counter or rebut them.”

    The above is nothing new to me. I have made many comments on websites and in LinkedIn and there is no attempt to counter or rebut me.

    My main contention since 2010 has been that many smart kids are unable to read because they are instructional casualties.

    They shut down when initial input is wrong – teaching sounds of consonants with extraneous sounds.

    Feel free to grill me on the above.

    I just took in my first student for 2019. I have started recording the progress of this kids and will start posting the progress once I get clearance from his father.

    1. The trouble with getting a journalist (who was long ago a teacher, I understand, at a private school full of wealthy and probably bright chln) to talk about science, the science of teaching and learning.

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