What is Higher Order Thinking?

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

I was working on my masters thesis today, and I started to think fundamentally about what my brain is doing as I work on an academic project like this. Like many other students undertaking academic writing for the first time, I have found it quite hard at various points. Sitting with a journal article in front of me, or having a blank document on the computer screen can be daunting.

I have found the best solution to be to break everything down in to small pieces. If I don’t know what I’m looking for in a journal article, I begin by just highlighting different bits of key information, such as areas of the brain, or the rationale for the study. Instead of viewing the project as a linear entity that I just need to get on and do, I look only as far as the first step that will open more doors for me.

When I view it this way, I begin to realize that academic work is really just making lots of small decisions. Each decision requires me to take what I know, and decide how it relates to something else. This process is a microcosm of thousands of such decisions that will be made between the start and end of a project. For me, thinking about it this way builds my confidence and makes my work more achievable.

When I tell people I’m doing a masters degree in cognitive neuroscience, I often get replies such as ‘I’d rather you than me…’ or ‘I’m too stupid to do anything like that…’ My message here is that this need not be the case. Achieving in university need not be something just for the ‘smart’. All that I do at university is practice decision making in such a way that I produce scientific research. I suppose somewhere along the way I also memorize some stuff, but that is really just a natural bi-product as I learn this new way of thinking.

The point I want to make about this is that anybody can do it! I’m not saying it will happen at the click of a finger, but I am saying almost anyone can do this with the right mentoring and practice. This, however, is what separates higher education from regular learning and work. There’s lots of very straight forward jobs out there where we know exactly the what, when and how. That’s fine; there are plenty of jobs that need doing, which are highly valuable (or ought to be), but that don’t take much higher order thought. But there’s plenty of complex problems to solve too, which can be addressed by a higher level process of thought. I hope when we view higher education in this way, it can become more graspable. Rather than a scary and mysterious realm of perpetually hard work, a place for the mind to be excercised.

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Re-inventing the Computer

I’ve spent a long time now, looking at different ways that psychology might be applied to improve education. I’ve learned about networked learning; how knowledge is stored more intelligently across groups. I’ve researched motivation; the ways in which student empowerment and student directed learning creates a more whole educational experience in the individual. I’ve read about the flow state of mind, being captured by the moment in a most pure state of intrinsic motivation. I’ve found out about the dangers of carelessly deployed technology, which only teaches students to accrue points, or merely provides a virtual alternative to what worked perfectly well with paper.

Indeed, I would say that not many of the present classroom applications of technology are really hitting the nail on the head. There is, however, one computer game, which seems to apply these ideas exceedingly well: Minecraft.

This retro style indie game has risen to be the best selling PC game of all time. It is an open ended, sandbox style game, in which plays build things through placing and removing blocks. The game has developed over several years, giving users items such as switches, power sources and hoppers, allowing for some quite smart mechanisms to be created. It began with the automation of ‘crafting’ (putting several raw materials together to create a new item), however as peoples ingenuity has developed, so have their creations. Right now, they’ve advanced as far as having built 16-bit computers. In a very real way, the entirety of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution have now repeated themselves – in a cult computer game!

The Analytical Engine, the mechanical computer proposed by Charles Babbage.

The Analytical Engine, the mechanical computer proposed by Charles Babbage.

Now, you need to think about that for a second. Think about what a computer is, and how they have developed. What is now done in a microprocessor, was originally done through a contraption which filled a whole room. Furthermore, before even that, the first computer ever to be invented was entirely mechanical. Now, we have an army of young people replicating these archaic structures using Minecraft.

This community incredibly well networked. Take a look at the number of examples and tutorials that come up with you search ‘minecraft redstone computer‘ on Youtube. When one learns, the wealth is shared. And when the one shares their understanding with the many, that individuals own understanding is strengthened. Ideas bounce serendipitously, and the evolution of these systems has been rapid. The bottom line of it is this: young adults, teenagers and children even, within this community, can master the very fundamentals of modern day computing. I don’t even understand that, and I have been a computer enthusiast since I had my baby teeth.

This is the type of educating that is fun, motivating and above all, highly effective. Each and every learner within the Minecraft community is participating in a race to the top. These skills and this understanding are the very thing that will drive knowledge economies to excellence. To this I would ask what parallels can be drawn, to make an educational model as resonant as the Minecraft community.

It would be very different. It would challenge all convention. It would likely be chaotic. However these things have all been recognised as attributes contributing to a successful knowledge economy.

It would be a brave teacher to set up a Minecraft lab inside their classroom, but hey! Here’s to the crazy ones right?

Meditation and Mediation

I read a book recently that has really fascinated me. It’s entitled ‘Mediated – How the Media Shape your World’, and it’s written by Thomas DeZengotita. It is a powerful demonstration of just how much the media influences our lives. One of the key points DeZengotita makes concerns authenticity. In a climate of ubiquitous mediation, nearly our entire identity is formulated out of snippets of representations which we have gathered through film, politics, reality television and more.

The premise of it all is this: everything around us, whether it be road signs, magazines, film, social media or advertising is all addressed at YOU. While you may be just one of millions, nearly everything you see is addressed at you directly – and me – and all of us. This is ultimately very flattering. The flattery becomes manifest when individuals are trying to decide which identity (or which collage of mediated identities) they intend to present to the world. In times past, such behaviour may have been reserved for royalty, or significant public figures. However now, everybody is trying to write out the story that is their life.

This is all well and good (well, maybe), until it hits crisis point. Until there are so many representations, so many identities, so many statements to be made, that an individual simply cannot handle it all. The tyrannous belief that one MUST be successful in this endeavour can throw many individuals in to a neurotic state. It becomes the source of a lot of anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness Meditation

It should therefore be no small wonder that mindfulness meditation seems to be the opposite of this carry-on in every way.

Mindfulness is a relatively new type of meditation, in which one seeks to become a passive observer of the situation around oneself. Thoughts, emotions and sensations are monitored by the individual so as to reach a state of detached awareness. A recent special edition of the New Scientist reviewed mindfulness and other meditation research, and talked about the way meditation trains people for improved emotional regulation.

Whereas all things mediated are addressed at you, meditation detaches you from that setting, and helps you inhibit the urge to pay homage to each stimulus you encounter. Considering that one of the approaches to cognitive therapy is to help clients stop processing the negative automatic thoughts, this helps piece together the picture of how mindfulness works.

It would be fascinating, with all the knowledge we have today, to go back to a pre-technological era and measure the relationship between psychological wellbeing and a far less ubiquitous media. However with DeZengogita’s ideas on media theory, and the principles of mindfulness based wellbeing converging together, it paints an ever clearer picture on the cognitive aspects of wellbeing.

The Connectivist Riots

I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently thinking about things that aren’t real. I’ve realised, that actually, not a lot of things are real. Obviously there IS a lot of things that are real. The computer in front of me, and my car outside are both very real. However there is a vast array of things processed by the human mind, that have no physical form.

From a consumer perspective, consider the ‘Coca-cola’ brand. It has been said that if the entire infrastructure of Coca-cola’s operations were to be lost, it would be okay if the brand were preserved. Where does the Coca-cola brand exist? It is a representation in your mind.

The same can be said about psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapists will help clients recognise that many of their beliefs and fantasies, and how stopping a certain thought can solve the problem.

Many of the thoughts we have concern the qualitative (attributes), quantitative (numbers) and connective factors of the things we interact with. For example, many things are red. You cannot create redness though, can you? You could produce red paint, or show me something red, however red only exists in your mind.

As you can see, the role of these thoughts is as a means to an end. The end is to buy Coca-cola, live more comfortably, or enjoy the knowledge that you own a red car. These ideas and norms only work because of social connections which tell us our ideas are in sync with the wider world, and thus, something more real is taking place.

This is the origin of connectivist theory, a new way to view learning, as a process which takes place across a network of people. It has come to light at this point in time, as we now live in a highly connected age, where we also have a lot of mediated-but-non-existant stuff to sift through. Connections are powerful, as they give us a new perspective on things like accountability and authority. Suddenly, large groups of people are able to communicate, unify, travel or effect change.

The 2011 riots which took place across England.

The 2011 riots which took place across England.

The rise of mediation and connection has improved access to education, living standards, democracy and freedom of speech. It has also made possible less desirable things, such as the London riots, and mass terror. I wish to dwell on this point for a moment, because I thing it really does put things in perspective. The London riots began with a small group of youths, discontented with a court decision relating to a member of their community shot by the police. As violence erupted, it was exacerbated as it was shared across twitter. There was no specific factor that unified all who rioted, other than their access to social media.

I’ve often thought that if the connected world has the power to do what it did in England in 2011, it should have the power to do enormous levels of good too. It is connectivism that has given much positive publicity to Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing. (I mean, you don’t think it came from the establishment do you?) The massive quantity of ALS ice bucket videos is another example of the power of networked activity.

There’s a lot of power here, which can be employed in problem solving or divergent creativity. The power of connectivism is decentralised, and virtually impossible to take away, And I don’t think that is a bad thing, because it empowers individuals. In fact, the only thing that could stop it, would be for the energy to run out.

The Division of Knowledge

I was re-reading the paper by George Siemens entitled: Connectivism: A Learning Theory For The Digital Age. While I was reading, something hit me.

Siemens talks about the way the abundance of information in today’s world is forcing us to do things differently. He explains how the continuity that existed for people in days gone by is all but gone. People living in previous generations may have trained for one career and remained engaged with that their life long. Now, however, we have an ever growing pot of knowledge which would be almost impossible for any one person to handle or evaluate.

A solution, which Siemens calls connectivism, stores knowledge across social networks instead. In connectivism, groups of people benefit from laterally stored knowledge, which is then evaluated almost phenomenologically by the collective intelligence of the group.

Now all this is very smart, but where does it fit in to the real world?

Well. Once upon a time, a couple of hundred years ago, there was a different revolution: the industrial revolution. We discovered that we were sitting on an abundance of fossil fuels. Through organisation and the division of labour, the production capacity of what had been until very recently a manual process, grew exponentially.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.

 

This is the information revolution. Our fossil fuel is computing power. As we use one another as a surrogate for knowledge (Stephenson, undated), our modern replacement for the division of labour is the division of knowledge. Just as our industrial ancestors created highly productive patterns out of the chaos, businesses and researchers alike can benefit holistically from team work and effective divisions.

When I hear talk of the knowledge economy, I am aware that this is not merely a transition to office jobs. Those who will thrive will be those who can sift through the meaningless noise and identify the applications that will yield a real benefit.

You Can Learn Anything

I recently saw the new campaign for the Khan Academy, entitled ‘You Can Learn Anything’. The Khan Academy is an online learning tool, which uses the psychological principle of mastery learning to help individuals learn at their own pace. Content is tailored to each individuals own level, and the successes and competences gained server additional as motivators.

Sal Khan (the founder of Khan Academy) interviews Carol Dweck, whose research on growth mindsets reveals a lot about optimal learning climates. Dweck’s research shows that if individuals are praised for their ‘intellect’, growth quickly stops, because they believe that their capacity to achieve is a function of what they were born with. Conversely, if an individual is praised for their effort and strategy, growth will take place. The person learns that they can improve their abilities through work and effort, and thus, they do.

Having considered the principles of behaviourism and conditioning, I do believe that many people could achieve a lot more than they do, if their environment were changed. I fear that many young people today achieve but a fraction of their potential, due either to believing that they aren’t intelligent, or even being numbed by the distracting mess of mediated mess that surrounds us today.

Perhaps bizarrely, I have talked to people who strongly believe that this is fine just the way it is. Some have said it is fair, because in theory our social and political system will allow people from underprivileged backgrounds to ascend. However, I believe that the evidence speaks otherwise.

I have already briefly covered behaviourism, however I want to bring social psychology in to the equation. Zimbardo’s prison experiment can be related to a lot of situations, especially with regard to the nature vs. nurture debate. The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates that you can take a selection of healthy men with privileged upbringings, and quickly have them treating their peers like animals. Now let me ask: is that nature (dispositional cues)? Or nurture (Situational cues)? If you can get good people to do that, I ask you to consider what effect a deprived background might have on even the best intentioned individuals?

Now, I am not here to talk politics. I want to adhere strictly to what the evidence says. I would summarise it no better than Sal Khan has already put it: YOU can learn anything!

There is a lot of discussion taking place at the moment about how successful the efforts have been in the United Kingdom to bring higher education to more people. Many undergraduate degrees have been criticised as not giving people the skills they need to be effective in the workplace. It is, however, important to separate qualifications from learning. Imagine if all the people graduating high school, or university did come out with the high skill set that the economy rewards?

It is a scary thought, but the evidence would tell us it is every bit possible.

Remember: YOU can learn ANYTHING!

SAFMEDS Cards and Metacognition

During the last year of my education, I have spent some time, and had some discussions around the topic of metacognition. For the last few years, my supervisor, Jesse Martin, has been overseeing research to measure to what extent metacognition can be taught to an individual.

To answer the question of what metacognition actually is, I will explain. Cognition means thinking, while ‘meta’ means it concerns itself. metacognition may be defined as awareness of your knowledge and thought processes. One who has a high metacognitive awareness should be able to work more effectively due to a more accurate perspective of their own levels of knowledge and also their own abilities to deal with certain challenges [1].

The work which has been done at Bangor is centred on a confidence based quiz. Participants first answer the question, and then they answer whether they were sure or guessing. In doing so, participants appear to be learning to discriminate over their own knowledge. After taking these quizzes for a number of weeks, participant metacognitive index (a number based on A’ calculations) was seen to rise.

I would like to talk about one of the applications of this theory, both in terms of research and how I used it to support my own exam preparation. One of the students at Bangor linked metacognition with a school of thought known as precision teaching

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

. This is an approach to education, largely rooted in behaviourism. It is the idea of using quick fire techniques to improve fluency of recall within the rote learned components of education. The particular application which I shall now discuss concerns SAFMEDS cards. SAFMEDS (Say All Fast [for a] Minute Every Day Shuffled) cards involve taking brief snippets of content, and quickly cycling through them, and testing oneself for being able to correctly recall an answer on the reverse of the card.

One key aspect concerning the use of SAFMEDs is that the user needs to discriminate quickly what they know and what they don’t know, so they can have as many opportunities inside of one minute as possible to recall correct answers. It was the hypothesis of this study, that using SAFMEDs would also build metacognitive awareness [2]. Indeed this hypothesis was supported, with the previously mentioned A’ scores significantly rising for SAFMEDS users, compared with the group. It has been argued, therefore, that the use of SAFMEDS cards are an effective means of fostering self-monitoring and instilling metacognitive activity.

I used SAFMEDS myself this year to help me prepare for my final exams. Like clockwork, they worked exactly as expected. I found myself quickly able to memorise key terms, and it was motivating to be able to chart my progress. They also helped me keep the breadth of topics I needed to learn within my awareness, so that I could manage my time and select the right areas to study more deeply.

It is a shame that I can’t end this by sharing what it did to my own metacognitive awareness. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a baseline or a post-intervention test. However we have been working on something which we will be unveiling soon, with which you can train and measure your own metacognitive awareness.

[1] – See Cognaware: Supporting Evidence

[2] – Francis, K. (2013). [Effect of Monitoring on Metacognitive Performance Using SAFMEDS Intervention]. Unpublished Raw Data.