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?

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.

This is Real Learning!

Over the last few weeks I’ve observed a few examples of teaching which I was really impressed by. I wanted to share them to amplify their examples.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary's, Horsforth.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary’s, Horsforth.

The first one I saw while at work a few weeks back. Since finishing my undergraduate degree in June, I have been working behind the delicatessen counter of a local supermarket. A local man (a web developer by trade) came through the store with a group of young primary school students, all armed with cameras. He told me they were doing a project about the different people who work or shop on ‘Town Street’. They asked me if they could take a picture of me doing my job.

It turned out that they were making a website. Having been inspired by the work of Vivian Maier, (a Chicago street photographer whose portfolio was not discovered until after her death) they wanted to create a street portfolio of Horsforth.

This is a great learning opportunity. It is a chance for students to gain an appreciation for history, and walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before them. It is also an opportunity to have a go at disseminating digital photography via the web – the modern application of what we draw from the history books. It benefits from intrinsic motivation and empowers students to create, not duplicate.

Source: North Leeds Life

Source: North Leeds Life

The second one I read about today in a local magazine. Year 8 students (aged 12-13 years) were asked to bring their phones to school, which they used to measure the mobile phone reception around the school site. They used computers then to map out their findings and consider reasons that may have accounted for the differences they found.

This is a great way to apply classroom teaching to the real world. It answers the question students so often ask: ‘why are we learning this’? Instead of learning a lot of stuff (the what), or how something works, these students become empowered to find out why things are as they are. They have autonomy and purpose, and a sense of real world problem solving.

I am impressed with both of these examples, because they both create meaningful stimulating activities which motivate the students. One way brings history alive, and it presents students with a lot more than just a pile of information. The other empowers the students in a problem solving role, and links mathematical/scientific concepts to the real world. This is the type of learning that will remain planted in their memories. It is the type of learning that will motivate them to study, and take charge of their lives. This, is real learning.

The PKM Masters Degree

I discovered this morning that Harold Jarche had written about how at Bangor University we had been teaching the Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) framework to students. As a ‘Psychology Information Technology Skills’ (PITS) tutor, I have played an important role in teaching PKM, and wanted to share a bit more about my experiences throughout the year.

We actually faced a few challenges in helping the students warm to PKM. It seemed that many could not see the reason why they had to do PKM, and also that many struggled to catch the vision of how to do it. A lot of students had expected higher education to involve memorising information to pass exams, as they had previously done in school. PKM did not have that same type of measurable outcome and many students would ask me what exactly it was they needed to do to pass the class.

However, a few did grasp it well. One student informed me that she kept a fashion blog, through which she had established a network with several clothing labels, who would send her free products to review. Other students ventured to find my twitter account, or to join Pinterest and Scoopit. Students who had used Pinterest previously were also quicker to grasp of PKM, perhaps because the way Pinterest users collect and curate content is similar to PKM’s seek, sense and share framework.

Perhaps PKM is the difference between higher education and that of the typical high school. That it was challenging to foster may be akin to the old adage that ‘you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Indeed it is personal, because you do it for yourself. Nobody else is there to grade or assess you. If people don’t want to do it, that’s fine! However they may loose out as the knowledge economies adapt to future needs.

For research and knowledge based economies to work, they need to be more than just transferring information. It is the intrinsic passion and ingenuity that transforms information in to actions or solutions to problems. It comes from within, and that is why (beyond teaching the PKM framework) it can’t be forced. Some will do it and change the world, others won’t.

PKM as a Masters Degree

This takes me on to my second point: PKM as a masters degree. This last year, I took a class called ‘Science of Education’. It was an open ended, ‘autonomy supportive’ blogging module. We would go away, and do some research, and disseminate what we found through writing a weekly blog. Additionally, we would write five weekly comments on fellow classmates blogs, to academically critique their work. We would seek the information, sense what is being portrayed, and share our own ideas in relation to the content. With social media as the platform, each class member came away with their own blog: a portfolio of ideas and discussions, as well as links to original sources.

Bangor University have just agreed to expand the module into a masters degree, run as a MOOC (massive open online course). Students will be able to specialise their knowledge of the ‘scholarship of learning’ through blogging and participate in an online critical discussion. Participation is free and open, as will be the learning and knowledge management skills which are drawn from it. However, those who pay a course fee to the university may have their portfolio assessed and accredited. Students may then graduate from Bangor University with a post graduate certificate, diploma or a masters degree (the level of qualification depends on the number of modules completed).

I consider PKM to be a really exciting development in the way we handle learning and knowledge. It brings meaning and depth to the information we work with, and makes it both accessible and memorable. You might even say it turns information into knowledge. It doesn’t happen automatically, but with practise and involvement, I believe it can make a person very effective in their work. I am excited to see this program commence at Bangor University, as it is a brilliant development for both MOOC’s and knowledge based economy’s. This is a great step forwards for higher education practise and the scholarship of learning.