Monday, August 13, 2018

Questions About Critical Thinking



What questions might one ask about critical thinking if one is about to embark on critical thinking research? Please add, subtract, divide or multiply and share your thoughts. Here are a few questions that came to me while I was sleeping:

1.     Is there a generally accepted definition of critical thinking?
a.     Does a definition differ depending on the discipline?
b.     For example, do psychologists, philosophers and educators have similar definitions of critical thinking?
2.     Is critical thinking one thing or a collection of things?
a.     If it is a collection of things, what are those things?
b.     What skills and abilities are associated with critical thinking?
3.     How have people measured critical thinking?
a.     Do the measures vary with subject area?
b.     With age?
4.     How is the phrase ‘critical thinker’ used?
a.     Does it indicate more than approval of a person’s ideas?
b.     Is being or becoming a critical thinker generally regarded as desirable?
5.     If one is regarded as a critical thinker in one domain, does that ability tend to transfer to another domain?
a.     Are some critical thinking skills domain neutral?
b.     If so, which ones?
6.     Can critical thinking be learned?
a.     Some argue that creativity cannot be learned although others argue that in some sense and to some degree everyone is creative.
b.     If critical thinking can be learned, how can it best be taught?
c.     Can critical thinking be learned in a single lesson or course?
7.     At what age can someone develop critical thinking skills?
a.     Is becoming a critical thinker a developmental process?
b.     When is an optimal time for that process to begin?
c.     How might the early stages of becoming a critical thinker be supported?
8.     The so-called 21st century skills are sometimes referred to as the 4 Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. How are those four skill areas related?
a.     “Most people have the ability to communicate. Many people engage in collaborative endeavors from time to time. Some people manage to engage in critical thinking on occasion. A few people are regarded as creative.” Do those four claims sound reasonable?
b.     If one accepts the fundamental principle of a constructivist epistemology (i.e., people create internal representations to make sense of things they experience), then it follows that everyone is in some sense creative.
c.     Moreover, if one accepts the notion that people quite naturally engage in what Wittgenstein calls language games, then people not only create those internal representations, they communicate them to others. So communication, collaboration and creativity all seem to be abilities that each person have to some degree, and those abilities are a natural result of being a person living in a society. Does that line of thought make sense?
d.     On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein wanted language to be clear and lead to coherent and meaningful thought (e.g., “we picture farts to ourselves”); Plato had a similar notion (see The Cratylus).  Oets Kolk Bouwsma noted that language often leads one astray (i.e., sometimes we picture things that are not factual to ourselves). Bouwsma argued that philosophers were among those who seemed particularly prone to being misled by language. Perhaps the sphere of those easily misled might be widened to include politicians and the general public. The question here is simply this: Is being a critical thinker as natural as the abilities to communicate, collaborate or create? How challenging is it to become a critical thinker?
9.     I am aware of becoming more pedantic than critical in this note, so I end it with a final question: What questions do others have with regard to critical thinking?


Helping teachers design effective instruction



How to help teachers design effective instruction?

First, what counts as effective instruction? Instruction that more often than not helps students attain intended goals. So there should be both before and after measures pertaining to those goals if one intends to claim that instruction has been effective.

Second, there are general strategies that seem to work for many students at the lesson level. For example, there are Bob Gagné’s (1985) nine events of instruction:

1.     Gain and maintain attention
2.     Inform learners of goals and objectives
3.     Stimulate recall of prior learning
4.     Present the content
5.     Provide learning guidance and ongoing support
6.     Elicit performance and provide opportunities for practice
7.     Provide timely and informative feedback
8.     Assess performance along the way
9.     Enhance retention and transfer to other problems and situations

There are also Dave Merrill’s (2002; 2013) first principles of instruction:
  • Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  • Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.
Merrill’s principles easily map onto Gagné’s events and might be stated in terms of telling, asking, showing and doing. Merrill argues that too little emphasis occurs on showing and doing in many cases, which amounts to under-emphasizing events 5 through 9.

Gagné also characterized instruction as having three main phases – a set-up phase (events 1-3), a primary presentation phase (event 4), and a resolution phase (events 5-9). All too often instructional designers focus on event 4 and conduct a breakdown of the content into discrete things to be learned. Gagné and Merrill (1990) collaborated on exactly one paper in which they argue that what people do is to engage in enterprises which involve many different kinds of things (e.g., concepts, principles, problems, objects, etc.) – that is to say that what needs to be learned is an enterprise (as in the effective application of knowledge to solve problems and perform tasks). Given that perspective, the set-up phase is important, especially with regard to motivation and establishing a meaningful context, and the resolution phase is especially important so as to ensure that what is learned can be effectively applied later.

Tools to help? The mind is an important tool – especially the learner’s mind. Activate a mind, help a mind visualize a problem, get the mind engaged, and good things are likely to happen. That is my simple-minded instructional design advice.

The teacher’s job is not to tell students what to think. The teacher’s job is to help students learn HOW to think. Getting students to have questions, to visualize problems, to devote time and energy to refine visualizations and find possible answers, to question assumptions, to consider alternatives, and to reflect on the process is the teacher’s job. Is it not?


Some remarks on cognitive load



Suppose you are planning a long hike and overnight stay, say to a destination that is about 15 kilometers away. A friend has advised you not to take more than you need in your backpack and to try to keep the weight under 20 kilograms, as that is probably a manageable load. You pack what you think you will need and weigh the backpack. This is tricky because your only scale is designed to weigh a person standing on it, but the backpack keeps falling off and resting partly on the floor. How will you weigh the backpack and determine if the load exceeds 20 kilograms? [This question is designed for any third graders who happen to be reading these notes.]

Okay, you determine that the load is just about 20 kilograms. Good packing, you tell yourself. You then lift the backpack and put it on your back. It feels quite heavy. You wonder if you can walk 15 kilometers carrying such a load. You tell yourself that your friend is younger and stronger than you – such a load may be manageable for her but not for you. Perhaps 10 kilos is a better target.

I started with this story about the load in a backpack to point out a few things about cognitive load. First, John Sweller is an outstanding scholar and has made many important contributions to educational psychology and instructional design, including his analysis of cognitive load in terms of intrinsic load (that which is inherent in a problem or situation), extraneous  load (that which may be eliminated from the problem or situation and can distract some learners), and germane load (that which is likely to help a learner focus and be successful in solving a problem or resolving a situation). At least that is my rough and ready interpretation of components of cognitive load theory.

Now, I want to compare cognitive load with the load of the backpack in the initial example. First, the backpack could be weighed so there was an independent and relatively non-subjective measure of the load. Are there independent and non-subjective measures of cognitive load? Could there be such measures? In any case, in spite of the actual weight of the backpack, the perceived weight or perceived load can vary. For my friend who is younger and physically fit, the perceived weight of 20 kilos is moderate and manageable. For me – an older person in not such good physical condition, the 20 kilo backpack seemed quite heavy and not manageable. Perceived load is not the same as actual load when it comes to backpacks.

Then, when I think about someone trying to solve a complex problem or resolve a challenging situation, the perceived load can also vary significantly. A highly experienced person in solving similar problems may find the problem easily manageable whereas someone with much less experience may fine the same problem quite challenging. Moreover, what might be distracting in terms of extraneous load for an inexperienced person may not be distracting for an experienced person. Likewise, what may be germane to successful problem solving for an experienced person may be too sketchy or too incomplete to help a much less experienced person. So, It seems that cognitive load and the constituent parts of cognitive load vary or can vary from one person to another; what matters is perceived cognitive load.

Given the usual way of eliciting perceived cognitive load on a likert scale, it seems useful to collect other indicators, such as the time a person spends on a particular task or which part of the task is the focus of attention or what kind of assistance a person seeks or the level or neuronal activity or a galvanic skin measure and so on. Having multiple measures that converge can help one develop confidence in a reported level of perceived cognitive load. Perhaps.

Then, because I am so prone to distraction, I wonder if there are non-cognitive indicators that might also be relevant to cognitive load such as moods, attitudes, and so on. Just as it is a person carrying the backpack that matters, it is a person trying to solve a problem or resolve a situation that matters – a person, not a disembodied mind. That reminds me … it is almost time for lunch. Taking a break …

Thursday, August 9, 2018

One Party Country

It seems to me that the USA has become the DSA - the Divided States of America. Worse still is that the movement is in the direction of a one party country, like those in China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia and elsewhere. That movement is not unique to the DSA as it seems to be happening in Turkey and other countries as well.

Indicators that are worrisome include attacks on the press, restricting access to information to the party in power or the person in power, denying facts well established by scientists (i.e., climate change) and other researchers and investigators, and using ad hominem arguments and tactics of distraction and denial to denigrate those who ask questions or who want clarification. 

Basic values are being lost. No more love thy neighbor as thyself but send your neighbor away without his or her children. No more bring me your tired and huddled masses but bring on the privileged few. No more a chicken in every pot but a can of chicken soup for all, before taxes of course. No more facts and logic ... just spin and vitriol. Whatever became of those 21st century skills that included critical thinking, collaboration and creativity? When did the age of reason disappear?

When Logic and Reason Fail

Thinking is not merely having thoughts. Thinking involves reasoning about those thoughts and adjusting them so that the thoughts are coherent and form a logical nexus. Thinking involves logic and reasoning.

There are some obvious limits to meaningful thought and meaningful statements and collections of statements. Logicians might say that the extreme boundaries of sense are formed by contradictions (statements that cannot ever be true, as in “I just ate the last cannibal”) and tautologies (statements that are always and can only be true, as in “Never before have things resembled the present as they do now”). The problem is that sometimes contradictions and tautologies arrive in disguise. For example, “there is a person on this planet who loves all and only those persons on this planet who do not love themselves.” Surely such a person exists! Surely not. Either that person loves him/herself or not, assuming one accepts the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM). I understand a new LEM is circulating around the capital of these divided states called the Law of the Exclusive Muddle (as in “there were some good people on both sides, including the ones carrying torches and wearing swastikas” and “I did not collude with the Russians during the election and even if I did it was not illegal”). Long live the new LEM.

I just learned that the new LEM is in competition with yet another one emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – namely, the Law of the Excluded Middleclass. The new tax laws will eventually put the middle class in the category of the forgotten class along with those already there. Long live the newer LEM.

Oh yes. Back to logic. It is so hard to concentrate these days. As I was saying, or tying to say, contradictions and tautologies often come in a disguised format, making them harder to identify. An example of a disguised tautology is this one: “We - the president’s legal team and the special prosecutor’s legal team - are in agreement about questions to be asked in an interview IF the special prosecutor’s legal team agrees with us”). This one is harder to identify as a tautology empty of meaningful content as it almost sounds reasonable. However, closer scrutiny reveals the following logic – we are in agreement if you agree with me … or, more blatantly, if you agree with me, then we agree .. as in, if we agree, then we agree. Language can provide meaning and build understanding but it can surely lead us astray.

Those without trained ears are easily led astray. To minimize attempts to lead us astray, we need to be teaching logic and reasoning to our children. When I read De-voh-reem (Deuteronomy) 6.7, I interpret “thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” to be about teaching inquiry and critical thinking and not just the love of G-d. I guess that reflects a personal bias, but it seems consistent with much of what follows in that 5th book and what I was taught by my father, an orthodox rabbi, about doing what is right and what is good.

Teach kids to think for themselves. What harm can come from that?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

NATO and European Experiences

I had the pleasure of helping to organize two meetings funded by NATO in  the 1990s: a one-week Advanced Research Workshop held in Sitges, Spain, and a two-week Advanced Study Institute held in Grimstad, Norway. the latter had 84 participants from many countries. Both meetings were quite successful and eventually led me to take a position at the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway.The first PhD student I supervised was at UiB and is now a full professor in Sweden. I had visited UiB previously as a Fulbright research scholar and had been provided a tour of the European Commission, which was also quite impressive. I worked in Europe for about 4 years and found myself in the midst of outstanding scholars and very tolerant people everywhere I went. I was invited to the University of Freiburg as a visiting scholar several times and found students there to be quite advanced and eager to learn. I have been an external evaluator on two large European Commission funded networks of excellence -  one on technology enhanced learning (STELLAR) and one on game-based learning (GaLA). I found both efforts to be quite good with many universities involved. Scholarship in Europe is quite strong. Our friends in Europe must be wondering what is happening in the USA and why the current administration seems intent on abandoning long-standing and very productive relationships. I too wonder.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Purpose of Education


I have been thinking about the suggestion to focus on individualized instruction and adaptive learning. I am concerned about how education is being conceptualized by those in power and those with money – it seems that those with either nearly always want more. Anyway, higher education in this country began with the British wanting those in the colonies to be able to perform basic accounting and bookkeeping functions – implies teaching arithmetic, writing and reading. Given my poor historical sense of things, I think of education being aimed at something beyond making those with money and power richer and more powerful.

While my understanding of history is very limited, I have read some things by or about Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Spinoza and others. I find their thoughts more in line with my own thinking that education is about realizing the uniqueness of being human – being  a self-conscious deliberator struggling with understanding who we are, the world around us, and why we are here. I know … three strikes and I am out. I am not sure who I am (teacher occasionally, writer off and on, father … always on) … I understand very little of the world in which I am living (especially given the unreality show now playing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) … and why or how what I regard as a series of accidental choices and arbitrary decisions have led me to where I am now.

I recall Tolstoy’s Confession – especially Chapter IV (involving an Eastern fable; see http://www.classicallibrary.org/tolstoy/confession/4.htm) … and the last sentence in Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (“one must imagine Sisyphus happy" – I still do not get it) and Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates (see http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/twilight-of-the-idols-friedrich-neitzsche.pdf - the value of life cannot be estimated by the living as they are an interested party and not by the dead for a different reason).

What to do? Perhaps as my father and others have suggested – do what you can to bring out the best in others – what they regard as their best … not what is best for you but what is best for them by their own estimation.

The purpose of education is not to serve the economic engine of a society. Robots will do that much better that we are able to do anyway. The purpose of education is to become better at being human … becoming more than we have been … not gaining more wealth or power or helping others do that … but gaining more understanding of the changes that make being human an interesting occupation.

Higher education fails when lower minds take control. I thought the 1960s and early 1970s were bad … at least we had the GI bill back then helping to keep the ship of reason afloat.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Country Divided


A Country Divided

Inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 speech at the Illinois State Capital

A country divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, a few rich and many poor. I do not want the Union to be dissolved nor I do want either political party to disappear. I would like to see more Cooperation, Patience and Respect – CPR for our government is what is needed. More openness, more tolerance, less arrogance, no all or nothing positions, fewer my way or the highway stances, more evidence, quieter deliberation, more thoughtful consideration of alternative perspectives, more virtue, less vitriol … those are things we need in order to preserve this fragile union. The Union seems more fragile, more fragmented, more divided, and more at risk than at any time I can remember, But I am only a young 72.

Mike Spector

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Branding America


Branding America

Huddled masses breathing free
Credulous citizenry on bended knee
Truth and tolerance, spin and venom
Home of the brave, house of cards
One person, one vote
One fortune, sour notes
Free schools, broken rules
Voting rights, civil wrongs
Loving kids, buying guns
Too rich to care, too dumb to dare
Companies with brands, countries too
From sea to shining sea
In pursuit of life and liberty
Still yearning to be free


Mike Spector
Feb 25, 2018

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Thought for a day: Ask an expert

I am thinking about a new aphorism to guide my thoughts and actions. It pertains to seeking ideas and advice from others. 

It goes like this: Ask a novice and you are likely to get one answer that looks like one of these: “I don’t know,” I’m not sure,” or “Maybe X” [I omitted the “I know not what” part for those not familiar with John Locke’s notion of substance].

Ask an expert and you are likely to get at least two answers that look something like these: “It could be X or it could be Y,” and “Research shows different results in different situations” and “In this case Z might be best – give it your best shot.”

Ask a world-class scholar (assuming you can find a living one) and you are likely to get at least three answers which resemble something like the following: “Well, that is an interesting question which deserves some scrutiny; I am familiar with a case somewhat like this in which X was tried with somewhat mixed results; in a different situation Y seemed to work but it may not be appropriate in this case; on the other hand, you might consider Z; what do you think?”

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bringing out the best

As New Year approaches, I am thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Most of those I have made in the past have gone unattained, ranging from losing weight to being a better husband and father. This year, one notion seems stuck in my mind – namely, bringing out the best in others. That is advice from my father, the rabbi, as he was explaining to me as an adolescent what it meant to be a rabbi. I have paraphrased his advice as being a rabbi was to be a teacher - someone who is the voice that encourages, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away. That is how he thought about bringing out the best in others. Ironically, as he was trying to help me decide to become a rabbi, I was becoming convinced that I could not live up to those demands as so well exemplified in his life.

Even more ironic is the fact that I became a teacher instead of becoming a rabbi. And now, towards the end of that career, I am wondering to what extent I have met his criteria for being a teacher. My conclusion is that I have fallen short, so I am considering adopting the New Year’s resolution of bringing out the best in others.

Given my training, I am also wondering what bringing out the best in others entails. What comes to mind first is the idea of being the coach of an athletic team. The coach is trying to bring out the best in team members. Why? To have a winning season? So that team members will feel good about having done their best? So that team members will improve and do even better next year? As I am not an athlete and have not been coached, I really do not know. I do recall a high school boy who, as a junior lifesaver, coached a blind and deaf child in swimming, however. The goal was to give the child an enjoyable summer. The child had a different goal, however. He wanted to learn to swim, and the boy’s coach decided to support that goal, which was attained much to the surprise of the parents and the senior lifeguards. That incident leaves me thinking that what is best for someone else is best left to that person’s determination.

It seems to me that too many people think they know what is best for someone else in terms of a career choice, or a religious choice, or a place to live, or a job, or a partner, and so on. One of my mentors in computer science told me that he did not know the religion of his daughter who had just married. He said that he left such choices to his children and purposefully chose not to interfere or even influence them one way or another. I tried to follow his guidance but found myself unable to follow through as well as he had done. Over the years, I discovered that my own children often chose to do the opposite of what I had recommended even though I usually only offered advice when asked.

I remember my father telling my sister when she was about to ask a personal question that she should not ask if she was not willing to hear the answer. She asked anyway and he told her the standard orthodox answer about piercing parts of one’s body. He later eased up somewhat and allowed her to have her ears pierced. He never turned away from his children or his wife of so many years.

So, how do I bring out the best in others when I do not know what is best for someone else? Leave it up to that person to say what is best for him or her? There is a problem with that approach as well. In thinking about my own case, I have often thought something was best for me when it turned out not to be the case. Then there is Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols – namely that Socrates claimed to know the value of life, of his own life, but that Socrates failed to realize that one is not in a position to judge one’s own life as that involves an inescapable bias. In addition, one can go as far back as Plato to find the notion that acting badly (i.e., not doing what is best for oneself, in Plato’s terms) is a result of ignorance or lack of understanding what is truly good. Moreover, one can find emphasis on doing what is good or what is right in nearly all religions, including Buddhism , Christianity, Confucionism, Islam, Judaism. I am particularly fond of Rabbi Hillel’s formulation – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” I like the balance between oneself and others in Hillel’s formulation. I like the notion that by acting one way or another one is becoming more of one kind of person and less of a different kind of person.

That last thought led me to Bouwsma’s note in one of his unpublished journals – “surely your life will show what you think about yourself.” Bouwsma was writing about Socrates in that entry and he considered Socrates as someone who talked highly and acted accordingly leaving most others in one of the remaining categories (talking low but acting well – quite rare; talking and acting low – as in too many people in high political positions; talking well but acting low – unfortunately not rare and the category in which Socrates regarded so many Athenians). I know I have mixed up the labels – high and low, well and badly – but perhaps the idea is still clear.

Where does that leave me? Well, I am still wondering how I will determine how to bring out the best in others. Perhaps the most I can do is ask another person if he or she believes that this or another course of action is what is best for him or her and others involved. Or I might ask what kind of person someone who does this or that becomes. Or, more innocently, I could ask what other options are possible and what that person is assuming. Well, I can ask but I should not turn away.