This was a post that I published some years ago at The Atlantic Council on the relationship between education, society and the competence of our national leadership in steering national policy and being stewards of the public good. If you are just looking for lecture notes and homework assignments, go on to the next post below this one:
The Big Picture
The other day, I happened to be talking to my friend Dr. Von, a physicist and educator, and he brought up a post by The Eide Neurolearning Blog, on educating children in terms of “big picture thinking”:
What is ‘big picture’ thinking? Business consultant Andrew Sobel described it as:
1. Having a simple framework
2. Using analogies and metaphors
3. Developing multiple perspectives
4. Looking for patterns and commonalities….
Instead of training for compliance, careful rule-following, and exact memorization or a paragon of crystallized intelligence, we need to make more room for ‘big picture’ thinkers – while still recognizing the need for basic skills and knowledge.….Pint-sized big picture thinkers really do exist and they seem to be over-represented among gifted children who underperform or cause behavioral disruptions in their early elementary school years. Many of these kids are ‘high conceptual’ thinkers, those who like discovering novel subjects, themes, and things that don’t make sense(“The thing that doesn’t fit is the interesting thing” – Richard Feynman), but the reason for this is often not random – inductive learners (learners who derive rules from examples) use novelties to generate new hypotheses or new rules.If you really want to teach and interest big picture thinkers, you would expose them to rich multisensory and chronologically-advanced experiences. Look for subjects, phenomena and ideas that could be compared and contrasted. Complexity should be embraced and not shunned. For big picture thinkers – complex is simple and simple is complex. Complexity often brings more meaning because there are enough examples that one can make a pattern.….Many of them are seeking the overarching framework inside which they can put their new bit of knowledge. Often these are ‘why’ kids – who need to know why something is true, not just that something is true.
The Eides have given an excellent explanation of the big picture thinker as a cognitive type and had some implied suggestions in that description on how a teacher or professor could approach students to get them thinking – models, metaphors, analogies, exposure to patterns and multiple perspectives. Note: all students willl derive some benefit from these techniques and become better at seeing the larger context. Many people can, with sufficient practice, can become significantly better, but the natural big picture thinkers are the ones who will react with insightful leaps of reasoning, imagination and questions with little or no prompting.
Unfortunately, such experiences in public schools and even our universities have become increasingly rare. Dr. Von explains why:
When I talk with students (juniors and seniors in high school) about how different subjects and classes are taught, invariably it comes down to great amounts of memorization. Most students, when you engage them in real conversations about the education they receive, will open up freely and get right to the point…because of the continued emphasis on grades and GPAs by colleges, students feel the need to focus first on memorization and get the grade on the test, and then move on to the next topic without much concern with what was just studied. When this is the case in school, has true learning just occurred? Likely not, if students are unable to recall and actually apply concepts that were covered in the past.
….To make matters worse, as students rely so heavily on memorization and short-term success on tests (and this is driven home even more in the ‘high stakes testing’ environment we find ourselves in in the era of No Child Left Behind, as resently implemented), those students, many of whom are gifted, as the Eides point out, who prefer complexity in their learning, are not benefitting from the way many (most) classrooms are run. By complexity, I mean those students who want to ‘see the big picture.’ Those students who want to know why something works, and how it is related to the material that was studied last semester as well as to the material that was covered in another class. For example, I love when students in my physics classes come to me asking about how to interpret and apply a particular integral result which was just studied in calculus class, or how Einstein’s theories changed political and military history, as studied in a history course. Those moments happen every so often, as a result of student curiosity and their wanting to truly learn about the material rather than memorize something for the test, and good teachers recognize such moments when they happen…
It falls to me to discuss why it matters: As a nation we are crippling the next generation of visionaries by retarding their intellectual growth with bad educational policy as surely as we might if we were adding lead to their drinking water.
Scientists and inventors, philosophers and artists, entrepreneurs and statesmen, individuals who conceive of and accomplish great things do not emerge from schools and colleges that emphasize low-level thinking and a curriculum without intellectual depth or rigor. They emerge in spite of them.
To force a systemic improvement in public education, the Bush administration pushed through “No Child Left Behind” with rigid timetables, mandated high stakes testing and punitive consequences for schools and districts not making standards. That is to say, the Bush administration addressed the lack of rigor in educationalprocess with a sledgehammer – but ignored the lack of rigor in educational substance ( at least directly – under NCLB some schools had to toughen their curriculum to teach to the state test, but other schools or schools in different states dumbed down for the same reason – curricular alignment).
That NCLB forced public schools to ensure that our weakest students verifiably succeed at understanding the fundamentals is laudable. That this emphasis increasingly comes at the cost of schools only educating all their students at the level of the fundamentals is inexcusable. Perhaps criminal. NCLB is the overarching legal framework that was superimposed on a system whose content was (and often still is) frequently less than demanding and taught by instructors who themselves have not majored in the subject they are teaching.
At the postsecondary level, long before the measure and punish model of NCLB arrived at k-12 schools, colleges and universities abandoned any semblance of a core curriculum or traditional canon and undergraduate degree requirements were larded with plenty of au courant esoterica as course options. Esoterica formerly left for footnotes in dissertations or as the subject of longwinded, diatribes at the dreary meetings of extremist splinter parties. Ivy League, big state schools, small third tier colleges – it does not matter; with only a few exceptions, the “cafeteria a la carte” model of undergraduate education prevails.
While a few students absorb and become true believers of fashionable cant, most students graduate high school and college unaffected by the large amounts of rubbish and trivia they have been exposed to because it was presented without any kind of sensible context and being committed to short term memory, quickly forgotten. The real damage to students comes from the cumulative effect of the absence of substance – the waste of time where meaningful content and the pressure to think through hard problems should have been.
The costs of educational myopia are here and they will grow worse with time. We already see sharply declining public support for science (because more people are now ignorant of basic scientific literacy), lower rates of innovation and other negative economic effects. In the area of governance, across the board, regardless of party label or ideology, we have national leaders in their 40′s, 50′s and early 60′s who see the world primarily in short-term, tactical terms and who confuse career or class interest with governing in the national interest. Oligarchy is inherently a non-strategic worldview because it eschews making choices because choices require sacrifice in the near term in order to acquire systemic advantages in the long term.
“Oligarchy“ seems like a a harsh word because we think of “oligarchs” as being selfish, exceedingly greedy, political sociopaths. While such figures do exist outside of TV and the movies (Burmese junta, Iranian hardliners, Soviet politburo etc.) most people are neither particularly malicious nor eager to consciously and openly do things society acknowledges to be wrong or counterproductive. Even less so are they eager to be seen by the public as incompetent. The problem is that, frequently, people are prisoners of their own limited frame of reference and, when their conscience might be tweaked, they excel at rationalization and denial.
This is not a question of smart or dumb or of expecting politicians to be moral paragons. There’s plenty of IQ wattage inside and outside of Washington, DC and petty larceny in politics goes back to the stone age. Rather, on average, the difficulty is that our nation’s intellectual potential has not been effectively maximized. Is it reasonable to educate people in a way where all subjects are disconnected from one another, prioritizing narrow specialization, emphasizing accumulating facts over understanding principles, rewarding the “right answer” instead of the “best question”, demanding conformity instead of curiosity and then expect our leaders to be visionaries and adaptively creative statesmen who think in strategic terms?
Why would our societal orientation in complex, dynamic, fast moving situations be good when our educational system trains people only to think through simplified, linear, sequential problems? Strategic thinkers need to be able to see “the big picture” and handle uncertainty, or they cannot be said to be strategic thinkers.
The ship of state has been steered, over the last forty or so years, into an epistemological cul-de-sac and we are headed for the rocks. America needs a grand strategy for a competent citizenry in order to reach the point where it can again have a grand strategy to deal with an unruly world.
I divide each Social Studies unit into content and conceptual mastery, analysis and creative interpretation because public education as a k-12 and beyond system has three primary objectives:
1. To impart a body of knowledge and academic skills deemed valuable by society.
2. To teach the students to think analytically, critically and independently.
3. To render the students capable of having original insights and pursuing the discovery of new knowledge or invention.
The first goal has been delved into depth by educational researchers and gurus like E.D. Hirsh of “Cultural Literacy” fame, Chester Finn, William Bennett, Diane Ravitch and others, and is reflected in such legislation as NCLB, which has put tremendous pressure on school districts to focus on test scores in a Math and Reading and expanding the amount of instructional time in those subjects in the curriculum by increasing the time spent on rote memorization exercises and skill-based drills. Breadth but not depth.
This has proven to have adverse effects, causing original supporters of NCLB like Diane Ravitch to change their position and call for the law’s repeal or modification of the law. Another effort at education reform, the Common Core Standards have been implemented by 45 states to increase content depth and the amount of reading in non-fiction content areas. like science and history.
The second goal is reflected in what used to be termed ” liberal education” or “Great Books” programs or the upper tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Schools do this less effectively across the nation but there is still a fair emphasis on eliciting critical thinking in public education, most of all in Honors and AP classes, gifted and talented classes and special programs like and Paideia and International Baccalaureate though all students benefit from learning critical thinking skills. Colleges and universities, of course, are also intended to focus on liberal education but the degree to which this is true in practice has declined since the 1960′s.
The final objective, made possible by the teaching of creative thinking, divergent thinking and synthesis to students, public education as a system does not do well at all at present, here or in any industrialized nation, where measurable declines in the creativity and problem-solving abilities of k-12 students appear across the board. Some people even consider creative thinking to be inimical to mastering content or logical analysis; this is untrue. One cannot think creatively or engage in analysis without content knowledge and content is itself meaningless unless the student can effectively put it to use in the real world. Content knowledge, critical thinking and creativity are like the three legs of a stool – our students need them all.
Interesting post at the wonderful Eide Neurolearning Blog regarding learning, creativity and memory:
Urban legends, conspiracy theories, Internet memes, and popular advertising campaigns all have something in common: they know how to make information ‘stick’ – now if we can just apply some of these tools to education, we might really have something. The brothers Heath in Made to Stick have come to an interesting conclusion about creativity – not only is it not highly unpredictable or idiosyncratic, in fact it’s just the opposite – it’s systematic and that means it can be taught.
In an interesting Israeli study assessing the effectiveness of advertising campaigns, researchers found that instruction in certain successful creative approaches improved the creativity and positive attitude ratings 50% higher than non-instructed controls. In a similar vein, the Heaths began analyzing extra-sticky ideas and stories and found that they often shared the following qualities:
The pattern makes sense if you think about how the brain is wired to remember (novelty / surprise, imagery, association, emotions, stories) and in regards to simplicity, the brain’s limitations regarding working memory. The Heath’s have a nice Teachers Guide (see below), but the emphasis is on helping students to realize how using the SUCCES approach can focus and target their communication, but we could also envision a different Teachers Guide providing suggestions and examples for how to help teachers focus their own communication.
Imagine if lessons plans incorporated simplicity, novelty, imagery, and compelling personal stories on a daily basis! Michael Sandel’s great Justice course (bottom video below) shares SUCCES elements and that might be a reason for its extraordinary popularity.
Great TED talk on how the culture of public schools clash with the learning style and cultural interests of many boys and inhibit their reading and writing performance. Not “anti-girl” or “pro-boy” but a “pro-learning” presentation.
NCLB legislation has imposed “high stakes” testing with draconian consequences on public school districts under a system of continuously escalating benchmarks that are, in theory, likely to cause 100 % of all schools and districts to be rated as failing by 2014. Award winning schools, troubled schools, city schools, suburban and rural schools, schools in large states and those in small ones, schools that send students to the Ivy League after graduation and those where graduation rates are terrible. All of them.
The absurdity, wasted time and expense of NCLB testing has caused a wide political consensus, including very conservative advocates of rigorous testing in education, such as Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, E.D. Hirsch, Charles Murray and the American Enterprise Institute, to call on Congress to reform NCLB when it is due for reauthorization. Hopefully, this will be the case.
But not all testing is bad. Valid and reliable tests, used constructively and in the right proportion to other educational activities, can yield important data to improve student learning.
Tests are assessments of student the state of student knowledge and level of skills. They come basically in two forms, whether they are created by teachers, states or testing companies.
1. Summative: Testing of student learning – i.e. final exam, SAT etc.
2. Formative: Testing for student learning – i.e. practice tests, AIMSweb.
Summative tests should be used very sparingly, as yardsticks or final measurements as they do not contribute to student learning. Formative testing, research shows us, should be a regular teaching-learning practice as they help reinforce learning, identify areas of student weakness and strength and give data for changing instructional practices.
From the Eide Neurolearning Blog, citing an educational study published in the prestigious journal Science:
Testing at its best is:
– Test and Re-Test – retesting improves retention, not one-time only testing. So if re-testing rarely occurs in the classroom (i.e. quiz then test on same material), students should practice quizzing themselves, do practice problems, and correct their work in order to learn from their mistakes.
– Quiz Me: Retrieve, Don’t Just Elaborate Elaborative study may be necessary for students with memory difficulties (mnemonics, acronyms, etc.), but in a pinch – having to retrieve information will be a better strategy for committing information to long term memory
– Effort + Retrieval are Good If students had to struggle a bit before comprehending a sentence, they were more likely to remember it later (even though they would not recognize the struggle being any benefit)
– Repeated Re-testing and Avoiding the ‘Mastery Illusion’ When Karpicke studied effect studying, repeated re-testing was a effective strategy, but many students succumbed to the ‘mastery illusion’ putting away materials (i.e. they thought they ‘knew’) before they had really filed information into long-term memory
Tests should be our tools and not our masters.
A great animated overview of how public education is changing/needs to change in the 21st century:
The Eide Neurolearning Blog run by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, has long been one of my favorite blogs – here’s an example of why:
High Conceptual Thinkers are often…
– Omnivorous Learners: The world may be their oyster. Because of their quest for the “interesting”, they may love the Internet, read entire encyclopedias, or incessantly question adults about the real world, and so learn a little bit about everything. They may not hit ceiling scores on the conceptual knowledge IQ subtests because their omnivorous approach to figuring out the world around them.
– New is the Thing: HCTs prefer novelty (this is how they develop new conceptual categories) and are tickled by unconventional viewpoints or discoveries.
– Big Picture, Not Little Details: HCTs don’t always transition well to the “precision years” of late elementary, middle school, or beyond.
– Boredom is Death: Although using the ‘b’ word is notoriously a “no-no” word when talking to teachers, these kids rebel against what they see as boredom. Boredom may really seem like death to young HCTs.
If young HCTs seem “driven by a motor”, it’s intellectual restlessness and it can be a blessing as well as a burden.Not surprisingly, these kids often find classroom learning unsatisfying. After all, much of early education is focused on mastering basic skills or established facts, this is not what these kids are about. They’d rather be finding new worlds to conquer.
Although these kids are challenging to teach and parent, they are also a delight, and Dan Pink and others have suggested that the Conceptual Age is upon us and this pattern of thinking should be what we should be encouraging.
“High conceptual thinkers” – those with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, who see meta-level patterns and excel at constructing paradigms, extrapolation, synthesis and consilience are probably not a large percentage of the population and, most likely, they include eccentrics and cranks as well as highly accomplished individuals like E.O. Wilson, Buckminster Fuller, Freeman Dyson, Nikola Tesla, Richard Feynman and probably figures like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Winston Churchill, Robert Hooke, Da Vinci and numerous others.There seems to be some congruency between HCTs and the category of people known as polymaths, which raises the question of whether HCT are born or can be encouraged to develop such a cognitive profile from education and life experience.
The Eides offered a list of techniques for teaching children recognized as HCTs, but to my mind, these would also benefit a fairly broad section of students:
Teaching Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers
– Sky’s the Limit: If an idea or a lesson would be interesting to a wonky tech-y post-college 20-something, then it’s fine for the HCT. If a story or thing could be written about in Wired, Fast Company, or Mental Floss, then you’re probably on the right track. Sky should be the limit. Even some generally excellent gifted programs we’ve seen may grossly underestimate an HCT’s ability to think about advanced concepts. Also because HCTs develop their ideas through pattern recognition, they may want to see many examples and permutations, and complex presentations in order to help organize their ideas into simpler concepts.
– Play with Ideas: Conceptual thinkers like and need to play with ideas. Play expands ideas, creating a new opening for associations. Play means not micromanaging learning experiences – allowing some dabbling, and taking away some of the “high stakes every time” routine (e.g. not everything should be graded).
– Argue with Ideas We think many educational curricula wait way to long before they allow young HCTs to consider different viewpoints, learn how to frame arguments or actually debate, but this is often what HCTs love. If they don’t get it at school, make sure they get it home…maybe at the dinner table? Half of the 400 eminent men and women profiled in the Goertzels’ Cradles of Eminence came from “opinionated” families: “It is these homes that produce most of the scientists, humanitarians, and reformers.”
Compare these recommendations with the advice offered by nanotechnologist Dr. Eric Drexler of Metamodern:
Studying to learn about everything
To intellectually ambitious students I recommend investing a lot of time in a mode of study that may feel wrong. An implicit lesson of classroom education is that successful study leads to good test scores, but this pattern of study is radically different. It cultivates understanding of a kind that won’t help pass tests – the classroom kind, that is.
- Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand. Include Science and Nature.
- Don’t halt, dig a hole, and study a particular subject as if you had to pass a test on it.
- Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you – instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary, perspective, and context, then circle back.
- Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic.
- Notice which topics link in all directions, and provide keys to many others. Consider taking a class.
- Continue until almost everything you encounter in Science and Nature makes sense as a contribution to a field you know something about.
Intellectual curiosity would seem to be the axis that would make these approaches work effectively, and possibly, that’s what these techniques stimulate.