Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The bottleneck of cognition.

The first Monday of the month meant another visit to Camden for London Skeptics in the Pub. It was a gorgeous day so I stopped off for some art (Bosco Sodi) in the West End, wandered up through Regent's Park, had an incredibly greasy quesadilla in Camden Market, topped that off with a 99 ice cream, and still arrived in The Monarch Bar in plenty of time.

The talk was Skeptics - The Next Generation and it was being hosted by Daisy Christodoulou. Daisy is perhaps most famous for captaining the eventual winners Warwick in University Challenge 2007. After a spell as a secondary school teacher she's now head of education research at Ark. Ark works in the areas of education, health, and child protection. She's also written a book, that some have called controversial, with the title Seven Myths about Education.

It was that, and her thoughts on where we're going wrong with education at the moment, she was there to talk about.

"The more you learn, the easier it is to learn more" the mantra would appear to be but unlike a lazy motivational Facebook poster she was prepared to put a little flesh on the bones of it. Although she spoke less about the specifics of her ideas than I'd expected, hoped, it was still fascinating stuff from start to finish. Not sure I agreed with it all. But that's not really the point.

She started off by explaining the difference between working memory and long term memory. Working memory is the stuff you need to do what you're doing when you're doing it. To write this blog I don't need to know the capital of Chile is Santiago but if someone burst into the room now and asked me that question I'd be able to answer it. I'd be retrieving that from my long term memory.

Your working memory holds between about three and seven things at any one time. To demonstrate this she showed a list of seemingly random numbers and asked people to recall the sequence. Nobody managed more than five. Q.E.D.

Working memory, when not required, makes its way down into your long term memory. Or, at least, some of it does. This is what Daisy called the bottleneck of cognition. Some things stay. Some don't.

This led her to the crux of her, potentially contentious, argument. That knowledge is made of memory and skills of knowledge. If we assume this to be true then there can be no binary opposition between skills and knowledge thus rendering the long running debate within teaching as to whether or not to focus education on learning 'things' or training children up in 'transferable' skills.

She felt there was a trend, in the 21st century, to shun knowledge based learning as antiquated. It's on the Internet. You can look it up. That kind of thing.

But without basic knowledge you won't have the skill to even look things up correctly. Your Internet usage will be directed towards David Beckham selling you a watch you don't need, conspiracy theories or, in very extreme cases, believing Boris Johnson has your best interests at heart.

Instead of reading highly educational and entertaining blogs like this one you could find yourself driving down the electronic superhighway without a map and only a faulty satnav for company.

A notorious example of this is the Pacific Northwest tree octopus. This arboreal cephalopod is quite clearly an Internet hoax but in school Internet literacy classes huge numbers of students were fooled by it. The reason being the website devoted to it looked official, it had citations, and quotes, and all that.

Obviously it seems daft to believe in such a thing (even though it sounds great) but another point Daisy made was that we tend to underestimate other adults whilst overestimating children. They haven't been round as long as us. They don't know as many things. They can be quite gullible. Another case, she said, for a focus on more fact based learning.

Troubles she highlighted included what cognitive scientist Steven Pinker calls the curse of knowledge. If you know a lot about a subject you tend to speak to people as if they do too. Partly, perhaps, because you don't want to appear patronising. She cited instruction manuals in old video recorders as a perfect example of this.

She spoke a lot about how the knowledge taught, schemas was her preferred term, would enable children, as they grow up, to think for themselves and make decisions in the future. This, for me, had worrying shades of Nicky Morgan and the current Tory government's, so far, botched attempts at full academisation of the school system. But I believe Daisy was talking about providing children with sound scientific and rational thought processes whereas Gove and his gang probably see children, as they do all humanity, simply as machines for creating wealth.

There was, a little disappointingly, little in the way of firm ideas of how all this would be put into practise. Daisy acknowledged that too much repetition of facts could be boring for children and put them off learning. She appreciated the need to entertain as well as educate and I'm pretty confident she doesn't want to go back to the days of kids singing the times tables in lessons. Unless that still happens!? I don't know. It's a long time since I was in a school. I'm pretty sure they don't hit children with sticks any more though. That's what they used to do when I went.

I was particularly intrigued when Daisy compared the current state of education to that of 19th century medicine. That makes it sound horribly anachronistic but, again, that wasn't her point. John Snow's proof that cholera was a water borne infection, and was not transmitted by 'miasma', was a defining moment in giving medicine a scientific footing.

Before that it had been divided between pseudoscientists, who still lurk in dark corners (like The Daily Mail) preying on the weak, and those of a more rational bent. Education, she proposed, could go this way in the next 20-30 years. Too late, perhaps, for your kids?

Again, I wasn't totally sure about this but her argument was certainly compelling. It sounds better than training children up to be whatever their class and wealth has predestined for them. But it still doesn't seem perfect. At the very least though there's another passionate advocate for putting children's needs first in education. You may not agree with all she says but you'd find it hard to come away arguing she had any kind of political agenda.

Strolling back to Kentish Town West underground through the crisp dusk air I thought how a summer evening can lift the oppression of the day. I thought too how an enlightening exchange of ideas can lift the spirits and if Daisy's intellectual journey has carried her this far since her meeting with Paxman just how far she may eventually go. Good on her. I hope she continues to develop ideas and one day many more children are inspired to follow her. Or, better still, question her.

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