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The curse of knowledge and the giant Skinner box

This piece in the Guardian last month caused a stir in Education social media.

Perhaps spending more time learning how we “do” science – what’s called the scientific method – is more valuable than simply “knowing” stuff.

Jim Al-Khalili in The Guardian

Jim Al-Khalili is undoubtedly an accomplished scientist and communicator, and I’ve enjoyed his books and TV appearances. But his article is misguided, and ironically shows a lack of scientific method in his thought process. Most notably he doesn’t seem to have discussed his ideas with anyone who currently works in education.

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A science teacher would have quickly confirmed that we do indeed teach the scientific method in schools. I could have told him that we also teach research skills, spotting fake news and judging the trustworthiness of sources from various angles in computing and many other subjects. Indeed, here is part of the national curriculum for computing, at Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11):

– use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content
– select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information

DfE – Computing Programmes of Study, KS2 – my emphases

What’s more concerning though, is Al-Khalili’s rejection of “facts” and “knowledge”:

Why spend so much of the school science curriculum loading up children’s brains with facts about the world that they can just look up anyway? Wouldn’t it be more useful teaching them how to find reliable scientific knowledge – which these days inevitably means online rather than in books – and how to assess and critically analyse and absorb that knowledge when needed?

Jim Al-Khalili, ibid

Unfortunately, Jim appears to have succumbed to the “curse of knowlege“, in short, the failure to see a domain as a novice, and understand their needs. Jim forgets that he himself learned a vast amount of knowlege (those pesky “facts”) about science before he was able to find out new facts about the world. His huge and complicated mental schema, built up over decades of study, opened up new discoveries to him that the novice is simply unable to see, as they do not have the decades of learning behind them.

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Children are not small adults, when it comes to learning. At school they need to learn as much as possible of the knowledge that has been acquired by humanity before. This store of knowledge will then enable them to think critically about the world, make sense of new experiences and tackle advanced learning. Without this base level of facts they can not integrate new ideas, and learn new skills that require domain-level knowledge. We cannot think critically about a domain we know little about.

There’s a nice clip of Barak Rosenshine explaining the importance of knowledge that did the rounds last year, and you can find it in this post by Greg Ashman. Rosenshine gave the example of expertise in a specific branch of medicine not being a skill that is transferrable to other branches of medicine. As Greg put it:

Rather than possessing general purpose higher-order thinking skills, cardiology professors know a lot about cardiology. When asked to solve endocrinology problems, they stumble.

Ashman – What even is a domain?

David Didau goes as far as to say “we cannot teach skills, only knowledge” here. Didau even gives us a clue in this blog just how Al-Khalili came to his fallacious position:

Eventually, we may start to believe the skill which for us has become so natural and straightforward can be taught to others as a complete edifice. […] The idea that skill can be taught without the hard work of teaching all the requisite knowledge is an illusion born from the curse of knowledge.

Didau – Skill = knowledge + practice

The curse of knowledge is a terrible thing. How often have you been to a talk, lecture or presentation and the speaker has assumed knowledge you don’t posess? We all do it, I refer to computational thinking as “CT” when talking to computing teachers but have been guilty of failing to explain the abbreviation at times. My own children’s school gave a talk on GCSE options that referred to the modern foreign languages department as “MFL” for 45 minutes before a parent asked what it meant.

Al-Khalili makes the case for a scientifically literate society being better able to make sense of the world, but his boldest claim comes later in the piece, that scientific literacy can make the world kinder:

Adopting the scientific method could help us all become more tolerant and less polarised in our views – to disagree without being disagreeable – particularly online. 

Al-Khalili, ibid

Sadly, this is naive because it assumes good faith on the part of online participants and a willingness to seek truth and reject our biases. Cognitive bias is the enemy of critical thinking, even those of us that claim to be critical thinkers are not immune from it, and that’s before we bring in those that are not interested in truth, or not interested in challenging their own biases and conceptions.

And we must understand the sheer power and range of these biases, studies have shown repeatedly that confirmation bias, anchoring bias and the halo effect are extremely powerful, and lets not forget that the filter bubble imposed around us by the algorithms that drive our social media feeds creates the perfect conditions for the false consensus and bandwagon effects. These biases are stronger than we know. Indeed Jaron Lanier likens social media to a “Skinner box”, after the behaviourist who proved that we could be conditioned to act in a certain way through external stimuli. Pinning our hopes on critical thinking is misguided when large swathes of the media we consume is curated deliberately to misguide and feed our biases.

ko-fi.com/mraharrisoncs

In short, Al-Khalili’s blog is well-meaning but misguided. Educators do indeed teach the scientific model. But our pupils are not researchers. They need knowledge to become experts, and only then can they discover new knowledge. And critical thinking is important, but as a defence against the spreading of “toxic opinions” and “disinformation” it is no match for a trillion-dollar manipulation machine: the giant Skinner box that is the modern internet. Fixing that is a whole other ball game. I recommend you start with this TED talk from Jaron Lanier, but that’s a blog for another day.

Read more about the impacts of Computer Science including algorithmic bias and the power of big tech in my book:

By mraharrisoncs

Head of Computing and Digital Strategy Lead,
WHGS, a United Learning school.
CAS Master Teacher.

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