Unfinished business…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the pre-course tasks for @SotonEd PGCE trainee teachers, one of which requires them to write 750 words summarising, and critically comparing, the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, and then a further 500 words relating these theories to what they observe in school.

I had responses from several directions. My blog has always been about trying to clarify my own thinking about teaching, learning, education research, and teacher training, so it’s really helpful to have questions to consider.

My response to @nastyoldmrpike is that, quite possibly knowing all of this wouldn’t make him a better teacher because, unlike my trainees, he probably already understands – either intuitively or explicitly – that students don’t all learn the same things from a particular bit of teaching. I go back to my original justification that my trainees often don’t appreciate this at the start of their training. Ironically, the choice is then to allow them to learn from their own experience – the constructivist teaching approach – or to provide more guidance.

I have two points to make in response to @suzyg001. Firstly, I could have taken a different tack with my list of ideas related to constructivist cognitive psychology but for me the post was part of an unfinished conversation so I wanted to pick up on some of the ideas about teaching and learning that form a backdrop to this. And secondly, whilst I appreciate that Dan Willingham occupies a position that is justified more by his level of engagement with education (in comparison to the majority of cognitive scientists) than by his representation of that field, and by the convenient alignment of his work with the inclinations of the traditionalist paradigm within education, I do inevitably view things through the filter of my own experience – how about that? – and the whole working memory / cognitive load theory does fit with my experience of teaching. I can see that there is a more complex picture but as someone who had to Google to check the meaning of ‘memeplex’ I have to work at a level with practical implications for my own teaching, and that of my trainees. I think that’s the key to understanding “where this is coming from”.

Best wishes

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7 thoughts on “Unfinished business…

  1. Thanks for picking up my point about the memeplex.

    I agree that Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s models of child development are both open to question. That’s hardly surprising given the amount of water that’s flowed under the bridge since they did their research.

    I agree too that ‘a shedload of progressive teaching approaches were pinned onto the back of Piaget and Vygotsky’ and that’s happened largely because Piaget and Vygotsky have been assumed to be right and their theories have been extended beyond their range of convenience.

    I can also understand why your practical experience of teaching would lead you to question Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s models and the approaches pinned onto the back of them. And why you would want your students to be aware of that.

    And I appreciate that you can only start from where you are in terms of your knowledge and experience. The same is true for everybody – there’s nowhere else one can start from. It’s fair enough to incorporate ideas that have a good fit with your experience into your conceptual model of education. But what ideas you incorporate are crucial.

    If you’d said “Oh look how cognitive psychology has changed since Piaget” and used key findings to inform your practice and teaching, that wouldn’t have prompted me to refer to memeplexes. But you haven’t referred to key findings in cognitive psychology since Piaget, you’ve referred to what Daniel Willingham and a few people who agree with him about education have mentioned. That’s not the same thing.

    So far, I haven’t come across a single teacher advocating the Willingham/Sweller view of working memory who has so much as mentioned Alan Baddeley who’s a leading authority on memory and who’s published accessible books on the subject. Or his colleague Susan Gathercole who researches the implications of WM for education.

    Most cognitive psychology researchers would be only too happy to give you a quick tour of developments in the field since Piaget. So would most psychology teachers. But those people are noticeable by their absence from the WM discourse. It seems that only information via Willingham, Sweller et al is being used as the basis for theory and practice. Hence my referring to it as a memeplex.

    • I get your point that only drawing on Cognitive Psychology which has come down through Willingham etc. could ultimately lead to erroneous beliefs about what the WM research field has actually found, with the gradual creation of an attendant memeplex, and therefore we should guard against this.

      Do you actually believe however that there is anything of substance in Willingham’s translation of educationally relevant cognitive psychology which is erroneous and at odds with what Baddeley uncovered in his time and what Gathercole would claim…?

      – I’m not trying to challenge you here, I’m just interested! 🙂

  2. I keep being asked ‘what’s *wrong* with what Willingham says?’ and keep replying ‘nothing’s wrong with it; but it’s only part of the picture’.

    Willingham is quite explicit that the model of memory he presents in ‘Why don’t students like school?’ is a simplified one. To leave readers in no doubt whatsoever he calls it “just about the simplest model of the mind possible” (p.14). The figure is repeated several times throughout the book. For the purposes of illustrating a point about the limitations of WM and the benefits of using LTM it’s fine. For the purposes of explaining how memory works it isn’t. For the purposes of explaining how ‘the mind’ works it isn’t either, but that’s another story.

    Baddeley’s model of WM (one of the few theoretical models in psychology that’s turned out to have a biological basis) makes a distinction between sensory modalities; Baddeley & Hitch’s original model included an auditory component (phonological loop), a visual component (visuospatial sketchpad) and a central executive. Recent research suggests that the sensory components themselves might have sub-components. Not surprising since visual processing and auditory processing each involve streams of different types of visual and auditory information. In short, sensory processing is at the heart of the most widely accepted model of WM, but you wouldn’t know that if your only source of information bout WM was Willingham’s book.

    Sensory processing can vary considerably between individuals. One person might have a particular visual impairment, another might have a difficulty with auditory processing. Sensory impairments (major and minor) are widespread. But again, I’ve not come across anyone propagating the Willingham/Sweller model of WM who’s drawn attention to the possibility that sensory processing anomalies might result in some children having very limited WM or having problems with LTM. Indeed, some of the Willingham/Sweller proponents would baulk at the very idea because any mention of sensory modalities makes them think of VAK Learning Styles idea and Learning Styles are Just Plain Wrong.

    So it’s not so much a case of what Willingham says being at odds with the Baddeley model and Gathercole’s work, as teachers not being aware of what he’s left out, and what he’s left out being germane to their teaching.

  3. Is it? It sounds like a ridiculous complaint. Willingham has left out what Sue thinks is relevant. So? His work, understandably, explains what he thinks is relevant, not what Sue thinks is relevant. It would be useful if Sue wrote her own book about her own ideas and tried to find an audience for it, rather than repeatedly complaining about other authors for not sharing ideas that they didn’t think were relevant. The repeated complaint that authors left out important facts about working memory will always create the impression that they left out facts that would have cast doubt on their work, not that they failed to write Sue’s book for her. If Sue’s argument is simply that she could write a better book than Willingham, or a better paper on working memory and education than Sweller, etc. she should just say that, then write it, rather than implying there is something wrong with ideas that others have shared. Otherwise she looks like she is just trying to create unwarranted doubt about stuff that is factually sound and useful.

    Oh, and I will add that the usual term for somebody who attempts to create unwarranted doubt about scientific facts is “denialist”.

    • Thanks Andrew – I hadn’t read other comments by Sue elsewhere raising this point, so her concern above seemed clear enough – i.e. that if people become too attached to Willingham’s explanations of WM, then they could close their minds to the usefulness of other aspects of it as well (thinking they understand it all). I had no particular opinion either way as to the importance of it however.

      I do take your point though that – if you aren’t going to replace Willingham’s work with something that goes further whilst being as accessible for teachers, then your critiques of his stuff simply work to undermine the huge strides forward which it could produce in the understanding of everyday teachers. I’m struggling to find a recent definitive piece by Susan Gathercole for example which offers everyday teachers an alternative.

      Sue – I did study Baddeley & Hitch’s work during my own degree, and I suppose an awareness of the Visuo-Spatial Scratchpad and the Phonological Loop has always been there in the background during my teaching career. Has this particularly helped me however…? Not sure. Arguably, this stuff only would really become relevant when you are trying to unpick specific issues within a WM difficulty which a child has been diagnosed as having – and wouldn’t that be a specialist assessment anyway…? Is it just nit-picking to criticise Willingham’s distillation of our current understanding? After all, even the most complete current Cog Psy theory on WM, can only ever claim to be “the best model that we have of it YET”, and therefore can run the risk of misleading people into thinking that they understand it.

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