Little thinks or Big thinks?*

I’ve been doing some deep thinking recently, about…’the art of deep thought’. Not this time the computer in the HHGTTG, but the phrase being presently used by academics and politicians without, as usual, any clear explanation as to what they really mean. For example: (Nice Mr Gove) said he ” wanted to switch emphasis back to examinations taken at the end of two years of study in order to revive the art of deep thought.”

And this very morning on the Andrew Marr Show on TV he explained that if there was a return to a two year A level course it would enable students to spend more time on things like Art and Music to provide a balance to those subjects that required deep thought.

So what exactly is deep thought? And will I be able to buy some in the deep freeze aisle in M&S?

Well, some research (now there’s the first clue in itself) reveals a lengthy text (clue number two), full of obscure words (ah, have I cracked it already?). Well, no, not quite – it seems it’s a bit more complicated than that. Apparently deep thinking skills include:

  • Asking different sorts of open-ended questions about things
  • Thinking about your own thinking processes
  • Putting things in your own words
  • Applying principles to real situations
  • Analysing information into component parts
  • Connecting separate pieces of information to form larger patterns, guidelines or products
  • Evaluating the validity, morality and aesthetic value of ideas, data or products
  • Drawing logical conclusions
  • Deriving principles
  • Making a case for and against an argument
  • Identifying cause-effect relationships
  • Identifying ethical issues
  • Generating creative and imaginative ideas and innovative strategies

And it also seems there is something called ‘deep reading’ which involves a mixture of horizontal reading (ie in bed?) and vertical reading (ie standing up?).To be effective, the information gathered by horizontal, broad reading needs to appropriately interact with narrow, vertical reading.

So what deep conclusions can we draw from all this? The first, and undoubtedly the most surprising, is that just for once All Change Please! finds itself in agreement with nice Mr Gove that more deep thinking would be a good thing. Except of course, in his desire to return to a romanticised, ivory-tower view of rigorous academic study, he has himself probably not thought through his sound-bite very deeply. If he had, he would have realised that many so-called ‘soft’ subjects, with their extended practical open-ended coursework requirements, provide an excellent opportunity for deep thought and action. And that deep thought is not necessarily verbal in nature, but can also be visual, symbolic, musical, etc. Meanwhile if he is really interested in promoting deep thinking, then what better place to start than by promoting and accrediting the QCA’s Personal Learning and Thinking Skills as part of his new English/French Baccalaureate GCSE proposal?

And has Mr Gove yet realised that what we need is not so much deep ways of thinking, but new ways of thinking, focused around things like complexity, community and communication, related to the new world we find ourselves living in, rather than past times.

As I’ve suggested before, we urgently need to understand a lot more about the way in which people start to think and learn deep and wide from an effective mixture of horizontal Pot Google ‘information snacks’ and vertical five-GCSE Baccalaureate course ‘main meals’ as they gather and process information about the real and virtual world they live in.

Hmm – I think I’ll avoid the deep thought counter at M&S for now. Anyone else for some shallow Pot Googles?

* Those of you with the doubted privilege of an academic literary education will of course immediately recognise the reference in the title of this post to HG Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Or, like me, needed to look it up on Pot Google to discover:

‘that to babble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it “big thinks”, to distinguish it from “little thinks” — the sane everyday interests of life. If ever I made a remark he did not understand, he would praise it very much, ask me to say it again and again, learn it by heart, and go off repeating it.’

**Meanwhile those of you with an academic art history education will instead immediately recognise the photo at the top as an image of a human brain as portrayed by the 1960’s Pop artist Peter Max.

Going for Gold

Did you see this recent news item?

2012 Olympic Games Medal Shock!

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‘The Olympic Games Committee made a surprise announcement today in which it stated that in future Gold medals will only be awarded to the winners of the 100 metres, which it considers to be the only true test of an athlete. Winners of other track events that involve at least some competitive speed running will only be awarded Silver medals, while other, so called ‘soft sports’ such as pole-vaulting or horse-riding will only gain winners Bronze medals. Team games, in which it is impossible to identify a single winner, and sports that can be played professionally, such as football and boxing, will still be offered as recreational fringe events, but no medals will be awarded. A spokesperson said ‘It’s essential not to further devalue the gold standard, and we hope that this action will encourage more athletes to train for and compete in the 100 metres’.

Crazy, and of course quite untrue. Except that in the UK that’s exactly how we view the current education system – we prepare everyone for success in one event that only a small proportion of entrants are capable of succeeding in. What makes it worse is that the one event is, by definition, ‘academic’ – theoretical rather than practical. An academic is ‘a person who works as a researcher (and usually teacher) at a university, college, or similar institution in post-secondary (tertiary) education’. Why is it that we all want our children to be brilliant academics, but are quick in a discussion to dismiss an idea as being ‘academic’, i.e. of theoretical rather than any practical relevance? As a result we have a nation full of trained 100 metre runners, the vast majority of whom have no chance of ever achieving Gold, and frequently see themselves, and are also seen by potential employers, as failures and as such un-equipped  for any other event, such as work in the outside work. And how much longer will the ‘essay’ and the multiple choice question remain the main format for assessment, given that few jobs involve a great deal of essay writing or answering mcqs.

This attitude is by no means new, and has been something that as a society we have been dearly clinging on to for centuries, while other countries seem to have been able to move on and value technical and vocational education in a far more positive way. Somehow we need to bring about a major shift in the way we perceive and value education in the UK, and re-naming schools as ‘academies’, making A levels more difficult and getting more people to study subjects such as English and History to degree level is not the direction we should be going in. In just about every area of business, commerce, health, defence, housing, farming, etc., there have been changes during the past 60 years on a scale that make them unrecognisable from the way they were in the 1950s. The single exception is education where, apart from the largely inappropriate use of computers, little has altered except in name. If the UK is to remain, or even become, in any way competitive in the global market place, it’s much too late therefore for a slow, evolutionary incremental shift in public opinion and institutional structures, curriculum and teaching method. We need to think the unthinkable. Nothing less than a short, sharp revolution in needed.

I have no grand plan or costed strategy for development, but here are a few of the sort of things we ought to be currently considering:

• We need a shift away from the idea that we all attend compulsory full-time schooling between 4 and 16. It’s always struck me that the single most inappropriate environment for a 14 year old is to be required to sit still in silence for hours on end listening to adults who think they know everything.

• The traditional school structure and organisation is entirely outmoded for the modern age. We need to develop institutions that facilitate a more effective daily mix of exposure to teaching styles and learning experiences, essentially including independent learning.

• Students need to be given and take more responsibility for their own learning, utilising the innovative possibilities of innovative computer technology, rather than simply using IT to reinforce and automate traditional approaches.

• The use of the slogan “What have you learnt today?’ could be used to prompt a genuine approach to lifelong learning for all in which the act of learning something new everyday is recognised and valued by individuals and employers.

• How can all intelligences and abilities come to be seen as being equal, and none more equal than others? The emphasis on academic education is only appropriate for the roughly 5% of the population who are suited to it. We need some sort of single national award system that recognises a relevant comparative ‘gold’ standard across all courses.

• In this day and age are we really still unable to teach every child how to achieve basic standards in literacy and numeracy? Standards have improved slightly over recent years, but there’s clearly something badly wrong here that needs sorting out.

• We need to introduce of a valued certificate or ‘qualification’ of basic achievement that recognises the practical application of reading, writing and arithmetic in daily use, alongside a similarly valued certificate of personal learning and creative thinking/problem-solving skills, both taken at any age when the learner is ready.

• Currently teachers have five training days a year which are mostly spent on being introduced to new administrative procedures. There needs to be a major investment in effective and compulsory in-service training / CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for teachers to enable them to keep up-to-date with their rapidly changing subject knowledge and with the new substantially different methods of teaching and learning afforded by developments in IT.

• By narrowing the range of knowledge and understanding that is now examined we have successfully raised the number of students gaining A level passes and going into Higher Education. We have steadily improved the number of children who get five GCSE A* to C grades. But when are we going to start doing something for the other 50% of learners who have limited qualifications and remain alienated by an education system that has little to offer them?

• In terms of a quick fix, one of the problems is that children’s attitudes towards school and learning is heavily influenced by their parents’ experiences. Most of today’s parents were at failing comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 1980s and remain unconvinced of the value of education. Today’s children, who have grown up in a narrow assessment-led National Curriculum culture, will become parents in the next two decades. How do we ensure that they will have a different, more enlightened view of education to pass on to their children?

Ironically, sadly all these things are probably somewhat ‘academic’. It’s difficult to see future governments or administrative organisations initiating or welcoming change on this level. Somehow we need to find a way to take control of our own future learning and growth.