26 April 2011

On "cognitive theft"

When I observe students teaching, one of the commonest issues to draw to their attention is the use of rhetorical questions--not in the sense in which a politician might use them in a speech, but in the much more mundane sense of asking the class (usually) or an individual (occasionally) an apparently straightforward question, but then answering it for them.

Partly, it appears, this arises because of fear of "dead air", as broadcasters call it. I would say "silence", but part of the fear is that it won't be silence--it will be filled with a cacophony of off-task chatter, and that may take previous minutes to settle again. There's also the self-doubt which comes from being unsure whether you have pitched the question at the right level, or whether indeed the class have learned anything which may enable them to answer it.

At one level, of course, the unintended effect of such practice is efficiently to train students not to bother to answer questions. After all, all they have to do is keep quiet and you will do it for them. Moreover, there is zero chance of being humiliated by getting the answer wrong, and only the most trivial chance of being challenged with a follow-up.

This post takes the matter further. The author argues that in relation to teaching maths at least, to deprive the student of the opportunity of answering (by doing it for her) is to commit "cognitive theft"--the denial of an opportunity to learn.

(The post includes an interesting video of a TEDx talk by Gary Stager around this issue. The tone is rather self-important, and of course school-focused, but excerpts would make a good discussion starter in class.)

The post goes on to discuss the maths teaching approach of Sal Khan (of the Khan Academy) who emphasises direct instruction in techniques to solve problems, and suggests that it comes close to cognitive theft, too. Khan's approach has attracted quite a lot of attention in the maths-teaching blogosphere, and there are some thoughtful posts on it here.

The issues posed go much wider than maths education and schools; from my own area of interest, instruction in algorithms to reach the right answer but without knowing why --in any field--is a way of faking an understanding of threshold concepts, and is ultimately self-limiting and another form of cognitive theft.


Thanks to Jim Hamlyn; he thought he'd missed the boat because of my frivolous later post, it appears, but commented:
A post on cognitive theft disappeared into the ether and I'd just dug out a link especially. Och well, here it is anyway:

 ...on the Khan argument.

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