WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CRITICAL THINKING AMONG STUDENTS?

There has been much debate in education about the need to develop in students critical thinking. Critical thinking  means having the ability  to see both sides of an argument clearly, while deducing or confirming conclusions from both the facts and arguments.  To think critically,  it is  thought  you need domain specific knowledge ,as well as certain  generic  skills. You  need to learn how to handle and order  facts,  as well as to learn the facts themselves.
The “critical” part of the term “critical thinking”  doesn’t refer to the  act of criticizing, or finding fault, but rather to the ability to be objective and dispassionate. So, “Critical,” in this context, means essentially  “open-minded,” seeking out, evaluating and weighing all the available evidence, affording a value to that evidence and reaching a rational,  objective , conclusion  .  Being Objective,  or rational,  though  is not as easy  as it might seem. Our  in built biases can interfere in our thinking process’s.  These are  sometimes known as cognitive biases.  And we can let our  emotions  get the better of us, so rational thought and objectivity goes  out the window.

According to Professor Dan Willingham,  looking at the issue  from the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.One likes to think that students who have studied A levels have developed, to a significant extent good critical thinking skills . Certainly those with the best grades.  And that at University they develop these skills further,  and advance to a different level of critical thinking. But do they?  There does appear to be a cultural shift underway .  Subjective emotional responses  have an elevated status.  Sometimes it seems the only valid response to any idea  argument or situation is the individual’s own—how he or she “feels” about it, subjectively. Are they offended by it? Has it hurt their feelings? This is when and where emotion and feelings trump rationality and it would seem critical thinking.  So  Could all the banning, no platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings simply be symptomatic of the fact that subjectivity has replaced objectivity as the default position.  Is it the case that students, much more than in the past, are  increasingly incapable of processing conflicting viewpoints intellectually; they can only respond to them emotionally? Is this what is meant by the snowflake generation? Food for thought

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FORCING UNIVERSITIES TO SET UP, OR SPONSOR SCHOOLS, IN RETURN FOR FEE RISES IS NONSENSE ON STILTS

The Government said  in its recent  Green Paper that it   wants  all universities  either to   sponsor existing schools or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge   higher fees.

In addition to, but not instead of, the above requirements,  the government said  that  universities could consider:

  • supporting schools through being a member of the governing body or academy trust board;
  • assisting with curriculum design, mentoring of school pupils, and other educational support; and
  • provision of human resources, teaching capacity (for example in A-level STEM subjects), and finance support.

‘In addition to driving attainment, we could ask universities to consider taking into account geography, the number of good school places or higher education participation rates when deciding where to focus their energies’.

This proposal doesn’t even look good on paper.

It is not the business of universities to run schools . Besides, there is no evidence that they are  any good at it.   Why would they be?  Even specialist organisations that run schools as their core business find setting up,  or sponsoring,   a new school,   a challenging business. A number of Universities have tried, and to say that their record is patchy is an understatement.

If a University wants  to set up a new school then it needs to make a compelling  business   case for it, with a rigorous  risk assessment attached. Otherwise we will have more failed  ventures  on our hands,   that are wasteful , damaging to the institutions involved ,  and , most importantly, hugely damaging to pupils.

As one insider  put it to to me ‘  In what other sector could you imagine being required to do something you have no experience of in order to be able to ,or allowed to,  develop and market your core business?’

Good leadership ,and above all high  quality  teachers and teaching, are at the heart of  every  good school . But , who with their hand on their heart, can honestly  say that these  are currently the perceived   strengths of our  Higher Education Sector ?Indeed one of  the major motivating factors behind the Higher Education and Research Bill was the poor quality of teaching in too many universities . So, the government  is now actively incentivising   institutions , many with poor quality teachers and teaching,  to set up or sponsor schools… really?

Of course, the HE Sector could , and should, support schools and pupils  and add value in various  ways. There are many partnership programmes up and running already. This engagement between the HE sector and schools though   should be informed by  hard evidence of what works and is most effective.  Some Access programmes could be  better structured and evaluated, for example  but there is plenty of sound practice to be built on too.   Student progression,  transition  (and  careers guidance),  to higher education is an area where universities can do much  more. Curriculum and  professional development are two other  areas , as well as those  mentioned above in the Green paper.

But  forcing a university to set  up or sponsor a school in order  for it to raise its  fees makes no sense.  It could also do a lot of harm.

A much more flexible, evidential  approach is required from the government and  one should  pray that this will  be reflected in the eventual proposals that come out of the consultation process.

GRADUATE DEBT-A GROWING CHALLENGE FOR THE HE SECTOR

GRADUATE DEBT – A DEVELOPING NARRATIVE
The Higher Education sector should be wary. There is a narrative developing, articulated with increasing regularity in the media, that students are not getting value for money from their university education.

The graduate premium is not as big as Ministers claim, and in any case is narrowing significantly.  There are now   serious alternatives to a university education, including high quality apprenticeships and company and on the job  training programmes .Employers, fed up with the quality of graduates who apply  for their jobs, who signally lack   the kind of soft skills they are looking for,   are now   looking elsewhere. Thats the narrative. Students are being miss-sold  a university education.  Why saddle yourself with debt when you can be paid while you train for a guaranteed job?. Earlier this year the Higher Education Statistics Agency published figures showing that one in four graduates was not in a graduate job six months after receiving a degree

The Intergenerational Fund think tank, says that student debt payments wipe out the benefit of higher salaries for most graduates. Indeed, MP Frank Field found out from the Office for National Statistics  that more than a quarter of graduates were paid less than the £11.10  an hour average for those on work-based training schemes (Apprenticeships) in 2013 . With a  government focus on  incentivising the provision of   more high quality Apprenticeships the balance is likely to have tipped further in favour of those on work based training schemes, over the last three years.

Alice Thomson in the Times, this week ,wrote ‘The 500,000 students settling into campuses this autumn will be incurring average debts of £44,000. For those inspired by their courses and for the intellectually gifted, this is probably still worth every penny, but for many of the 49 per cent of the population who take up places at university it will be close to a waste of time. The higher education ombudsman has received more than 2,000 complaints from students in the past academic year over issues such as too little time with tutors, overcrowded lecture theatres and poor teaching. Apprenticeships are in many ways far better value for money. The National Grid’s engineering training programme for school leavers pays £23,500 a year.’ Thomson’s views are shared by a number of other commentators.

There is not much evidence that the sector is fighting back. Its  looking complacent, unaware of the avalanche that is about to hit it.

A report out this week from The Money Charity reinforces the idea that students are overburdened with debt.  The figures reveal that the latest group of students from England to begin to pay off their loans owe more than ever before.
The average debt for the graduates who entered repayment this year was £24,640, up from £21,170 in 2015. Due to incremental rises to tuition fees and maintenance loans, the sum owed by students has risen steadily for the past decade, tripling since 2003. Much of this is driven by the introduction, and gradual rise of tuition fees.

The other, often overlooked, driver of rising student debt is the runaway cost of accommodation, which requires ever larger maintenance loans just to keep up. Original research from The Money Charity last year found median rents growing by £277 between 2014 and 2015.

To make matters worse, this is the last group of students to pay a maximum of £3,465 in tuition fees before the rise to £9,000. So the 2017 group will immediately owe £16,605 more than their predecessors, even before we take into account the rising maintenance loans.
This year’s graduates, who will begin to repay next year will face average debt levels of well in excess of £41,000 – 35% of the average outstanding mortgage (£117,162)!
Michelle Highman, Chief Executive of The Money Charity says:
“For nearly half the young people in the UK, becoming a student will be the first step into adult life, with all the financial responsibilities that brings. We worry that these early, formative experiences of debt will leave a lasting legacy.”
“Normalising large quantities of debt right at the start of people’s financial independence risks setting them up to fail. The size of these sums may also affect later borrowing such as loans and mortgages.”
Universities are not just about preparing young people for the job market. Far from it. But students are now  paying for their Higher Education and incurring substantial debts before they even begin their working lives. This means that increasingly they will think about future earnings and the size of the so-called graduate premium and the likelihood of getting a graduate level job after their studies. They will take a keener  look at destination measures. In other words, how successful graduates  are, from particular institutions and courses, at getting good jobs after graduation. That is the new reality. And the sector will have to respond.

On a positive note for the sector, most young people aged 11-16 want to go to university, according to the latest survey(Sutton Trust). But more engagement with employers ,from 16 onwards   and better information on the options available to them,  could  mean that by 18   less   of this cohort  will opt  for Higher Education.

See Graduate Employment and Earnings Outcomes of Higher Education Graduates: Experimental data from the Longitudinal Education

Outcomes (LEO) datase
The median earnings five years post graduation for those graduating in 2003/04 was £26,000 compared to £25,500 for those who graduated in 2008/09
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/543794/SFR36-2016_main_text_LEO.pdf

SELDON WANTS A DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT IN TEACHING QUALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Sir Anthony Seldon ,the Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham ,in a new pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation think tank, lays out  his vision on how to enhance, professionalise and make more consistent the quality of teaching at British universities for undergraduates and postgraduates, without burdening universities with a heavy,  costly bureaucracy ,which runs  the risk of  delivering  drab, formulaic teaching.

Much can be learnt ,he says, from the Secondary sector. Sir Anthony  draws on his experience as a successful  teacher and Head , who transformed two schools in the private sector.(Brighton College and Wellington College)

There is a perception that Universities spend too much time focused on building up their reputation for research ,and too little in ensuring that their students benefit from, and are inspired by, good teaching.

Sir Anthony says:

” “Universities should be every bit as much about the interests of the student as the academics. Yet it is abundantly clear in too many universities today that the leadership and the academics care far more about their research than about the quality of the learning experience of their students”

Sir Anthony  identifies  the ‘Big Ten’ characteristics that all good teaching exhibits:

Engagement of all students. In the digital age, it is more vital than ever that teachers learn how to actively engage the attention of their students.

Deep teacher subject knowledge, informed by the latest research / scholarship. Digitalisation means that students more than ever before can have access to information in real-time. Teachers need, as never before, to be on top of their fields, and to have a depth of understanding, in order to set the ubiquitous information into context.

Clarity of teacher exposition / organisation, and understanding of course requirements. Far too often, teachers can be unclear in their communication, or can fail to spread the material to be studied out over the time available in a balanced way. Students need to feel complete confidence that their teacher understands what they need to learn, and the pace at which learning is to take place.

Forging of positive relations, and a genuine and felt desire to see students make progress. Students learn better when they have a good relationship with their teacher. Students have a right to feel that their teachers have a positive interest in their academic development.

Willingness and skill at engaging in discussion and debate, and asking challenging questions. The best teachers know how to pose the questions that make the students think. Great teachers let the students work out the answers, rather than tell them the answers themselves.

Highest expectations, which stretch all students. The best teachers know exactly how high each student can aspire, and helps them to achieve at that level.

Setting and assessment of purposeful and relevant assignments. Assignments are vital as a way of testing understanding, and consolidated learning. Assessment by the teacher needs to show the student what they need to do to improve.

Ability to communicate in a differentiated way appropriate to the capabilities and potential of students. Classes are made up of students of vastly different capabilities and needs. The great teacher understands each individual student and addresses them appropriately. Learning is the end, and the best teachers help the student to become autonomous learners.

Promotion and achievement of independent learning, recognising that most learning will take place away from the academic.

Technical mastery, e.g. a voice that projects well and is audible, and mastery of technology. There is no point in having teachers, however brilliant and empathetic, if they cannot be heard clearly, or if they can’t use technology appropriately.

Solving the Conundrum-Social Market Foundation -May 2016

http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Social-Market-Foundation-Teaching-and-learning-at-British-universities-Embargoed-0001-030516.pdf

Note- The most recent University Guide places the University of Buckingham top for  ‘student satisfaction’, ahead of Oxford and Cambridge and other elite universities in the Russell Group.

UNIVERSITIES AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH-NO PLATFORMING APPEARS TO BE ILLEGAL

The NUS  seems to be keen on protecting sensitive students from ideas, arguments and speakers that might potentially offend them. Hence the emergence of ideas such as trigger warnings , safe spaces, and  no platforming, in other words preventing certain speakers from addressing student gatherings. Given that universities were established in the first place in  order to encourage freedom of speech and expression  ,  informed by the values of the Enlightenment, and the exchange of ideas, in order to help discover Truth, its all rather perplexing.  Freedom of Speech is only working if you are irritated by what other people are saying. Lets hope that  its all  a passing phase and that University administrators robustly oppose such nonsense. Interestingly though  the use of “no-platform” could be illegal.  The Sunday Times has seen   legal advice commissioned by the NUS. The  37-page legal opinion  says that  no platforming  is lawful only if applied to members of proscribed groups, such as terrorists. In other cases they breach part of the Education Act 1986, which requires universities to ensure freedom of speech.

For example The  Education Act 1986:

Part IV Miscellaneous

43 Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges.

(1)Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.

(2)The duty imposed by subsection (1) above includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with—

(a)the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or

(b)the policy or objectives of that body.

(3)The governing body of every such establishment shall, with a view to facilitating the discharge of the duty imposed by subsection (1) above in relation to that establishment, issue and keep up to date a code of practice setting out—

(a)the procedures to be followed by members, students and employees of the establishment in connection with the organisation—

(i)of meetings which are to be held on premises of the establishment and which fall within any class of meeting specified in the code; and

(ii)of other activities which are to take place on those premises and which fall within any class of activity so specified; and

(b)the conduct required of such persons in connection with any such meeting or activity;

and dealing with such other matters as the governing body consider appropriate.

(4)Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any such establishment shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable (including where appropriate the initiation of disciplinary measures) to secure that the requirements of the code of practice for that establishment, issued under subsection (3) above, are complied with…….

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1986/61

HIGHER EDUCATION-MORE SCRUTINY IN FUTURE OVER ITS SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC RETURNS

The sector  in future will face growing scrutiny over its economic and social returns

The recent IFS report (see link below) discovered that that at 23 universities men typically earned less even 10 years after graduating than their counterparts who’d never been. For women, it was at  nine  universities. A University education, of course, is   not just about ensuring that you have high level earnings in future years. But ,if the perception takes root  that for most there will be no graduate premium, that universities wont really help  you to be socially mobile and you will be stuck with debt for many, many  years, then the obvious  danger is that  many young people will begin to turn their backs  on Higher education.

Recent decades have seen a major increase in participation in higher education throughout the developed world. UK now has proportionately more graduates than any other rich country, bar Iceland. To many, probably  most, this is a good thing. It has   demonstrably improved the life opportunities of many more young people. But to others there are concerns  . Perhaps the rapid expansion  was underfunded,  maybe the quality of teaching  has declined,  due to the  increased pressure  on academics to do more with less,   and perhaps   degrees have  devalued in the job market, through over- supply.  There  is already a   perception that many graduates are, in some senses, being underutilised in the labour market. Put another way ,many graduates are now in jobs that are not considered, or certainly weren’t historically considered,  to be graduate level jobs.  It is arguable that too many graduates are in jobs that are low paying and don’t utilise the skills and knowledge that their degrees gave them (or purported to give them). Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian  this week points out that  one in six call-centre staff have degrees, as do about one in four of all air cabin crew and theme-park attendants.

This begs an obvious question- what is the point in creating more graduates unless you have more graduate-level jobs?

In 2015 the CIPD in a policy report concluded that ‘Policy-makers need to scrutinise the range of courses offered by the HE sector and seriously consider the social and private returns to them. We conjecture that they will conclude that, in many cases, public funds could more usefully be deployed elsewhere in the education and training system. Our findings suggest that the presence of a large HE sector will not necessarily lead to the attainment of the knowledge economy so beloved by successive UK governments.’

Its pretty safe to conclude that, in future, there will greater scrutiny from young people,  paying undergraduates , the government and regulators over the quality of degrees in HE institutions and the social and economic returns they  can deliver . It is also clear that there are some in government (see this weeks  Daily Telegraph leak story) who believe that some  degrees and HE institutions are not  currently delivering value for money for the students, and , indeed, taxpayers.

CIPD Over-qualification and skills mismatch in the graduate labour market-August 2015

http://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/over-qualification-and-skills-mismatch-graduate-labour-market.pdf

IFS Working Paper-April 2016- How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background

http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8233

FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN HIGHER EDUCATION- IS THERE A GROWING THREAT?

Are Freedom and Tolerance British values.? If so shouldn’t we protect them in our universities?

One wonders whether   the West’s loss of faith in its own values has led to various attacks on free speech and greater intolerance. It cant have escaped anyone’s notice that a section of motivated and  well organised  students in some of  our universities are seeking to ban speakers whose views are regarded as extreme or  offensive to them. .Students are  cultivating the art of being offended before really  knowing beforehand what is actually going to offend them. They are developing a robust view that their sensitivities and sensibilities are of paramount importance. Indeed their ‘ right’  not to be  offended trumps any rights to freedom of thought expression and speech. In this bonkers world if a speaker holds views that you regard as offensive and/or extreme you have a right not only to be offended but to ban  that speaker from campus  and more, to  prevent them from  speaking at all  , denying them a public platform .  One has grounds for wondering whether these students know what universities are for. Why, such widespread intolerance is more evident  now, than ever before,  is hard to fathom. Certainly the  social media  buttresses  self-absorption and narcissm in some individuals , and also puts them  more easily in touch with like -minded  fellow travellers , but why  the scale of such intolerance, and why now?

Universities, of course, were established in the first place to foment intellectual inquiry  and discourse ,  bastions of free speech and  the dialectic, encouraging the free flow of ideas information debate  and argument, championing tolerance and the values  of the Enlightenment.

WB Yeats reminded us in the Second Coming that ‘ The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ And one wonders whether those in charge of our universities lack all conviction.  Certainly the response of universities to this new threat appears hesitant at best, and supine at worst.  It was Spinoza who said in a free state, every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.” (Spinoza is himself quoting a passage from Tacitus – “the rare happiness of times when you can think what you like and say what you think” But one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that some of  our University campuses have become seed beds  of intolerance, dictating what we can and can’t  think or say.(an increasing problem in the States too)

Does upholding Free speech in our universities mean that everyone should be allowed to say whatever they like? No, of course not . Freedoms are never absolute they are always qualified. (not least by laws) So Freedom of Speech is not unrestricted. There comes with it responsibility- for example if you incite  violence, hatred ,  racial insults etc   you will be prosecuted.  And quite right too. But the default position must be overarching tolerance ,and only exceptionally should one limit or qualify  freedom of speech. The balance seems to have shifted though in the opposite direction

Dr Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent,  writes ‘The biggest threat to academic freedom today is neither students nor government policy but the reluctance of academics to defend universities as places of intellectual dissent where diverse views are heard and robustly debated. Higher education should teach students how to think and not what to think.’

The ancient Greeks understood the importance of the dialectic –that is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. This should be a central pillar   to any good education, budding  in schools, then  flowering in a blaze of colour  at university.  Its time for academe to wake up to the threat this represents not just to our values but to the reputation and integrity of our universities.

 

Note

Have a look at Martin Robinsons book The Trivium

http://www.martinrobinson.net/writing.html