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Brief Metacognition

Very, very busy but the following two items struck me as useful advice for sharpening our mental edges.

First, John Robb linked to a series of posts by Eric Drexler of Metamodern. Al of them were good but I particularly liked the following one:

How to Understand Everything (and why)

….Formal education in science and engineering centers on teaching facts and problem-solving skills in a series of narrow topics. It is true that a few topics, although narrow in content, have such broad application that they are themselves integrative: These include (at a bare minimum) substantial chunks of mathematics and the basics of classical mechanics and electromagnetism, with the basics of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics close behind.

….To avoid blunders and absurdities, to recognize cross-disciplinary opportunities, and to make sense of new ideas, requires knowledge of at least the outlines of every field that might be relevant to the topics of interest. By knowing the outlines of a field, I mean knowing the answers, to some reasonable approximation, to questions like these:

What are the physical phenomena?
What are their magnitudes?
What are their preconditions?
How well are they understood?
How well can they be modeled?
What do they make possible?
What do they forbid?

And even more fundamental than these are questions of knowledge about knowledge:

What is known today?
What are the gaps in what I know?
When would I need to know more to solve a problem?
How could I find it?

It takes far less knowledge to recognize a problem than to solve it, yet in key respects, that bit of knowledge is more important: With recognition, a problem may be avoided, or solved, or an idea abandoned. Without recognition, a hidden problem may invalidate the labor of an hour, or a lifetime. Lack of a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Secondly, reading through Richard Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count ( see this monster, two-partbook review by James McCormick at Chicago Boyz), the intriguing findings of the “Venezuela Project” run by none other than the late Richard Herrnstein of Bell Curve fame. Nisbett writes (74-75):

Herrnstein and his coworkers devised a very advanced set of materials geared to teaching seventh-graders fundamental concepts of problem solving that were not targeted to any particular subject matter. In effect they, they tried to make the children smarter by giving them handy implements for their intellectual tool kits.

What were those non-subject specific, cognitive skills?

  • Basics of Classification
  • Hypothesis Testing
  • Discovery of Properties of Ordered Dimensions
  • Analogies
  • Simple Propositions
  • Principles of Logic
  • Constructing and Evaluating Complex Arguments
  • Weighing opportunity costs vs. probability of success for a goal
  • Evaluating credibility and relevance of data

I would have added metaphors, pattern-recognition and intuitive thinking games but it was a fine set of skills and the results were remarkable, according to Nisbett:

The instruction resulted in big changes in children’s ability to solve problems that the new skills were designed to improve….for language comprehension, .62 SD [ standard deviation]; for learning how to represent ‘”problem spaces,” .46 SD; for decision making, .77 SD; for inventive thinking, .50 SD. In short, general problem solving skills can be taught, and taught moreover in a brief period of time.

In psychometric terms, for a 13 year old, these scores represent phenomenal improvements in cognitive performance and indicate the plasticity of some aspects of measured intelligence. Why have such activities not become commonplace in public schools? Or universities?

Why indeed?

7 Responses to “Brief Metacognition”

  1. tdaxp Says:

    Ironically, this seems to boil down to Herrnstein’s old nemesis, Robert Sternberg, and his concept of "test wiseness." Among third world populations, there is often little knowledge of how to read a test, how to perform on a test, and so on. It would be interesting to know how much of the ‘critical thinking’ training gets the Venezuelans up to the same basic understanding of what a multiple choice or completion test is that, say, an average 8th grader in the US has.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Dan,

    That would be interesting.  I would speculate that mere familiarity markedly reduces stress and hesitation.  However, according to Nisbett, this study was shut down by the Venezuelan government after a relatively short time, so I don’t think that question was ever examined.
  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I’m wondering how those skills were taught. A good teacher uses and requires those cognitive skills in teaching biology or French or algebra or poetry. And good students pick them up all over the place and are likely to apply them to learning biology or French or algebra or poetry.
    The question, it seems to me, is whether the skills should be taught by themselves or "embedded." I’ve got a great attraction to "embedded," just as I’m not totally comfortable with the now-obligatory teaching objectives. This may simply be a matter of age, but it has always seemed to me that part of the student’s obligation is to figure out what the teacher thinks they’re doing. That can be very informative, although not necessarily part of the official curriculum.
    And how can these skills be taught in isolation? They need some subject matter to work on, and that might as well be biology or French or algebra or poetry.
    I think what I’m saying here is somewhat the same as what Dan is saying: is this a useful addition to the curriculum, or are the kids just getting better at taking tests?
    I do suspect that making teachers more conscious of these skills will help their teaching.

  4. J. Scott Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post all day. I taught tech stuff for three years in the late 80’s and there was a great debate on what to test (we had the objective stuff forced on us)…our primitive curriculum software encouraged the generation of tests based on the objectives entered into the software—so the objective knowledge was stated as an objective, taught, and tested using the same criteria (there was no room, unfortunately, for critical skills assessment). I never cared for the approach but understood the reason; "proof" the student understood the objective knowledge of the class. My preference is that of a chemistry professor in college; he gave us facts and practice, but tested our ability to discern and discover—-the tests hardly ever looked like the homework—which made for tough tests, but an indication of whether we were parrots or if we truly possessed the knowledge—Polanyi calls it "indwelling." We need fewer parrots and more thinkers. Socratic method works, but many frown on the "self-esteem" implications. In my experience, rigor (this is not to imply adversarial necessarily) was a pretty good indicator of whether a course of study was worthwhile; I remember very few of my easy "A" classes, but all of those classes where I had to work for a "B" and demonstrate more that an ability to regurgitate, but a rather a true knowledge of the topic.

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    you wrote:
    "The question, it seems to me, is whether the skills should be taught by themselves or "embedded."
    My professional opinion is "both". Most children will not generalize cognitive skills from one content domain to another without modeling and repeated practice. My reading of Nisbett is that the skills were primarly taught as skills in the Venezuela Project.

  6. Seerov Says:

    Excellent list, my own thinking and perception of the world changed greatly after being introduced to logic, hypothesis testing,  and economics ( opportunity cost being a part of economics).   I’ve often thought about the construction of a thinking/leadership degree and the list you provided would be a good base for the thinking part of it. If I were going to add something to the list is would be some sort of introduction to spatial analysis. 

  7. M1 Says:

    Interesting post indeed–incl. comments. Upon reading this I associated immediately to Keynes,the Apostles, and the Bloomsb. Group… and also remembered that Keynes never studied economics.

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